Features Published 20 March 2014

Going Inside No. 9

Duncan Gates on how Reece Shearsmith, Steve Pemberton's Inside No. 9 brought theatre to primetime TV (or at least made it more interesting).
Duncan Gates

‘Look up, people! This is theatre, happening now, in front of you!’ Tony Warner, The Understudy

There is a tendency for theatre to get very protective of its offspring. A critic I know recently greeted the news of an impending Conor McPherson TV series with an impassioned plea for theatre not to ‘lose him’. Similarly, new plays by Dennis Kelly or Abi Morgan are met with as much sighs of relief as genuine, honest-to-goodness interest.

I’ve always found this weird because I can’t imagine TV or film execs fretting over whatever it is they fret over (cocaine, right? Film-and-TV is ALL ABOUT cocaine) about celebrated dramatists going back to stagecraft. Surely it’s just, you know, some work?

Some people, however, have managed the transition without theatre batting an eye. Having trained in acting, they created their own theatre shows, before moving into radio, TV and film, and then stayed there happily and successfully for many years, before bringing us one of the most theatre-inspired TV shows I’ve seen in recent years.

I’m talking about Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton, and Inside No. 9.

The reason I’m focussing on this specific show is that it’s stylistically different to anything they’ve done before. League of Gentlemen (co-written, of course, with Mark Gatiss and Jeremy Ghost Stories Dyson) and Psychoville were undoubtedly TV shows, with series arcs, tight, multiple scenes and stacks of locations. The League in particular probably owes more as a series to the radio show than the stage version.

Naturally, the outstanding Pam Doove and Legz Akimbo were some of the best-observed swipes at ‘the biz’ that TV has yet seen, and Psychoville’s fourth episode was directly inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (itself based on Patrick Hamilton’s play), so the influence of theatre in their work is evident in a way that simply doesn’t exist in TV on the whole. Even Dennis Kelly’s Utopia, the last heavily-feted TV work by a playwright, couldn’t easily be reimagined for stage.

Watching Inside No. 9, however, it dawned on me that this sort of short-form TV is theatre-by-any-other-name, and that Shearsmith and Pemberton have probably put more theatre-oriented writing on TV than anything I’ve seen in years. Maybe the reason it felt so different and original and interesting is because it was essentially theatre via a different medium.

Guys – we don’t have to be jealous. Stage writing has been on primetime BBC and blown everyone’s minds.

Here’s how I think they did it (SPOILERS AHOY FOR BASICALLY EVERYTHING):

Sardines

…is Festen. In a wardrobe. In a lean, nimble half-hour. This is EXACTLY what you write on the fringe when you have a big ensemble cast, no budget for a set and are awesome at writing. If you can make a mock-wardrobe, a bed and a couple of doors you can perform Sardines anywhere (indeed all six episodes are essentially fixed-space, single-set plays – fringe theatre FTW) And they put it on TV, just as it is, subtext oozing deliciously out of the screen. There’s even a music-hall number in it, for goodness sake.

A Quiet Night In

..is Art – only without the words and with more crime. Having appeared in Yasmina Reza’s play with Mark Gatiss in October 2002, Shearsmith and Pemberton seem to have retained the basic set-up – including, it would seem, a very similar-looking minimalist set and indeed piece of art itself – and added the trappings of classic physical farce (impeded sightlines, hiding places, superb comic timing, etc) that the forced perspective of TV usually doesn’t think to accommodate.

Tom & Gerri

…is being written by Conor McPherson in a parallel dimension. On the surface this looks like a classic ‘middle-class-home-invader’ scenario that Dominic Cooke might have programmed into the Royal Court Upstairs. If you’re me, however, it takes a turn for the considerably-more-interesting as the grieving Tom unravels psychologically and stops being able to tell reality from fantasy, isolating himself from society like any number of McPherson protagonists, from The Weir to The Night Alive – and the ending has definite shades of Shining City. It’s also notable for referring to ‘…the kind of shit they tour around old people’s homes’, as well as a super-rare (and equally uncomplimentary) primetime TV mention for pub theatre.

The Last Gasp

…is an Ayckbourn playlet. It’s all there – the closeness of death, the grasping bourgeois absurdity, the awful washed-out colours and people. If Shearsmith and Katherine Parkinson had wandered in from the 2012 West End production of Absent Friends, then I wouldn’t have been surprised. It could even pass for Mike Leigh after he’s had a few shandies.

The Understudy

…is Macbeth in a fixed space. Obviously. But the beauty isn’t in the obvious here. It’s not in the cathartic first five minutes which outlines EVERY INFURIATING THING EVERY NON-ACTOR HAS EVER SAID TO AN ACTOR ABOUT ACTING. It’s in the fiendishly simple way in which incrementally greater amounts of fame and success affect even small egos. It’s in the equally well-observed finer details of company management procedures and obsession with being cast at the Donmar (referenced more often than I’ve ever heard outside of an arts report) that feel specific enough to be addressed TO the industry about the shit-ness of the industry. It’s downbeat, but oddly cheering in feeling like a genuine outsider’s take.

The Harrowing

…is Ghost Stories – if Ghost Stories were any good. In fairness, this one is hard, since it’s mainly a wild ride through as many horror movie and TV references as can subtly be delivered in half an hour (Mark Gatiss, please note ‘subtly’). However, it’s a splendidly-constructed shocker, with the sort of progressively tactile climax that Dyson’s West End cousin could easily put onstage and ought to be artistically capable of. It did remind me, though, that there needs to be a stage version of James Whale’s The Old Dark House pretty soon.

Review: Absent Friends, starring Reece Shearsmith

Our writers debate the merits of Peter Capaldi’s Doctor Who

Review: The Day of the Doctor

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Duncan Gates

Duncan trained on the Royal Court Young Writer’s Programme, at the West Yorkshire Playhouse and under Stephen Jeffreys at RADA. He's been longlisted for the Bruntwood Prize (2013), the Verity Bargate Award (2013), Channel 4/Touchpaper TV's Coming Up scheme (2014) and the Old Vic New Voices TS Eliot Commissions (2014). He's had plays on all over the shop. In an ideal world he'd be an anthropomorphic bird who solves supernatural crimes.

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