This is a full transcript of my interview with Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton about their BBC Two show Inside No. 9 for the i – and a tiny bit about the League of Gentlemen.
It was quite an ending to The Devil of Christmas. Was it a bit of a eureka moment when that twist idea came to you?
Steve: “It was really. We’d hit upon the idea of doing something about Krampus, first of all. And as we started writing it we thought it’d be fun to turn it into a kind of 70s episodic thriller. But we still didn’t know how we were going to end it, so when we hit upon having the director’s commentary, and then the final twist, it was exactly that, a eureka moment. It gave the whole thing a unity, a reason for existing. If it had just been a spoof for half an hour it would have been funny, perhaps people would have sensed something missing. It’s nice to leave people reeling as they go off into their Christmas evening!”
Congratulations on Inside No. 9 being renewed for series 4, before series 3 is even on air! Does that make doing press confusing?
Reece: “A little bit. We start filming the fourth series on Monday, and we delivered these series three episodes in April last year. So it feels odd to be talking about them, they feel in the past, yet no-one has seen them, so we’re having to remember what we did. It’s lovely, we got commissioned immediately after series three so we carried on writing series four, and that’s why it’s ready to start filming now. It’s nice that we can talk about the third one and know that we’ve got the fourth. Normally you do one and you have to wait and wait, and then you get the response. It was lovely that we had such a vote of confidence that we could carry on into the next one.”
What can you tell us about the cast for this series?
Steve: “We found doing the first series that because it’s just a week’s filming there’s a lot of actors who can find availability, and if they like the script you can get some great people. In this series we had people like Keeley Hawes, who had just literally got off the boat from doing The Durrells. She wanted a bit of time off but she read the script, loved it and thought that she couldn’t not do it. We’ve got Philip Glenister and Jason Watkins in the first episode, we’ve got Felicity Kendal, Fiona Shaw and Morgana Robinson in another episode, and then Tamzin Outhwaite, Javone Prince and Sarah Hadland, so it’s just fantastic. For us we’re like kids in a candy store. Going through spotlights and seeing these people we’ve wanted to work with for years, in some cases.
Obviously it’s a revolving cast for every episode. Is it a gargantuan task to organise the casting, or do you write with specific actors in mind?
Reece: “No, we never think of anyone while we’re writing. We write the stories and we don’t even think of ourselves. It’s more that we think that needs to be the best served it can be without shoehorning anybody in it. When it gets nearer the time all the attention goes on casting and who’s available. Sometimes you think of someone but they’re not free to do it. The nearer [to filming] you can leave it the better, but it’s a bit of a dangerous game to play. Scheduling is always a headache – it’s amazing to me that in TV they’ve scheduled something for every day, like clockwork. It’s gruelling for Steve and I because we lurch from one world to the next, week after week. Whereas the stars are fresh as daisies. But that’s also the thing that rejuvenates us, that we’re in a different world, with a different character and make-up, so you can sort of reset yourself and start again.
Any standout performances?
Steve: “We’ve always loved working with Jason Watkins, he was in Psychoville and he’s in the first episode of this series. I think he’s brilliant because he can turn his hand to comedy and dramatic stuff – those are the actors that we’re really drawn towards. To get a big star like Fiona Shaw who doesn’t do that much television, that was a real treat.”
Reece: “Sarah Hadland and Tamzin knew each other before, and they sort of brought a real giggly mania to the episode that was set in the karaoke booth, which was infectious. That was a fun week, a mad week but a fun week, because of those two coming in with such energy.”
The fact that it’s like a series of short plays seems to have given it this hallowed status among actors. But without naming names, have there been any issues with these these so-called “serious” actors approaching comedy?
Reece: “We try to think outside of the box, we try to think ‘who would be good to do this part?’ rather than ‘who have we seen before?’ which is what you can get often in TV. Some actors are really grateful to be thought of as some of the things that we ask of them. With No. 9, a lot of times the basic premise is often quite dramatic so I think nobody we’ve asked has blanched at the idea of being able to do it. David Warner is a brilliant actor and he loved the fact that in the last series we asked him to do this comedic, camp role. We sometimes say ‘can we ask so-and-so’ and they say ‘you’ll never get them’ and then they’re really keen suddenly, because they’re never thought of in that way.
Steve: “A lot of dramatic actors love the idea of doing a bit of comedy. It’s only a week’s work, and they can see what we’ve done already, so they know it’s going to be of a certain standard.”
The premise is really crucial in Inside No. 9. How many ideas do you throw away before you settle upon the right one, on average?
Steve: “We don’t throw ideas away really. We just keep them for the next series! We do talk a lot and we just know. We now have an in-built sense, as we’re talking, of whether an idea has hooked us in or not. It has to hook us in and make us feel excited. We’ll know just between us if we’ve got that, and that’s enough just to start. It doesn’t mean you know the ending or where you’re headed to, it just means you’re excited to make a start with it. We do have some episodes in series four which have been around since the first series. We work on instinct, we’ve never done any formal training or read books about writing, and the fact we’ve been writing together for 20 years means we have a very easy working relationship, and we just get on with it. We don’t agonise any more like we used to when we did The League of Gentleman.”
Given that every episode is an original story, you must have some contempt for the fact that so much TV and film is dominated by adaptation and remakes?
Reece: “Yeah I think you’ll never get away from it because there’s always someone who’ll say ‘I’ve got a new take on Jekyll and Hide and it will be brilliant’, and people will run with it. It’s an easy way in with an audience, it’s a hook and I think people think about that a lot. If something has an audience because it’s a known title, that’s often how a thing will get commissioned. But it’s hard to keep coming up with new stories each week, it’s a lot of invention and story material you’re getting through. I often think that one of these episodes could be six half-hours and we’d have a whole series, so you’re burning a lot of creativity. As long as we can keep coming up with it. Each week you get to have a clean slate and it doesn’t become stale. You’ll always have a new adaptation of Robin Hood to look forward to!”
It’s often said that it’s harder to build an audience with an anthology. How do you overcome this?
Reece: “We were aware of the challenge. It’s a hard sell, the received wisdom is that you don’t do something that starts again each week because there’s no reason to return. People think you need to have a hook and reason to watch next week. But it’s there with the anthology, because Steve and I have written them all and are in them all, we are the thing goes across them. People don’t think like commissioners: if it’s good they’ll watch it, and if the stories are good they’ll hook you in and you’ll enjoy watching them pan out. Happily it does seem to have built and seems that people know it a little bit more now.”
Steve: “When we came up with the idea it was going against the tide of what was popular, which were 22 episode box sets which you could consumer night after night, and follow over seven series. And that has its place, but personally I find myself getting a bit tired of that, because it’s such a massive commitment. It’s quite refreshing to just have these six half-hours, you can watch them in any order, you can skip one out, you can catch up. They’re like short stories, they can be very refreshing to the palate. If you are stuck watching episode 62 of Westworld wondering what the hell’s going on, you can just come to Inside No. 9 and within half an hour you’ve had a fully formed story. You’ve been taken on a journey, and you can pack an awful lot into 30 minutes. That’s what we try to achieve.”
Do people still quote lines from League of Gentlemen to you? Is this a curse you can live with?
Steve: “Yeah it’s always nice. Only on Saturday I got off a bus and a man said to me ‘Excuse me are you local?’ so that was a nice thing, he put his nose up too. It’s funny to think it’s 20 years old and people still remember it. That must be a pleasing thing, because television’s so disposable so it feels lovely that people still remember it and quote it. So I smiled to myself. Not to him!”
Do you think you’d ever consider another sitcom?
Steve: “We don’t really plan what we’re going to do. We’ll see where No. 9 takes us. Each time we’ve come up with a new series we’ve just taken a little rain check, a little time to think about what we want to do next. As long as it’s interesting to us, and surprising to us, and we don’t feel like we’re going over old ground, then there’s no saying what we might or might not do. We’ve now covered so many genres in Inside No. 9 we feel like we’re experts in all of them.”
Read the published version here.