After a tease at Christmas with a spectacular episode, Inside No. 9 is returning to BBC Two for the rest of series three, so I caught up with writers, creators, actors (and my personal comedy heroes) Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith to find out more.
With ambitious production values and screenplays that tell original stories in ways which most sitcom and drama series do not attempt, the third series of Inside No. 9 will continue to celebrate the craft of the stand-alone comedy drama.
The anthology format continues as before, each film being set in a different location, the style and tone changing each week, combining a different mix of horror, thriller, drama and comedy, always aiming to surprise, delight, unnerve and amuse in equal measure.
New settings for the series include a restaurant after closing time, an art gallery, a karaoke booth and even the doors of some very ordinary-seeming houses reveal some of the best and most intriguing stories because once you’re inside number nine, anything can happen.
Here’s what Steve and Reece had to say about the new series when I caught up with them earlier this week:
The third series actually started with the Christmas special didn’t it?
Steve Pemberton: Yes it did. It was not meant to, but we pulled that one out because we knew that the transmission had been delayed so that was a nice bridging episode, and we’ve got five more starting on Tuesday night.
And were you pleased with the overwhelmingly positive reaction it received?
SP: Yes, we were very pleased. We knew it was a very special episode and very different to all the other things that we’d done and people, I think, really appreciated the attention to detail in trying to recapture the television of our youth. It had an amazing reaction and we’re always blown away by how people appreciate the stuff that we do.
What can we expect from the rest of the series then?
Reece Shearsmith: Five more different stories. Hopefully that will intrigue and pull people in. We’ve really tried to shake up the styles and the genres. There are more psychological ones this time around. They’re all quite dark, it’s a particularly dark series across the board I think.
There are some lighter episodes that have got a very different tone to them. We’ve got one that’s set in a karaoke booth that’s almost a musical – it’s nearly all sung through! That feels very different to the rest of them and then we’ve got a psychological one with Keeley Hawes and Mat Baynton. It’s a story about this man that becomes fascinated by this lone shoe that he finds outside of his house.
So lots of different stories, hopefully all good. People will be surprised by some of the endings hopefully – there are always twists in the tale, but every story keeps you hooked right to the last minute.
That’s what I love about watching Inside No. 9, it’s trying to guess the ending. Do you start with the ending or do you reach the end naturally?
SP: Usually we get there naturally. Sometimes we will debate beforehand. And sometimes we will think we know where we’re going and then change it halfway through if we think it’s too obvious.
We’re very aware now that people are on the lookout for these twists, and we’ve accepted that people will always try and second guess us, so it’s this sort of cat and mouse game. We’re aware of that. We can see where we think people will think it’s going and then take them in a different direction.
But that’s not all we think about. We think about it being a really entertaining half hour and a self-contained story. So the beginning and the middle are as important as the end.
Do you sometimes wish you had more than half an hour? Or an extra episode to explore these characters further?
RS: You could argue that. But that’s not what this programme is. It is what it is. They’re little plays for todays and each one is its own self contained story and one of the things you can do by concluding in half an hour is get to great extremes.
With a sitcom or something that is ongoing, you often have to default set for the next time around because it has to carry on. People can die in these episodes and there’s no consequence. It’s got heightened drama which is able to go off in places that perhaps you couldn’t go if you’ve got to come back next week.
That’s its own freedom in a way, but they’re constricting as well because you’ve got to think of a story. Suddenly we’re thinking of six different scenarios for one series, where if it was one series on one thing, you’d just think of one set of characters and have six half hours with them.
So it’s a lot of material, a lot of invention, that we’re using up in a whole series of Inside No. 9 – it’s like doing six pilots!
SP: We’re condensing an entire career which could be spanning forty years and condensing it into 24 episodes.
You mention 24 episodes there, Inside No. 9 has been commissioned for a fourth series. Where are you continuing to draw your inspiration from?
SP: Sometimes we’ll go back to ideas that we kicked around for previous series and didn’t quite settle on. Other times we’ll just sit down with a blank piece of paper and go “Right. We could literally do anything” – and that’s the hardest.
You’ve got to have something that kicks you off. You’ve got to have some nuggets of inspiration and maybe, if you’re lucky, something will happen to you. As was the case with the shoe episode that Reece was talking about where we did see a shoe on the way to work. As was the case with the bill episode, where we were in a restaurant and there were people arguing about the bill.
Those ideas presented themselves to us and we were grateful for them. Other times we just have to hue them out like sculptors with a big block of marble in the office. How do we turn that into half an hour of Inside No. 9?
They’re all completely different and that’s the joy of it.
Are there any places you’ve wanted to write an episode of Inside No. 9 for but just couldn’t get right?
RS: No, I mean there are some we’ve started where it’s been a real struggle and we’ve given up thinking we’re just not quite convinced by it.
We talk a lot before we write so that doesn’t happen. You can get stuck if you don’t know where you’re going, but if you talk through your thoughts and you’ve got the idea or the story right, you can bypass feeling like you’ve hit block because you know what the intention is.
SP: Mostly, we’re very sure of what we want to do before we do it, so that we don’t get stuck and discard it.
Inside No. 9 always attracts such great guest stars. Do you write with these names in mind?
SP: We’ve learnt not to actually have actors in mind because you have no idea who’s going to be available. We start the casting process maybe a month before we start filming.
We talk about lots of different people for each part, and then half of them immediately will be off the list because they’re not available. Unless you know someone personally and say to them “You’re going to be in the next series” – but we’ve never actually done that.
We wait to see who’s free but we’re so blessed in this country that we’ve got so many brilliant actors and actresses to choose from. We’ve never felt we’ve had to compromise. We’ve always had some brilliant people in.
Sometimes, someone will just come up with a name that’s left field, Felicity Kendal in this series being an example. We went “Oh yeah. That would be interesting.” Fiona Shaw, another great example. Not someone who you’d expect to find in an Inside No. 9 but we’re very open to suggestions, and lots of actors want to do it!
It’s a nice job for them. It’s only a week and they can fit it in usually.
Throughout all your work, you don’t repeat any guest stars. Is that deliberate?
RS: The only person we’ve had back is Jason Watkins who was in Psychoville and then we broke our rule and had him in Inside No. 9 because he’s so good.
We generally try to keep new people coming in to preserve that idea that they’re different worlds and there isn’t a repetition. Steve and I are the only repeating people in them I guess. That’s maybe why we do it.
SP: We could have, at the beginning, set up a rep company of 12/15 actors and said all our stories would be cast from this pool. That would have been a really interesting thing to do – but we didn’t do that!
It’s great for us to get to work with so many different people, people like David Warner and Felicity Kendal and get younger talent involved as well. We’ve got Ellie White in the first episode of the new series. We worked with a sketch group called Gein’s Family Giftshop in the seconds series – so were always looking at working with as many people as possible. It keeps us sane!
Anyone you’ve not had on Inside No. 9 yet, who you’d love to work with?
SP: Mark Gatiss. I don’t know how we’d get to him! (Laughs) No – I mean, there’s people like Julie Walters, Ian McKellen – any of the sirs or the dames wed love to have on board. But we don’t get hung up on individual names like I say, because you have no idea who’s going to free.
We’ve always managed to get a fantastic array of talent and this series is testament to that.
Is there an episode in the new series which you’re particularly proud of that we should look out for?
RS: It’s hard isn’t it? They’re all good in different ways, that’s sort of the nature of it. I think the karaoke one is an unusual episode. It doesn’t feel like any of the others. I mean none of them feel like each other, but that one in particular is a sort of singular bit of television, just because it’s unusual in the way it’s executed.
I really like the one where Steve plays this professor in Cambridge and it’s all about cryptic crosswords. And the one with the shoe is great as well! Each week you write and go “Oh yeah, this is my favourite” – it’s hard. It’s like choosing which twin to take out of a burning building.
A Quiet Night In remains one of my favourite ever episodes of Inside No. 9, would you ever do another silent episode?
SP: We wouldn’t do it in the same way certainly. It was really instructive to us to see that you could get so much non-verbal comedy out there. We could certainly imagine sequences which are not dialogue driven, but I think delivering another half hour silent comedy? We’ve done that now.
The irony would be that if we did, we’d be accused of running out of ideas!
You directed a few episodes last series. Have you done the same for series three?
RS: No we didn’t this time around. We felt we were in them far too much. It was quite daunting last time to be in them and direct them, so we thought, let’s just concentrate on one thing. It was enjoyable but we’re happy to let someone else keep the outside eye.
Looking ahead at series four, is it true that the series as a whole will have a lighter tone?
SP: I would say as a general rule. Having seen the Christmas special, which you have, which had such a shocking, nasty ending – and we love surprising audiences like that – but we just thought, wouldn’t it now be boring and typical of us to keep doing that?
So some of the episodes have a much lighter air in series four, but just when you’re not expecting it we’ll hit you again with another whammy. We just want to keep on not repeating ourselves, keep on surprising audiences and keep them coming back because they’re intrigued by what they’re going to get.
There’s the 20-year radio anniversary of The League of Gentlemen this year and the 20-year telly anniversary in 2019 – are you hoping to do something to mark the occasion?
RS: Well… I think we’ve talked about it for the last five years that we would need to clear the decks and do something to mark the around twenty years anniversary, and that’s still on the cards. It’s just us getting proper time and deciding when to do it and making it a priority rather than knocking it away because something else comes.
SP: We can’t organise meeting for dinner, never mind meeting to do anything else. Maybe that would be a start. We’d meet for dinner first and take it from there.
And finally, what about Psychoville? Would you ever return to that?
SP: Well from our point of view, we didn’t necessarily think it was done and dusted but I think it probably is. There wasn’t a huge appetite from the channel, but if they came and asked us, then who knows? It was a brilliant series to work on but we’re just loving doing these Inside No. 9’s now, because each week we can go wherever we want and do whatever we want.
We’ve been incredibly lucky with the team we’ve got at the BBC – they keep us creative and allow us to do these mad things. We’ve never had any censorship. So whilst we’re in this position and making these shows then why would we want to do anything else really? It’s fantastic.
Inside No. 9 returns Tuesday 21st February at 10pm on BBC Two