This review contains spoilers.
The Devil Of Christmas opened up like a Matryoshka doll, revealing a different face each time. What first looked like a seventies TV film pastiche split open to reveal that mainstay of geek fandom, the director’s commentary. Inside that nestled something far nastier: a snuff film. Merry Christmas!
The retro send-up provided enough entertainment on its own—these days you have to be very good to make TV that bad—but this being a time of year for excess, Inside No. 9’s writers added a horrid final flourish. Avuncular veteran director Dennis Fulcher, voiced by Derek Jacobi, wasn’t simply revisiting his former film, he was under interrogation for the murder at its “denouement”. (More’s the pity for him that was one they didn’t wipe back then.)
The final revelation was a terrific twist as long as you didn’t look at it too closely. Knowing what it was leading to, would a police interviewer laugh patiently along with Fulcher’s luvvie reminiscences about empty suitcases and weak Ribena? Would an entire crew collude in something so horrific? Unlikely, but where’s the fun in picking logic holes? This half-hour was about two things: paying nostalgic homage to TV of old and providing the traditional festive chill missing in today’s cooking show and celebrity special-stuffed Christmas schedules.
The former was expertly observed. From the aspect ratio to the music, title font, sets, lighting, camera moves, hair, make-up and costume… everything was recognisable from the sort of 1970s television plays that, when you think about it, may have provided inspiration for Inside No. 9 as a whole. The BBC’s Dead Of Night series, or Nigel Kneale’s Beasts, say.
Credit to writers Shearsmith and Pemberton and director Graeme Harper for getting the balance of homage to parody just so. The styling was heightened to the extent we all knew what we were laughing at, but pulled back just before it went full Garth Marenghi. The slightly shaky emphasis zooms, the rogue camera straying into the edge of shot, the audible yet ignored sound of somebody banging into something on set… it was a carefully done thing and spot-on as pastiche.
The tone of the performances and dialogue was similarly well-handled. Jessica Raine’s hammy RP and spooked, frozen expressions felt as familiar to the worst examples of the era as the inch-thick of blusher on her face. Ditto for Steve Pemberton’s emphatic delivery as the doomed patriarch, which felt as much part of the era as his gold chain, chest hair and cropped silk kimono. Finally, having Rula Lenksa, whose voice is so redolent of these kinds of upper middle-class teleplays, added yet more verisimilitude. Who better to poke fun at seventies television than one of its stars?
Before the twist that turned him from an entertaining old hack to a remorseless killer, there was also fun to be had in Jacobi’s script, with its references to Worzel Gummidge, Pertwee and Doctor Who. (Just about everyone involved here, incidentally, has appeared on Who, from Rula Lenska in the classic Resurrection Of The Daleks to Derek Jacobi in series three’s Utopia, Steve Pemberton in series 4’s The Silence In The Library, Jessica Raine in series seven’s Hide—another 1970s-set story—and Reece Shearsmith in series nine’s Sleep No More—and of course as Patrick Troughton in An Adventure In Space And Time. Not forgetting the multiple episodes directed by Graeme Harper).
This lurid tale was packed with treats for TV nerds. The nasty final revelation may not have been sold quite as convincingly as the seventies send-up, but in the moment, it did the job of adding a chill, malevolent edge to a expertly made half-hour.
Inside No. 9 returns for series three in early 2017.