Inside No. 9 Series 8 Episode 3 Review: Paraskevidekatriaphobia

Friday the 13th is just a day like any other. Or is it? 

Reece Shearsmith as Gareth in Inside No. 9 Series 8 episode 3
Photo: BBC Studios,James Stack

This review contains spoilers. 

It’s a real study that Gareth cites in his call to Dermot O’Leary’s radio show. Published in the British Medical Journal in 1993, Scanlon, Luben, Scanlon and Singleton asked the question “Is Friday the 13th bad for your health?” Yes, was their conclusion, due to an increased risk of hospital admission as a result of transport accidents. “Staying at home is recommended.” 

Trust the writers of Inside No. 9 – a show where dark fates lurk around every corner – to devise a scheme whereby a character takes the precautionary measure of staying at home on Friday the 13th, only for their wife to be killed in a transport accident right outside their front door on Saturday the 14th. Against gods with this capricious and cruel a sense of humour, nobody can win.

Right up until that tragic dumbshow played out through the living room window, it looked as though Gareth had won. Thanks to wife Dana and Dr Rogers’ exposure therapy, he’d cured his phobia, and thanks to Dermot O’Leary, he was £130,000 richer. With such a simple happy ending though, where’d be the punchline? Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton found theirs by sacrificing Gareth’s wife. No good deed goes unpunished, and all that. 

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Before Dana met her fate, ‘Paraskevidekatriaphobia’ was a well-engineered, light-hearted farce. Shearsmith made a good straight man as Gareth, the John Cleese-in-Clockwise-ish exasperated victim of a series of slapstick gags. Against the backdrop of his blandly middle-class house, Gareth was tormented by everything that irony could throw at him. This Friday the 13th phobic was subjected to black cats and ladders, upturned horseshoes, spilled salt and peacock feathers (a new one on me) in a bid to teach him what guff it all was. 

It was a half-hour of old-fashioned physical comedy – even down to the umbrella at the end. From the cat, to the shower, to the ladder and tie business, it was a slapstick escalation you might have seen on screen in any decade since screens began. Shearsmith’s clowning was old school theatrical, which brings us to his character’s worst trial by far… being beset by a bunch of am-dram luvvies doing improv.

Samantha Spiro, Steve Pemberton and Moyo Akande gave us two caricatures apiece, each as ridiculous as the next. Sue the post woman (Spiro sporting the unlikeliest set of teeth since Rylan’s old set) turned out to be Sue the thespian, Harry the locksmith (If Gareth had been in his right mind, he’d have smelt a rat by the speed at which the emergency callout arrived) and his showgirl-styled daughter in law were really fellow board-treaders. 

Those three set the episode’s absurdist, theatrical tone, and made an awkward pairing with the traumatic origin of Gareth’s phobia. Anybody’s who’s seen ‘Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room’ knows that Inside No. 9 has the ability to switch on a dime from comedic hamming to genuine pathos, but that didn’t happen here. The school trip coach tale and the dead kids’ faces in the shattered mirror felt like a bad fit next to all that farcical fake-teeth colour. Transforming Gareth from unsympathetic fusspot (see: the angry radio phone-in message) to sympathetic victim was too great a stretch in so little time. 

Really, this one was all about the gags, and that unwieldy title, which was a gag in itself (from the camera panning to accommodate the full word at the start, to the tennis-game rhythm of Amanda Abbington’s Dana and Leon Herbert’s Doctor rattling it off in their confession). The half-hour was chocka with classic comedy moments, and would make a good double-bill with series six’ Wuthering Heist.

Speaking of commitment to a bit, did Dr Rogers wrangle that solitary magpie as part of the plan? Now, that’s dedication.

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Inside No. 9 continues next Thursday at 10pm on BBC Two and iPlayer.