Inside No. 9: Steve Pemberton And Reece Shearsmith On The New Series Of Their Twisted Anthology Show
Inside No.9 is one of the UK’s best TV shows and probably the best thing on the BBC. It’s got everything a great show needs: inventive storytelling; compelling characters; and a deliciously dark sense of humour… plus the main characters sometimes turn out to be vampires, so what’s not to love!
Born from the minds of Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, Inside No. 9 is a twisted anthology series – in the proud tradition of Tales of the Unexpected and The Twilight Zone – in which the cast, genre, and setting changes every episode. The only thing linking them? The number nine.
Like Steve and Reece’s previous work – The League of Gentlemen and Psychoville – Inside No. 9 is a wonderful blend of the pedestrian and the profane, with a delightful streak of black humour running through the centre of it. It’s one of those shows that once you watch, I promise it’s all you’ll be talking about.
Ahead of the show’s sixth series, we were lucky enough to sit sat down with Steve and Reece (over Zoom – social distancing and all that) to ask them about how they’re still surprising audiences, their trademark dark humour, and how they’ve evolved as comedians and entertainers since the ’90s.
UNILAD: So Inside No. 9 is back for series six? That’s an incredible achievement – when you first sat down to write series one, all the way back in 2014, did you expect to still be here six years later?
Reece: No, not even alive [laughs]. It’s extraordinary. You never know when you do a thing whether it’s got legs or if it’ll get to a second series! You know, you write it and you hope it will do well, and you’re proud of it, but you can’t be responsible for how people take it.
So, yeah, it’s amazing that they’ve kept recommissioning it. I mean, I think that it’s obviously to do with the fact that it resets and each week’s a new thing. It might not have gone as far as if we’d have been telling one story, but the fact that every week has a new bite of some of the weird moments in time is a great device. Now we didn’t think of that. There’s been a long history of anthology shows that have done very well, and we wanted to tap back into that, and it’s served us very well.
We’re really delighted. And I think a lot of people have moved on, you know – television has suddenly got a lot more anthology shows than there were a few years back. When we were doing Psychoville, the last thing that they would have wanted was stories that began and ended in the same week. The received wisdom was that you write something that hooks people in and you keep your audience in there, growing desperate to know what happens next to your characters. And this was the opposite – this was just getting to tell a really good story, and the next week [being] totally different again. But me and Steve write them all, and we’re in them. So I think totally there is a sensibility across them that is ‘us’, and that’s probably the thing that binds it, even though each week we do something very different.
UNILAD: Inside No. 9 frequently gets compared with shows like Black Mirror or Tales of the Unexpected. How do you guys approach writing these episodes? Do you have an initial idea, like vampires meet policeman and go from there?
Steve Pemberton: Well, I think the truth is that there’s not one way to do it. Sometimes you come up with a particular ending that you’re working towards. Other times you just come up with a beginning and it feels like a very resonant world that you want to spend time in, but you’re not sure where it’s going to go, or how it’s going to end.
I think for both of us, we just have to feel like there’s enough meat on the bone in terms of the idea, and that we’ll be able to get a really good, satisfying 30 minutes out of it. Some of the episodes, for example, like The Bill, we sat in a restaurant, just people paying the bill, we’d experienced this, we’d seen it, in a restaurant in Muswell Hill where we live. And we started writing it, we had no clue that he was going to end up being a con. And then the last few minutes would go in the direction that they did.
So things can develop as you’re writing them. And in the case of, like, The Stakeout, which you mentioned that was two separate ideas, we said, let’s do something about a stakeout, and I had a separate idea, which was a hidden vampire story where the fact that it’s a vampire is your reveal at the end. So putting those two things together was great. It’s a way of being able to surprise yourself. And if you’re surprising yourself as a writer, then hopefully you’re going to surprise the audience as well.
UNILAD: You mentioned the reveal there; the show’s obviously known for its twists at this point, how do they work? Do have the idea of the twist early on and that’s something you want to work towards? How much pressure do you feel under to get the twists right?
Reece Shearsmith: I don’t like that it’s being reduced to just being a program about twists, because, you know, there’s 28 minutes of storytelling and then there might be a surprise at the end. So it’s not a twist series, first thing, and we don’t want it to only stand or fall on ‘I’m just watching this, but I want to wait for this brilliant twist’, because otherwise, what have I been watching? So it sort of does a disservice to think that they’re only about the twists.
It has become difficult now though [because] people are expecting this ‘game’, so we’ve got the weight of expectation on our shoulders, especially with season six, because no one is watching these six like a new piece of television. They’re watching them with 36 other stories in their mind that they’ve really enjoyed or not enjoyed.
So we’ve done it to ourselves. The bar is really high. People want to be amazed and have their jaws dropped every time they watch Inside No. 9, we know that we’ve got it in our minds, but I think sometimes we have been guilty of maybe fear of falling into the trap of thinking everything has to have a brilliant twist, and I think then we would fall apart because you can’t always deliver that and it might not serve the story. So there are surprises in this series, and of course, it is one of the things about this series that people enjoy, but I think it’s more telling a story in a way that is just engaging and keeps you hooked.
It’s really hard to do a lot of storytelling in the amount of time we’ve got – most television is three hours of something before anything gets going! I marvel now when I watch things at how much we can cram into these things – they’ve got all the time in the world to eke out tales, but it’s left me very impatient with most television because I think, ‘you don’t need that scene’. We have to pare down as we’ve only got 28 minutes 30 seconds to do it, and that’s its own challenge. And then try to do something where you are now within the game that we’re playing with an audience going in expecting it, I suppose I’m still trying to maintain the quality.
And also now for us not feel that we’ve done it already in a different way – you know, we often think this is a good idea, but is it not just another story wrapped up in a different way, and that we’ve really done it already. And I think people could see it. People are very sophisticated about television, and fans of [Inside No.9] know backwards; they would say, this is just like Nana’s Party again – they’ve got such a back catalog of having it all in their heads, and that’s great because they care, but it makes it harder to work for us, but we wouldn’t want to disappoint.
UNILAD: I don’t want to reduce Inside No. 9 to just being about the twist or a horror anthology series because I think it is much bigger than that, but it’s definitely horror-inflected, and that was what drew me into the series in the beginning. Is it difficult as writers to balance those surreal elements and darker themes with the jokes and the lighter moments?
Reece Shearsmith: I think it is, yes. I mean, it’s difficult. We’ll be able to write it, and then one of the last things about coming up with a story, and indeed writing the script, is we’ve got the nuts and bolts of what has to happen plot-wise now, why is it funny? What’s the funny thing about it?
So it’s almost the last thing in the mix that you’ve got to, and often that will come with the type of character that’s driving the story, and then maybe they’ve got a funny trait, or there’s something inherently amusing about them, but increasingly we don’t get hung up on that anymore.More people know what this is now, and it’s just hopefully good, solid, storytelling. And sometimes, you know, we’ve let ourselves off the hook.
You know the episode Love’s Great Adventure? That was not particularly funny, but it was really funny because it was human nature and people in real life saying funny things, but it wasn’t written like a scripted sitcom comedy. So there are totally sometimes different ways of making people laugh. We did that Wuthering Heist one, which is very slapsticky and it’s very self-aware, and then we’ve got other ones that are much darker in tone, but are deeply funny to us, but actually probably really uncomfortable as well. So I guess it’s what your threshold is of what makes you laugh. And, you know, some people really laugh at dark, dark humor, and other people think, ‘I don’t want to be laughing at that. That’s horrible’. So we leaned in towards more uncomfortable places that are deeply funny, but also possibly quite alarming as well. And the tension is what makes us think it’s good television.
UNILAD: Yeah, something that I’ve always found very interesting, especially if we look back on The League of Gentlemen days where you guys weren’t afraid to walk that line of taste and decency, you know, some people may have argued it was crossed occasionally. How do you guys think you’ve evolved as comedians and entertainers? Do you think you’ve matured, or do you think you’re less self-conscious these days about offending people?
Steve Pemberton: Well, I think as individuals, you change as you get older, but also the world changes around you as well, and so you’ve got to acknowledge that. So when we’re writing Inside No. 9, we’re not in the same headspace we were in when we were writing The League of Gentlemen at all.
I think we’re better writers now. When we were young, we grew up through the eighties where we were seeing lots of terrible comedy, it was all about terrible variety shows. You got occasional things like The Young Ones or Not The Nine O’Clock News, but it was mainly very stilted set-based sitcoms. So as a young group of comics, I suppose we were fighting against that. We were punching against that to do our style of humor.
Obviously, through the nineties and noughties, that’s become the norm. Now the sort of traditional sitcom has almost died out and I regret that, but in answer to your question, we never sat around thinking, I know what will shock people. In terms of The League of Gentlemen, it was just what makes us laugh. I think we’re drawn, as Reece said, to things perhaps that you shouldn’t laugh at – I think that’s human nature.
It’s sort of people laughing in awkward situations, people laugh at funerals because they don’t know what to do, and the laughter is a release. We’ve all enjoyed playing with that line between horror and comedy, and social awkwardness and comedy. But I think with Inside No. 9, we don’t feel like I’ve got anything to prove anymore. We just try and make each other laugh, or we try and come up with a story that will surprise and engage an audience. And in this age of so much television to really engage in surprise, your audience has got to be the ultimate goal.
UNILAD: Something that’s really impressed me about Inside No. 9 in general is the sheer ambition you guys have when you approach these formats. I think of something like The Devil of Christmas, which you think is a DVD commentary, you’ve got Zanzibar, which is in iambic pentameter. You even have a storyline running through your commentaries! Is there any format or framing device that you’ve really wanted to use, but you’ve just not been able to work out?
Steve Pemberton: I think the one that I would still love to do is a full musical. We did the karaoke episode, and that was a semi-musical because the songs were driving the narrative. We do have an episode in this new series called Last Night At The Proms, which takes the music from all the famous Last Night At The Proms and that music drives the narrative, but to do a full sung-through musical because of the amount of recording you have to do, and the composition – we just couldn’t afford it. So that remains an ambition, which, who knows if we’ll get there or not. And I’m saying that, I can’t sing a note. I mean, I’m like a caterwauling, tone-deaf, terrible karaoke singer, but I would love the surprise of that… but now I’ve said it, it wouldn’t be a surprise, so we probably won’t do it.
Reece Shearsmith: No, that’s gone.
Steve Pemberton: That’s gone because you asked! [Laughs]
UNILAD: You guys pulled off one of the most ambitious pieces of television I’ve ever seen with the Halloween special. All my life, I wanted to watch Ghostwatch live, and that this is the closest I’ve ever got to experience it! Would you like to do something like that again? Or is it a case of you don’t want to go back and repeat yourselves?
Reece Shearsmith: Well, it depends what you mean? Do a live one again? You know, we’d never get that moment in time. When we were promoting it coming up, I was desperately telling everyone I could to watch it live on the night because that was the time to see it, when it was the most potent, because it was working. It was in the moment, it was very interactive, and it felt great to pull it off, but you couldn’t do it now because you’d immediately get people [saying] ‘Oh, they’ve run out of ideas.’
So you wouldn’t want to go back and unravel the good work of that one, but if you thought of another reason to do it. The thing that suddenly tickled us about doing a live one – because we were quite resistant to doing it – was the thought that you could play with it going wrong; that was when it became exciting. So it just depends on what it was. If you get that idea, there’ll be reasons to go back and do it, but you’d have to not feel like we were repeating ourselves or it would somehow dilute it.
UNILAD: Would you ever think about taking Inside No. 9 on a theatre tour or something like that? Because it seems like something that could work quite well on stage. Just the two of you. I mean, like that Psychoville ‘Rope episode’, that seems like something that could be adapted really easily to the stage.
Steve Pemberton: Yeah. I mean, that’s the beauty of doing these kinds of one-set, small-cast plays, and it’s something we have talked about for sure – the problem is they keep recommissioning it for television [laughs]. So we haven’t had the time, but we love live performance, we came from live performance, The League of Gentlemen came from live performance. So you know, it’s something that’s on our radar to do, but with production schedules being what they are, and with what’s happened in the past 12 months, it’s not something we’re actively talking about, but we’d love to one day.
UNILAD: We saw in the last season, a crossover between Psychoville and Inside No. 9, which again, blew my socks off. Um, would you ever consider someone from Royston Vasey perhaps making an appearance in Inside No. 9, or are those worlds too disparate?
Reece Shearsmith: I mean, there is a world where you connect them all up and they’re all in the same universe somehow, which is nice for us to think of. But I feel like it might be a bit predictable maybe, or somehow you would just feel like it wouldn’t be as new an idea because we’ve returned to our other work via this route before. And you might feel that they can’t think of anything. So they’re having to think back in the old box – the last thing we ever want to be accused of is that we’re treading water already, or that we’re getting thin on the ground as far as having to think of things. So we’re always trying to never be accused of that, and that you might feel like you’ve, you’ve done it already.
UNILAD: It’s not a huge pressure. Then when you’re writing these episodes, it’s like, you might have a novel concept that you really like the idea of, but you’re like, oh, this is a bit close to The 12 Days of Christine or something like that.
Reece Shearsmith: Yeah, I’ve had that thought.
Steve Pemberton: Yeah. We know what it’s like to be a fan of something, so we don’t want to get that feeling of, this is lost it now, it’s not as good as it used to be. We’re so hyper-conscious of that. Then that drives us to work really hard. And so far, I think we’ve managed to keep doing fresh things, and we really hope people will love what we’ve done is with series six and then, going forward, series seven. So we’re very, very, very lucky boys.
Series 6 of Inside No. 9 will premiere on BBC Two and BBC iPlayer on Monday, May 10 at 9.30pm.
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