The dark sketch comedy troupe League of Gentlemen always owed much to Britain’s peculiar strains of horror fiction, and their post-League work–Jeremy Dyson’s book on English haunted houses (whose title escapes me at the moment) and Mark Gatiss’s scripts for Doctor Who, for example–shows many of the same influences. So I wasn’t surprised when early reports compared the new anthology series from Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, Inside No. 9, to Tales of the Unexpected (along with Alfred Hitchcock Presents and, of course, The Twilight Zone.)

The basic premise of Inside No. 9 is this: in addition to being an anthology series, each installment is also a “bottle episode”–an industry term meaning the story only uses one location; and each location ties in to the “number 9” theme in some way. (Both “Sardines” and “A Quiet Night in” residences with “number 9” in the street address.) Pemberton and Shearsmith write and act in each half-hour episode, although they don’t necessarily play the main characters in each one.

Due to the comparatively short length of each episode, I expect these reviews will be on the short side.

A scene from INSIDE NO. 9: "Sardines"

Series 1, episode 1: “Sardines”

Guest starring Katherine Parkinson, Tim Key, Luke Pasqualino, Ophelia Lovibond, Anne Reid, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Anna Chancellor, Marc Wooton, Ben Willbond, Timothy West.

This week on Series: It’s time for the traditional game of “Sardines” at Rebecca’s (Parkinson) engagement party, but it seems the more people join in the fun, deeper and darker family secrets are inadvertently revealed…

It seems that “Sardines” is actually a real game, a hide-and-seek variant in which one person starts by hiding and the other players try to find him or her; when they do, they must join the hider in the hiding spot, until everyone’s jammed into one place like a can of, well, sardines. I don’t know if this is a real game, but it seems perfectly fitted for a family of people with repressed emotions and too much money.

The premise of the script is, as I said in the synopsis, that as more guests join Rebecca and her fiancée’s co-worker Ian (Key) in their hiding place–in this case, a wardrobe, an irony not lost on at least one of the characters–the more they can’t help expose things that they’d rather keep hidden. This starts out fairly routine–the strained romantic relationship between Rebecca’s brother (Pemberton) and his partner (Shearsmith), for example–and get gradually darker over the course of the episode before the final twist.

Something about the pacing of the episode feels slightly off to me–I don’t know, it seems like things should get slightly darker a bit earlier in the episode. That’s about the only flaw I can find with the episode, which also features a gaggle of excellent performances from Shearsmith, Parkinson (best known for The IT Crowd) and Rhind-Tutt, and a climax that would make Hitchcock proud.

All in all, a pretty good start.

A scene from INSIDE NO. 9: "A Quiet Night In"

Series 1, episode 2: “A Quiet Night in”

Guest starring Denis Lawson, Oona Chaplin, Joyce Veheary, Kayvan Novak.

This week on Inside No. 9A pair of bumbling art thieves (Pemberton, Shearsmith) break into the house of a wealthy couple (Denis Lawson, Oona Chaplin) to steal a modernist painting, but find their biggest obstacle is the ongoing domestic drama.

Inside No. 9 follows up “Sardines” with perhaps a perfect an episode of television as I have ever seen. Pemberton and Shearsmith base “A Quiet Night in” around a gimmick–there is no dialog in the entire episode, save for two lines uttered at the very end–but the gimmick works so well it hardly seems like a gimmick.

The scenario contains many brilliant moments–including a novel use for chili peppers and a brilliant attempt to recreate the painting that serves as the episode’s MacGuffin–but it’s not what the episode depends upon to make it work. It’s the sort of project that depends a great deal on the cast, and the four principals–Pemberton, Shearsmith, Lawson, and Chaplin–are more than up to the challenge. Chaplin, almost unrecognizable under a padded bra and too much makeup, is the standout, but the pathos-driven Lawson gives her a run for her money, and it’s all the writer-stars can do to keep up with them.

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention David Kerr, who directed the episode, and indeed the entire first series. I can’t really think of anything else to say that isn’t gushing superlative, so I guess I’ll stop now.

INSIDE NO. 9

Series 1 episode ranking

  1. “A Quiet Night In” (1.02)
  2. “Sardines” (1.01)

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