Inside No. 9: Interview: Steve Pemberton

The 12 Days of ChristineBBCDVD4043_INSIDE NO.9 S2_2D_CMYKThe new series of Inside No. 9, the anthology series by Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, hits DVD this week, following a strong critical reaction to its recent broadcast on BBC2. Shortly before the final episode was transmitted, writer and star Pemberton spoke with Paul Simpson about the show…

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Thanks for making me jump in broad daylight with the final episode of this season of Inside No. 9!

Oh, brilliant!

It brings the series to a close with the hell of a jump; how do you work out the running order for the stories? Do you have an idea going in how you want them to air? Or do you decide as you’re writing them?

We write them one at a time, and we don’t know when we’re writing one what the next one is going to be, other than the fact that we try to make it different each time. We certainly don’t start thinking about the order until we’ve written them.

I think as you’re writing them, some will emerge that are funnier than others, some will emerge as scary ones, and you’ll start to have a thought. We kept saying, “Let’s wait and see: we’ve got to make them, we’ve got to watch them” – because sometimes from the script stage to the execution of it, something might not work quite so well, you might go off it. So we always wait till we have them all written.

9 CouchetteBut even when we were filming La Couchette, it’s such a great cast, it has such a fun vibe about it, it’s a very straightforward story compared to some of them, we were thinking, “This is a contender to be in number one place.”

We had a huge debate about episode 2: I was really keen for The 12 Days of Christine to go into second place just because of all the episodes, it’s the most different, and yet we worried that it wasn’t as funny as some of the others.

We have big debates, and even when we were editing them, we kept saying, “We don’t have to decide until two or three weeks before the episodes go out. Until the information has to be sent out, we can keep juggling it.”

We debate long and hard, and the most important thing for us, really, is that week by week you get big shifts in tone, in subject matter. You wouldn’t want to put two episodes together that are similar.

I’m really pleased with the running order this year – I think it ends really strongly and we’ve just had wonderful feedback all the way through. It’s been exciting.

Nana's PartyNana’s Party almost feels as if it’s come from a different series. An anthology often has a similar tone across it, but that one seems very different from anything else that you’ve done before. Did it feel like that when you were writing it?

Yes, absolutely. When we had our initial meeting about Inside No. 9, we were thinking about doing something that would be more accessible, having done Psychoville, which was a very complex, dark, twisty-turny narrative – it’s a show we’re incredibly proud of. Everything we do we try and look at the next project and say we don’t want to go there again, we want to surprise people.

Nana’s Party was the first script we wrote for Inside No. 9, and we then wrote Tom & Gerri. We put these two forward to the BBC, and they said, “We feel like we’ve got two different series here: we’ve got the anthology series, but this could be a sitcom, this very domestic party one”, and they offered us the opportunity to turn Nana’s Party into a sitcom. Because we never wrote it as an episode one, so many things happen within that episode. I dread to think what episode two would be like, if you’re beginning with all these revelations!

Nana's PartySo we put it on the back burner, and thought, “Let’s leave that one.” We looked at it again when series 2 was coming up and we thought, “Do you know what? This is just really funny.” We loved the characters – I especially love the character of Carol, played by Lorraine Ashbourne, and her drinking. We just thought, “What a great thing to throw into series 2”, after we’d already written a couple of dark strange ones like Cold Comfort and The Trial. We thought it would go perfectly because it is so different.

The one thing that we did change in it is that we put the paramedic arriving at the beginning, because it just gives you the sense that something awful is going to happen. Without that, it was even more conventional. So in a way, putting this threat of an accident happening at the very beginning made it more of an Inside No. 9, because you’re thinking someone’s going to get stabbed, or somebody’s going to be set on fire. People were thinking all sorts of awful scenarios.

You’re absolutely right to spot that that was unlike the others, but that’s the joy of an anthology series: you change it up, and we try to show all the different things we can do in it.

You’re also directing a couple of episodes – has that affected how you write, or more of an appreciation of the poor bugger behind the camera?

Cold Comfort(laughs) We’ve always collaborated very closely with our directors; we’ve had some fabulous directors over the years, and it did feel like the right time to step up and take that responsibility. We knew that we couldn’t get David Kerr who directed the first series, he wasn’t available to us, and we knew that due to delivering the episodes so quickly we had to have multiple directors, but it kind of fell into our laps that we ought to do it.

In terms of doing it in the future, it absolutely appeals. I loved taking an episode from script stage right the way to the final edit and it being your sole responsibility, but I think I’d like to be in it a bit less. The two episodes we chose – Nana’s Party and Cold Comfort – we were pretty much in them all the way through. What was good was there were times when I was free and times when Reece was free, so one of us had that objectivity, and also we had a fantastic team we were working with.

It wasn’t done out of any egomania, just happenstance really, but certainly going forwards, it would be interesting to write an episode and think, “I’m not so worried about being in this one as I’d like to direct it.”

Seance TimeDo you think the show needs to have you both in it? Can it function as something written by you, but without you in it?

It certainly could. One of the nice things about being in it is it gives a continuity to the series. With an anthology, you need a bit of jam holding it all together, but in series 1 we had an episode I wasn’t in, and an episode Reece wasn’t in. This year in The 12 Days of Christine, we both took very minor roles.

It would also be interesting to see what anyone else could come up with script-wise for Inside No. 9. I love the idea of working with some new and up and coming writers, but then in a way you’re doing yourself out of a job! This is the way we make our living: we need to keep doing all our jobs.

It also changes the show: when Tales of the Unexpected stopped being Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected, it was different.

Yes, a bit weaker. We don’t want to go there. We don’t want to lose the goodwill we’ve managed to get over these first two series. But what we do each time is sit down and talk about all the various ideas that we have and anything is up for grabs – that’s a very exciting time for writing.

Are there any areas you’d feel would be off-limits for an Inside No. 9, or something you’ve thought it would need to be a feature, or other format?

9 SardinesNot really. In terms of subject matter, it very much depends how you tackle it. We’re certainly not attempting to upset anyone.

The very first episode, Sardines, touched on abuse, but I felt that it was done in a very sensitive way, and in a way that even though it’s broadly a comedy, the comedy wasn’t arising out of that. It was turned on its head by the revelation – I think it was really powerful.

We won’t shy away from a subject matter: we’ll just make sure that we tackle it in a responsible way. I hope. That’s certainly our intention.

Someone said to me that The 12 Days of Christine could have been a six part series and been amazing, but I think it would have lost some of its power. I think the very fact that you sat through the story from beginning to end in one sitting and a relatively short sitting as well… Half an hour to work a good idea out and bring it to its conclusion has worked for us so far and we wouldn’t want to be padding scripts unnecessarily, which you do feel sometimes in film and in drama. You don’t want to tread water: you want to go for that big ending which you have in your mind. We see no reason to change it at the moment.

Inside No.9 series 2What’s in the future at the moment for you as an actor and as a writer?

Largely unknown! It’s the first time in a long time: I left Benidorm, Whitechapel got cancelled, Mapp and Lucia isn’t going again.

I’ve been on a roll for quite a long time knowing what I’m doing next. Now for the first time, everything’s up for grabs. We hope to do a new series of Inside No. 9: I’d be surprised and upset if we weren’t offered it. It’s had an incredible reaction this time round, but if it doesn’t, then we’ll come up with something else. We have a number of people asking us about writing things.

I’m starting to feel now that it’s time to take some time and really think about what I want to do next. There’s a joy in doing an acting job where you’re not carrying the whole thing on your shoulders, whereas when we do Inside No. 9, we absolutely live and breathe it. I’d love to do a play, some more acting work, whether drama or comedy. It’s just waiting for the right scripts to come along.

Happy ValleyWhat attracts you to a script, both critically as a writer, and as an actor?

I suppose you’re looking at the story and the characters. If I’m sent a script to think about a particular character, I just have to be sure that it’s a good character for me, and something that I could get excited about playing.

Very often in a script, you might skip bits you’re not involved with and just read your own scenes as a first read, because you’re dying to know what’s in it for you, but with Happy Valley I just read the whole six episodes all the way through. I didn’t skip a page. I was completely mesmerised by it: that’s very rare that I’ll get something of that quality. Just to read it made me very tense. That’s what I’m looking for: another one of those.

There are brilliant scripts out there. There are things where you love the idea but don’t necessarily want to play the character. You’ve got to go on your instincts, and that’s what I’ve always tried to do: just instinctively do something I think I will enjoy making and something I think will be good. That’s all you’ve got to go on!

Inside No 9 Series 2 is out on DVD now available from www.bbcshop.com

Photography by Sophie Mutevelian © BBC 2015

Thanks to Catherine Webb for her assistance in arranging this interview

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