TV

Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith on friendship, TV and saying goodbye to Inside No 9

As Inside No 9 comes to an end after nine series of constant innovation and brilliance, its creators spoke to us about their nine lives in comedy

Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith. Image: BBC

The true scale and scope of Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton’s achievement across nine series of Inside No 9 may only become clear in the years and decades to come. Perhaps by the year 2099 they will be getting the full plaudits this marvellous, macabre, genre-melding anthology series truly deserves. 

When the ninth and final series closes next month, they will have written 55 episodes (and acted in most of them). Each one standing alone, beautifully crafted, smartly written and surprising. The series expanding the possibility of what a half-hour TV comedy can do. 

Shearsmith and Pemberton burn through ideas like they are going out of style. Ideas that many would try to turn into a career-defining long-running series are played out with precision in just 30 minutes. 

The pair are ruthless in maintaining their standards. But there have been standout classics. A Quiet Night In was superb silent slapstick. The 12 Days of Christine was a heartbreaking tale of love, life and loss – built around a stunning central performance from Sheridan Smith. Dead Line saw Shearsmith and Pemberton live and unleashed in a Halloween horrorshow, toying with and eventually tearing up all the rules of television, going one step beyond meta. And as for the Devil at Christmas, from 2016 – well, we laughed, we cried, we squirmed, we screamed and we gasped at the final twist in this demonic tale. 

Along the way, the duo have been joined by a roll call of the best in the business. Each actor signing up confident in the knowledge that, in just five days of filming, they will create a little piece of TV magic.   

Shearsmith and Pemberton go back a long way. Next year will mark the 30th anniversary of their debut stage performances alongside Mark Gatiss and Jeremy Dyson as The League of Gentlemen. The comedy troupe transferred to television 25 years ago, for three series of off-kilter dark comedy and a clutch of specials. And, from Psychoville to Inside No 9, it’s been one psychological comedy drama after another ever since.

Shearsmith and Pemberton in S9, Ep2, The Trolley Problem. Image: BBC

Did you have to finish Inside No 9 after nine series – and how are you feeling as it comes to an end? 

SP: Well, I’ve actually got Covid. I tested myself last night.  

RS: That’s very old school. I’m not meeting up with you today, then! 

SP: But anyway, more than anything, I feel really proud of what we’ve achieved. It’s also a relief to not have to think, how do we top this?  

RS: It’s sad, but it is not sad, sad. It will feel strange when it really has finished. Because it doesn’t quite feel like it’s properly finished until the episodes have gone out into the world. That’s when it will hit us.  

SP: It crept up on us. We would joke about doing nine series around series four. But it’s not easy, because from the start it was well received. We’ve been going round with this weight on our backs because we didn’t want to be one of those shows that people go, the first series was great and then it was downhill. Hopefully we got this last series over the line in that regard.  

RS: We are fans ourselves. We know what it’s like when something goes off the boil. So there’s that terror of having that levelled at us. In our minds, we’ve always had a court of public opinion – but it’s a literal court where we’re pulled in and made to answer questions. So we’ve always had to be able to justify our every move. 

Can you take us inside the writing room? 

RS: We have a little room with not much in it. It is quite a monastic place. There’s just a desk and there was once a wardrobe in it, which was, weirdly, the inspiration for the game of sardines in the first episode. Steve does a lot of the typing. But there isn’t a set rule about that.  

SP: You’ve no idea how long we spend talking and thinking about the episodes. There’s not much pacing around. It’s mainly lying, slouching, lolling, pondering, staring at the ceiling. But we have fun as well. It helps that we have been best friends for many years. So our writing doesn’t feel like work. It feels like hanging out with your friend. Every day we find new things to talk about.  

RS: We’ll talk for a long time before writing anything. We like to explore the possibilities of a story and endlessly discuss where it could go. Bit by bit, that filtration process distils it into the scenes we need to write it in the leanest way. I talk like this is how you do it, but it’s a bit of a magic trick how we really do it.

Pemberton with Nicola Walker, Season 4. Image: BBC

Is there a way to define what makes a story an Inside No 9 

RS: We’ve tried to maintain the idea that the story has to come from somehow ‘inside’ and ‘number nine’ – whatever that might mean. We’ve stretched that a bit, but the restrictions make you think in more inventive ways. But Steve’s right to talk about us being friends. We can say the stupidest idea but being able to voice it is important. It might unlock another door. So to be able to air silly ideas is a massive step in creativity and to feel like you’re properly playing. 

SP: There are no rules, so if you had different writers each week given carte blanche, it would be a very interesting experiment but I’m not sure it would have built the same fanbase. What is it that allows you to go from the realism of Love’s Great Adventure to the craziness of Wuthering Heist and say it is the same series? Every episode has something of us in it.  

RS: We’ve got similar references, as do Mark [Gatiss] and Jeremy [Dyson] from our League of Gentleman days. We all seemingly had the same childhood, the same obsessions. And it’s not just us who enjoy the blackly, comic 1970s landscape we grew up in – so it’s been great to find like-minded people. Because that was everything to us.  

SP: That’s how you make friends, discovering those shared sensibilities. It’s an extension of friendships in a way, isn’t it, having fanbases?  

Sheridan Smith, Season 2. Image: BBC

Are there actors who have particularly got Inside No 9? 

SP: We’ve honestly loved working with everyone. Lorraine Ashbourne came in for Nana’s Party and it was such a specific character, the pathos and humour and tragedy, and she got every single beat. Sheridan Smith gave you an entire lifetime in just five days of work. Because we are taking most of the male roles, a lot of our male contemporaries have been shut out, but we loved Daniel Mays in Kid/Nap. He was so funny – threatening but with a lightness of touch and no vanity. And Mark Bonner is brilliant in the new series, but we knew that from Psychoville. I could go on all day – Reece, what do you think? 

RS: Rory Kinnear was so funny as a person and brought that Shakespearean stellar quality to Zanzibar. And Helen McCrory was great in The Harrowing and so delighted to do it – because I don’t think she was asked to do much comedy.  

SP: David Morrissey did so much research and brought such gravitas to The Referee’s a W***er. A lot of dramatic actors have loved doing a bit of comedy with us. I’m pretty sure everyone goes away and says it was a fun job.  

What’s your favourite performance by each other? 

RS: Steve’s got the advantage of having pictures of all the episodes up on his wall behind him. He was so chilling when he played Adrian in To Have And To Hold, which was a very creepy story, one of the darkest episodes we did. The quiet monster, this seemingly very vanilla character who seemed happy just to sit and do crosswords  but was keeping a woman in the basement. 

SP: Not crosswords – it was jigsaws.  

RS: Oh yes, crosswords is you in real life.  

SP: It is! I’m going to say Wise Owl in series seven. There wasn’t a lot of dialogue, but Reece had to convey so much emotion and pain, and there was humour as well. I also loved revisiting David and Maureen from Psychoville. Seeing Reece hobbling in on his crutches as Maureen was a bit of a highlight. We never thought we’d get to do them again. 

Shearsmith with Helen McCrory, Season 1. Image: BBC

Has Inside No 9 also felt like a shop window for your acting chops? 

RS: I remember John Cleese saying Ronnie Barker was never going to get work because you don’t recognise him from one thing to the next. And I think we go under the radar as actors because we are kaleidoscopic. I mean, you could argue we are the same in everything. But it must have afforded us other opportunities, although the League did that, really. We were actors struggling away and wrestled back control in our own thing, which became our calling card. But as far as a showreel of our range as actors, you hope it’s demonstrated we’re able to do various things. 

SP: We’ve both done big acting jobs on other series and it’s such a breath of fresh air not to be thinking about the writing. But you do not get the same satisfaction of sitting in a room, working on an idea and seeing it through every single process. It is the most inspiring thing, so we’ll always want to continue working together.  

RS: Like Steve said, being an actor in someone else’s thing is great. But you sometimes think, the things we do are better than this script. So, let’s stick with that!  

How has the TV and film industry changed over the Inside No 9 years? 

SP: One thing I’d say that’s changed about the TV landscape since we started is that there’s a real lack of opportunities for new writers because of the lack of sketch shows. That was how we got a start. It’s great people are being given chances to tell personal stories, with Baby Reindeer being such a hit and Such Brave Girls. But I miss the old sketch show where you could learn how to write by doing a two-minute self-contained joke. It’d be nice for new writers, because we’ve got to bring on the next generation of Steves and Reeces… but only when we’ve retired! 

Psychoville’s Maureen and David were invited Inside No. 9. Image: BBC

Was it emotional, looking back over this decade when you were filming the finale? 

SP: We never write episodes in order. We debated the order quite a bit – but we want the series as a whole to be what we go out on.  

RS: It was strange filming the last scenes. And it was emotional. But it didn’t feel devastating. We couldn’t not get through the last scene because we were crying – it wasn’t like the last episode of Friends or something.  

SP: They made us a lovely cake, which had characters from all our different series on. It was emotional eating that cake. I had a little nibble of the little Wise Owl. It was a real work of art. But the thing that makes me most emotional is seeing people’s reactions to an episode, seeing how it affected people or how passionate people are. I find that very moving. 

You’ve been working together for 30 years. What’s next? 

RS: The idea of being around for 30 years – we don’t see it like that, because it’s just been our lives. But step outside of it and we see this body of work, this televisual legacy we’ve done, by accident, by living. And it never goes unnoticed that we are still, every day, doing this thing we love. It’s amazing we have been on the televisual landscape, whether you’ve caught us or not, for such a long time now.  

SP: I can probably tell you… we are doing a stage adaptation of Inside No 9 at the Wyndham’s Theatre from January. It started as quite a theatrical idea anyway – a single set, small cast of characters. So on the one hand we are sitting back, celebrating nine seasons. But we are also instantly back in the sweat room. How do we turn it into a satisfying stage show that doesn’t just become a lap of honour and recreate things we’ve already done? It never ends… 

Inside No 9 airs on Wednesdays on BBC Two and iPlayer.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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