Diversity has been the name of the game for the first series of Inside No. 9: so far, we’ve had acerbic satire, broad, physically-driven farce, and two very different stories with O. Henry-style twists. But creator/stars Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith saved two of the most intriguing experiments for last: a loose Shakespeare adaptation and a Gothic horror tale.

Won’t you join us?

Steve Pemberton stars in "The Understudy"

Series 1, episode 5: “The Understudy”

Guest starring Lyndsey Marshal, Rosie Cavaliero, Julia Davis, Roger Sloman, Richard Cordery, Di Botcher.

This week on Inside No. 9The egotistical, arrogant Tony Warner (Pemberton) plays Macbeth in a prestigious London production while his meek understudy Jim (Shearsmith) waits for his chance in the spotlight. His fiancée Laura (Lyndsey Marshal), the understudy for Lady Macbeth, harbors similar ambitions for Jim but isn’t nearly as patient…

There’s an old cliché about genre actors–comedians and horror actors, for example–harboring a secret desire to perform Shakespeare, and both Pemberton and Shearsmith give it a go in “The Understudy.” Pemberton puts in his most memorable performance of the first series as Warner, whom he interprets as a sort of cross between the lead singer of Jethro Tull and Matt Berry’s more bombastic moments, and his approach to Macbeth is baser and earthier than what little we see of Jim’s more refined, subdued version.

Apart from the creators’ performances “The Understudy” isn’t as strong as the other episodes of the series. Pemberton and Shearsmith loosely model the plot after the Scottish Play and one can sense them really struggling at their self-imposed limitations. There’s simply too much here for a mere thirty minutes. The character development is where this is most obvious: many of the supporting character arcs don’t resolve in a satisfactory manner, and the episode’s biggest twist doesn’t quite fit. And not allowing us to see more of Jim’s Macbeth and (later) Richard III seems a bit cruel.

I don’t want to slag on “The Understudy” too much, because it’s definitely an enjoyable episode and miles better than what normally passes for entertainment on television. I don’t want to give anybody the idea I didn’t like it. But it is probably the weakest episode of the series.

Aimee-Ffion Edwards stars in "The Harrowing"

Series 1, episode 6: “The Harrowing”

Guest starring Aimee-Ffion Edwards, Helen McCrory, Poppy Rush

This week on Inside No. 9: The eccentric Moloch siblings Tabitha (Helen McCrory) and Hector (Shearsmith) hire young Katy (Aimee-Ffion Edwards) to look after their house while they attend an “event.” Their brother Andras is disabled, and while Katy will not exactly be babysitting him, he cannot be left alone. But, they reassure her, he will certainly cause her no trouble…

I don’t remember if I said any of the following back in my first Inside No. 9, so I apologize upfront for repeating anything.

Pemberton and Shearsmith’s work isn’t just comedy, or even dark comedy; it’s a hybrid of comedy and the specifically British strains of horror. Their sensibility owes as much to Robert Aickman and Hammer Film Productions’ classic era as it does to, say, Monty Python. (You can say this about the League of Gentlemen in general: Mark Gatiss presented a documentary about the history of horror as a genre for BBC TV and wrote two of Doctor Who’s most horror-oriented episodes, “The Unquiet Dead” and “The Crimson Horror.” Jeremy Dyson wrote a book about real-life British haunted houses that I really should get around to reading one day.)

So “The Harrowing” is probably the most inevitable episode of Inside No. 9. Indeed, if you’re a fan of the two and you know anything about the larger context of Pemberton and Shearsmith’s body of work, it’s probably the exact sort of episode you were hoping they would do.

If you were, you won’t be disappointed: “The Harrowing” is one of the show’s very best episodes so far, the perfect balance of funny and creepy, generating the exact sort of unease that makes the short hairs on your back stand on end. McCrory and Shearsmith are amazing; Edwards and Poppy Rush (as Katy’s BFF Shell) are very good as well, even if they don’t quite convince the audience that they’re really schoolgirls. That, along the absence of Pemberton (who sits this one out, much like Shearsmith did with “Last Gasp”) are the only flaws I can find with the episode.

It’s not quite as striking and bold as “A Quiet Night in,” which is why the earlier episode gets a 10 and this one gets a 9. But it’s a strong closing episode of a strong first series, and certainly whets the appetite for more. Which I’ll get to as soon as it makes its way across the pond.


Series 1 episode ranking

  1. “A Quiet Night In” (1.02)
  2. “The Harrowing” (1.06)
  3. “Tom and Gerri” (1.03)
  4. “Last Gasp” (1.04)
  5. Sardines” (1.01)
  6. “The Understudy” (1.05)

Next week: How’s this for a segue? If you follow Reece Shearsmith on Twitter, you know one of his favorite current shows is Hannibal. What better way to follow Inside No. 9 than with recaps of the third season?

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