It is such a commonplace, appealing base for a story. You come across an abandoned mobile phone, say, and, naturally wanting to do a good turn, you try to track down the owner. Partly it is a simple act of altruism; partly, too, a little bit of an amateur detective challenge: Benevolent in any case. You can imagine how the story might run.
Except not for the characters in the latest Inside No 9, you can’t. Anything but, indeed.
For a Halloween special – “Dead line” – they perform such the story about the lost mobile, live. Well, a bit more than that. An astonishingly bold and ambitious dramatic enterprise is created with impeccable timing and effects – so plaudits to director Barbara Wiltshire. The team creates plays within plays, and then some more within those. There are convincing losses of sound and cuts to BBC2 continuity. There are cuts to a time coded rehearsal version of the “live” episode.
The channel controllers put out an old episode to hide their embarrassment when the live performance apparently goes wrong. It fails to transmit. An edition of Most Haunted episode plays itself in. We watch Pemberton and Shearsmith watching themselves live on BBC2, like being in one of those halls of mirrors at the fun fair. They Tweet their predicament to us in real time.
Slowly, we realise it is really a traditional ghost story told in a very untraditional way. It is about the spirits of the dead wanting us to “let them be”, and not have Gail Platt and Tracy Barlow dancing on their graves. You see, the notion is that the Granada studios, where Inside No 9 is supposedly being performed is on the site of a Victorian mass grave – Corrie meets Poltergeist.
The instrument of the spirit world is a dead TV technician who empowers the “ghosts in the machine”, and, in due course sees our protagonists finish each other off, their fictional selves melding into their real selves seamlessly. The ghost story mobile phone becomes a real weapon of death.
The cast and production team excel themselves, reviving an older television craft tradition as well as conjuring dizzyingly layered drama onto our screens. They do so so audaciously its difficult to believe their bravery.
Retro-horror, then, in other words, but with some very post modern twisting, and I can think of no better team than Shearsmith, Pemberton and guest star Stephanie Cole to revivify something that hasn’t even been routine since they invented video tape.
Was it frightening? Not so sure. The story itself, in a more pared down version might have chilled the blood more.
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For what it’s worth it started conventionally enough. Poor old-fashioned well-meaning Arthur Flitwick (Pemberton) finds a phone, in the local graveyard naturally (a Tesco Metro would hardly be the same), and takes it home to go about his small act of kindness, by restoring it to its owner. It belongs to Elsie Mitchell, he discovers, who we never meet.
He then takes a few calls from the dead and from Elsie’s friend Moira (Cole) and meets their shifty vicar (Shearsmith). In due course, Arthur discovers from Elsie’s text messages that the vicar murdered her. So he kills and beheads the vicar: or rather the fictional Arthur kills the real Shearsmith, because by that point everything’s gone mega meta. That’s after Cole has slit her own throat. Bobby Davro also meets his maker in some archive footage. He suffers a freak props accident involving Lionel Blair. Random.
These Shearsmith-Pemberton half hours always remind me of that wonderful old US sci fi series The Twilight Zone, which also enjoyed toying with its viewers perceptions and with a similarly polished jewel like quality. Our boys have ventured way beyond the twilight, though. You can’t really see a thing where they’ve gone, in their dark beyond-the-twilight zone. I hope they make it back, and that the head of Shearsmith hasn’t really been placed, live, in a 700 watt microwave for two minutes, until he’s nicely coddled. That would be scary.
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