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TV review: Inside No. 9

28 June 2024

BBC Studios/James Stack

Kenny (Steve Pemberton) and Sheila (Dorothy Atkinson) in Inside No. 9, the BBC sitcom which ended on 12 June

Kenny (Steve Pemberton) and Sheila (Dorothy Atkinson) in Inside No. 9, the BBC sitcom which ended on 12 June

WHERE do you draw the boundary, set the limits? Showbiz, comedy, drama, art — all have their recognised types and genres, all have conventional areas of expression, all have established ranges of artifice, and all, potentially, can collapse if they stray too far into territory proper to another’s category.

The final episode of Steve Pemberton’s and Reece Shearsmith’s Inside No. 9 — the very last of nine series of 30-minute comedy dramas (BBC2, Wednesday 12 June) — was an astonishing bravura display of their refusal to follow such convention, to jump from one genre to another, gleefully confounding all expectations, carefully setting up a scenario, then pulling the rug from under our feet so that we find ourselves in utterly unexpected territory.

This was off any recognisable scale: a final episode about that final episode, taking place mainly in the lavatory of the venue in which its own wrap party was supposedly being held. Some of our most beloved actors were awarded cameos, all delighted to play against their recognised characters, all revealed as back-stabbing competitors, eager to slag off everyone else (especially their hosts), desperate only to further personal ambition.

The actual party scenes were extraordinarily prodigal in their casting, every top-rank UK comic actor happy to be caught by the camera for a brief moment, raising a glass. But the heart of the plot entered very dangerous terrain: Pemberton has played a dirty trick on Shearsmith, secretly bagging the leading role in a prestigious US production, destroying their next project and any possibility of future work together. When this is discovered, a searing row ensues, with long-buried, bitter accusations flung about: “I don’t even know if we’re friends any more.” This is genuinely distressing, deeply affecting straight acting, drawing all our sympathy as we witness the collapse of a long and enduring marriage. But wait a minute — it’s not real, is it? It’s comedy — black and twisted, to be sure, but daring to say the unsayable.

Great comedy is a means of dealing with the unbearable. All actors, however vile the character and actions that they are depicting, must somehow find within themselves the place, however tiny, where such things could be true of them personally. As any reflective priest knows, you cannot communicate anything that isn’t real to you. Might it just be possible that the annual parish pantomime, sending up every church issue and personality, contains as much local truth as the midnight mass?

To our relief, the episode ends with reconciliation and rapprochement — but then undermines any emotional wallowing on their part or on ours: the coda undercuts everything with preposterous farce. I realise that it takes me straight to Pseuds Corner; but, for me, the show was a brilliant, unsettling exposition, a progression of nested boxes receding to infinity, exploring where exactly truth and reality lie.

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