A phrase that we see pop up a lot these days is ‘dark humour’. It rears it’s head quite a lot and usually in reference to Frankie Boyle’s latest joke at the expense of a disabled child or something similarly uninspired. But it’s not often the phrase actually signifies anything more. That is until you hear that some members of The League of Gentlemen and creators of Psychoville have a new series on the horizon. Then you know that ‘dark humour’ might actually mean something and may actually produce something disturbing and disturbingly clever.
And so it proved. After six weeks of general disquiet the final episode of Inside No. 9 drew the series to its conclusion in typically dark fashion. Typical, that is, of it’s singular creators Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton – but typical of no one else currently creating British television. A unique anthology held together by nothing more than an underlying darkness and the fact that each story takes place inside an area numbered 9, Inside No. 9 stands apart from anything else on British TVs.
Yet dark humour isn’t all it offered; the trademark black comedy was at times dwarfed by the sheer audacity and ambition of the writing. The series opened with a unique and eyebrow raising but otherwise seemingly welcoming story. A house party that we join in the throws of a parlour game involving hiding in an ever-more-crowded wardrobe served as the setting. Stilted and hilariously awkward discussions of their shared past provided the comedy. Sardines was designed in it’s opening moments to ease us once again into the writer’s twisted imaginations. Wonderfully acted by it’s impressive cast – including Katherine Parkinson, Anne Reid and Tim Key – and mixing knowing chuckles with genuine belly laughs. It built to an intriguing conclusion and ultimately a startling twist. A startling and, indeed, very dark twist. A signal of what the series might have in store for us.
It was with this in our minds that we sit down to watch episode two A Quiet Night In. But how do you deal with your audience when they are just waiting and searching for a twist in the tale? You distract them! An almost entirely dialogue-free story played out in an ultra modern house between a mismatched married couple. In a clever nod the very-nearly-silent comedy starred Oona Chaplin, granddaughter of actual-silent-movie star Charlie Chaplin. The ingeniously simple but engrossing plot and the excellent performances from the cast distracted from what we went in expecting. And yet it came. Another fantastic twist to close another fantastic episode.
Episode three was a little more conventional and once again bought dark humour back to the fore. Almost at times it featured more ‘dark’ than ‘humour’. But a little way into the episode and you realise Inside No. 9 is an anthology in the truest sense. A series of wholly different stories not bound by any true format. Tom and Gerri saw teacher and aspiring writer Tom battle with a descent into his mind at the mercy of a tramp who returns his wallet. His girlfriend Gerri, played by Gemma Arterton, struggles for acting work as Tom falls deeper and deeper into the trap being laid by his new indigent friend, Migg. The path this episode seemed destined to tread was a trap of it’s own and misdirecting us not once but twice with it’s twist.
At this point you began to expect it. Nothing can distract you from what is coming. But what is it now? How are we being deceived this week? The Last Gasp sees a pop star on a Make-A-Wish style meet and greet with a young, terminally ill, fan. Only to fall victim to a brain aneurysm while blowing a balloon. Quite literally breathing his last into a rubber vessel. Perhaps the least gripping of the series, but still remarkably smart and funny, episode four deceived us in a new way. Once again underlining the invention of it’s creators. If you think you know what to expect, you really don’t. Still dark, still funny but a brand new format and shape of episode.
The penultimate episode, The Understudy was the most reminiscent of The League of Gentlemen. Mixing absurdity with the mundane and throwing in a lot of added depth and colour. The story of an understudy who dreams of taking centre stage in ‘the Scottish play’ but ever-thwarted by the prima donna standing in his way. With a story based loosely on Macbeth itself episode five cleverly gave us a shorthand for each characters personality and and telegraphed some elements in order to misdirect us. Also starring the fantastic Julia Davis, who makes anything worth watching!
And so we find ourselves at episode six. The Harrowing. An immediately creepy and dark (in every sense) story. A fantastically devious and hilarious performance from Helen McCrory introduces a story which had a unique feel to it. Strange goings on and sinister foreshadowing made the mind race like the best episodes of Doctor Who. A 10pm, adult-only, hide-behind-your-whole-house-not-your-sofa version of Doctor Who. A haunted house vibe was set up and subsequently displaced to set up a handful of closing scenes unlike anything I remember witnessing in a television comedy. Legitimately disturbing inferences came to the surface as the laughs began to dissipate into real uneasiness.
It is in the final scene that Inside No. 9 is best summed up. It is quite often we see those terms ‘dark humour’ or ‘black comedy’ mentioned. But we know it will always try to make us laugh. It will sometimes offend certain among us and it will usually make the rest of us laugh. Either quietly and awkwardly or loud and proudly. But in this scene the humour seemed to almost slink away discreetly and leave us with nothing but blackness. Therein lies the genius of true black comedy. Anyone can make a joke designed to offend or shock. Anyone can be brash and uncaring in order to push some boundaries. But it is only through intelligent writing that we can experience the odd sensation of having laughter frequently ousted and/or merged with an authentic feeling of horror and bewilderment.
Inside No. 9 is undefinable, and almost indescribable as a series. Which is exactly why news of a second series restores your faith in British comedy.