When The League of Gentlemen finished, the question on everyone’s lips was “When will the gang get back together?”
In the years since, the talented group have gone on to produce a rather astonishing array of work. There seems to be nothing Mark Gatiss cannot do, whether it’s writing his stylishly camp Lucifer Box novels, starring in Nebulous (one of Radio 4’s funniest sitcoms), rebooting Sherlock or performing Shakespeare. Steve Pemberton has proven equally versatile, with excellent turns in projects as varied as Mapp & Lucia and Lassie. And Reece Shearsmith has emerged as one of the most interesting British actors around, as much at home in Eric & Ernie as in Ben Wheatley’s terrifyingly good A Field in England.
When Pemberton and Shearsmith teamed up to make Psychoville, then, you expected something special – a promise delivered upon in one Rope-pastiching episode, which co-starred Gatiss as a detective stumbling across two serial killer fanatics. While Psychoville developed The League’s loosely-connected sketch format into a more plot-driven tapestry, though, 2014’s Inside No. 9 went in the other direction, telling six standalone stories.
The result was a more controlled showcase for Pemberton and Shearsmith’s combination of horror and comedy, refining their knack for colourful characters and shocking situations into a string of perfectly formed plays.
The sheer diversity of the bill is striking, from Sardines, which crams a bunch of people into a wardrobe for 30 awkward minutes before culminating in a nasty twist, to The Understudy, which sees an actor finally given a centre stage role but at an (inevitably) unexpected cost.
Within each genre, though, is an impressive level of precision. Guest stars such as Timothy West, Denis Lawson, Anna Chancellor and Tamsin Greig pitch their roles just right, whether it’s a suicidal old man or a determined PR woman for a charity. Pemberton and Shearsmith lead the charge with their own performances, each well versed in creepy grins and haunting stares, not to mention adorned in typically convincing make-up. Boasting the kind of charisma that made Royston Vasey so inviting, you soon find yourself feeling sorry for an ambitious actor or laughing at a blunt murder.
That careful control of tone is perhaps best witnessed on Quiet Night In, a wordless heist thriller that finds our duo lycra-ed up and trying to retrieve a priceless painting from a minimalist home. One by one, expectations are whipped out from under your feet, as stereotypes and genre cliches are subverted. That deliberate wrongfooting of the audience makes it both tense and funny, but there is a simplicity to their complex choreography that harks back to the silent agility of Buster Keaton. How many TV shows can you name with the balls to do away with language altogether?
Surprises are equally rife in the programme’s standout episode, Tom & Gerri, a tale of an unwanted house guest that plays with identities and power struggles to bewildering effect. It boasts even more imagination than Last Gasp, which proposes the novel scenario in which a famous singer’s last breath is trapped in a balloon. Harold Pinter-esque home invasions? Critiques of social celebrity? Like one-act pieces of theatre, the episodes pack more substance into half an hour than many feature films.
Underneath it all, though, is the pair’s trademark love of fear: Season 1 climaxes with The Harrowing, an old-fashioned tale of a sinister house with a hidden upstairs occupant that recalls The League of Gentlemen’s David. Even as the shocks are undercut with silly voices and songs, the nastiness escalates to unsettling levels; any doubts and laughs abandoned for pure, unabashed creepiness. As an exercise in horror, it’s flawless. As a final note for a series, it’s a statement of intent – a reminder that, as mature and sophisticated as these stories are, Shearsmith and Pemberton will never tire of scaring the pants off you.
The result is the BBC’s best horror show in years – and a programme that, in its best moments, even manages to eclipse The League of Gentlemen. With Season 2 of Inside No.9 on the way (read our review of that here), the only question on our lips is this: when will we get Season 3?
Inside No.9 Season 1 and 2 are available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.49 monthly subscription, and on Amazon Prime Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.
Where can I watch Inside No.9 on pay-per-view VOD?