Inside No 9: Plodding On, final episode, review: Cult series bows out with fiendishly clever all-star farce

Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith sign off with one final macabre tale
Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith sign off with one final macabre tale - James Stack

Forget The Battle for Number 10. Wednesday night’s TV was all about number nine - and happily, it was far more entertaining than the latest election special. Inside No 9 (BBC Two) bowed out with a touching ode to the friendship between its co-creators - all wrapped up inside a cynical showbiz satire, naturally. Well, they wouldn’t want us to think they’d gone soft in their old age.

After 55 mini masterpieces in their blackly comic anthology, creators Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith decided to bring down the blood-red velvet curtain - aptly, at the end of the ninth series. One last knowing little nod to the number which has recurred throughout.

Over the past decade, Inside No 9 devotees have learnt to expect the unexpected. We’ve had silent episodes, episodes told backwards, in iambic pentameter or via cryptic crossword clues. They’ve been semi-improvised, semi-animated, semi-all sorts. They’ve fooled us with faux-live episodes and hoax billings to hoodwink viewers. The devilish, genre-defying show has hopped from high farce to heartbreaking tragedy, from schlock horror to historical drama and back again.

This finale had been kept tightly under wraps. Neither plot details nor advance copies were sent out to reviewers. Fans were therefore on their toes for a final flourish. Speculation was rife. Anticipation was high. Expecting one last rug-pull, viewers were advised to watch it live so surprises weren’t spoiled.

The word was that it would eschew guest stars and be a two-hander between Pemberton and Shearsmith. Well, we couldn’t have been more wrong. Mischievous to the end, they had clearly spread fake news. Rather than no guest stars, this giddy romp featured a whopping 49.

Details of the finale had been kept tightly under wraps
Details of the finale had been kept tightly under wraps - BBC

Self-referentially set at the series wrap party - and mainly in the venue’s gender-neutral toilets - this was a backstage comedy of manners. A galaxy of former guest stars popped in and out. Tim Key and Katherine Parkinson (or was it Amanda Abbington?) took cocaine together, until dear old Anne Reid gatecrashed the cubicle. “I’ve heard you’ve scored some great snow,” she said. “Any chance of a quick toot?” She was last seen being helped into a taxi, grinding her teeth.

Gradually the underlying storyline emerged. Now that Inside No 9 was drawing to a close, the duo were weighing up their next move. Shearsmith was keen for them to play a detective duo in a new BBC comedy-drama called Plodding On. How depressingly plausible that sounded. Unbeknown to him, Pemberton had bagged a well-paid gig in a lavishly produced but poorly written Amazon fantasy epic. How depressingly plausible that sounded, too. The longtime friends fell out, exchanging bitter recriminations.

Still the in-jokes kept coming. Nick Mohammed played himself as a self-obsessed podcast host. Mark Gatiss was a disloyal luvvie. Everyone quoted liberally from old scripts, while sipping cocktails punningly named after previous episodes. Shearsmith bridled at accusations that their plot twists always involved ghosts. “We’ve done that three times in 55 episodes,” he snapped. It was playfully postmodern and magnificently meta.

Even though they undercut themselves with gags about self-indulgence, the duo had earned a misty-eyed swan song. They have written every episode and starred in almost all of them. It’s an astonishing achievement and the high standard rarely dropped. “Half-hour nothings, every fourth one a dud,” exaggerated Pemberton. In truth, Inside No 9 packed more ideas and imagination into each half-hour than other shows do in several series.

Tucked away on BBC Two, it never quite got the recognition it deserved. Now this criminally underrated show is coming to an end. We won’t know what we had until it’s gone. Its anthology format is a pleasing callback to classic series such as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone, Play of the Week and Tales of the Unexpected. They don’t make them like this anymore - but they should.

Of course, it wouldn’t be Inside No 9 without one last twist. As a montage of highlights played on the big screen to a rapturous reception from the assembled thesps, Pemberton’s Amazon role fell through. He apologised to Shearsmith. Would they plod on together after all? Not quite. Instead they made an On The Buses spoof with Robin Askwith - the “lost” episode they’d teased last year. Those wicked wags kept us guessing to the last, waving goodbye from the open platform of a number nine bus.

Endlessly entertaining and richly rewarding, Inside No 9 has earned a loyal following. “It’s only a TV programme,” shrugged Pemberton. “It’s on and then it’s not. Just another line on your CV.” On the contrary, fans are devastated that it’s come to an end. Or at least until spin-off play Stage/Fright arrives in West End theatres in January. For now, it’s farewell, you sick pair. I mean that in a good way.