When I recommend Inside No.9 to people, I usually end up referring to one of a handful of specific episodes – usually either Sardines or maybe The Referee’s A W***er, both of which serve as good examples of what Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton had in mind when they devised the premise of the series.
Lip Service, the third instalment of the latest series, might now supplant these as the quintessential Inside No.9 episode. It’s pretty much the perfect distillation of what makes this show great, encapsulating all the trademarks of the series: A seemingly simple story, with a very small cast, and one tiny location, but one that is overflowing with intrigue and twists, with constantly shifting dynamics and two incredible performances at its centre.
The writers have played about with the premise so much over the past five series, from an episode with no dialogue, to a Ken Loach-style slice of realism, that it might feel like a bit of a letdown to return to the smaller scale roots of the show. However this episode shows that they don’t need to mess with the formula too much to produce some high quality television.
Set in a cheap hotel room, Lip Service follows the despondent Felix (Pemberton) who is so suspicious that his partner is having an affair that he has hired a lip reader, Iris (Sian Clifford) to join him in a seedy hotel and spy on his wife’s meeting in the adjacent building, to determine if she’s having an affair with her boss. Meanwhile Shearsmith’s efficient hotel manager is determined to catch Felix with an unauthorised woman in his room.
So far so typical, but where this episode shines is in the continually changing perceptions of the two main characters. Both Felix and Iris have multiple layers to their characters that are gradually stripped away over the course of the episode, leading to an ending that’s both shocking and entirely fitting. Clifford is especially great, completely different from her poised performance in Fleabag – her Iris is full of wry little character observations, somehow both knowing and innocent – full of “seen it all before” anecdotes and yet quite melancholy when talking about her own love life.
Pemberton himself is just deeply sad, perfectly capturing the doomed love of someone desperately clutching to the remnants of his relationship. Meanwhile, Shearsmith takes a bit of a backseat this episode, adding to his repertoire of accents as the officious German hotel manager, clearly enjoying all of the exaggerated German mannerisms, playing up every suspicious head tilt and vocal tick to brilliant comic effect – even if at times he sounds like a character from ‘Allo ‘Allo.
One thing that this episode does really well is set up all the twists and turns subtly throughout, so when the other foot finally drops a lot of the earlier scenes make sense, like Iris’ uncanny ability to avoid detection, and Felix’s overly obsessive nature. Where Lip Service succeeds is in the plotting, and the constantly changing dynamics. It’s one of the most successful stories Shearsmith and Pemberton have written, in that you are never entirely sure where it’s going. While it might not appear as audacious or innovative as some of their other episodes, the writers keep a ridiculous amount of plates spinning here, and the final reveal is really quite shocking. Even more impressively, the ending doesn’t feel rushed, and you can easily fill in the gaps yourself using information provided earlier in the episode – which isn’t always true of this series. (See The Bill and Private View)
After an ambitious opener and an overly safe episode last week, Pemberton and Shearsmith get the balance just right with this episode. It’s a small scale but incredibly tense story of romance and paranoia. It has everything; laughs, shock and a genuine emotional investment in the characters. The very best episodes of Inside No. 9 have multiple layers that make them even more rewarding on a re-watch, and Lip Service has this in spades.
Inside No. 9 S6 is available now on iPlayer, and if you love the series, we think you’ll enjoy Nick’s countdown of every episode so far here.
Photographer: Sophie Mutevelian