It’s good to be back! As far as anthology shows go, Inside No. 9 has always been my favourite. I think it’s the way that creators Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton manage to tell stories that are often quite densely layered in just 30 minutes. Yes, sometimes they overreach and have to rush the ending a little bit, but I’d much prefer that to have a story tread water for an hour. It’s one of the most refreshing and unique British TV shows of the last 20 years – out of the 31 episodes so far (check out my full rundown of all the episodes here), there are only three that I would class as misfires, and even these have moments of brilliance. It’s been such an original series that you could be forgiven for wondering if they might be running out of steam.
The first episode of Season 6 is the perfect way to reassure any doubters that the show is as fresh as ever. Bearing a passing resemblance to Season 4’s Zanzibar – the episode written entirely in verse – Wuthering Heist is a dense but incredibly irreverent mix of Commedia dell’arte and heist movies. That’s a pretty eclectic combination, and in lesser hands it could easily feel overstuffed, but Pemberton and Shearsmith handle all the disparate elements deftly, and remain faithful to both genres.
Commedia dell’arte was an early form of theatre performance similar to pantomime, that used several recurring characters easily identifiable by their distinctive masks. This episode features several of these and makes use of the masks too, from the gormless Arlo/Harlequin (Kevin Bishop, complete with diamond patterned jumper) to the irascible mob boss Pantalone (Paterson Joseph). A key element of Commedia dell’arte was the use of asides, of making the audience complicit in the plot contrivances, and here our guide is Colly/Colombina (Gemma Whelan) who speaks directly to the camera, pointing out flaws in the plotting, directorial choices, and generally deconstructing the episode (at one point describing it as “something a drama teacher would have a wank to“)
The whole cast is great, Bishop joyfully idiotic as the guileless henchman, and Joseph genuinely sinister as the boss. Whelan is undoubtedly the MVP of the episode though, offering wry commentary on the story and getting all the best lines. There’s a decided shift in tone when it moves into heist territory, with some nasty, shocking moments, but even then the jokes keep coming. It’s unapologetically meta, and a little jarring at first – when Whelan says, “we’re not in slow motion anymore” it’s a good yardstick to tell if you will enjoy the rest of the episode. The dissonant genres could be awkward but it somehow works, perhaps because the cast embrace the silliness so wholeheartedly that it’s impossible not to enjoy it.
Shearsmith’s Scaramouche/Il Capitano (complete with outrageous Italian accent) is wonderfully flamboyant, and does an incredible job acting his heart out underneath a mask that obscures all of his features, and fully throws himself into the physical comedy – The simple act of him sitting in a leather chair had me in stitches. Pemberton’s Doctor/Il Dottore has less slapstick to do, but is exceptional at his punny, Latin-riddled dialogue.
The writers clearly had a ball cramming as much clever wordplay in as they could – there’s one very niche joke, essentially told backwards, that’s easy to miss on an initial viewing. There are a couple of misses (The Beef Wrap pun is truly terrible, and the running joke about Scaramouche – which you’ve already guessed – falls a little flat) but thankfully the jokes come so thick and fast that it hardly matters.
Despite what Whelan says early in the episode, “It’s series 6 – you’ve got to allow for a certain artistic exhaustion” this episode is Shearsmith and Pemberton at their most inventive, with some of the most laugh-out-loud moments of the series so far. I can’t wait to see what the rest has to offer.