Reece Shearsmith has always had a fascination with magic – from the magic-loving (and loosely autobiographical) Dean Tavolouris from The League Of Gentlemen to the kid’s magic tricks performed by Mr Jelly in Psychoville. While the football loving Steve Pemberton wrote the lion’s share of The Referee’s A W***er, Shearsmith takes the wheel here, and the result is one of the most dark and tricksy of the series.
It’s an area ideally suited to the twisty nature of Inside No.9, so it was only a matter of time before we got an episode focused on magicians. It goes without saying that nothing is what it seems, but the aptly named Misdirection puts the sleight of hand at the forefront of the story, so the multiple twists and turns of the plot end up hiding in plain sight.
After taking a backseat last week, Shearsmith dominates here and adds to his roster of chilly, calculating characters as the magician desperate to work out the magic trick of Pemberton’s jovial children’s entertainer. As ever though, there’s so much more going on, and the story quickly changes into something entirely different. It would be spoiling the fun to go into too much detail, but suffice to say it gets dark pretty quickly, with the appearance of a young journalist, (Fionn Whitehead) Shearsmith’s wife (Jill Halfpenny) and a detective (Tom Goodman Hill) all contributing to a tale of revenge, murder and the mechanics and stagecraft of magic.
As a story, Misdirection is almost a companion piece to The Riddle Of The Sphinx from series 3, except concerning magic rather than cryptic crosswords. Both deal with revenge, and while it never gets quite as grisly as that episode, the ending is pretty nasty nonetheless.
Shearsmith and Pemberton clearly know their subject, and make the intricacies and mechanics of the tricks interesting and genuinely funny. The episode is stuffed with beautifully observed references to magic, and as ever the beauty is in the detail; from the props failing as weapons to Shearsmith’s dated “Satan worshipper” outfit. The script is one of the sharpest they’ve written, and has a lot of fun with the magician’s terminology – from Shearsmith essentially laying out the plot in the trick he shows to Whitehead, to the way he dismisses Whitehead’s attempts to lead him on as “Early Derren Brown at best“.
Shearsmith’s passion for the subject is evident throughout. The scene where he explains his disdain for street magic, and it’s lack of showmanship (as opposed to the stagecraft of professional magicians) is one of the stand out moments, and seems to indicate the writers’ personal preference as well.
If there’s one flaw it’s that the episode is a little overstuffed. Usually Inside No.9 episodes are perfectly-paced short films, but this one has a lot of story to fit in, and as a result sometimes feels a little rushed (Jill Halfpenny gets especially short shrift – she’s barely in it and gets no time to flesh her character out). I’m picking nits though, largely it’s a great episode with a wonderfully atmospheric score by Christian Henson and expert direction from Guillem Morales.
Part The Prestige, part Sleuth, Misdirection is both a love letter to the showmanship of magic and a razor sharp battle of wits. Even if you spot a couple of the twists early on, you’re never sure if it’s a genuine plot point or part of the misdirection of the title. While I loved last week’s venture into dramatic realism, this is Inside No.9 at its macabre best. This has been such a strong season of television, I can’t wait to see what else they’ve got up their sleeves.