Inside No 9, episode 1 review: a triumphant return for Pemberton and Shearsmith
Is there anything to which Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith can’t turn their hands? Previous series of their extraordinarily inventive comic horror anthology, Inside No 9, have incorporated silent comedy, snuff-movie horror, a dissection of bereavement and Macbeth condensed, as well as one of the finest half-hours of television of the new century, The 12 Days of Christine starring Sheridan Smith.
Zanzibar opened the fourth series by showcasing the pair’s extraordinary facility with language. Both embracing and spoofing the tropes of Shakespearean farce – specifically, A Comedy of Errors – they crafted the episode’s dialogue in Iambic pentameter. While not one of their most chilling or profound efforts, it was certainly among their finest technical achievements. And crucially, very funny.
Set in a single corridor on the ninth floor of the titular luxury hotel, Zanzibar juggled several interwoven storylines and characters, each impeccably cast: libidinous Prince Rico (Rory Kinnear) and his treacherous security guard Henry (Shearsmith); harried couple Amber and Gus (Hattie Morahan and Kinnear again), concerned at the withering of their ardour; bewildered OAP Alice and her dutiful son Robert (Marcia Warren and Pemberton); jobbing stage hypnotist Vince (Kevin Eldon); call girl Tracey (Tanya Franks); dim maid Colette (Helen Monks); and Mr Green (Bill Paterson), contemplating suicide after a life haunted by giving his twin sons up at birth. Overseeing the whole circus was Jaygann Ayeh’s bellboy-cum-Greek chorus, Fred.
The verbal dexterity was as remarkable as Pemberton and Shearsmith’s ability to wring laughs from it – not something they were always shy of acknowledging, to go by this exchange between Henry and Rico: “You are our country’s future, dearest Prince. My job is to save you from any grievous plot.” / “But all this talk of murder makes me wince. Like this Iambic foot I’m stressed, you’re not.”
Certainly, you could see where much of this was going at an early stage and the characterisations were necessarily wafer-thin given the ratio of plotlines to runtime, but the fun lay in watching the plot move so smoothly through the gears.
Nodding incessantly to standard Shakespearean gimmicks, it crammed in a succession crisis, multiple cases of mistaken identity and shatterings of the fourth wall, a murder plot, bungled doping, magic spells (a hokey cokey triggered by the phrase “spaghetti Bolognese”), a miraculously recovered memory and double meanings with disastrous consequences. There was also an instance of Twerking which, had it been around when Shakespeare was alive, you suspect he would have found a way of crowbarring it in.
The climax was appropriately absurd, as Rico and Gus’s shared birthmarks were revealed to be in the shape of the chair from Mastermind. After which, the baddies were vanquished, the lovers reconciled and the viewer reeling from all the virtuosity. An indulgence, perhaps, a frippery, probably. But a triumph nonetheless – the Bard would have been pleased.