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Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith: ‘Nothing should be outside limits in comedy or even drama’

In a rare interview – as ‘Inside No 9’ returns – Jacob Stolworthy speaks to the writing duo about secrets from the new series, their one concern with continuing the show and the past controversy surrounding certain ‘League of Gentlemen’ characters

Sunday 02 February 2020 09:08 GMT
‘We can do anything on television for half an hour that we want to do – that’s scary’: Steve Pemberton (left) and Reece Shearsmith discuss their careers and the new series of ‘Inside No 9’
‘We can do anything on television for half an hour that we want to do – that’s scary’: Steve Pemberton (left) and Reece Shearsmith discuss their careers and the new series of ‘Inside No 9’ (BBC / Sophie Mutevelian)

It’s mad when you think about the things that have been created in here,” says Reece Shearsmith, as he and Steve Pemberton welcome me into their run-of-the-mill London office. He’s not wrong. This is the very room in which a trio of revered TV shows – The League of Gentlemen, Psychoville and, most recently, Inside No 9, the fifth series of which begins on BBC2 this week – were written. Sadly, it’s not numbered nine.

In person, Shearsmith and Pemberton are as wry and considered as episodes of the anthology show, which has grown in popularity since its modest debut in 2014. The enigmatic duo, dressed in an assortment of patterned shirts, tweed jacket and smart shoes, are aware of the mystique surrounding their personas. They choose their words carefully, touching on controversial characters they’ve created in the past, why they wish to avoid Twitter firestorms and behind-the-scenes secrets from the show (and its planned future).

When they speak, it’s like they’ve decided to lift a mask. An unusual thing to witness. “We rarely appear as ourselves on things,” Shearsmith says, his hands crossed in front of his chest. “It’s good to stay as the actors behind the parts.”

In your view, what’s the secret to Inside No 9’s success?

Steve Pemberton: Well, it’s good. If you’re going to give half an hour of your time, you want something of quality – something that engages you. There’s no padding in it. It’s enjoyable to have a beginning, middle and end all in one sitting – and if the stories are good enough, and you keep being intrigued and surprised as well as getting good performances and hopefully good scripts, people will keep watching. It’s not rocket science. It’s a hard sell doing six individual plays. There’s no continuity, there’s nothing to keep you coming back other than the hope that you might enjoy another half an hour of what we’ve come up with.

Reece Shearsmith: The tone of it is our sensibility, which is across it all. They’re always quite dark. It’s lovely to be able to do a really silly one, a really dark one, a horror one...

SP: It’s like we’ve got the keys to the dressing-up box. One of my first memories is being at playschool and having that box – having the option to be just anything. This feels very similar. You kind of go each time, “Right, what hat, what costume, what character, what’s the story, what’s the genre?” We can think in 360 degrees with this show. There’s no limitations other than it has to be inside some kind of number nine.

RS: We can do anything on television for half an hour that we want to do. That’s quite scary. Sometimes you want parameters so you can go, “Maybe we shouldn’t be able to do this.” But we can do anything.

When an idea for an episode comes to you, do you start from the ground up or do you work your way back from a really fun ending you might have?

RS: Both of those things can happen. Sometimes, we have a really good ending and we think, “Ooh, how do we get there? That’ll be a great surprise.” Other times, we’ve got the ending, but then think, “Actually, the viewer’s gonna be onto it, so let’s change it.” Ultimately, we try to have a good story for 28 minutes.

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SP: And a good world that you want to explore. That’s our starting point, really. Do you want to be in this world? If we did have one set formula for writing them, then it would soon become apparent and people would get onto it and be ahead of us. Our struggle is to keep ahead of the audience all the time.

RS: Especially going into it now, because everyone is onto it. They know there’s going to be a big twist or that it’s not what it seems. It’s hard to keep that hidden, but that’s one of the challenges.

Does this show challenge you both as writers in ways The League of Gentlemen and Psychoville didn’t?

RS: It does, yes. Sometimes, we have a really good idea for No 9, but then it becomes a little bit predictable because you realise we’ve done a variation of it before. So it makes us think completely differently. We wrote one for this series that’s very different; it has a lot of improvisation in it. It felt very different in tone to anything we’ve done and that’s instantly appealing because it’s like, “Finally!” After 30-odd, to do something that feels not the same is...

SP: ...surprising, in its own way.

Do you think the standalone format automatically puts an end date on the show? There are only so many ideas you can have.

RS: I spoke to Mark [Gatiss] the other day and he reminded me that [Steptoe and Son writing duo] Galton & Simpson had that series where they did a different story every week [The Galton & Simpson Playhouse] and after six they were like, “F***ing hell, let’s go back to doing Steptoe.” They ran out immediately.

SP: At least they had Steptoe! But there’s no point moaning about what you haven’t got when you’ve got something that’s been very well regarded. We’ll keep doing this until it’s not.

New ‘Inside No 9’ episode ‘The Referee’s a W***er’ co-stars Ralf Little and David Morrissey (BBC/Sophie Mutevilian)

RS: We’re very mindful of it being good and not wanting “they’ve gone off the boil now” to be the thing levelled at it. That’d be a shame. If we think it’s become that, we’ll stop.

SP: It’ll probably be one series too late, ’cause we’ll realise, “Oh, that was the one we shouldn’t have done.”

RS: We’re really critical of ourselves. Even when we think we’d probably get away with doing an episode that nobody would realise is actually another one wrapped up in a different way, we’d be aware of it. We can’t bear it if we think we’re treading water.

Are you wary of outside forces who might want to poach the show, much in the same way Netflix ensnared Black Mirror?

RS: I don’t know how you would do it without us. Plus, the production values of being inside whatever number nine it might be could go up. They might even say it doesn’t have to be inside anymore, so then they wouldn’t be these little claustrophobic plays. That’s one of the things that would maybe suffer instantly. You want to have it so you’re in a room where you can’t go anywhere – you might lose it if you can go and do anything. It just wouldn’t be it anymore; it would become something else.

SP: But the pressures are the same: can you tell a good story and keep people gripped? That is just as hard whatever your budget is. We don’t sit here feeling sorry for Charlie [Brooker] because of the millions he has to spend. The BBC is still a great brand to be a part of and, of course, they’re having to change and adapt so things in five years will look very different. But we can’t predict that. We’re just, as we nearly called one of the episodes, plodding along.

RS: It’s what we find ourselves doing all the time.

SP: We come in here and we go, “Right, we’ve finished that episode [exhales loudly], what’s next?” – and that’s an amazing position to be in. We are constantly aware that we’re very lucky. Also, another thing we don’t have, which maybe you would if the stakes were higher, is interference from on high. We don’t get any notes on the scripts.

RS: We write them here and they’re pretty much made.

SP: We make them with the producer and the director and no one interferes. In fact, they say, “No, don’t tell us, we don’t want to know until it’s on.” If you talk to any other writers developing stuff, they’re just, wide-eyed like, “What?!” So that is worth its weight in gold.

RS: It is, yeah. Because we write them and they are undiluted “us” from here to the gestation. It’s amazing. It’s lovely to think they trust us.

Pemberton and Shearsmith as ‘League of Gentlemen’ characters Tubbs and Edward (BBC)

A lot has changed since you started out – you probably couldn’t create some of the characters you did so confidently now. Does that make it harder for you to write comedy, especially when Twitter is such a soundboard of outrage?

RS: It’s funny because we never had that thing in League of Gentlemen where you would have instant feedback. One interesting thing we saw with Inside No 9 was a graph of Twitter activity when it was on and, just beforehand, it was high and then when it went on it was a flat line. Then at the end it spiked again. It was brilliant ’cause it meant people were watching it and not sat commenting during it. There’s actual commitment. But I guess writing comedy is harder, yes.

SP: We don’t talk about those things, really.

RS: But equally, we don’t go in thinking: “What will shock people?” I don’t think we’ve ever done that. That’s why it’s powerful. It works because we’ve considered the moments we want to have an effect. We’re even quite judicious with swearing so it matters when it happens. I think we earn it more because we don’t go straight for the kill and try to shock. It does it a disservice to think that we’re just trying to reach outrage. Now, you cause outrage by accident. You don’t want it.

SP: And you don’t want the story of your show to be remembered as anything other than what it is. You don’t want the by-product of it to be higher up in the news than the show itself. So unless you were really examining it from both sides and you had a very, very strong point that you wanted to make, you wouldn’t just throw in a character you know will be contentious just to get a laugh. We wouldn’t do that anymore. There’s no point. It does make it harder, but equally we’re all learning. We are all constantly moving on and learning as writers and learning as viewers as well. Think of what’s happened with Laurence Fox recently. He’s suddenly become a social media phenomenon. That will probably just burn out, but I couldn’t imagine anything worse than being in the middle of that firestorm. I only want people to talk about the shows, what happens in them and how good they think they are.

RS: We’ve always just been about the work. We rarely appear as ourselves on things.

Do you intentionally try to uphold that element of mystery?

RS: Yeah, because then for the time you spend with us as the characters, you believe it more. You’re not thinking, “He did Bake Off last week.” That stuff just takes you out of it a little bit. It’s good to stay as the actors behind the parts.

SP: I do quiz shows.

RS: Steve is the master of quizzes.

SP: But you go on and you either know the answer or not. You’re not trying to push your personality or say something funny on panels.

You don’t seem to have faced the outcry a lot of other comedy writers have despite creating controversial characters. In regards to Papa Lazarou, you’ve always said he was never intended to be blackface, but do you understand why people view it as such?

RS: I guess so. But it was never an existing character. It was not me doing a black man. It was always this clown-like make-up and we just came up with what we thought was the scariest idea to have in a sort of Child Catcher-like way. And I don’t think we ever had any complaints then.

SP: Even when we did the specials a couple of years ago and that character reappeared – I may be wrong, but I don’t think we had any complaints. People know that it was a character and the oddness and weird nature of that character doesn’t make you sit there and think, “What point are they trying to make?” It’s not a political thing at all.

RS: I think that’s evident. I hope it is. He is just an otherworldly human.

Shearsmith’s Papa Lazarou reappeared in the 2017 specials (BBC)

Why do you think people didn’t jump on your decision to resurrect that character as well as the trans taxi driver, Barbara? It seems other writers might have been called out on social media if they were in the same situation.

SP: We don’t sit and debate it that much, but when it comes to The League of Gentlemen, we’re dealing with characters we created in the mid-1990s. We had this debate between the four of us about which characters to bring back – are there any we wouldn’t do? – and we just thought no, because it would be wrong to misrepresent the show. The specials were for fans to see where the characters are now and we didn’t want to write with any other thing in mind than those people. So that’s what we did. Again, other than the character of Barbara – who obviously was a contentious character – I think we had learnt you couldn’t just present her in the same way again, and we didn’t. It was Jeremy [Dyson] who came up with this notion of what’s happening to language now, and what you can or can’t say, and that did feel like a legitimate thing to do. We moved on. Some people didn’t like it and some people did. I think that’s the closest we came to controversy

RS: The work that we do is dark and some people think it crosses a line, but then that becomes taste and opinion, doesn’t it? We didn’t get many complaints because people entered into the world we’d created. I think we’re really careful and we care about it. It’s not frivolous. It was taught to us by Sarah Smith, our first producer on League, that it’s a very privileged thing to present television and be allowed into people’s homes. It’s a powerful thing. We’ve always had that in our minds – so much that we don’t use it willy-nilly. We’re aware of it being a very strong tool and so we do try hard to earn our place in people’s viewing palette.

Would you steer away from creating characters that could cause outrage in the future?

RS: You don’t know what’s going to be deemed controversial. That’s the problem going in. There could be something that happens in the time you’ve written the thing and then it’s not acceptable to have done it by the time it’s going out – opinion might have changed or a decision been made. That’s the world we’re in. You just have to write your own version or you’ll go mad.

SP: You have to guard yourself and think, “Right, do I care if this thing becomes a big Twitter storm? Or do I just want to do it?” It depends on your passion for what you’re writing. If it’s important to you, just do it because nothing should be outside limits in comedy or even drama, really. But you’ve got to do it with that knowledge. We wouldn’t chuck it in and go, “Oh, this’ll make them all mad,” because there’s no point in doing that. We’re just hermetically sealed in our bubble. We haven’t, touch wood, had controversies or anything blow up.

Maybe it’s because the viewers trust you both more than they do other writers.

SP: The fools!

RS: We’re just aware of liking things and being able to watch them again and have that repeatability. Our fans are very judicious – they get into the world of it, they look for flaws, but we’ve already been there; we’ve put ourselves on trial. We often say in this very room: “Well, when we’re in court...” We always have every out in case viewers say, “That doesn’t make sense.” We try to have our counter to every possible flaw.

SP: There have been times where we’ve written something and the BBC’s gone, “That’s a bit expensive; we can’t achieve that.” Things have changed from when we started – expenses have gone up. The big streaming services are spending lots of money, which means you’re effectively getting less for your budget. So there’s been a few times where it’s been, “We need a new episode and we need it as soon as possible.” It’s not ideal because you don’t want to be in that position, but you have to do it. Sometimes, having those parameters sharpens your wits. You’re not thinking: “I can do anything at all.” It’s like, “No, we’ve got to do something that’s containable, cheap and just the two of us.” We did one in the next series, which is just us two in a car for the whole thing. It’s called “The Stakeout”. We thought it would be cheap, but it ended up being expensive because they had to light all around it.

RS: But that wasn’t our fault. We’d written what we thought was a simple one, like a radio play. But it looks lovely. They want it to feel like it’s got high production values.

‘The Stakeout’ ended up being more expensive that the duo anticipated (BBC/Sophie Mutevilian) (BBC / Sophie Mutevilian)

I’m intrigued: what’s an example of an expensive scrapped Inside No 9 episode?

SP: Well, for example, we had one set in a theatre with an audience and just the notion of having a big room full of people, which you would need for most of the time... We kind of knew as we were writing it, it wasn’t going to work. But we can go back to some of the ideas, so we wouldn’t necessarily write them off. Time is never wasted. Ideas are always rattling around.

RS: Or bits of them. Sometimes we’re like, “We can use this for that and then this can be the end of that one.” We cannibalise little bits if we think they can be reused.

Would you revisit worlds or characters from previous episodes?

SP: We wouldn’t rule that out. Definitely not. I think that’s a really interesting idea. We haven’t done as yet. If we felt like we were going to do another silent episode, because that went down very well, the danger is it won’t be as good as what we did the first time round. If you were going back to those characters, you have to ask what else you’re going to do with them.

RS: If we had a good idea and a reason to do it, then definitely, yeah. I always think you could do a whole series on the Witchfinders going around and doing trials, but that’s just me.

Shearsmith thinks a whole series could be made out of series two episode ‘The Trial of Elizabeth Gadge’ (BBC)

As writers whose work often veers into horror, what’s your view on the current state of the genre? Is it in a good place at the moment? Are you well versed in the latest releases?

SP: It’s useful to have a view of what’s going on. Recently, I watched Marianne on Netflix and thought that was very good.

RS: I enjoyed Doctor Sleep. It was enjoyable to revisit the Stanley Kubrick universe. It was very nasty, which was surprising for a mainstream studio film. But I don’t like any sort of really horrible gory films anymore. I’m just older. I can’t bear it.

SP: That’s a different kind of horror, isn’t it? When we were doing “Deadline”, which was the live episode, we watched a lot of the Paranormal Activity films. I really got into those. They are really scary films. They’re all about anticipation of what might happen and that was something we were keen to have, so sometimes if there’s an area you’re looking at, it’s interesting to look at the things that are trying to do the same thing just to inspire you a bit. I think there’s nothing wrong with having influences. The thing about this show is you need your influences to be very broad. I listen to a lot of podcasts – for example, with the referee episode from the new series, I listened to one with Howard Webb talking to get little insights and stuff that is useful.

Speaking of “Deadline” – what a success. The one thing that scared me the most was how much you relied on your phone working for the “live tweet” to work. What if the wifi had conked out?

RS: It was a little bit scary. I was like, “My phone’s alright in here, isn’t it? It will work, right?” At one point, they didn’t want me to have my phone. I went, “No, I’ll just have my own, it’ll be easier.” The consequence of that was, when the episode went “wrong”, I was getting people texting me going, “Oh God, I’m so sorry.” They were all coming in and I was just sat there clicking them off thinking: “I’ve got to tweet in a minute!” As a night, though, it went very smoothly. We had those moments where it went to the archive stuff, so we were able to regroup and take a deep breath. It wasn’t constantly live from 10pm onwards – it was like, “Two minutes, everyone!” and then we had that weird thing where we had to slow down or speed up. They would come in and tell us, “You’re going too fast, you’re gabbling – slow down or we’re going to end at 20 past.” That was a weird amendment we were trying to juggle as and when. But yeah, it was a triumph. It became an experience. People were checking online whether it had gone wrong. Then when they found out it hadn’t, they were going back and watching the rest of it. It was really funny.

Were the nerves on another level?

RS: They were at the beginning. I had a cup of tea as the vicar and I was like [shakes uncontrollably], “I’ve got to put it down.”

SP: It’s different in theatre, ’cause it’s something you get a chance to do again the next night, but knowing once you went out that this was your one chance of doing it? We planned it, we talked about it, we hopefully went over every detail, but the nerves were on another level. It was a sense of huge achievement at the end. I was so thrilled.

RS: It was scary that you might fluff a line, which is just embarrassing ’cause everyone sees you do it – that’s why people are ghoulishly watching – and yet, because we knew the whole raison d’etre of it was to go wrong, that was sort of quite empowering. We were gonna get it wrong anyway, that was what the whole thing was. So weirdly, the real mistakes just went into the background.

SP: But we didn’t want to make any real mistakes for that reason. If something genuinely had gone wrong, it would have detracted from the result.

RS: In our fictitious world where it went wrong, they repeated “A Quiet Night In”, but the mad thing was we actually had to have the conversation of what we should repeat if it went wrong wrong – and they said “A Quiet Night In” [laughs]. I get people tweeting me still asking, “Whatever happened with that episode that went wrong? Why don’t you redo it?” Even now.

SP: They don’t understand why it went on iPlayer if it went wrong. I think it’ll be the gift that keeps on giving.

Would you ever bring Inside No 9 to theatre?

RS: We’ve talked about it, because they are suited to the stage – they’re little plays. I think if we had a good set of them, we would do a few in one night. It would just depend on what it would be. But yeah, definitely. We’re talking seriously about it. It would be good.

Are there more Christmas or Halloween specials coming?

RS: Not yet, but hopefully they’ll ask for more. Perhaps an Easter one. It’ll have to have a horrible bunny.

SP: We should do all the holidays. I like the idea of doing specials in an unexpected way, like a Pancake Day one. I think all the holidays should have Inside No 9 episodes.

It’s clear you’re influenced by shows such as The Twilight Zone and Tales of the Unexpected. Would you ever consider doing a remake of one of those shows?

SP: They’re definitely influences but I think Inside No 9 has its own brand now – it’s really growing and, with this fifth series, it’ll be interesting to see how people react to it and whether it gets a lot of new fans and more attention. We’re not that keen to do the same thing under a different title. When we do move on from this, we’ll have to take a deep breath and think, “What next?”

Do you think about that now?

SP: You’d drive yourself mad. It’s already insane doing six completely different stories each time and thinking, “What have we not done? What’s new and what’s gonna blow you away?” It can’t just be good – it’s got to be amazing.

RS: Steve started to read out some of the reviews we’ve had for this programme the other day. I was like, “Please stop.” They were amazing!

SP: There was one that said, “This is the kind of programme where time stands still and you gaze in awe.” So now we have to try and do something better than that.

RS: We just have to do something that makes time stand still. We’ve never been good at juggling four different things and flitting around between them all. We just want to do one very well.

Here’s an idea: an episode of Inside No 9 with characters from League of Gentlemen or Psychoville.

SP: That’s a good one.

RS: It would be good if we went down that road. All I fear with doing characters we’ve done before or repeating characters from No 9 is that people will think we’ve run out of ideas. But if we had, we wouldn’t do it. We just enjoy writing the kind of television that we used to like. We’re fans of the shows that we make.

SP: We’re just plodding along.

Inside No 9 returns to BBC2 at 10pm on Monday 3 February

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