Inside No 9 duo to share writing secrets on South Bank Show

Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton met while studying in Yorkshire and are now among the most respected comedy writers in Britain. Georgia Humphreys reports.

Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton arriving at the British Academy Television Craft Awards at the Brewery, London.  Picture: Ian West/PA Images.
Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton arriving at the British Academy Television Craft Awards at the Brewery, London. Picture: Ian West/PA Images.

After the huge success of the BBC’s cult show The League of Gentlemen, Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton have created another critically-adored show in Inside No 9, an anthology show which involves one-off 30-minute programmes that have ranged from comedy to horror, Shakespearean farce to a hauntingly high concept retelling of a woman’s life as she lies dying in a car accident.

Now the pair, who write and act in Inside No 9, are due to be profiled for the latest series of The South Bank Show, which is focusing on some of the country’s most successful TV drama writers, including Line of Duty’s Jed Mercurio and Heidi Thomas, creator of Call The Midwife.

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Shearsmith, from Hull, and Pemberton, from Blackburn, first met while studying drama at the now-defunct Bretton Hall College of Education in Wakefield and went on to create The League of Gentlemen with fellow students Mark Gatiss and Jeremy Dyson.

The show, focusing on the grotesque inhabitants of Royston Vasey, initially ran on television between 1999 and 2002 before recently returning for three Christmas specials in 2017 and a successful live tour.

Shearsmith and Gatiss are now to be given The South Bank Show treatment. Airing since 1978, and edited and presented by Melvyn Bragg, it is the longest-running arts show on British television.

And the latest series, which will air on Sky Arts, explores how TV dramas – arguably one of society’s biggest talking points – are currently commanding huge numbers of viewers. Each episode focuses on a different popular British television drama writer (or writing duo) working today, with Bragg taking us behind the scenes, and revealing how their work comes to life.

Shearsmith says one of the challenges they face in their writing is catering to modern audiences. “Everybody’s so sophisticated, and the tricks you find yourself employing are apparent to people now,” he says. “And I think everyone’s attention spans are so short as well...

“You’ve got to really hook people in, and I think that’s hard, especially with writing the way we try to write, which is to surprise, and write the things that we used to enjoy watching ourselves, where you can’t half watch it, you’ve got to properly engage in it.

“It’s exciting and if you can do that to an audience and hook people in and take them away from their business of the day, that’s a lovely thing. It’s a service.”

Pemberton says another way television is changing is through Netflix allowing shows to have episodes of different lengths.

“It’s changing, with the streaming services – I think we’re all quite jealous. We don’t write for Netflix, but the idea that you could have an episode one week which is 69 minutes and the following week 49 minutes.

“I do find it attractive on the one hand, but equally, when we’re writing Inside No 9, we know we’ve got to hit that 30-page mark, and I like that. I like having a structure to an episode, I think putting a box around something makes you more creative sometimes.”

Pemberton says real life stories are an inspiration for their work.

“You watch a football match – that has an incredible narrative to it. The women’s World Cup at the moment... Or, you know, the Tory party leadership contest has got an amazing narrative. You want to know what happens next! Or, wish we could actually change the story...

“You’ll find narrative in everything, and what we try to tap into is just serving that up to an audience who might be curious to see what happens next, and see if we can entertain them and inform them along the way.”

The South Bank Show will air on Sky Arts and NOW TV from Tuesday, July 16.