Warning: this review contains spoilers. You can find our spoiler-free review here.
“Not now, Silent Singer!” We’re only one episode in, but I’d wager this will be the most oft-quoted line from this second season of Psychoville. A new series featuring new lovably eccentric characters and evil antagonists, this first episode kicks the proceedings off with the macabre humour that’s become a trademark of writer/performers Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton.
Given the lengthy series of events that occurred in Psychoville season one, it’s unsurprising that this season opens with a montage that briefly explains what occurred. In a nutshell, five apparently unconnected people from around the UK began receiving blackmail messages which all claimed to “know what you did.”
Over seven glorious weeks (or eight, if you add the equally brilliant Halloween special), we were introduced to infantile murderer David Sowerbutts, misanthropic clown Mr Jelly, blind, elderly toy collector Oscar Lomax, deranged midwife Joy, and dwarf actor Robert Greenspan. As well as discovering each character’s unique range of neuroses (including David’s penchant for singing and Lomax’s obsession with Beanie Babies), we also discovered that these apparently unconnected characters were anything but. It’s later revealed that, at one time, all the characters had been inmates at Ravenhill Hospital, and that all five had been responsible for the fiery death of the despotic Nurse Kenchington (Eileen Atkins).
The blackmailer was then revealed to be none other than Nurse Kenchington’s son, the clown Mr Jolly. Determined to exact his final revenge, Mr Jolly had, by the final episode, lured his quarry back to the now deserted Ravenhill. Then, in a last-minute twist that had many scratching their head or rushing to Internet forums to complain, it was revealed that Kenchington was actually alive, and for some reason determined to get her hands on a mysterious locket.
That all this backstory is worked into Psychoville‘s opening in such an odd and funny way is further proof of Shearsmith and Pemberton’s warped imaginations. As we watch a montage of footage, an unknown character in a library is compiling a montage of his own, cutting out various newspaper stories (which all relate to the Ravenhill Hospital explosion) with a scalpel.
As the recap ends, it’s revealed that the man’s eager collation of data has left scalpel blade marks all over the desk. “Shit,” he says, gathering his clippings up and running out of shot.
Regardless of what you thought of the conclusion to season one, it’s touches like this that remind us that, yes, it really is good to have Psychoville back.
The first shot, too, plays an amusing little trick on those with long memories. “Mr Jelly” says the wreath at the clown funeral at this episode’s opening, before Mr Jelly himself shuffles into the frame to inform us that it is, in fact, Mr Jolly who died in the explosion, a nod to a running gag from season one that will pass newcomers by entirely.
We’re then swiftly introduced, via the bespectacled newspaper cutting collector from the library, to the series’ first new character, investigator Grace Andrews, played with glacial perfection by Imelda Staunton. The boss of the bespectacled chap from the library, she’s determined to get her hands on the locket sought by Nurse Kenchington last year, though she’s equally obsessed with Minority Report-style technology.
“I don’t like all this,” she says, scowling at all the newspaper cuttings spread out before her. “All these bits of paper everywhere. I want to be like Judi Dench, with things on a screen.” Fabulous, fabulous stuff.
It’s fabulous, too, to see the return of Oscar Lomax, who’s still as grouchy and dishevelled as ever, but now partially deaf after the rollicking explosion last season. Joy also survived the blast and is now, rather worryingly, looking after an apparently catatonic teenage girl whom she insists on calling Freddie.
Back at the funeral, a Scottish detective questions Mr Jelly and Lomax about the actions of Nurse Kenchington, which prompts an on-the-nose rant about the season one conclusion’s lack of logic, and also a laugh-out loud exchange about clown’s pockets, wizard’s sleeves and yawning donkeys. Like Grace Andrews, the detective appears to be after Kenchington’s locket, too.
Then comes this season’s finest new addition so far, a preppy librarian played by Reece Shearsmith. Haunted by the prowling, ghostly Silent Singer mentioned earlier, he’s desperate to retrieve a missing book, Great Coastal Walks of the British Isles volume two, and his constant sightings of his spectral nemesis prompt him to stalk the customer who’s borrowed it.
The third new character, a make-up artist called Hattie (played with campy charm by Steve Pemberton) is also introduced. Aside from her hankering for peppermint tea and electric cigarettes, we don’t know a great deal about her yet, though we’re sure to see more from her over the next few weeks.
It’s great to see the return of David Sowerbutts and his overbearing mother, Maureen. Not only is their survival marked by a rather naughty joke at the expense of Marc Almond, their return home from hospital marks a significant new development: another “I know what you did” note on the doorstep. “Who could have sent it to you? They’re all dead,” Maureen says. “Not all of them,” David mutters, enigmatically.
David heads off to a performing arts school to meet his first suspect, a drama teacher called Robin. Enticed back to the Sowerbutts’ residence with a rendition of Les Miserables, he mentions in passing that he has a nut allergy (“I was once hospitalised by a bakewell tart”), a kernel of information that’s sure to come up again next week.
Structurally, this second series of Psychoville mirrors the first, with a similar set of mysteries. What links all these disparate characters from different parts of the country and from different walks of life? Who’s sent the “I know what you did” note now that Mr Jolly’s dead (if he is dead at all, that is)? Who is the Silent Singer?
This opening episode concludes with a gory, unexpected jolt of pure slasher horror that almost certainly spells curtains for Dawn French’s character Joy, and reveals a disturbing new side to the apparently benign Scottish detective.
It’s a great ending to an opener that exemplifies the best things about Psychoville, its dark humour, sharp writing, and its gleeful ability to throw out the occasional nasty surprise. If the rest of the season can maintain the momentum of this opening instalment, it could prove an even greater slice of TV horror than the first. “Not now, Silent Singer!”
Psychoville airs on BBC Two, Thursdays at 10pm.