BBC Two’s anthology show Inside No. 9 is back for a fifth series. Georgia Humphreys speaks to creators Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton on why they want to keep audiences guessing.
Nothing else on telly is quite like Inside No. 9. Created by Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton, who are also the lead stars, each series is a collection of darkly comic tales which all feature the number nine in some way, but there’s often no way of guessing how.
The award-winning anthology show can be funny, moving and scary in equal measures, and attracts a high calibre of guest stars – David Morrissey, Ralf Little, Maxine Peake and Jenna Coleman appear in the new episodes.
In 2018, 50-year-old Shearsmith, who was born in Kingston-upon-Hull, and Blackburn-born Pemberton, 52, even pulled off a special live edition of Inside No. 9 in spectacular fashion, succeeding in thoroughly freaking out viewers.
The pair first found fame through the BBC sketch show The League of Gentlemen which they created alongside Mark Gatiss and Jeremy Dyson. The quartet all met while studying drama at the now-defunct Bretton Hall College of Education in Wakefield.
Shearsmith and Pemberton subsequently went on to create cult black comedy Psychoville before Inside No. 9 began in 2014.
The first episode of the new series, which starts on Monday, is centred on football and stars David Morrissey as a referee on the brink of retirement as his final match pits two teams against each other with everything to lose.
Pemberton says: “That was a one-line idea; it started with the notion of where it could be set, and then the story grew from that. Once you start thinking about football and, ‘What are the stories to do with being a referee?’, there were lots and lots of stories, and, watching it now, I’m amazed how much we packed into 30 minutes, actually.”
Shearsmith adds: “Steve was the driving force behind the football one. I just learnt it phonetically. We’ve done one about magic and illusion – I wanted to explore that world.
“So, one of us will have more of an interest in doing it, and then we sit together and think, ‘What’s a good story to spin out of it?’ Or it can be some weird little news report that you think, ‘Does it seem believable?’
Pemberton says the nature of the show and its focus on completely different stories often means researching each episode is something of an educational experience.
“We’ve got another episode in this series which is all kind of monologues, and one of the monologues is a YouTuber,” he says.
“That came from reading the news story about the girl who tried to blag a free hotel room, just saying, ‘I’m a YouTuber, give me everything for free’. So that sparked interest, and we’ve done a whole little YouTube section. You learn a lot doing this show!”
One of the unique parts of the series is that every episode has a different story but Shearsmith says the pair are not entirely closed off to returning to some of the concepts and characters they have already featured.
“We would think about doing a sequel, if it was worth it. I’m afraid that we would be accused of running out of ideas if we did it, but if it was a good reason to return to something then that would be good.”
Pemberton says it is common for actors to ask to have a role written for them.
“David Morrissey had been saying to us for ages that he would love to be involved,” he reveals.
“It was interesting with the referees one, because we didn’t know which parts we wanted to play. Genuinely, we could have played any of those roles within it. But we just thought for the main refereeing character, to have that really big man ... I was doing Britannia with him and I was telling him about it, and I could see a little glint in his eye.”
With 31 episodes now created, Shearsmith says picking a favourite is “like choosing your favourite child”.
“The ones that people like are the ones that make you cry; it’s not the comedy ever, it’s the ones that move people,” he says.
One particular fan favourite is an episode called Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room, a bittersweet story about estranged northern comedians Len and Tommy who meet up 30 years after their ‘Cheese and Crackers’ double act came to a disastrous end at the height of their fame.
Apart from a brief appearance from Sian Gibson, Shearsmith and Pemberton are the only people on screen for the entire episode as they explore old resentments and the different directions their lives have taken since their acrimonious split. As you would expect from Inside No. 9, the episode also contains a considerable twist at its end which in this case adds to the pathos of the story.
Shearsmith says: “We were surprised that one took such a grip with people. We thought it was a good one, but we didn’t think it was this amazing, heartfelt [thing] ... It was a vehicle for me and Steve to do a two-hander, that’s where it was born from. We’d never done one where it was just us two.”
Pemberton agrees that the pair are becoming more sensitive to audiences guessing where a particular storyline is going.
“Even though we know what our story is and what our ending is, we never want you to get there before we want you to get there.
“So, we always sit and we say, ‘What do you think you’re watching when you’re watching this?’ and, ‘Where do you think it’s going?’
“We plot out where we hope you think it’s going so that we can send you off down the false track and hopefully there’s a nice surprise.
“But one of the joys of the series, and one of the more difficult things, as we write more and more episodes, is to do that in different ways.”
Shearsmith says the pair’s sense of humour is changing as they age – as well as their feelings about what makes something scary.
“It’s all about health! I am more squeamish than I ever used to be, and certainly horror-wise I don’t like all the torture-y ones.”
The pair were involved in the making of a League of Gentlemen film in 2005 and in 2018 brought the programme back as a live arena and theatre show following a successful run of anniversary episodes on television.
But there are not immediate plans for doing something similar with Inside No. 9.
Pemberton says: “We haven’t really talked about doing a film just because – thankfully – they keep recommissioning the series.
“We really like the 30-minute format, I think it really suits us to not have to artificially bloat the stories. It’s punchy, and we enjoy that. We certainly have talked about doing stage versions, whether it be pre-existing scripts or new ones... I think that might be something we look at in the future.”
Inside No. 9 returns to BBC Two and iPlayer on Monday, February 3.