How dark do you like you comedy? The nineties brought a thirst for situation comedy with a little more bite. A new world which combined the laughs with pitch black situations; innuendo rich one liners and jaunty characters mixed with truly nasty moments and flawed individuals. Julia Davis’ Nighty Night, Garth Merenghi’s Dark Place and even stealth like prime time BBC1 fodder like the excellent One Foot in the Grave.
In 1999 The League of Gentlemen (Jeremy Dyson, Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith) arrived on BBC2 with a refreshing type of comedy – a gloriously bold, funny and macabre collection of stories and characters, all residing in the fictional northern town of Royston Vasey. This time inspiration was drawn from the horror genre, just as much as the nuances of everyday life in a Northern town and classic British sitcom tropes.
The band of three (Dyson stayed off camera) delivered three series, a special and a feature film, revelling in the fun, and grotesque lives of these characters (all played by themselves), but then went their separate ways. A reunion has been confirmed for 2019/20. In 2009, Shearsmith and Pemberton picked up the baton and delivered a psychological horror come comedy series, Psychoville, loved by fans but seemingly under the radar of the traditional BBC audience. The two writers again assumed multiple roles, this time joined by a host of other players including renowned TV actor Jason Watkins, and most memorably Dawn French as an emotionally disturbed midwife.
Now this is where things get interesting. In 2014 Shearsmith and Pemberton returned with a different beast – an anthology series, set in a different single location each week with a different cast each time, barring the two writers who play different characters in each episode. Here one could no longer call this just dark comedy – a change in style with every new tale brought drama and horror in to the mix; in fact in some cases the comedy was echewed in favour of tension, terror and heart breaking emotion. Only two things were sure – the location involved the number nine, and there was a final moment rug pull to delight, surprise and terrify. You never quite knew in which direction each half hour would play out. Critics and viewers alike sat up and took notice. I would approach each episode with excitement and apprehension…What on earth would play out this week?!
I should be clear, this is a brilliant series. Creatively diverse and a masterclass in writing and direction. Each week brings new characters, styles and mysteries to watch unravel. With a new cast every week – and so a shorter commitment from the stars to film – the calibre of the ever changing guest actors is high. The cream of British television were lining up to take part, all keen to work with the creators and in most cases play completely against type. Such alumni as Jane Horrocks, Timothy West, Phillip Glenister, Gemma Arterton, Tamsin Gregg and Peter Kay to name but a very small number of the stars who were clearly loving every twisted minute.
If The League of Gentlemen passed you by, or Steve Pemberton as Mick Garvey in Benidorm left you colder than an off season on the Costa Del Sol, I urge you to check out three series of some of the best television writing and performances this side of the Atlantic. To whet your appetite make a beeline for the following episodes:
Sheridan Smith delivering a typically heavyweight performance in The Twelve Days of Christine.
Julia Davis at her deliciously camp best in The Understudy.
Helen McCroy being wonderfully creepy (but not the creepiest thing) in the terrifying The Harrowing.
TV Legend Rula Lenska serving up more ham than the meat counter at Sainsbury’s in The Devil of Christmas.
Tamsin Outhwaite giving us an against type monster of a secretary in Empty Orchestra.
To share any more detail about these episodes will spoil the many treats and surprises in store for you – but be aware this is comedy not for the faint hearted. A great place to start is series one, episode one: Sardines. A large ensemble cast, in a confined space, all with many secrets and revelations, with a slowly escalating tension, and then a final act twist. This perfectly encapsulates and sets the tone for the seventeen episodes that follow. Have a double bill and watch episode two straight after; A Quiet Night In, which gives you a taste of the huge variety in styles. This a hilarious dialogue free masterpiece starring Denis Lawson.
Watch this now! The first two series of Inside No. 9 are available to watch on Netflix. All three are available to download on iTunes.