Features / Television

Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton’s Inside No.9 – Ranked [Part 1]

Season six of Inside No. 9 begins this Monday 10th May on BBC Two, woohoo! With that in mind, now seems as good a time as any to do a rundown of the series, so far, from least favourite to most memorable but with 31 episodes to get through, I’ve broken this down into the aptly named Part 1, which is below, and Part 2, which is over here!

I love Inside No. 9, Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton’s unique anthology series has consistently been one of the most original, innovative shows on British television. It’s incredible that after five seasons the show hasn’t repeated itself, or shown any indication of running out of ideas. Some episodes work better than others, but the overall quality remains very high, and Pemberton and Shearsmith seem determined to push the envelope as far as possible while also telling stories so clearly and comprehensively in only 30 minutes.

As with any reviews, this is entirely subjective so please feel free to disagree with my choices in the comments below….

31. Last Gasp

As I said, I don’t think there are any bad episodes of Inside No. 9, but Last Gasp is certainly one of the weaker entries. On the whole, even when the circumstances of the show are outlandish, the characters themselves act believably. This story, centring on the bidding war on a balloon containing the dying breath of a singer, has a lot of comic potential, but the characters themselves are unsympathetic, and their reaction to the situation so cartoonish that it’s hard to fully invest in the story. Tamsin Greig, Sophie Thomson and Adam Deacon are great guest stars, but it’s just a bit lightweight and silly, especially compared with what’s to come.

30. And The Winner Is

From the start, both Shearsmith and Pemberton have shied away from playing it safe, or basing the show entirely around a twist. Some of the most effective episodes don’t even have one (more on this later) but by and large the series has always been about more than just the twist, which makes this one a little disappointing. Set in a judges deliberation room for a TV awards ceremony, the writing is as witty as ever, and the performances (especially Kenneth Cranham and Zoë Wanamaker as two seasoned luvvies) are great, but it all feels a little flat, mainly because there isn’t much at stake, and also because the twist is so obvious it becomes a little distracting by the end.

29. Death Be Not Proud

This might be one of the funniest episodes yet, but with a big caveat. It’s an incredibly bold and meta move to feature a twist that is essentially – “you thought this was an episode of Inside No.9, but it’s actually Psychoville“, but it’s also a bit of a cheat. I loved Psychoville and David Sowerbutts (Pemberton) was one of its breakout characters, but while it’s great to see him again, as well as revisiting his domineering mother Maureen and the terrifying clown Mr Jelly (both played by Shearsmith) it feels like it’s not playing fair with the audience – especially those who aren’t familiar with the other show – and poor Jenna Coleman is criminally underused.

28. The Understudy

An episode that gets unfairly maligned, The Understudy is a simple story, but still effective. The supernatural, ghostly elements are still really creepy and the episode is drenched in a foreboding atmosphere that more than makes up for this. Shearsmith plays the understudy for the lead actor in a production of Macbeth, whose ambitious fiancée (Lyndsey Marshal) urges him to take the role when the lead actor (Pemberton on top pompous form) suffers an accident. The comparisons to Macbeth may be a little obvious but this is an atmospheric story – and even the slightly creaky plot moments are undercut by the wryly observed jabs at the acting profession.

27. Diddle Diddle Dumpling

An unnerving episode about a man who finds a single shoe outside his house, and gradually becomes fixated on finding the other one. For all the shortcomings of the story – which is a little simplistic – this is one episode that is beautifully told, and a lot more rewarding on a rewatch, with a nicely judged use of symmetrical imagery throughout, mirroring Shearsmith’s growing obsession with the missing shoe. Keeley Hawes is heartbreaking as his wife, and the ending is strong, despite being signposted a mile off.

26. Thinking Out Loud

One of the most unconventional stories the pair have ever attempted, as a series of Talking Heads-style monologues are linked together to tell a coherent story. It’s ambitious to be sure, playing with the non-linear narrative as well as the assorted media in which the characters do their monologues. Maxine Peake is great as the main character undertaking online therapy sessions, but the final explanation is a little labored and unnecessary. The performances are strong, and there are some chilling moments, but it feels like the writers over-extended themselves slightly with this one.

25. La Couchette

Every episode of Inside No.9 is unique, but there is a certain type of episode that crops up every season, and this is the ensemble piece; these generally feature a group of well-known character actors thrust into a small space together. This is one of the weaker examples, set on a crowded carriage on a sleeper train, where one of the passengers has died, and the others argue about whether to stop the train or not. It’s an interesting moral quandary, but the show doesn’t spend enough time actually dealing with this. Despite the slick twist, and some laugh out loud moments, the whole thing feels a little breezy, and Jack Whitehall stands out for all the wrong reasons, essentially playing himself.

24. Tempting Fate

The Inside No.9 take on the tried and tested “Monkey’s Paw” story isn’t particularly original but does benefit from the meta way that the characters use their knowledge of the story to manoeuvre themselves out of the usual pitfalls. Three council workers find an unusual statuette while cleaning out a dead man’s flat, and discover it has dangerous properties, granting wishes in the most macabre way possible. Shearsmith is great as the only character who seems to recognise the danger, and Pemberton is even better as the upstanding sceptic with a tragic backstory. This is also notable for the appearance of the brass Hare statue that’s appeared in the background of every single episode of the series so far.

23. Zanzibar

It didn’t take long, but we’re already into the episodes where I’m running out of negative things to say! Writing an entire episode in iambic pentameter is an audacious move, and the fact that Shearsmith and Pemberton pulled it off successfully is an undeniably impressive achievement, even if it veers into slightly-too-clever-for-it’s-own-good territory at times. It benefits from uniformly excellent performances from a talented cast, including Rory Kinnear in a dual role, and Jaygann Ayeh as the put-upon bellboy who also serves as the episodes chorus.

22. The Devil Of Christmas

This might be the only episode of the whole entire series I have difficulty rewatching, just for its sheer nastiness. An incredibly faithful recreation of the creepy 1970s style of anthology horror programmes, such as Nigel Kneale’s Beasts, complete with overacting, actors missing their marks, creaky sets and shoddy sound cues. Added to which is the central conceit of the episode, with Derek Jacobi‘s director providing a knowing audio commentary. Pemberton is suitably pompous as the leading man and both Rula Lenska and Jessica Raine give on-point performances within performances, perfectly capturing the old fashioned acting mannerisms. The whole episode is full of wry observations, until the horrific revelation at the episode’s end, which does leave a nasty taste in the mouth.

21. Nana’s Party

The first episode conceived of by the writers, this is a masterclass in tension, as the numerous dysfunctional family members gather for their grandmother’s birthday. The plot is very simple, but the story structure and constant build and release of tension is perfect, especially the scenes revolving around a joke cake, and there’s a lot of pathos, especially from Shearsmith as an alternately ridiculous and melancholy character.

20. Dead Line

Last seasons Halloween special, broadcast live, is really one of the most innovative half hours of television I’ve seen for a good long while. The inventiveness of the premise is brilliant, and the initial few scares are truly disconcerting, but the content of the episode is less successful, and as Shearsmith says himself “The ending is impenetrable”. It’s best to view this imagining you’re watching it live, as there are some really spine tingling moments, but the resolution is a bit rote compared to some of the best episodes.

19. Cold Comfort

An unnerving story that’s elevated by the unconventional filming style, shot entirely on the main character’s desktop camera. Set in a Samaritan’s Call Centre, the episode follows new recruit Pemberton as he takes increasingly disturbing calls. Once the story sets in it does become a tad predictable (the whole way through there are only two real options for who the mystery caller is) but there are a handful of effective moments, from the use of multiple screens to the abrupt, shocking ending.

18. Private View

A homage to, among others, Agatha Christie, Dario Argento and Mario Bava, this supremely silly whodunnit in an art gallery is a campy pleasure, and one of the standout episodes of season 4, with Felicity Kendal stealing the show as a blind author of erotic fiction. The plot doesn’t really bear scrutiny, and the ending is incredibly rushed (As Shearsmith’s pompous lecturer puts it: “Oh that’s a stretch!”) but it’s a lot of fun nonetheless, with some witty jabs at the modern art world and the cult of celebrity, as well as a couple of genuinely disturbing moments.

17. The Bill

Another ensemble piece, but a lot better contained than La Couchette, with razor sharp dialogue and a few incredibly tense set-pieces – especially the knife contest that erupts when four men argue over who will pay for the groups meal. The twists and turns are less intriguing than the pre-existing grudges and insecurities of the friends and this is very much a case of the journey being a lot more fun than the destination. The resolution might be rushed, and a little unsatisfactory, but the characters and dialogue are brilliantly realised.

Inside No. 9 returns to BBC Two on 10th May, click here for Part 2 of Nick’s episode rundown!

Find the series on the iPlayer bbc.co.uk/iplayer/inside-no-9


7 thoughts on “Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton’s Inside No.9 – Ranked [Part 1]

  1. Pingback: Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton’s Inside No.9 – Ranked [Part 2] | critical popcorn

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