Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton play with our expectations in a bold and chilling experiment for the series.
Inside No. 9 has never been against experimenting with its format. We’ve had an episode filmed on 1970s cameras, and another told in reverse chronology. One episode has played out in almost complete silence, and another paid tribute to Shakespearean comedies with a script written in iambic pentameter. For this special Halloween episode, Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton take on their most audacious risk yet: a live episode. Did the risk pay off?
No. No it did not. The narrative presented to us seemed fine, if a little derivative. Unfortunately, the BBC messed up terribly, and the audio cut out after about five minutes, leading them to cancel the entire episode. Unbelievable. Still at least they were kind enough to put on ‘A Quiet Night In’ instead, one of the show’s best episodes. Just as I remembered it: Denis Lawson puts on some music and sits down to eat his soup. Behind him, a pair of hapless burglars accidentally set off the security lights and…wait. What’s happening to the music? And who’s that mysterious figure in white at the back of the garden?
Yep, those geniuses have done it again. The technical glitches, the altered transmission of the earlier episode, the continuity announcements; they were all part of the episode. Instead of a typical episode of Inside No. 9, we were treated to sinister ghosts haunting the studio, accompanied by flashes of a Ghostwatch-style programme, and Reece (I’ll use their first names to refer to the “real” them we see in the episode) actually tweeting in real time. Kudos to the two of them for turning a seemingly ordinary story into an incredibly meta fourth-wall breaking ghost story, ably assisted by Barbara Wiltshire’s impeccable direction.
The show has frequently taken leaps into creepy territory, but this episode is arguably the first of the entire show that can be firmly classified as a horror story. ‘Dead Line’ ultimately ends up being the perfect episode to watch on Halloween, and it’s actually a missed opportunity that this didn’t go live on Halloween night. In fact, the script brilliantly makes note of this, with Reece complaining that they couldn’t go live on Halloween due to “the bloody Apprentice!” As per the norm, the script is impeccably written, with plenty of witty lines of dialogue, such as guest star Stephanie Cole making a somewhat self-deprecatory remark about the show (“it’s a BBC Two sort of comedy thing”) to a Reece admitting to Steve that he didn’t know what happened to BBC Three as “I’ve got no interest in television have I?” They even manage to sneak in a little reference to fellow British anthology series Black Mirror, which I very much appreciated. Of course, these lines were all just there to distract us from the horror of the narrative, as the cast slowly get themselves killed off thanks to the influence of the ghosts – even the continuity announcer gets the axe. Given that the script does its best to depict the “real” Reece and Steve, it makes for quite disconcerting viewing.
However, ‘Dead Line’ is not a perfect episode. Whereas most episodes have hidden layers that require a second viewing to really see, beyond the initial twist of the format, there’s not much to really unearth about this episode. Also, unless you actually watched the episode live, the format itself doesn’t fully work, since you won’t be able to experience the episode properly. You could argue that this makes the episode more of an event, which is all well and good, but I would have liked a little extra twist that would give me just cause to revisit it. I’m not saying that every episode needs a twist – some get on fine enough without one (‘A Quiet Night In’), while others are actively hindered by their twists (‘The Bill’) – but it does leave this episode without any real distinction for future viewings.
Despite this, ‘Dead Line’ is a solid entry in the series overall. Even if it probably won’t hold up on repeat viewings, it makes for a sublime creepy tale, and a delightful Halloween prank. If anything, it’s proof that Shearsmith and Pemberton are not losing their edge when it comes to crafting interesting new formats to present their stories in. All that I can say now is that I cannot wait for Series 5, and…
Did you hear that?
Is someone there?
Leave us be
All episodes of Inside No. 9 are available now on BBC iPlayer