Next week sees the long-awaited return of Inside No. 9 – the twisted anthology series from Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton.
Episode One airs on Thursday, 26th March at 10pm on BBC Two, and with Alice Lowe and Paul Kaye amongst the big name guest stars this series, TVO was keen to see the results as soon as possible.
This, then, is our preview of the first episode, La Couchette…
For more than two decades, Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton have been honing their natural chemistry together – first as one half of The League of Gentlemen alongside Sherlock’s Mark Gatiss and Psychobitches director Jeremy Dyson, and more recently with their sublime comedic mystery saga Psychoville. Following the untimely demise of the latter, the duo took on their most ambitious project yet: Inside No. 9, and after a widely acclaimed first run, they’ve crafted six more tales in their inimitable style.
Where The League of Gentlemen mined the laughs in the downright macabre, and Psychoville took audiences on an increasingly preposterous journey into espionage and bad murders, Inside No. 9 showcased a remarkable constraint in Shearsmith and Pemberton. With each episode focusing on a different set of a characters in new locations each week, the pair got to continue flexing their skill as chameleonic character actors whilst also, on occasion stepping back from the big dynamic laughs: allowing the shifting mood and tone of the story to take centre stage, even if it meant a reduced role for themselves. And with concept leading the way, it allowed the pair to truly experiment – most notably in the impeccable A Quiet Night In episode, which is almost entirely sans dialogue.
The results were quite unlike anything else on television in recent years, and the production of a second run is more than welcome, particularly as it once again comes with a top notch cast. The likes of Sheridan Smith, Alison Steadman, David Warner (who also appeared in The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse) and TVO’s own Alice Lowe and Paul Kaye are among those we will see in this new run.
But first: La Couchette. Episode One is set within the ninth sleeper car on a train from Paris to Bourg St Maurice, as a ramshackle bunch of travellers try, in vein, to bed down for the night. At opposing ends of the spectrum, Shearsmith plays a fastidious doctor, on his way to an important interview – all nerves and twitches not a million miles away from his troubled librarian in Psychoville. Pemberton, on the other hand is a slobbish, sluggish Germanic drunk – unkempt and full of gas, and seemingly unable to speak a word of English.
Before long, the unlikely companions are joined by a bickering Northern couple – played by those fine bastions of English character acting: Julie Hesmondalgh and Mark Benton. This particular Northerner could watch these two read the phonebook, and be enthralled, so it’s understandably a delight to see them here: trying, and failing to stay quiet whilst settling in for the night on the way to their daughter’s wedding.
They are soon joined by the brilliant Jessica Gunning as a gung-ho Aussie backpacker, and a little while later by Jack Whitehall playing… well, a Jack Whitehall style yuppie gap-yah hitchhiker. He does it well, of course. Why, we’re even growing rather fond of the Whitehall Archetype now after Cockroaches. The shambolic sextet are perfectly mismatched, and unfortunate company for one another: intolerant of everyone else in the room, and in complete ignorance of their own flaws.
It’s a claustrophobic environment, captured with great style and panache by guest director Guillem Morales. With a background in horror movies – including the Guillermo Del Toro approved Julia’s Eyes, Morales is an inspired choice to find scope in such an enclosed space, and the many layers of the cabin feel at once constrictive yet never obtrusive to the action on screen.
Naturally, this being a Shearsmith and Pemberton creation with a horror movie director, there’s a surprise in store for our travellers, which we understandably won’t spoil. However, we will say it puts the journey into jeopardy, and gives the more selfish members of the party an excuse to let their own desires get the better of them.
It isn’t perfect – there’s an incident with a shoebox that is almost too revolting for words, even after some of the more twisted aspects of The League… and Psychoville, which adds nothing of note to the episode’s plotting or structure, beyond a rather purile gag that may indeed make you gag yourself. Yet for the rest of the run-time, it works masterfully – building slowly to a climax that is both carefully signposted and hidden in plain sight.
To say more would no doubt ruin the game that has become part and parcel of Shearsmith and Pemberton’s work: wondering what on earth is going to happen next. Audiences deserve to be able to savour the rich characters they manage to build in such a short space of time, and if this is any indication for the rest of the series, we’re in for another solid gold run. Welcome back, Gents… the world is a better place with you in it.