Farewell, Inside No 9: Why the BBC show’s finale must be watched live

Karma chameleons: Steve Pemberton (left) and Reece Shearsmith created a multitude of characters for the 55 episodes of ‘Inside No 9’ (BBC)
Karma chameleons: Steve Pemberton (left) and Reece Shearsmith created a multitude of characters for the 55 episodes of ‘Inside No 9’ (BBC)

Not many TV shows could get away with making their second ever episode completely silent. Let alone instalments told in iambic pentameter or via cryptic crossword clues. What about one set entirely inside a wardrobe? However, Inside No 9 isn’t your average TV show. In fact, it’s the most inventive, ingenious programme on our screens. And this week, it comes to a conclusion. I, for one, am bereft.

Each week, the comedy-horror anthology tells a different dark and deliciously twisted story. It thrills, it chills, it often kills. Creators Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith have now decided to bring down the curtain after nine seasons, as one last numerical in-joke. BBC Two’s longest-running current comedy is nine and out. This fiendishly clever, wonderfully witty series bows out as one of the best things on British TV.

Honestly, head to iPlayer, Gold or Netflix and see for yourself. Because they’re self-contained quick hits, you can dip in anywhere. Chances are you’ll soon be obsessed and devouring several per night. Inside No 9 crams more ideas into each 28-minute episode than lesser shows manage in an entire series. When the credits roll for the last time tonight, the prolific pair will have written and starred in 55 superb standalone stories. That’s more than half a century of small but perfectly formed playlets, with the standard never dipping. It’s an astonishing achievement. Now it’s coming to an end.

The anthology format is a throwback to classic series such as Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected. Each episode tells a fresh story with new characters in a different location. It’s basically Black Mirror but made on a fraction of the budget. All they have in common are roles for the chameleonic Shearsmith and Pemberton, the numeral nine (often a door number) and a brass statuette of a hare, which always appears in the background as an Easter egg for eagle-eyed fans. They also invariably involve a head-spinning plot twist or two.

Episodes can be breathtakingly moving – see what’s widely agreed to be the best ever, “The 12 Days Of Christine”, starring Sheridan Smith. They can be boundary-pushing or genre-bending, formally playful or fond pastiches. Along with that wordless episode (“A Quiet Night In”), we’ve had a homage to Italian commedia dell’arte (“Wuthering Heist”) and another based on Macbeth (“The Understudy”). You don’t get that on Mrs Brown’s Boys.

There’s been an episode told entirely through a call centre’s CCTV feed (“Cold Comfort”) and a murder-mystery shot on a fixed doorbell cam (“Mulberry Close”). A spoof TV quiz called 3 By 3 fooled many viewers into thinking it was a real gameshow. Well, until it all went horribly wrong. Live Halloween special “Dead Line” prompted audience complaints until it turned out to be a Ghostwatch-style haunted hoax.

Stories have unfolded via reverse chronology (“Once Removed”), split screen (“Kid/Nap”), lip-reading (“Lip Service”) and animated sequences (“Wise Owl”). They’ve been interactive or semi-improvised. They’re often uproariously funny. Shearsmith and Pemberton cut their teeth in sketch comedy and can rarely resist a gag.

Steve Pemberton in the call centre episode ‘Cold Comfort’ (BBC)
Steve Pemberton in the call centre episode ‘Cold Comfort’ (BBC)

Quality scripts and the fact that it’s a one-off gig mean Inside No 9 attracts remarkably high-profile guest casts. A-list names such as Gemma Arterton, Jason Isaacs, Keeley Hawes, Peter Kay, Natalie Dormer, Johnny Flynn and Jenna Coleman have ventured Inside No 9. Dermot O’Leary, Michael Ball and Lee Mack all appeared as themselves. Sir Derek Jacobi is the only thesp to have popped up twice.

The farewell episode has been kept a closely guarded secret, with no advance screeners sent out to reviewers. This only makes it more intriguing. Word is that it eschews guest stars and is a two-hander between Pemberton and Shearsmith, which feels fitting. Inside No 9 has sprung surprises before, with fake episode titles and high-concept ruses. Fans are braced for another rug-pull.

For all its boundless imagination, Inside No 9 remains criminally underrated – partly because it straddles comedy and drama, partly because it airs in the unglamorous “10pm on BBC Two” slot. It tends to fall through the gaps at awards shows, taking five series to win its first Bafta.

Sheridan Smith’s ‘The 12 Days Of Christine’ episode is considered one of the best (BBC)
Sheridan Smith’s ‘The 12 Days Of Christine’ episode is considered one of the best (BBC)

I hope its decade-long success and devoted cult following open the door for more original styles of storytelling on TV. Sadly, I somehow doubt it. Chances are that risk-averse channels will instead commission yet another autobiographical sad-com, dysfunctional detective drama or domestic noir sat around an enviable kitchen island.

At least this isn’t quite the last we’ll see of it. In January, the duo will star in a West End theatrical version called Inside No 9: Stage/Fright. The show is vastly popular in China, where it’s being turned into an immersive 360-degree live production. There’s speculation about other potential spin-offs, from feature films to escape rooms. Or maybe, just maybe, this isn’t the end of the beloved TV show at all? That truly would be a welcome plot twist.

The last episode of ‘Inside No 9’ airs tonight on BBC Two at 10pm