Warning: contains spoilers for Inside No. 9 series 6 episode 3.
What a sad tale! Four sad tales, if we’re counting – a melancholic pass-the-parcel that tore off layers of wrapping and changed shape at regular intervals. ‘Lip Service’ started out as a domestic drama that turned dark, briefly became a romance, and ended unexpectedly as a conspiracy thriller. Four stories, three twists, as many genres, 30 minutes, no waiting. Where else on TV does an audience get this much bang for their buck?
Until its final moments, ‘Lip Service’ ran at a different speed to this series’ previous two episodes. While they were crammed with busy dialogue and heightened drama, this started with silence and space. Felix Hughes (Steve Pemberton) checked into the grotty three-star Medway Hotel, placed a pair of binoculars on the bed, and cry-screamed into a pillow. A poignant piano score accompanied his turmoil as we took in his grimy, desaturated surroundings, which were decked out in queasily vintage shades of green, brown and orange.
Reece Shearsmith’s character – an officious German hotel manager, part Basil Fawlty in ‘The Psychiatrist’ episode, part WWII movie baddie, with an accent to rival the outrageous Italian Shearsmith played in ‘Wuthering Heist’ – was as retro as the furnishings. Eric Muller’s arrival burst the bubble of pathos built up by Pemberton and the music in the episode’s opening moments, shifting the tone from mournful to comedic. Sian Clifford’s character Iris was pitched at the same caricature-ish level. From her costume-y outdated clothes to her mannered, eye-contact avoiding delivery, she could almost have been the more switched-on sister of Psychoville’s Emily.
Iris was a caricature, of course, a misfit creation whose lonely “I’m single as a dollar and not looking for change” backstory was just a cover. Every so often, her dialogue seemed to betray the slicker, more alpha character beneath – when she admonished Felix about women taking their careers seriously, or her analysis of how press agents “have to be flirtatious to coerce people into doing their bidding,” for instance.
Flirting to coerce was exactly what Iris was doing to Felix, whom she manipulated into exactly where she needed him. He thought he’d hired her as a professional lip reader to spy on his wife’s meeting over the road, but where Iris was concerned, spy was – forgive the pun – the operative word.
After a series of lies were revealed, viewers learned that Clifford’s character wasn’t just a lip reader, but a member of the British intelligence service (revealing secondary wordplay in that ‘Lip Service’ title). She was there to frame Felix for murder. The government needed to squash an imminent leak from political activist Dimitri Novak, who worked with Felix’s ex, so MI5 framed Felix as Dimitri’s killer, and shot them both. In a downbeat but neatly structured ending, Felix was carried away in a body bag, and the corrupt politicians lived to lie another day.
A second watch reveals exactly how the plan worked, all the way down to the hotel fire alarm drill that obscured the sound of the operation. Felix needed to be seen in the window brandishing a gun, while the real gunman next door took out Dimitri. ‘Iris’ got him into position, throwing him the hotel hairdryer as a prop for the benefit of eyewitnesses. The only ambiguous note for me was whether or not Shearsmith‘s character was part of the plan, working against MI5, or totally unaware of what was going on. I’d guess the latter but am happy to be corrected.
Pemberton’s tragic character went through a fascinating shift in the half-hour. He moved from pitiable to potential threat then back to victim. His disgusted, totally non-prurient reaction to the jazz mag and lovelorn reminiscences of Brenda (“Dorothy Perkins”) marked him out as no danger to Iris. Then after the restraining order twist, Brenda calling Felix insane, and him violently throwing the binoculars, he felt like a believable menace. Broken shell to lethal threat – get you a man who can do both.
It wasn’t all misery and menace. The lip-reading premise allowed for some good old-fashioned gags (“You deserve a penis… happiness”), the “Max/my ex” line set a satisfying mini-puzzle and there were funny standalone lines (“It’s like Mumsnet, but with sad men rather than competitive women”). Iris lip-reading Brenda’s side of the phone call was a particularly clever arrangement that didn’t break Inside No. 9’s single location rule. If it’s never been done before, that was a beautiful bit of workmanship.
On the single location rule, in a bend of tradition, Felix and Iris weren’t inside a number nine themselves, but instead preoccupied with what was going on inside the No. 9 hotel over the road. Before anybody sends in a complaint though, add up the digits of Felix’s room number for some maths-based fun. Oh, and good hotel kettle tip, by the way. Best just pack the one from home from now on, eh.
Inside No. 9 continues on Monday the 31st of May at 9.30pm on BBC Two.