And we’re back! Series 7 of the UK’s most original TV show returns with an uneven episode that nonetheless feels like we’re reconnecting with an old friend, perhaps more than any other instalment.
The story of a reunion between three university friends who have drifted apart, Merrily, Merrily also reunites writers/creators/stars Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith with their fellow League Of Gentlemen co-creator Mark Gatiss. This is the first time the three have performed on-screen together since an episode of Psychoville, where they appeared in a twisty homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope set entirely in one location – an episode that served as the basis for Inside No.9.
In Merrily, Merrily the one location in question is an inspired choice – a pedalo (number 9 of course!). Lawrence (Shearsmith) has organised a mysterious get together for him and his Uni friends, snobby doctor Callum (Mark Gatiss) and PE Teacher Darren (Pemberton). Things began to go off course immediately, as Darren brings along his new girlfriend Donna (Diane Morgan), and they quickly revert to their old ways, bickering and fighting as they pedal across a deserted lake.
This is very much an episode of two halves. The comedy/drama of the three friends getting to know each other, and the eerie, ever-so-slight horror elements that are there from the start (when Lawrence spots a very MR James like hooded figure across the lake) but which only really emerge in the closing moments.
In truth it’s the relationship between the characters that proves the more successful part of the story, and the chemistry between the three friends feels effortless right from the start. Shearsmith and especially Pemberton generate some real pathos with their characters, and as ever throwaway comments early on take on greater significance as the episode goes on – even the Pedalo/Paedo joke has a deeper meaning. Gatiss is charming as Callum, and a dead ringer for Fred Macaulay with his Scottish brogue, while Morgan emerges as the most likeable of the group as the bolshy fourth wheel – the playful dynamic between her and the initially frosty Callum is one of the episodes highpoints.
The problems emerge when it becomes apparent that Pemberton and Shearsmith don’t know how to end the story. After a touching reconciliation between the characters in the boat, and a touching moment that brings all four characters together, the fight that arises feels especially forced, and the final twist is obvious while simultaneously feeling completely crowbarred in. It’s a shame because the final moments are wonderfully atmospheric, (with some beautiful visuals) and the episode ends on an incredibly poignant note. I jut wish they had saved this imagery for an episode where it might feel more organic, and have more impact as a result.
As ever the beauty lies in the dialogue, even if the puns feel a little labored in places (the “have you ever been in Five Guys?” joke is especially forced) but the character beats, particularly the payoff regarding Pemberton’s character, are well observed and quietly brilliant. Honestly it’s just a lot of fun to see The League Of Gentlemen together again, chucking barbed comments and generally winding each other up
Merrily, Merrily might have its flaws, but the writing is still top notch, and the character work is as impressive as ever. There are moments of real pathos mixed with a genuine sense of unease that is unique to Inside No.9 – it’s just a shame they had to cram in that unnecessary twist.