For some unknown reason I didn’t immediately click with Inside No.9, and I couldn’t tell you why to this day. I’ve been a long time fan of The League of Gentlemen and adored Pyschoville, so it should have been my cup of tea / whiskey, but it left me cold. At least until the beginning of the second series when it quickly became a show I adored, and I went back and rewatched the earlier episodes and found a great deal to enjoy about them. So yeah, it makes no sense at all. I’m truly glad I stuck with it though, as it’s one of the finest series currently airing.
I’m also a great fan of live episodes of comedy, the two produced by 30 Rock were occasionally a little shambolic but they had enormous charm, Will and Grace was actually interesting for a change when they did them, whilst the one The Simpsons produced was fantastic, albeit clearly a terrible strain on the animator’s wrists. Ahem. Sorry. And as it goes there actually was a three minute live segment during one episode, “Simprovised”, the twenty-first episode of the twenty-seventh season, but that was absolutely terrible. Anyhow, the point of all of this is that given my love for the show and live episodes in general I had high hopes for the episode and was greatly looking forward to it. But it did it live up to them? Or quash them in a violent and oddly disgusting manner? Well, as it happens, it exceeded my expectations, and is one of the best pieces of British television I’ve seen in years.
It manages to amuse and disturb in equal measures as initially it seems like it’s about an old man, Arthur Flitwick, finding a phone in a church graveyard, and receiving a strange and disturbing call full of unusual sounds. It appeared to be a rather standard affair, but there’s a twist, albeit one which almost led me to turning off the television. For the sound cuts out twice and a BBC2 announcer apologises for technical differences, with the decision made to show the first episode of the series instead and broadcast the live episode at a later date. It tricked me completely, but I stuck with it for a minute or so only to find out that it was all part of the plan, and soon matters take a much darker turn.
There’s so much to love about this episode, from the continuity announcer’s agonised screams to the backstage footage of Reece and Steve clearly angry about the technical fuck up, before realising they’re on tv. The unpredictability of the episode is a thing of beauty, you can’t get settled in for a second as all suddenly changes again and again as we’re presented with footage from a great deal of sources, and every time you think you’ve got a handle on the story it becomes more complex. And in the final ten minutes the humour evaporates and everything becomes truly nightmarish.
It’s not short on comedy though, there’s a very funny Brownies joke, Reece and Steve’s disdain for Stephanie Cole made me grin a lot, as did jokes about repeat fees and the issues men have with their prostate. Plus there’s a clip of the infamous Bobby Davro accident, something I’ll never tire of seeing, which is later mocked by the duo to great effect. The performances from all involved are stunning with Stephanie Cole being a particular highlight, from her confident take on Maura to her startling departure from proceedings it may just be the most memorable thing she’s ever done. But Reece and Steve deserve the most acclaim, both are on superb form on the acting side of things and the script is a thing of impressive ingenuity.
Back in 1992 the BBC broadcast Ghostwatch, a live investigation in to a haunting in London, but which was actually a scripted drama where disturbing events began to occur. Many viewers were caught off guard and believed it was real and it created a great deal of controversy, but despite this (or perhaps because of it) to this day it is widely regarded as a superb piece of drama. I’m extremely fond of it as well, it’s aged a little over the years but in Pipes they created an unsettling being and the ending is superb. I don’t know if Inside No.9 will have the same effect on people, audiences are far wiser to tv trickery these days, and Shearsmith and Pemberton are well known for creating sinister comedy, but I’d love it if some people came in to the show half way through and bought in to the harrowing events that were inflicted upon us. Until now Ghostwatch was my favourite piece of live television but this has superseded it, and I have no qualms in describing it as a masterpiece, and whilst it may not be talked about in the same way Ghostwatch was I’ve no doubts that it’ll be celebrated in a similar manner.
You can watch the episode on BBCiPlayer here.