Warning: this Inside No. 9 review contains spoilers.
A stranded pedalo! Glorious. It’s taken almost 40 episodes, but Inside No. 9 has finally landed on the purest distillation of its ‘contained space’ concept. They will never better a pedalo. A pedalo is a punchline before you’ve even written a word, which is what makes it a divine backdrop for a script about grief, loss, regrets and the messiness of once-close friendships that have – literally here – drifted. Set this same story in a cabin or a car and it’s just bleakness and tension that takes a bittersweet turn. Set it on a pedalo and it’s all that plus the absurdity of a pedalo, which makes it very Inside No. 9.
‘Merrily, Merrily’ is very Inside No. 9 in its weird sandwich of paint-can shits, Judge Rinder gags and a vision of the afterlife as taken from Greek myth. Few other shows could pull off that combination, because few other shows have carved themselves out the freedom to swerve directly from Doritos to Hades. (Did they perhaps consider having the Ferryman use the pedalo to transport Lawrence’s soul to the other side, but scrap it as too Bill and Ted? Pity if so. Nothing can ever be too Bill and Ted.)
This series seven opener is also very Inside No. 9 in its discomfiting ability to make a man freezing to death feel like a happy ending. Lawrence’s afterlife reunion with Bonnie wasn’t laid on too thick – the episode restrainedly cut to black just as he was forming her name in his mouth, but Bonnie was the name we all expected to hear. Had Lawrence planned to die? It didn’t feel like it, though his end was foreshadowed, from the hooded figure only he could see, to that early euphemistic reference to there being so few places nowadays where you could “find peace”, to Callum telling him that he’d freeze to death when he jumped into the water. Well-predicted, Dr.
Until the fireworks signalled that beautiful switch in tone, it wasn’t Lawrence’s death we were led to expect. False trails and years of experience had primed us for a revenge attack on his former friends from the moment Mark Gatiss’ character joked about being “lured” there under false pretences. Remote location, deserted winter lake, desaturated landscape straight out of a gritty crime drama, and Christian Henson’s eerily emotional score? Gulp. But there was no such nastiness. Lawrence was there to pay unique tribute to his beloved wife with the two people to whom he’d once been closest. The three amigos.
Or, unhappily for Lawrence, the four amigos counting interloper Donna. Diane Morgan’s character functioned much like a human pedalo in that she was there to cheer everything up and leaven the tension with gags. Donna’s unselfconscious earthiness made her the perfect comedy foil for Lawrence’s irked shiftiness and Callum’s self-importance. Thankfully, she wasn’t a caricature fishwife, but also given a couple of sweet, supportive moments with Darren, and ultimately came out on top with her angst-free account of life. We were left rooting for Donna and Darren. Fingers crossed for Disneyland.
That’s if they all made it off that pedalo okay, which the ferryman assured Lawrence they had, and who are we to question a spectre of the afterlife? Those who want to question it were perhaps given the option thanks to that chorus of ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat’ dangling the suggestion that “life is but a dream”. Is Lawrence actually dead at the end or just dreaming of Charon, Styx and finding an obol in his mouth? That’s up to you, but when Inside No. 9 doesn’t limit itself to the dull material world, why should we?
The swerve in this story not being ‘HA! Murder!’ but ‘Oh, humanity’, Darren and Callum’s characters also gradually became more rounded as the episode went on (no mean feat in less than half an hour of storytelling, it’s always worth noting). Callum’s wry superiority softened in his confession of dissatisfaction in his high-achieving career. Gatiss was a great addition to this one, and not only for the meta joys of seeing a real-life university reunion inside a fictional one.
‘Dazza’ was skilfully shepherded by Pemberton from loudmouth berk to vulnerable sweetheart. His early pedalo/paedo gag was given a surprisingly emotional payoff with the revelation of the dyslexia that made him misread the reunion invitation in the first place. There was very good housekeeping all round, script-wise, with explanations provided for any potential complaint about the unlikeliness of Callum and Darren not knowing that Bonnie had died.
Shearsmith’s line delivery as Lawrence vowing not to ruin the ending – a line that could have meant so many awful things – was the episode’s dramatic high-point. When his secret plan turned out to be sad and sweet rather than deranged and violent, there’s the feeling of Inside No. 9 cleverly playing with its own reputation. Though it’s led fans there in the past, few go into one of these episodes expecting beauty. All the better to surprise us with.
Honestly though – a pedalo? Perfection.
Inside No. 9 Series 7 continues next Wednesday the 27th of April at 10pm on BBC Two with ‘Mr King’.