Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton’s Inside No. 9 returns to BBC Two for its fourth series on Tuesday 2nd January. Here’s a spoiler-free review from Sophie who has seen episodes 1-4 of the new series…
After taking us inside various houses and flats over the past few years, plus more unconventional locations including a call centre, a karaoke booth and an art gallery, Inside No. 9 transports us to a hotel for the first time in the opening episode of its fourth series. Specifically we’re on floor 9 of the Hotel Zanzibar, where guests staying the night include a hedonistic royal (Rory Kinnear) with his bodyguard (Reece Shearsmith), a suicidal old man (Bill Paterson), a woman having relationship problems (Hattie Morahan), and a forgetful pensioner (Marcia Warren) with her son (Steve Pemberton). Also in the mix are the hotel bellboy (Jaygann Ayeh) and maid (Helen Monks), plus a prostitute (Tanya Franks) and a hypnotist (Kevin Eldon).
Stylistically, ‘Zanzibar’ might be Inside No. 9‘s craziest episode yet. It’s certainly the most theatrical, with characters speaking in iambic pentameter and delivering soliloquies directly to camera. Although pretty much any Inside No. 9 episode could work on stage, thanks to each one being set in just a single location, ‘Zanzibar’ in particular feels as if it’s been plucked straight from the theatre.
As we’re introduced to the hotel and its eclectic range of guests on floor 9, it becomes clear that all the ingredients of a classic Shakespearean farce are in place for a night of confusion and chaos. Some intentional and unintentional room swapping leads to cases of mistaken identity, and there are mix-ups involving a murder plot, a sedative and a love spell, as well as an engagement ring hidden inside a pie!
Shearsmith and Pemberton have never been ones to make life easy for themselves – having already given us ‘Cold Comfort’ shot entirely on CCTV, ‘The Riddle of the Sphinx’ revolving around a cryptic crossword and the almost completely silent ‘A Quiet Night In’ – and ‘Zanzibar’ is no exception. It must have been a challenge for them to piece together such an intricate plot while also writing dialogue in such a specific style, but the end result is a lot of fun and proves that they are nowhere near running out of ideas.
Following the barmy ensemble comedy of ‘Zanzibar’, series 4’s second instalment ‘Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room’ is a much simpler affair. Mostly a two-hander between Reece and Steve, with a brief appearance from Sian Gibson, the episode focuses on an ageing comedy double act, Cheese and Crackers, reuniting for one last show after 30 years apart. Len (Steve) can’t wait to revive all the old sketches and characters, while Tommy (Reece) seems like he would rather be anywhere else.
As the duo revisit their old material, most of which is incredibly dated, ‘Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room’ invites us to think about how much comedy has changed over the years – perhaps some of the inspiration for this one came from discussions around The League of Gentlemen‘s recent reunion? – all while feeding us clues as to the heartbreaking reason why Cheese and Crackers went their separate ways decades ago. With mentions of the Krankies, Crackerjack and Tudor Crisps, plus a reference to one of Psychoville’s greatest moments, it’s a beautifully written half-hour that I have to admit is now among my all-time favourite Inside No. 9 episodes. Shearsmith and Pemberton are both on top form as the chalk-and-cheese Cheese and Crackers, and they will probably have you feeling a bit teary-eyed by the time ‘Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room’ reaches its poignant conclusion.
Series 4’s third episode ‘Once Removed’ opens with a woman, who appears to be very on edge, answering the door to a removal man and showing him into her house. Over the next few minutes, a series of events occur which we have no way of comprehending on first viewing. We then cut to ’10 minutes earlier’ and get to witness the build-up to what we’ve just seen. These ’10 minutes earlier’ transitions continue to happen throughout the episode, gradually taking us back in time that day and allowing us to get a full understanding of what exactly is going on.
If you think I’m being vague, you’d be right, because to say much more about ‘Once Removed’ would really give too much away. Suffice to say, the decision to present the plot backwards, in 10-minute chunks, keeps you guessing right up until the last minute, resulting in what is possibly Inside No. 9‘s most twisty-turny instalment yet. Of course it’s very funny as well, with one particularly great running joke about an elderly man thinking he is Andrew Lloyd Webber. In addition to Reece and Steve, the cast includes Monica Dolan, Emilia Fox, David Calder and Nick Moran. Look out for (or rather listen out for) a cameo from Rufus Jones too!
Rather like series 3’s ‘Diddle Diddle Dumpling’, series 4’s fourth episode ‘To Have and To Hold’ shows us that horror can lurk in the most normal of places… the home. Harriet (Nicola Walker) is dissatisfied with her marriage to Adrian (Steve Pemberton), a wedding photographer who spends more time in his darkroom than he does with his wife. She’s keen to renew their vows and spice things up, but he’s completely unresponsive and she just can’t figure out why.
Without revealing too much here, it emerges that under the surface of the couple’s marital problems is something much deeper and darker. At a turning point in the story, ‘To Have and To Hold’ goes from one of Inside No. 9‘s most seemingly ‘normal’ episodes to one of its most chilling in the space of just a few seconds. Steve Pemberton delivers a brilliantly unsettling performance, and when the credits roll I guarantee you’ll be feeling shaken.
There’s nothing else on television quite like Inside No. 9, and in its fourth series there is absolutely no sign of the quality slipping at all. In fact, if the final two episodes of series 4, ‘Tempting Fate’ and ‘And the Winner Is…’, maintain the same standard as the previous four, it could even prove to be the strongest series so far. Long may it continue!
Inside No. 9 series 4 begins with ‘Zanzibar’ on Tuesday 2nd January at 10pm on BBC Two.