Outside the Box with ‘Inside No. 9’: How Gimmicks and Limitations Created TV’s Finest Anthology Series

Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton were already responsible for the one-two punch of dark comedy brilliance that was The League of Gentlemen and Psychoville when they came upon the concept for Inside No. 9. The idea was so simple that it hearkened back to the earliest days of live television: an anthology series in which each episode is a standalone story contained within a single location related to the number nine.

The premise of a series in a single contained setting could be limiting, but Shearsmith and Pemberton were up for the challenge. They’d already done a version of it in an episode of Psychoville, and more than that, the duo saw it as a way to be more creative, not less. What they gave up in locations, they gained in other ways.

First, every episode was standalone. Unlike their previous shows, this meant that all bets were off for what could happen to the characters they created because they didn’t need to be back next week. Second, there were no genre limitations. While most episodes do have a thread of dark comedy and some kind of surprising twist, the show’s tone varies wildly from episode to episode, moving from period drama to slapstick comedy to murder mystery within a single six-episode run.

If that were the only brilliant element of Inside No. 9, then it would still be a fun series worth watching. But what sets the show apart from many other anthologies, even other single-location anthologies like Room 104, is that the limitations of the overall series were just the beginning of the challenges that Shearsmith and Pemberton set for themselves.

Like a Russian nesting doll of bold storytelling, the creative team gave themselves a new and daunting challenge for every individual episode of the series as well, adding gimmicks to limitations and transforming the traditional expectations of anthology storytelling in delightful ways.

It’s as if they said to themselves, “Sure, telling an entertaining story in one room is pretty tough. But what would make that even harder?” And then they rolled up their sleeves and made it happen.

Look at this list of storytelling gimmicks that Shearsmith and Pemberton have tackled in the six-year life of the series:

  • An episode told in reverse chronology
  • A silent episode
  • A live episode
  • An episode in iambic pentameter
  • An episode recorded solely on security cameras
  • A Krampus story shot in the style of the classic British Christmas ghost stories from the BBC in the 1970s
  • An episode whose plot is furthered by karaoke performances
  • An episode comprised of six monologues performed direct to camera

And the bold storytelling doesn’t stop there. In addition to the restriction of the location and the high concept framework of the storytelling, Shearsmith and Pemberton upped the ante by challenging themselves to come up with a new way to tell classic stories in a number of heavily revisited genres. They found exciting new versions of:

  • a classic “Monkey’s Paw” tale
  • a “battle of the illusionists”
  • a behind-the-scenes of a stage play
  • a witch trial
  • a seance
  • a haunted house story
  • a stakeout

This doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of what Inside No. 9 has done, but most of the episodes can’t be discussed without giving away some fun secret that awaits a new watcher. Not to mention the baker’s dozen of beloved British actors who pop up throughout the series in clever and unexpected ways. For one particularly inspired appearance: the mostly silent episode boasts an appearance from Oona Chaplin, granddaughter of the world’s most famous silent film star.

And therein lies the greatest charm of Inside No. 9. In the age of prestige television, so much attention is given to conflicted and complicated characters, addictive and binge-worthy season-long story arcs, and expensive and elaborate costuming and cinematography. But I’m trying to remember the last time I heard critics praise a series simply because it is wonderfully entertaining and clever.

Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton not only created Inside No. 9, but they wrote every episode, directed several of them, and at least one if not both of them have appeared in every instalment of the series. There’s something to be said for people who can operate with that level of endless creative brilliance, and they use their abilities to consistently create work that reminds viewers of the simple joys of being entertained, not by violence or endless puzzle-box mythology or tragedy, but by sheer cleverness.

Thank you, Reece and Steve, for the years of entertainment. And please keep that cleverness coming, one room at a time.

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