It’s mad that I’ve gone through this season of Inside No.9 without mentioning Covid. Maybe because the show has always lent itself quite neatly to small casts in one location. Even so, this series has been particularly conscientious in this regard – Simon Says, Lip Service and How Do You Plead have really small casts, while Wuthering Heist and Hurry Up And Wait manage to keep performers socially distant (either spread out or with staggered appearances) so it’s strange seeing seven characters all sat in a small room for the majority of the episode – social distancing is still acknowledged (they do sit pretty far away from each other) but it feels more crowded than previous episodes this season.
Superficially, Last Night Of The Proms most resembles something like Nana’s Party, with a family gathering round to watch the proms together as part of a family tradition. What sets it apart though, is the way Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton tell this story, with the classical music punctuating the family conflict. Patriotic Mick (Pemberton) and Dawn (Sarah Parish) are hosting the evening, and also present are Dawn’s meek sister Penny (Debra Gillett), her pompous husband Brian (Shearsmith) their disinterested son Oliver (Jack Wolfe) and her dementia suffering father Ralph (Julian Glover) but a mysterious stranger (Bamshad Abedi-Amin) disrupts the evening and dramatically changes the entire family’s lives.
The performances are strong across the board, but unfortunately the characters don’t often feel like real people. In a way this feels intentional, in that the cast are all essentially playing larger-than-life archetypes to fit with the broad strokes of the music, but these exaggerated performances just don’t fit in when it comes to the more intimate aspects of the family drama – where none of them feel believable.
I know there are some people who aren’t interested in commedia dell’arte, and couldn’t stand Wuthering Heist, and having seen this episode I understand the feeling. I know nothing about the proms, and I feel like some of the references were completely lost on me – apart from the use of Jerusalem. At times it feels like the writers are pointing out how music can affect us, and provoke vastly different emotions from the listener – there is a moment of real pathos from Parish and Glover during one of the sadder songs – but it’s all too nebulous to land properly, and the disparate elements never fully cohere to make a satisfying whole.
Alongside this are numerous slightly awkward references to Brexit. Little Englanders Mick and Dawn are proud Leave voters, but are shown to be content, and even welcoming to the stranger – even offering him some food – while remainer Oliver is presented as a deeply repressed snob, (“The slugs voted for more salt!”) who is immediately defensive towards the stranger. Similarly to Simon Says, the writers try to have their cake and eat it here – yes the Brexit debate might be more nuanced than Lefties vs Racists, but in steadfastly refusing to actually take a side it feels like a bit of a cheat. And again like Simon Says, when every character is this unlikeable it’s difficult to care too much about the outcome, regardless of how intriguing the premise is.
If nothing else, Inside No.9 can always be relied on to try out new things, and Last Night At The Proms gets points for innovation – with the proms themselves unfolding in real time, and the cast performing with the music constantly playing. It leads to some striking moments, specifically when Land Of Hope And Glory booms out, and the use of Jerusalem in the end is brilliantly stirring.
Last Night Of The Proms might be the most audacious, bonkers episode of Inside No. 9 since that time they did an undercover Psychoville episode. At the end though, it’s an uncomfortable mish-mash of brexit satire and religious iconography all set to the pomp and circumstance of the Proms. It’s fun, and has a fair share of shocking moments, but a strange one to end what has been a pretty strong series.