Warning: this review contains spoilers.
There you have it: the perfect Inside No. 9 specimen. Macabre, comedic, cleverly plotted, with a little bit of pathos and a gruesome end that – unlike ‘The Devil of Christmas’ – punishes the right person. If this show were taught in schools, ‘The Bones of St Nicholas’ would be the exemplar used to illustrate the classic ingredients of Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton’s show. The setting, the characters, the gags, the reveal, a gross bit about pickling murdered children in brine… this half-hour has it all.
It opens on a snowy and howling Christmas Eve, with the arrival of Pemberton’s Dr Jasper Parkway at a church (filmed at St Mary’s in Rostherne) decorated with twinkling lights and a festive tree. He’s there as part of the C of E’s church-camping or ‘champing’ fundraising initiative – a real programme that lets paying customers bunk down overnight in a historical setting.
A pompous type who insists on being addressed as ‘Dr’, Parkway tells the church warden (Simon Callow) that he’s a recent widower. His late wife booked this stay and he wishes to spend it alone in quiet contemplation.
Fat chance of that once chatty married couple Pierce and Posy (Shearsmith and Shobna Gulati) turn up to also spend the night, their Christmas holiday plans having been cancelled. The audience rumbles that Parkway is up to something when he changes his story and tells Pierce and Posy that he’s there because his mother is buried in the graveyard outside. Why has he come, and what explains the chilling glimpses of movement he keeps seeing around the church? The blown-out candle, the figure half-seen behind the Christmas tree, the single shoe that falls from above and a sound of monstrous rasping?
We get slick and satisfying answers to all of those questions and more by the end of this supernatural half-hour, which also fits in the telling of two spooky stories (if you’re hiring Simon Callow for a Christmas episode and you’re not an idiot, you write him a ghost story like that one to perform) plus a cameo portrait of a marriage whose outer bubbliness conceals inner pain. As ever with Inside No. 9, it delivers more than an Amazon driver at Christmas, and inside an even tighter time window.
Parkway, we learn, isn’t at the church for his late wife or his late mother; he’s there to steal a valuable relic rumoured to be hidden in its walls, and to sell it on the black market. The revelation breaks with classy understatement, as we’re led to piece together his knowledge of St. Nicholas’ origin story (who else is never looking at a Big Mac gherkin the same way again?) and the story about the missing jawbone while we watch him use his tomb-rubbings to decipher the symbol marking the bone’s hiding place. Parkway climbs to the belfry to retrieve his prize and… is punished.
Parkway’s night ends up quieter than he could have imagined, because by the end of the episode he’s dead and dangling from the church tower. It wasn’t suicide, but an accident, about which he’d been receiving supernatural warnings all night. Those spooky glimpses weren’t a spectral visitation from St. Nicholas, as the church warden’s ghost story primed us for, but premonitions of his own death. He was the figure half-seen behind the tree, and it was his shoe that fell when the stockings (donated by a caring Posy to hang up for Santa, and used by Parkway to scare the couple out of the church) around his neck snagged on a hook in the belfry and hanged him. The monstrous rasping? Him struggling to take his last breaths.
Not very Christmassy? Oh, yes it is! ‘The Bones of St. Nicholas’ is a ghost story and a morality tale, which, thanks to Dickens and M.R. James, make it about as Christmassy as they come. Parkway was punished for committing the age-old sin of greedily disturbing ancient treasure. It’s the Nazis in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, it’s the professor in Whistle and I’ll Come to You. It’s a classic plot, told very well.
And told in true Inside No. 9 style, with gags and a touch of heart from Gulati and Shearsmith’s characters. We spent barely a night with them, but we understood that his constant silliness was more than buffoonery, but an ongoing attempt to keep her spirits up after their past bereavement. Shearsmith’s irreverent clown wasn’t only there to pierce through the spooky atmosphere with comedy jawing about Rich Tea biscuits.
So there it was – a stirred-together confection of folklore, M.R. James, Victoria Wood-esque bathos, and the unmistakable touch of Shearsmith and Pemberton in their imperial phase. And with the rest of Series 8 to come, what better Christmas gift could fans ask for?
Inside No. 9 Series 1-7 are available to stream on BBC iPlayer now.