The opening episode of the third season of Inside No. 9 is a Christmas-themed nightmare, dealing with the old legend of Krampus.
It also, to some extent, deals with the legend of the BBC multi-camera studio bound dramas of the seventies and eighties, employing both old-fashioned cameras and indeed retired camera operators. All of which means that this is a double-layered episode: we get ‘The Devil Of Christmas’, and what is essentially the making of that episode (with at least one un-optional extra).
After years of unoriginal critics (uh, like this one) claiming that Inside No. 9 is a call-back to television dramas of the past like Tales of the Unexpected and Armchair Thriller, Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton have decided to go all out and give us an episode that appears to throw meta-reality to the side and actually be an instalment of one of those classic anthology series. Along with Derek Jacobi providing the sort of narration that was never available on an episode of In the Night Garden, you have a sly, knowing episode full of festive treats.
Such is the intricate detail of Shearsmith and Pemberton’s writing that there’s an early reveal in the story that merely seems like a cute joke if you’re not really paying attention, looks like a mistake if you are, and is actual a subtle clue to the eventual outcome.
This is a reasonably unique episode in that, for once, you’re being asked to view it on two levels: as an artifice, with overwrought acting and camera shots that outstay their welcome, as well as the plot that’s actually onscreen: a disjointed family affair and a mysterious host, Klaus (Shearsmith).
There are glorious touches of late-’70s television that for older viewers will feel like coming home: an expansive studio floor, sound effects that are dialled down far too quickly for narrative logic, and exposition dumps by a small cast where everyone waits patiently for their line of dialogue.
It’s often said that takes real talent to look unskilled, and here Jessica Raine (An Adventure in Time and Space, Wolf Hall) delivers in spades.
It’s usual, when acting ‘badly’, to give enough clues to the audience so that they realise that the cast is actually playing things badly deliberately (something that, for all its genius, Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace was particularly guilty of). Here, Raine displays no such ego: her delivery is guileless, stilted and mannered while being earnest and clearly responding to an old-school director who’s told her how to do ‘proper’ acting.
Meanwhile, you have Rula Lenska in the matriarchal role. She too is strong enough to deliver her ‘bad’ acting with nary a ham in sight, and her proud, fur clad bitch role wouldn’t look out of place in a Roald Dahl drama, while it’s fascinating to see how Steve Pemberton plays a role (as both character and character actor) that’s ostensibly at the centre of the story, but is essentially sleepwalking through the dialogue before the next voice-over gig.
To a certain degree, the same is true for Reece Shearsmith’s Klaus, and it’s worth noting once again how often the creators of Inside No 9 are fascinated by pushing themselves to the sidelines of their own stories in favour of their guest actors.
For a piece that’s – at least in part – about broad stroke storytelling, it manages to be remarkably subtle; full of little quirks that are deliberately minor irritations: the child stamping his foot or rubbing his tired eyes (as no child outside of a BBC drama post 1987 has done), private conversations that are resolutely in everybody’s earshot, and carrying suitcases that are clearly empty (see also: coffee cups in EastEnders, up to the present day).
There’s also a nice sideswipe at the infamously prickly reputation of Jon Pertwee, a joke that keeps on hitting: the director Grahame Harper has directed several episodes of Doctor Who, while Rula Lenska was in the top five list when it came to casting classic companion Jo Grant.
At this point it’s tempting to see homages where, possibly, there are none: there are bloody scratches a character’s back; as in the very first episode of Hammer House Of Horror (‘Witching Time’), as well as the look of Toby (George Bedford), who does not look dissimilar to the lead guest star in the opening episode of Sapphire and Steel (an adventure that also deals with an old dark house coping with unwanted house guests and an overly loud clock that suddenly stops).
While the BBC no longer airs the drama strand A Ghost Story for Christmas, this is a noble occupier of that tradition, and is a fine signalman of the rest of the season.
Aired at 10pm on Tuesday 27 December 2016 on BBC Two.
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