It’s a bit of a tradition for Inside No.9 to end each series with a horror story – The Harrowing, Seance Time and The Stakeout are each terrifying in their own unique way. The final episode of series 7, Wise Owl both conforms to this and subverts it. It’s potentially the most harrowing episode of the entire series, and yet somehow manages to end on an uplifting note.
It’s a wonder that the public information films of the 1970s haven’t been mined for their horror potential before now. They were intentionally disturbing, a way to scare children away from dangerous situations, be it the perils of life on a farm or playing near deep water (watch Apaches and The Spirit Of Dark And Lonely Water for a horrific taster). Slightly more palatable were the animated films like Charley Says, usually narrated by a benevolent, omniscient presence who provides advice to reckless children – but what if this presence was more sinister?
Wise Owl takes a similar starting point, punctuating the disturbing story of the reclusive Ronnie (Reece Shearsmith) with animated segments that lovingly recreate these animated public information films, complete with a recognizable character (Wise Owl) with his own very plausible catchphrase – “Don’t be a twit-you!”
It soon becomes apparent that there is more to these intervals than initially appears – beginning with a “Don’t talk to strangers” segment that just feels a little off, and from that point on the episode takes on on a much darker tone, with the once comforting Owl swapping his chipper catchphrase for the more sinister “Wise Owl knows best”.
The way key information is relayed to the audience is really impressive – writers Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton withhold crucial information at the start – we have no idea who Ronnie is at first – and then subtly drip-feed the details of a tragic incident from his childhood. We first meet Ronnie’s mum (Georgie Glen) then hear her voice in the animation, along with Wise Owl, and when we finally meet Ronnie’s father (Ron Cook) his voice seems very familiar…
The writers cited both Possum and David Cronenberg‘s criminally underrated Spider as influences on this episode and this is apparent in the staging and Shearsmith’s muted, vulnerable performance, which might be his best of the series. This episode also features one of the most chilling images in the entirety of Inside No.9, as Ronnie is haunted by his past while trying to sleep. It’s an image that’s more than a little reminiscent of Hereditary, and ranks alongside the final shot of The Harrowing and the boy in the cot in Seance Time.
It’s one of the darkest, most atmospheric episodes of the entire series, with some very bleak moments, but this is balanced by some excellent comedy moments (Pemberton clearly has a blast playing a comic supporting role, and the reveal of exactly what Shearsmith has done to Pemberton’s dead rabbit is morbidly hilarious).
The ending is also more uplifting than you might expect. The writers steer away from what would probably be a slightly more grisly, traditional horror story climax in favour of an infinitely more emotionally meaningful resolution. They use the animation in a moving way that transcends the horror genre – showing the child Ronnie growing into an adult as he walks away from his father is hardly subtle but it’s quietly powerful nonetheless.
This has been an uneven series of Inside No.9 but Shearsmith and Pemberton really stepped it up for the final few episodes. Now it’s been confirmed that it’s been renewed for a further two series, (taking it to at least nine seasons!) it’s good to see this series go out on a high, proving if need be that Shearsmith and Pemberton aren’t close to running out of ideas. This remains one of the refreshingly original, witty British shows currently on TV, and long may it continue!