Inside No. 9 Series 9 Episode 5 Review: Curse of the Ninth

Inside No. 9’s penultimate story is an elegant, Edwardian-set M.R. James homage. Spoilers.

Left to Right: Natalie Dormer, Reece Shearsmith, Hayley Squires, Steve Pemberton
Photo: BBC Studios/James Stack

Warning: this Inside No. 9 review contains spoilers.

The curse of the ninth. What could be a more fitting inspiration for one of these demonically clever stories? If it hadn’t already existed, they’d have had to invent it. 

Inside No. 9’s creators Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith didn’t invent this superstition (which also caught the imagination of Endeavour in that show’s ninth and final series, and that of Midsomer Murders in its 19th yet amazingly-still-not-final series) but they used it to make perhaps their most elegant story yet. 

The plot was a trap, avoided. Composer Nathaniel Burnham (Eddie Marsan) had taken his own life after being haunted by a curse that struck artists upon reaching their ninth symphony. Years later, his cash-strapped widow Lillian (Natalie Dormer) ensnared piano tuner Jonah (Reece Shearsmith) to first grave-rob and then complete Nathaniel’s unfinished work, intending to sacrifice him to the fatal curse so that she could profit from the final product. Instead, Jonah turned the tables on Mrs Burnham and, in a sequence beautifully presented by director Guillem Morales, she died horribly. 

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Justice? Just. Ish. 

Even in so few scenes, Eddie Marsan imbued Nathaniel with impressive menace. His blood-soaked reappearance by the fire was one of a few classic horror shivers recreated here in style (the reflected glimpses of The Curse, and the fingers being snapped away from the manuscript were others). Lillian was a similarly nasty piece of work, and Dormer excelled, as ever, in the role of manipulative, imperious beauty. The slight smile Lillian gave when she reached over what she assumed was Jonah’s corpse for the completed manuscript showed her total lack of conscience. 

At the other end of the social divide, deadpan Devonshire (Hayley Squires) was also done in by her own greed, though as she’d only planned to con Jonah, and not to use him as a human shield, her horrid end felt slightly less deserved. And as for Dickey (Steve Pemberton), Lillian’s scheming co-conspirator got off scot-free. That’s lawyers for you. 

Built around the themes of creative struggle and the competing goals of art and commerce, “Curse of the Ninth” was a clean, well-made homage to British supernatural horror of a different age. Like a missing M.R. James tale, it tempted a learned scholar with a devil’s bargain and conjured up an eerie spectre in the personification of “The Curse”. Stick some holly next to that Bechstein and it would have made an excellent Ghost Story for Christmas.

It had the morality of a festive parable. The venal and grasping were punished (well, in the words of Meat Loaf, two out of three ain’t bad) and the humble, pure-intentioned victim survived. 

What moral to take from the story itself? Art isn’t there to be monetised, is one. Creativity eventually takes its toll is another. 

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That last point is where this episode really paid for itself, and why it makes sense to tell this tale now, in this context, when Inside No. 9’s makers are on the precipice of completing their own cursed “ninth”. From Dead Line, in which Shearsmith and Pemberton played themselves, to the return of Psychoville’s David and Maureen and that Superman dance, to the japery of 3×3, the show has always made direct nods to its fans, and does so here.

Endings make philosophers of us all, and the same can be said for this script. Once the fingering and bust gags were out of the way, “Curse of the Ninth” had surprisingly earnest things to say about making art. It can be torture. It can haunt you. It might well kill you, but you can neither put a price on it, nor on what it inspires. As Burnham said to Jonah, “It takes an act of courage to create anything.” Well, to 54 risky, splendid acts of courage and counting, bravo.

Now tell me, how are you planning to wrap it all up next time? The final movement mustn’t be timid, after all… 

Inside No. 9 series 9 concludes on Wednesday June 12. Learn more about Den of Geek’s review process and why you can trust our recommendations here.