'Inside No 9' S7 review: Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton's show is still morbidly entertaining
Returning to BBC Two on 20 April for its seventh season, Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton's anthology show Inside No.9 promises more of the same pitch black humour and leftfield irreverence, which has made it such a hit.
In an ideal world every drama would be written by League of Gentlemen's Shearsmith and Pemberton. The writing duo might not be for everyone, but there is no denying that their specific brand of drama has broad appeal.
Read more: Inside No.9 stage show on the cards
Brooding, bleak and yet tinged with tangible pathos, there is something inherently human about their inhumane creations. A fact which is reflected by Inside No.9, the anthology series which has run since 2014.
Coming on like the gothic child of Black Mirror, Inside No.9 has consistently pushed the boundaries of good taste, drawing in top-tier talent for effective guest spots. Gemma Arterton, Emilia Fox and Derek Jacobi have all garnered kudos for its creators, who revel in revealing our darkest fears.
However, for audiences familiar with The League of Gentlemen, a landmark series which did nothing for isolated villages anywhere, this has always felt like a homecoming.
Over six seasons, elements of 1980s anthology show Tales of the Unexpected can also be glimpsed, as seemingly normal set-ups rapidly head south over 30 minutes. Pemberton and Shearsmith feature extensively in most episodes, displaying an on-screen chemistry developed over decades.
No taboos are off limits, no tragedy is above consideration in the service of character, whilst their understanding of these flawed creations is peerless.
Either dressed in drag or concealed beneath effective make up, both actors excel in bringing something fresh to every story they conceive. That is what consistently raised the bar when it came to seasons one and two of The League of Gentlemen, as these often repulsive people slowly revealed themselves to be genuinely tragic. For many people that was the primary hurdle when it came to embracing the show, as breast-feeding livestock is not for everyone.
On the evidence of two episodes from season seven, this long-term writing team have veered away from shock tactics and embraced smaller character moments. Fragile friendships, grieving spouses and the constant reminder of lost opportunities are all tackled with care and consideration.
Read more: Why we love anthology shows
Over the space of thirty minutes, long term bonds are established, old rivalries surface and recriminations are rife. Revelations between Pemberton, Shearsmith and their oldest collaborating partner Mark Gatiss — making his Inside No.9 debut — are communicated with subtlety and tact.
As the episode plays out and it becomes clear how flawed these individuals are, this opener abruptly changes course to offer up an existential curveball. Life after death is thematically addressed, while biblical imagery gives everything a slightly morbid edge.
However, despite this contentious change in narrative direction, Pemberton, Shearsmith and company keep everything grounded. It is a trick which gets repeated in the darker, but no less engaging second segue, that mines more disturbing themes with self-assurance.
In a segment which could have been lifted straight from Stephen King, life lessons are imparted and Pagan festivals are drawn on to disturbing effect. In a call back to The Wicker Man or more recently Midsommar, contemporary social issues get pushed aside in favour of something far older.
With Pemberton and Shearsmith on solid form this second episode is about building character. With a cast of younger actors who actively embrace those more questionable elements, Inside No.9 once again pushes the boundaries of good taste.
With a bold and brazen physical element, which finds Pemberton exposed after some shocking allegations are made, this series again walks a thin line by courting potential censorship. However, what repeatedly keeps Inside No.9 away from any form of public backlash, comes down to the way these stories and characters are constructed.
Read more: Shearsmith missed wife's birthday to shoot movie
Etched with a degree of humanity which makes them recognisable if not relatable, it displays a degree of skill which must be given rather than taught.
Going back twenty years to The League of Gentlemen, where the inhabitants were addicted to butchered meat and a pre-op transsexual cabbie ferried people about, it is easy to identify where their fascination with tragic personalities began.
With Jeremy Dyson and Mark Gatiss bulking out the writer's room back then, audiences were introduced to a mish-mash of local oddballs who were consumed by their own problems.
Not only did Royston Vasey become synonymous with a certain adult stand-up comic, but it soon came to mean something else entirely. Between them this quartet of creative kink ushered in a new era, as debates around gender and identity would become increasingly fluid concepts.
That is the rock upon which Inside No.9 has flourished and continues to do so, looking through one particular window at a world ever so slightly left of centre.
Inside No.9 season 7 starts at 10pm on Wednesday, 20 April on BBC Two.