Tonight sees the return of Inside No. 9, and an hour and a half before it starts, I’m thinking about what’s gone before in anticipation of the new series and watching a few old episodes.
I don’t I’ve been quiet about how much I like this series: Black Mirror may have had more publicity and, in part thanks to the American interest, the bigger budgets and ‘out there’ concepts like ‘choose your own storyline’, but Inside No. 9 is for me a consistently stronger and creative series. Of course, it’s unfair to compare one series to another – whether it be Black Mirror, Tales of the Unexpected (which had a few great episodes but whose teleplays were for the most part not that unexpected and best as a remembered Saturday night as a young child being allowed to watch). The Twilight Zone is the gold standard of course, and probably the most influential TV series in my history in terms of wanting to be able to write things like that, but even that greatest of series had more than its fair share of duds. Inside No. 9, about to start its 5th season has nary a disappointing episode in its history – helped by an ownership from creators, writers and performers Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton as complete as Rod Serling on Twilight Zone, Charlie Brooker on Black Mirror and certainly a lot more than Roald Dahl had on the majority of Tales of the Unexpected ever had.
So having established it’s not fair to compare one piece of art to another or ‘rank’ one episode higher than another, I’ll go on and do just that, having caveated it with the fact, this really could feature pretty much any episode and these are my personal favourites…
(And if by some chance you aren’t familiar with Inside No. 9: it’s a series of self-standing 30 minute dark comedy dramas (for the most part) centring around the number 9 – be it a house number, a train carriage, a birthday or…anything really…)
The list is going to be ‘light touch’ in detail, because frankly, it’s best going into most episodes knowing as little as possible, and you’ll still have your expectations distorted…
#5 – A Quiet Night In
As early as episode 2 it was clear that the makers were prepared to stretch boundaries – a half hour of silent performance as two burglars attempt to steal a painting while the owners are at home. It also showed what classically physical performers Shearsmith and Pemberton are capable of. It gets bonus points for its importance in a future episode…
#4 – The 12 Days of Christmas
Season Two’s second episode is regarded by many as the best episode in the run so far. It’s a brilliant portrayal by Sheridan Smith as Christine, whose life spins out of control as she brings a man home from a Christmas party. It’s a perfect example of how well the series can combine pathos, humour and dark foreboding all within one episode.
#3 – The Riddle of the Sphinx
The boys’ League of Gentlemen’s colleague Mark Gatiss gets a lot of praise for his ingenious plotting and ‘smart’ scripts for the likes of Sherlock, Dr Who and Dracula, but Inside No. 9 has showed again and again the intricate, clever writing they’re capable of, and never more clearly in this episode featuring a Cambridge Professor teaching a student about the cryptic qualities of a crossword puzzle.
#2 – The Devil of Christmas
A Christmas special in more ways than one, the episode is a great example of the levels of ingenuity the stories can take in their telling. Here a film director provides a voice over explaining the making of a decidedly wobbly old Hammer House of Horror style film about the legend of Krampus. It’s a perfect example of the show’s ability to blend 80% comedy with an incredibly dark twist.
#1 – Dead Line/ Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room
A bit of a cheat here. I’ve written extensively elsewhere about the Halloween Live Special ‘Dead Line’; for me one of the most daring pieces of television created.
Whether it stands up to repeated viewings as well as the others is debatable – that’s not to diminish its skill at all, it’s simply because…well, if you’ve seen it you know.
Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room however is most definitely a half hour that you can, and I have, go back to again and again. To spot the things you perhaps should have seen the first time, or just to marvel at the quality of the writing, acting and delivery of the piece. Funny, touching and nostalgic in the best possible way for those of us of a certain age, and still accessible for those not familiar with the likes of the title’s performers or their oeuvre. It’s an episode that sums up Inside No. 9 for me – able to stir up a range of emotions through its brilliant mixture of genre and mood, but consistently underscored with the passion and talent of its creators.
Hopefully, by the time the fifth season ends, this list may change…although to be fair, it could change when I look at it again tomorrow…who knows what to expect? Other than top guest stars, considered writing and, no doubt some great twists and turns.