Inside Number 9 is a BBC anthology show that plays with this rich heritage, delivering 30-minute slices of twisting, turning comedy-horror and suspense. With a well-deserved fourth series on the horizon, here’s our pick of 7 must-see episodes.
Viewers might not have known what to make of Inside Number 9’s inaugural episode, about a game of sardines being played in an English country house. Much like a classic episode of Tales of The Unexpected, it starts out as a cosy drawing-room comedy drama with just a hint of darkness to add some spice. As the cupboard fills up with players the audience slowly guesses at the dark story that connects them all, and when the final twist slots everything into place, the full horror of the situation is revealed. If you’re anything like us, then welcome to your new favourite TV show.
The Trial of Elizabeth Gadge
A period piece that borrows liberally both from Vincent Price’s turn as Matthew Hopkins in The Witchfinder General and from the real-life case of the Witch trials in Pendle, Yorkshire, this episode showcases some of Shearsmith and Pemberton’s most accomplished writing. Marrying comedy to the true horrors of 17th century witch trials, the pair lampoon the absurdity of ‘Witchfinders’ and the despicable people that denounced their neighbours for their own selfish gains. The result is hilarious and disturbing, and the final twist is both surprising and curiously uplifting.
With a pair of writers so obviously horror literate, it was only a matter of time before they paid tribute to the Italian masters. What couldn’t be predicted, however, was quite how well they would pull it off. A true Giallo film in miniature, replete with dummies, murders and black-gloved hands, Private View tells the tale of a gallery exhibition where all is not as it seems. Apparently disconnected people receive invites to a private view and are, of course, picked off one by one. Like the films it plays homage to, it’s visually lush and features some great, creative kill scenes.
The Riddle of The Sphinx
How terrifying can the weekly crossword be? Pretty bloody terrifying in the hands of Pemberton and Shearsmith, it turns out. A somewhat clueless girl breaks into the house of a university lecturer obsessed with crosswords, hoping to gain some puzzling insights to impress her boyfriend. Amused, the professor decides to indulge her and gives her an impromptu lesson in conundrums. However, in truth, a much deadlier game than crosswords is being played here. Containing probably the most shocking and unsettling twist out of all of these episodes, this is the outing that we would most readily recommend to horror fans as an introduction to the series.
More often than not, episodes of Inside Number 9 are contained, pared down affairs, usually confined to a single room and small cast of characters. At the end of each series, however, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith like to try and up the ante, and the show moves from intrigue and suspense and into the realm of outright horror. The multiple-twist structure makes it hard to adequately describe Séance Time without spoiling it, but suffice it to say that fans of gothic horror with a contemporary twist will not be disappointed.
There’s something very Hitchcockian about this entry, in which a corpse proves problematic for a group of travellers on a sleeper train. They all know they should alert the guard and stop the train, but they all have their own reasons not to. Comedian Jack Whitehall is particularly funny as a hapless gap-year stowaway, and Shearsmith is flawless as the sharp, no-nonsense doctor desperate to get to his job interview on time. As ever, there’s a twist, and the payoff is great, but the real joy here comes from watching supposedly civilised and conscientious people grappling with their own selfishness, and ultimately losing.
It’s that most British of premises: business friends are out to a nice dinner, when things are spoiled over a polite disagreement about the bill. Of course, in the world of Inside Number 9, trifling disagreements like this have a way of getting out of hand – way, way out of hand. Before long, old grievances and festering resentments are laid bare, and the only way out is going to involve blood and pain. Pemberton and Shearsmith delight in taking a perfectly normal situation populated by reasonable, intelligent people and turning up the heat until something snaps. The transition from awkward working lunch to deadly encounter is masterful, and this episode boasts one of the series’ greatest scripts.
The Devil of Christmas
What becomes clear fairly early on watching Inside Number 9 is the respect it has for early TV serials and in this episode, the show pays glorious tribute to its forebears. Using the same cameras and techniques that were used in 1970’s serials like Armchair Theatre, Beasts and Thriller, this episode feels like a relic of a bygone age. Indeed, with a director providing commentary over the episode about the actor’s off-screen antics and the technical aspects of the shoot, it’s made to feel like the DVD commentary from an episode of Tales of The Unexpected. As with everything in Inside Number 9, however, the viewer has to be prepared for the rug to pulled form under their feet. When the twist arrives, it does so with a sickening thump.