Inside No. 9 is like no other show on television.
Sure, you will find some similarities with other anthology shows like The Twilight Zone or Tales of the Unexpected, and there are definite beats that horror classic Hammer House of Horror would be proud of, but Inside No. 9 remains uniquely its own beast.
Each week, Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton invite viewers to step inside their apartment, house, couchette or police car to serve up a story that defies genre pigeonholing. Going in cold, there is no way to tell if the boys have cooked up a kitchen sink drama, a terrifying horror piece or a silent movie homage, and no way to tell if the story will be content to stay within those confines.
Having made their name as part of iconic comedy troupe The League of Gentleman, their acting talent was honed while performing black-hearted characters both ghastly and oddly touching. Shearsmith and Pemberton were writing partners on the show, and it is a partnership that has struck gold time and time again when reuniting for shows like genre favourite Psychoville. While both have built up an amazing body of work on separate projects, it’s in their joint efforts that the true magic has happened.
Frustrated by not being offered the kind of roles that they craved, they decided to write those parts for themselves. Shearsmith and Pemberton share top billing in the show, performing as different characters from week to week in the most diverse and remarkable performances currently on show in British television. As the show’s success has grown, more and more top level British acting talent has been attracted to the series, eager to play a part in this remarkable world where every line of dialogue is carefully crafted.
Funny, heart-breaking, inspiring and more than occasionally terrifying, I present to you my top ten episodes of Inside No.9.
To Have and to Hold (series 4, episode 4)
“The picture on the box bears no resemblance to the actual jigsaw”
In this episode we are presented a marriage struggling under the weight of infidelity and financial hardships. The screen aches with a weary sadness as we watch Harriet (Nicola Walker, in terrific form) and Adrian (Steve Pemberton) struggle to find their way back to each other, an ocean of mistrust and desperation parting them as Adrian struggles to let a past indiscretion on his wife’s part go.
Only as the episode reaches its half-way point do we realise that what we are seeing is not at all what we are watching. The reveal of precisely what Adrian is hiding in his dark room is one of Inside No.9’s darkest reveals; Adrian is a very human monster, much worse than the demons and vampires that can be found in other episodes. At first the subject of our sympathies and understanding, Pemberton flips a switch deep inside that moves his performance from relatable to repulsive. To Have and to Hold works as a tragic exploration of a marriage on life support before morphing into a story blacker than tar and is perhaps one of the duo’s bleakest stories.
Love’s Great Adventure (series 5, episode 3)
“Got to look after family haven’t you?”
Or as some have rather infuriatingly dubbed it, ‘The One Without a Twist’.
Loves Great Adventure plays out through the opening of an advent calendar, each door opening onto a sliver of the lives of a loving, working class family in the North of England. That such a touching and beautiful story can be told in brief snippets, where there are no dark mysteries awaiting our characters, is a remarkable achievement from both Reece and Steve.
Steve’s central performance as hardworking Dad Trevor truly illustrates the depth of his acting talent, his every gesture and line painting a full picture of the man we are watching.
On first airing, fans of the show were left baffled that there was no grand rug-pull or sting in the tale (arguably there is, but the episode demands your full attention when laying out its story) but instead the kind of narrative that Mike Leigh might be proud to tell. A smart move from the creators, proving that a well told story is more important than the execution of a killer twist.
12 Days of Christine (series 2, episode 2)
“Goodbye Everyone. I Love You.”
Arguably the episode that brought Inside No. 9 the attention that it so richly deserved, 12 Days of Christine is an episode of television that after watching once will never leave you. Funny, heart-breaking and unnervingly creepy, the episode delivers a genuinely devastating punch in the gut in the seconds before the credits role.
Sheridan Smith has become something of a national treasure over the past ten years, and here produces an astounding performance that displays just about every emotional shade of the human condition in under thirty minutes.
While, as demonstrated in the previous entry, the twist is not everything in Inside No.9, it would be fair to say that the central mystery at the heart of this episode is what allows it to pack a punch and really rip the viewer to pieces upon the re-watch. If possible, go in blind and allow the Bocelli to just wash over you….
The Trial of Elizabeth Gadge (series 2, episode 3)
“There are those here who think you are an enchantress.”
In the village of Little Happens, the famous witchfinders Warren and Clarke have been summoned to try the eponymous Elizabeth Gadge for witchcraft. The only problem is, there seems to be a distinct lack of evidence and a powerful will to see her burn, if only to break up the monotony of the townsfolks lives.
You can almost see the glee burning behind the eyes of Pemberton and Shearsmith in this episode. Feeling like a lost Hammer Horror film, The Trial of Elizabeth Gadge manages to be both camp and spooky, allowing the leads to stretch their range whilst exploring the very real and evil lunacy that was Witchfinding.
Co-starring genre icon David Warner (a favourite actor of the gents, having also had him co-star in The League of Gentlemen: Apocalypse), the episode is chock full of terrific dialogue and wicked twists that again prove that the line between horror and comedy is paper thin.
Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room (series 4, episode 2)
“If you’re going to cry, cry tears of laughter!”
Dear reader, there are few episodes of television that are as close to my heart as Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room. Slightly too young to appreciate the comedy hey-day of duos like Eric and Ernie, Hale and Pace, The Two Ronnies and Cannon and Ball, my love for these type of comedy acts come from watching re-runs with my Dad as a kid.
Two old comedy partners, long separated, are drawn back together for one last performance. The two men are completely at odds with each other, their lives having turned out in drastically different ways and an air of resentment hanging between the two.
As we watch them rehearse their old routines, there is a real love and showmanship on display from Steve and Reece as they perform the type of routines that would be prime time entertainment in the 1980’s.
By the time we discover what really happened inside Bernie Clifton’s dressing room and why our hapless duo have been thrust back together, there is not a dry eye in the house (well, my house anyway).
The Riddle of the Sphinx (series 3, episode 3)
“Never show a gun in Act One if you aren’t going to fire it by Act Five. Otherwise people feel cheated.”
If ever there was any doubt of the genius on show from the boys, you need look no further than The Riddle of the Sphinx. For an episode that taught me everything I know about cryptic crosswords to end up touching on patricide and cannibalism is an astounding narrative leap, and to the half hour’s credit it all makes perfect sense.
Through meticulous plotting and clues wrapped in every double-edged sentence, Steve and Reece thread the nightmarish plot that unfolds through every frame of the half hour. The episode also contains one of my favourite Pemberton performances; at once scenery chewing and bombastic, we watch as his Professor Squires crumbles under the weight of his own intellectual and emotional hubris.
The terrific Alexandra Roach as the miraculously named Nina Noona is a delight, her ditsy performance disguising a cunning intellect laying just behind her eyes.
The Stakeout (series 5, episode 6)
“But my story, well, it’s as old as time itself.”
In their excellent accompanying podcast series ‘Inside Inside No.9’, the boys revealed that The Stakeout was hastily put together as a replacement episode, with the one they had originally written being just a little out with the series budget.
And boy am I glad they did.
A complete two-hander, Steve and Reece play two police officers on a nightly stakeout. Never leaving the confines of the car, the episode focusses on character and dialogue to the exclusion of all else, with both men rising to the occasion and delivering compelling and (mostly) human performances.
The Stakeout is an exercise in precise writing, where every single moment and line of dialogue is important. The second time I watched the episode I think I enjoyed it even more than the first, with that opening scene of Reece choking on his own blood taking on a new and spinetingling meaning.
It also provided the world with a new and amazing long journey car-game in the form of ‘Fortunately/Unfortunately’, at which my daughter may now be a world champion.
The Devil of Christmas (series 3, episode 1)
“Always a strange moment when you see them realise what’s going on.”
For the first few moments of this episode, you could be forgiven for thinking you had turned on the wrong show. A 1970’s style Tales of the Unexpected / Play for Today plays out, (right down to the stilted acting and wobbly sets) until suddenly a director’s commentary begins to play over proceedings.
Voiced by Derek Jacobi, the director regales us with stories of onset squabbles and production issues that plagued the filming of the ‘episode’ we are watching, all the while Steve and Reece get to act out the type of show that inspired Inside No.9 in the first place.
As a straight homage to 70’s anthology shows the episode works marvellously, and the director’s commentary gimmick is wonderfully well observed and on point.
But this is Inside No.9, and when the ugly truth of what is being presented to us unfolds in all its grimy glory, you’ll feel the need for a long shower and a stiff drink.
Diddle Diddle Dumpling (series 3, episode 5)
“One shoe off, and the other shoe on,
Diddle, diddle, dumpling, my son John”
Although this episode is rarely featured on ‘Best Of’ lists, Diddle Diddle Dumpling is my favourite half hour of the show.
An episode whose devastating power is more appreciated on each re-watch, it is the story is of a man called David (Reece Shearsmith) who finds a single size nine shoe outside his home. What begins as a funny and off kilter half hour about one man’s bizarre obsession with footwear, descends into an exploration of grief, humanity and barely repressed rage. Culminating in a disturbingly ambiguous ending that leaves the viewer heartbroken and horrified, Reece’s final monologue is devastating.
The staging of every item on display in the house proves to be just as important to unlocking the episodes secrets as the barely hinted at tragedy that hangs high over proceedings. Regular Inside No.9 director Guillem Morales produces beautiful work every week, but the restrained duplicity of all on show in this episode is particularly terrific.
Reece Shearsmith is a marvel in this episode, giving a nuanced and captivating performance of a man utterly lost to grief, forever tormented by his own inability to move on as the rest of the world has around him. Guest star Keeley Hawes is terrific in playing Louise, desperately trying to wrestle her husband back from the precipice before he is truly lost forever.
That BAFTA’s haven’t been thrown at Reece for this episode is beyond me; it is a truly mesmerising and enthralling performance.
Cold Comfort (series 2, episode 4)
“So come on
See the light on your face
Let it shine, just let it shine
Let it shine,”
In this day in age, many of us have had experience working in various call centres up and down the land. Told entirely through the CCTV cameras in one such call centre, Steve plays a man named Andy who has just started as a volunteer at the Comfort Support Line. Reece plays his amiable but frustrated manager George, struggling to keep the more stubborn employee’s in line.
Ostensibly a Samaritan-alike service, Andy listens to calls of troubled souls looking for help or a friendly ear when things are at their darkest. After having to listen to the death of 16 year-old Chloe over the phone, Andy struggles to continue. Only, when Chloe calls back a few days later, Andy begins to understand that all is not as it seems.
Featuring one of THE great endings in recent television history, Cold Comfort is an episode that crawls under your skin and leaves you feeling ill in its aftermath. Relatable, funny (featuring an almost unrecognisable Jane Horrocks) and genuinely chilling, it is the type of episode that benefits from having no idea where it is taking the viewer.
And as with most Inside No.9 episodes, the journey is just as enjoyable as the destination.
Dead Line (2018 Halloween Special)
“Let Us Be…”
No list would be complete without a discussion of the unsettling and creative Dead Line, an episode that rather amazingly managed to pull a ‘Ghostwatch’ in the 21st Century.
A live episode that aired just before Halloween in 2018, we watch what looks to be a traditional Inside No.9 tale unfold about a haunted mobile phone found in a graveyard. Only, within minutes of beginning, the sound drops out of the live feed, causing the BBC Breakdown card to appear on the screen while they try and fix the technical gremlins. After another false start, the announcer tells us that the episode will be screened at a later date and proceed to play a re-run of an older episode A Quiet Night In (yes I know, that should be on this list).
And that’s when all hell really does break loose.
To say more would be to deprive the viewer of an experience that truly deserves to be explored with as little knowledge as possible. Watching it live on 28th October 2018 felt like being a part of something truly special, something dangerous and exciting that was pushing the boundaries of what live television could be.
That even now, in 2021 people are still being fooled by what it’s doing (check out the angry reviews online about the ‘broken episode’) is a testament to the care, love and genius that Reece and Steve are pouring into every episode of the best show on television.
So there we have it folks, the list of my favourite ten episodes of Inside No.9. By no means definitive or exhaustive (how the hell did The Harrowing or A Quiet Night In not make it on here?!?), I could really have fit in all thirty-two rather than the ten I selected.
What’s that? There’s more than ten in there?
Well, if the boys can have a sneaky and unexpected ending in every episode, I should surely be allowed one in my article too…
By Hugh McStay
Series six of Inside No.9 begins Monday May 10 at 9.30pm on BBC Two and BBC iPlayer.
Want to join one of the fastest-growing communities of UK indie horror fans and creators for FREE? Now you can!