Inside No 9 is back for a fourth series, and it’s amazing to see how much the show has grown over the years since Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton’s first episode, Sardines, aired back in 2014. Their first collaborative effort after League of Gentlemen went on sabbatical, Psychoville, carried over a lot from their early days on the BBC: crude characters and the bleakest of bleak humour. It may have all been wrapped in a House of Hammer plot that blossomed into Tales of the Unexpected in its second series, but it too often felt like a satellite office to The League of Gentlemen rather than its own thing. To the cynical eye, Inside No 9 look like a humble pretender to the crown of glory past. After all, taken at face value, each one is nothing more than a mini-play, often set within one room, which will have no effect on the episode that comes after.
That is, of course, an extremely cynical view.
Taken as a whole, Inside No 9 is a universe which fully encompasses the full spectrum of human interaction. Yes, there are episodes that focus of the bleak side of life, but stare at them for too long and you miss the likes of the heart-breaking The 12 Days of Christine, the slapstick silent tomfoolery of A Quiet Night In and the surprisingly romantic Empty Orchestra. No, Inside No 9 escapes the League comparisons of Psychoville and becomes something much more.
The point that this rather long-winded introduction is getting to is that Zanzibar, which kicks of this new series, bodes well for what’s to come and shouts that Inside No 9 is showing no signs of running out of creative steam.
Written entirely in iambic pentameter, Zanzibar sees a disparate group of people interacting with each over, in real time, within the confines of a hotel corridor. Whilst set during the modern day, there’s a Shakespearean feel to the proceedings that isn’t limited to the dialogue. Fred the bellhop (Jaygann Ayeh) takes on the duties of Puck, introducing the audience to the tale that includes allusions to Midsummer Night’s Dream, Macbeth and Twelfth Night. There are confusions involving twins (played by Rory Kinnear), poisoned chalices – well, glasses – of red wine, monologues to the audience and prostitutes with skills in ‘water sports’. Admittedly, that last part might be unfamiliar to Shakespeare canon, but those who crack a wry smile whenever they hear the title of the Bard’s play, Much Ado About Nothing, will likely accept that if Will could have gotten away with it, he would have.
As has been happening with the last two series, Shearsmith and Pemberton more or less take a backseat in this story, playing minor, but important, parts in the overall narrative. Pemberton plays an overprotective son trying to cure his mother’s dementia, whilst Shearsmith is a leering, sinister bodyguard with machinations to murder his boss and make himself out to be a hero. Despite their limited screen time, they aren’t missed. And I mean that in a good way. The ensemble in their place, which also includes Helen Monk, Tanya Franks and Kevin Eldon, bring out the best in the duo’s words.
If each episode of Inside No 9 is considered a mini-drama, then episodes like Zanzibar prove the durability of their work. Their playful usage of the English language not only shows a love of the theatrical, but also of the culture from which scripts like this extend from. Sexual escapades aside, there really is no reason why something like this couldn’t be taught in schools to show that Shakespeare’s legacy extends beyond a handful of plays that are drilled into us from age 11 onward. A sparkling start to the series, we can only hope that Inside No 9 continues down this inventive path.