TV Review: Inside No 9

Inside No 9

BBC2 Wednesday 10pm

* * * *

Image for Sardines

This review first appeared in The Student, Tuesday 11 February 2014

Inside No 9, the macabre new comedy penned by The League of Gentlemen’s Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton, shares the hallmarks of their last offering, the terrific Psychoville; it’s familiar but uncanny, funny but unsettling, a joy to watch but at the same time ever so slightly distressing.

At the doomed engagement party of repressed Rebecca (The IT Crowd’s Katherine Parkinson) and dullard Jeremy, a game of ‘sardines’ takes place inside an antique wardrobe which looms over a bedroom filled with symbolic old baggage. The episode is set entirely within this bedroom, giving a claustrophobic atmosphere which intensifies as each character in turn squeezes into the wardrobe.

The cast is impressive, from Anna Chancellor and Julian Rhind-Tutt’s randy posho couple to Marc Wootton’s ‘Stinky John’, a man so traumatised by some past event that he cannot bear to bathe. Shearsmith is reliably excellent as aggressively gay Stu, slinking about and speaking with a campness bordering on the vicious, making innuendos about ‘having wood’ and ‘secreting himself’. Pemberton’s portrayal of Stu’s closeted lover Carl is a master-class in simmering resentment and suppressed horrors.

Tim Key is quietly brilliant as IT man Ian, looking like a worm in a suit, blinking behind naff spectacles and saying wholly inappropriate things in a creepily butter-soft voice. Key and Shearsmith get the best lines but there is some subtly brilliant physical comedy going on, especially from Parkinson, whose facial expressions steal scenes. Everything about the look of this episode is spot-on, from the hair and make-up to the costumes and set design, and the scratchy violins of the incidental music add to the oppressive, eerie feel of the place.

Each episode of Inside No 9 is a self-contained story, so it’s not really a series in the conventional sense, more like a collection of one-offs. This anthology style mirrors that of Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected (1979-88), a comically gruesome series with twist endings which clearly influenced Shearsmith and Pemberton. Future episodes are bound to share the same grimly comedic tone, but the introduction of a new narrative each time ensures an unpredictability which suits the unhinged subject matter.

The sting in this episode’s tail is satisfyingly sinister, prompting shudders and smiles in equal measures, a pleasurable combination which has come to be expected of Shearsmith and Pemberton. Long may their creative partnership give us goosebumps.

Black Mirror: TV Review

Black Mirror, TV

This review first appeared in The University of Edinburgh’s The Student TV section Tue 19 Feb 2013 

Black Mirror

Channel 4, Monday 10pm


Charlie Brooker’s 2011 Black Mirror trilogy featured the Prime Minister of Great Britain (sadly not David Cameron) having sex with a pig. However horrific that might sound, there was so much more to the trilogy than shock tactics. It was a sharply satirical, bleakly funny, dystopian look at the not-too-distant future, a future that could well become a reality if, Brooker suggested, the human race isn’t careful.

This year’s trilogy-opener ‘Be Right Back’ continues in this vein, set a short time in the future when iPhones are wafer-thin and iPads can be controlled by simply using your hand to manipulate the air surrounding them. Hayley Atwell plays Martha who has just moved into a country cottage with her social media-addict boyfriend Ash (Domnhall Gleeson). When Ash is killed in a car crash, Martha is left alone and utterly devastated.

At Ash’s funeral, a friend mentions a new invention to Martha, a computer programme that can recreate the voice of a deceased person using every comment they’ve ever written on Twitter, Facebook etc. At first, Martha is horrified, but when she discovers she is carrying Ash’s baby she becomes emotionally unstable and seeks solace in the programme.

This is where Brooker’s social satire comes into play. As Martha becomes more and more addicted to chatting to ‘Ash’ on her phone, giving the programme access to all of Ash’s videos, emails and photographs, the danger of sharing too much online becomes increasingly apparent. Ash has given so much of himself to Facebook, Twitter etc. that his whole personality can be reconstructed from his comments even after his death.

When ‘Ash’ tells Martha that the programme can move up a step, she jumps at the chance. A body with artificial flesh is delivered to her door, which she places in a hot bath, sprinkling electrolytes into the water like fish food. The body becomes Ash, missing only a mole on his chest and facial hair. It even has his sense of humour. He can’t feel sexual urges – as this was never recorded online – but he can switch his erection on and off, delivering more sexual satisfaction to Martha than the living Ash ever did.

Except, as Martha quickly realises, there are some things that a computer programme simply cannot replicate. The iAsh is maddeningly compliant and sedentary, and this is one of the most powerful insights made by Brooker: it’s not just the humour and acquiescence of our loved ones that we miss; it’s their bad traits too.

As in the last series, the resolution is far from uplifting, but it’s powerful, thought-provoking and wickedly clever. Black Mirror showcases Brooker’s increasingly assured ability not just as a satirist but as a bona-fide screenwriter.

When What Happens in Kavos Doesn’t Stay in Kavos…: TV Column


This column originally appeared in The Student TV section, Tuesday 29th January 2013

Ever gone on Facebook to find you’ve been tagged in 107 hideously unflattering/incriminating photos from the night before, then spent a sweaty-palmed half hour de-tagging them in the vain hope that no one saw?

Shows like Channel 4’s What Happens in Kavos… are the televisual equivalent of being tagged in your most wincingly shameful states, except instead of a few hundred ‘friends’ seeing them it’s 1.6 million strangers, and instead of pictures of you with a triple-chin it’s footage of you with your pants round your ankles, vomiting into a wicker bin.

This week’s mesmerising car-crash featured scenes that would make Hieronymus Bosch throw down his paintbrush in despair: vast quantities of garishly coloured cheap cocktails served in huge plastic bowls; a mother-daughter combo on a sexy booze binge; lads drinking their own piss; totally indiscriminate sex; an epidemic of doggy-style dry-humping; horrific drunken injuries, and more misogynistic T-shirt slogans than you could shake a stick at

These shows (including ITV2’s particularly low-budget-tastic The Magaluf Weekender) look as if they cost about 50 quid to hash together. In a way, you can’t blame channels for commissioning them. In times of austerity, shows that cost peanuts must be tempting for TV execs balancing slashed budgets with the battle for ratings. But how many great shows never get funded in place of these cheap, take-away ‘documentaries’?

It all feels so…exploitative. This week’s Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents (BBC3) featured teenager Jemma, daft as a brush with a voice like a high-pitched Lancashire Don Corleone, who was filmed jiggling her boobs about on a nightclub podium and simulating sex positions with a stranger during a boat party (all secretly witnessed by her parents: a shuddersome prospect).

Not admirable, no, but we’ve all done stupid things (and pressed delete on the photos that prove it), except Jemma doesn’t have the option to delete her testaments of shame. They now exist FOREVER, gawked at by people who will judge her, call her a slag and shake their heads at the screen in disgust.

True, a lot of the young Brits filmed here are not behaving well. The way some of the boys regard women had me flinging my copy of The Female Eunuch at the screen in despair. But it is surely the adults behind the cameras who are the worst offenders. Things are bleak for a lot of young Brits at the moment, and people do go crazy abroad. By stripping daft youngsters of their right to delete and de-tag their youthful craziness, the makers of these shows are doing them an injustice.

Shows like these should not be broadcast into our living-rooms each week… but we can’t seem to look away.