Submitted on 5/2/2014
Be still my beating heart. Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith return to our screens with Inside No 9, six self-contained comedies with some delicious shocks and surprises. They talk about the series, their other plans and the inevitable prospect of a League of Gentlemen reunion.
BD: Six one-off comedy chillers? How exciting. Does it feel like a departure for you?
RS: It was born out of our enjoyment of the episode of Psychoville which was a self-contained story with Mark (Gatiss) in it. That was so enjoyable to do with the restrictions of it being in that house we wondered would would it be possible to do a Play For Today-type series with the constraint of the claustrophobia. It is a single room each week but it was also all about the writing.
SP: In terms of structure you couldn't get further away from Psychoville. It's about the writing. The humour is often the same but it was also the notion of us not having to play these multiple characters in the same show.
BD: You're not in all the episodes and not always the stars are you?
SP: That was one of the earliest decisions. I remember a few of these anthology series where it was all about what character is this same famous person playing this week? It was more of a star turn and about it being this person. I didn't want this to be like that. It's more Tales Of The Unexpected.
RS: Some shockers you go, is that it? Is that the twist? In terms of structure it was all about the writing and all about doing something new or "regenerate" if we can use that word. We've always felt the League of Gentlemen was "that thing then" - you've got to try new stuff otherwise you are forever doing another sketch show etc. We wrote the stories first then thought, could we be in them? It was more how do we get the best out of the characters? We feel you are enjoying a good cast each week.
BD: If they are all different is there a theme? Is there a better way of describing Inside No 9 than the cliche about "your trademark dark humour"?
SP: It's always been so hard to categorise, it's a mash up. I always say we've done the hard work writing the scripts, you've got to say what it is.
RS: Some are like The Chuckle Brothers with a little bit of a scare, others turn quite horrible. One is like a dark sitcom, there is a theme of trapped people if you are trying to pull out a kind of tone. We are never happy when the normal happens, we've tried to write that, but you feel you never get into it until something a bit left field happens. We strive for an "oh my god" moment.
BD: You do push things very far by XXXXXXXX (rest of question and some of their answer redacted as it contains spoilers)
SP: In the second episode (which has no dialogue) we had to keep it interesting, we did not have a clue what was happening as we wrote it. I can't remember which one of us said it but when XXXXXXX we both fell about laughing. In the first episode Sardines the first draft was different. We talked about various ideas of why they were in a wardrobe, but we were certainly not working out our Freudian psychobabble...
RS: It all just makes it a more interesting ride…it makes things richer.
BD: Any cameos from Mark Gatiss?
SP: No. That was a special treat in Psychoville. Once you've done it you can't do it again. We did that episode in two takes and thought of that again but what's the point? So we decided to do a silent one as a challenge instead. I'm sure there will be other little surprise, there's always that desire to wrong foot the audience, but these are all different in tone.
BD: Charlie Chaplin's granddaughter Oona is in the silent episode - was that a tribute?
RS: It was almost an accident but maybe a little nod, We had to be quiet because we were robbing a house then had to maintain a reason to be quiet.
BD: Are you Chaplin fans?
RS: It's nice to do more physical stuff, something we don't usually do, we are more dialogue-based. There was no need to learn lines, which was nice.
SP: There was that children's series Brum - we always wanted to be a couple of robbers in that, so that might be where the idea came from.
BD: You don't get a XXXXXX in children's TV show. Was it easier or much harder doing six one-offs rather than the pressures of continuous narrative?
SP: Both really. Harder than Psychoville because we were starting from scratch, but easier because there was no narrative. In a narrative a returning character means the work is done for you, but the downside is that you are required to follow it, that's what the BBC will tell you. With this anthology a new thing each week they will say "where is the commitment, the continuity of character?" It's a new world each week.
RS: As soon as we were hooked into the idea some we wrote in a week. One set in a dressing room with a Macbeth understudy tells the story of Macbeth backstage in an am dram group. We knew the idea was good. With Sardines we wrote a list of people in a family and every three pages one comes in. The placing of the terrible reveal is barely there.
BD: How do you write?
SP: Together sat in a room.
BD: You were a bit disappointed that the BBC ended Psychoville though weren't you?
SP: We were disappointed with the viewing figures so felt the writing was on the wall. We set up a meeting where we went in and planned that if the meeting goes this way we will write a third series and if not we will pitch Inside No 9. We didn't want Psychoville to be a show that was cancelled though. The first series was open-ended, but with the second series it felt quite wrapped up so we were quite happy to say that's that then.
RS: The scheduling was very poor though. The last episode was moved around because Mock The Week came back and was "deemed more important…"
BD: Lucky you had this idea in your back pocket…
RS: We were doing things in the theatre at the time so we had the idea of plays with a small group of characters in one location. We just pitched that idea and they said that sounds good.
BD: I saw your Adelphi reunion gig last December and you were the highlight of the night, getting a bigger cheer than Rowan Atkinson. Was that a surprise?
RS: We were really surprised. We thought we'd be away before the second half, and Rowan would headline, not us.
SP: We were surprised when there was a big reaction. We'd done stuff together over the years but not as The League of Gentlemen so it became a big story.
BD: How did it come about?
SP: I'd seen someone from our old promoters in a Steve Coogan documentary and I emailed him to say "nice to see you" and he mentioned the benefit…
RS: We had to get the script book out and on the day we sat in the dressing room together but it was amazing how quickly it all came back.
SP: But you start to question what was funny about it in the first place, we were trying to remember what was initially funny about this...
RS: I wasn't even sure if people would know who we are, because these benefit bills are such a mixed bag.
BD: So presumably the promoter wants you to tour now?
SP: Have you been hacking into my email? A few years ago there was talk of a reunion and we had a meeting. There was going to be a theme night but we felt it was too soon. Now maybe we've been away long enough to come back with "classic" sketches. But they were just sketches at the time! Who knows, we may well do some stuff in the future.
RS: It might not be Royston Vasey but we've always wanted to do something again as the League, it's just a matter of putting aside the time for it…(RS later said elsewhere they might do something for the 20th anniversary of their TV debut in 2019.
BD: What else are you up to?
RS: We hope this will get another series. (Good news, since this interview RS has been told it has)
SP: Benidorm is back and I'm doing a Yorkshire drama and Happy Valley for BBC1. I'm also writing a drama.
BD: Going back to Inside No 9, you've got a great cast, Tim Key, Tamsin Greig, Julia Davis, Helen McCrory, Katherine Parkinson…
SP: The casting was quite easy as we were not asking for a huge commitment in terms of time.
RS: A lot of them we offered the roles, they were too big to audition and not doing it for the money, but they liked the quick shoot.
BD: It's going out at 10pm which I guess gives you plenty of freedom?
RS: I was surprised we were allowed to feature a XXXXXX with an XXXXXXXX. You don't see that very often. The prop man had to order it online so I wonder what his spam emails are going to be like from now…