This is proving to be the most ambitious series of Inside No.9 yet. Two weeks ago we had a Ken Loach-style kitchen-sink drama, this week s episode feels like a tribute to Alan Bennett. Thinking Out Loud emulates Talking Heads, taking the form of a series of seemingly unrelated characters talking directly to camera, for a lonely hearts ad, a therapy session, an online vlog, and more. Essentially an excuse to link up five monologues, each shot in a single take, it’s not immediately clear how they are all connected, but it doesn’t matter when the writing is so well observed.
Maxine Peake is great, and genuinely seems to be slowly morphing into Julie Walters with every role. She gives the most affecting performance in the episode, demonstrating a vast range in a relatively short amount of screentime. Meanwhile Phil Davis is brilliant as the lovelorn Bill. Davis has made a career alternating between villains (Bleak House, Doctor Who, Sherlock) and quite gentle souls (Vera Drake, High Hopes) and here he gives very little away, seeming old-fashioned and touching but with hints at a troubled past. Reece Shearsmith is also incredibly poignant as the expectant dad, and Ioanna Kimbook shines as the terminally positive vlogger.
Steve Pemberton is less successful as the American serial killer, his performance is appropriately menacing, but his accent is ever so slightly dodgy. It might be that we are too used to Pemberton’s natural northern accent but it’s undeniably jarring, and truthfully the weakest element of the episode.
Where Pemberton really shines this week is behind the camera. Directing for the first time since series 2, he handles the episode structure deftly. The direction doesn’t draw attention to itself but it’s probably more crucial than ever, as the episode is essentially comprised of several unbroken takes, meaning there’s no rescuing the show in the edit here. There are also a couple of nice little directorial flourishes (Peake leaving the shot from one side and entering again on the other is a subtle but effective touch) and a great use of framing and camera angles that all add to the unnerving feeling of the episode.
As ever nothing is what it seems, and Pemberton cleverly plays with time and the background of shots for devastating effect. The dialogue is multilayered and is full of foreshadowing and double meanings, and in this episode in particular there is an abundance of clues on display in the background of scenes, in the onscreen graphics, and even in the character names. More than any other episode in this series, this is one that is rewarding on a rewatch; there are several subtle little hints that make perfect sense, and all contribute to the puzzle.
While the individual monologues are all sensitively written and beautifully performed, the story itself is less successful. This isn’t a complete misfire, but it’s a little obvious in places, and the reveal is uncharacteristically clumsy in it’s execution. Pemberton and Shearsmith are usually great at letting the audience piece together the puzzle on their own, so it’s a little jarring to have someone explicitly explain the twist to the audience. Then again, this is a particularly ambitious concept that could easily have been misinterpreted if explained more subtly.
This might not be the most wholly successful story the pair have written, but it’s indicative of the change in tack this season, which has generally been more focused on the storytelling than shock twists. Overall, this has been the most mature series from a production point of view, and at the very least this episode demonstrates the writers’ resolute aversion to playing it safe.