Entertainment & Arts

League duo open door to Inside No 9

Inside Number 9
Image caption Inside Number 9 sets a different comic scenario each week in which Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton play different characters from the week before

League of Gentlemen and Psychoville duo Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton are looking relaxed ahead of the second series of their dark comedy Inside No 9.

Its first outing, which aired on BBC Two last year, garnered rave reviews from TV critics, with the Daily Mail giving it five stars and describing it as "like nothing else on TV".

The series resurrected TV's anthology format - think Play for Today or Tales of the Unexpected - with six unrelated episodes, all with different characters and storylines but all set in a place linked to the number nine.

It boasted a stellar cast including turns, including Helen McCrory, Gemma Arterton, Julia Davis, Tamsin Grieg, Oona Chaplin, Timothy West and Anna Chancellor.

This time round, Shearsmith and Pemberton have managed to enlist the talents of Sheridan Smith, Alison Steadman, Jack Whitehall, Paul Kaye, Jane Horrocks, Julie Hesmondhalgh and Mark Benton, to name but a few.

Shearsmith says the well-received first series was a "calling card... people knew what to expect a little bit; it's like doing a half-hour play, it's quite delicious for an actor".

"You can pull in these amazing actors, if this series was [one storyline] across six or seven weeks, we probably wouldn't have been able to get half the people," adds Pemberton.

This series includes episodes based in a French train sleeper carriage (number nine of course), a Victorian villa and a volunteer call centre.

Image caption The League of Gentlemen introduced the audience to Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton's unique brand of humour

An anthology is a very different format compared with their previous work on League of Gentleman - primarily sketch-based in the early days - and sitcom Psychoville.

Shearsmith and Pemberton star in the all the episodes of Inside No 9, although some roles are more minor.

"It felt very strange having done years of League where we play lots of different characters all week long... it's quite nice to settle into that part and enjoy playing that one person," says Shearsmith.

"They all feel a bit more real, the tone is hopefully subtler than stuff we've done before,"

The writing process for the pair was also a novelty.

"The biggest tyrannical thing is the blank piece of paper," says Pemberton.

Shearsmith says once they got going it was "a lot more work".

"Each time you're creating a new world but that's its own reward. You get to create six different worlds and that's enjoyable."

Doubtless due to their reputation, the duo were lucky enough to be allowed total creative freedom, not a privilege afforded to many in an industry often chasing ratings.

"We don't tell anyone what we're working on, we just get left alone," says Pemberton.

"That's the really successful thing about it, it's not driven by what the channel thinks they want or what the head of comedy thinks they want. It's driven by us two completely, which makes it unique."

Image caption Forced intimacy: It's fun and games on the sleeper train with a bunch of strangers in Inside No 9 episode La Couchette

But there is one area they don't have control over - scheduling.

And it's a source of frustration.

"We want people to watch them but because they're on at 10pm on BBC Two, they pass people by and that's the only frustrating thing," says Pemberton.

It's an obvious slot for cult comedy but Inside No 9 is probably their most accessible work yet.

"We're wise enough to think some people really love it; we're not trying to do a thing that's massively popular. It's a very niche thing although I think out of all the things we've done, these are broader," says Shearsmith.

With transmission looming closer, he admits to feeling apprehensive about the reaction.

"It's like presenting your baby to the world and them passing judgement on it. You feel protective of it, you want it to be liked," says Shearsmith.

"But that's what you learn - what the viewing figures are, what the reviews are, awards you win or don't win, it's all out of your control," says Pemberton.

"The one thing you can control is how good the programme is. We were lucky, we've been very lauded for what we've done, we've won some awards, we've not won other awards, it all evens out.

"It's a nonsense anyway, the really important thing you've got to focus on is to keep your quality of work up.

"We felt more pressure when Psychoville came out. It was the follow‐up to the League of Gentleman, an impossible thing to follow," says Pemberton.

"But Psychoville was its own thing, it had a big fanbase and we were really pleased, so this time it felt like 'we've done that second album syndrome'. Luckily, reaction to series one [of Inside No 9] was really brilliant, we were proud of it, we knew it was different."

But the bigger your body of work and the more success it brings, the more difficult it can be to pull something new out of the bag. But the pair use this challenge to spur them on.

Image caption The pair experimented with silent drama in an episode of series one

"We strive to surprise in the worlds we're creating, you can't become lazy. I don't think we could ever be accused of doing the same thing over and over again," says Shearsmith.

Each tale is notable for its succinctness, which can leave you wanting more.

"Sometimes you feel you could have done a whole series [from one episode], it feels like six pilots," says Pemberton.

"But it only works because it is only happening in that half-hour and you don't go any further with it, you wring out all your peaks and then it's done and you never return and that's why it's good," Shearsmith interjects.

And it's clear the pair delight in wrongfooting the audience, a device enjoyed by fans of the show.

"Any element you can put into a comedy - horror, drama, emotion - none of it is what you normally get out of comedy, so it's suddenly very heightened," says Shearsmith.

"What we want is for people to watch all of them and each week to think, where's this going to go this week? That's what we enjoy about it."

The second series of Inside Number 9 begins on BBC Two on Thursday 26 March at 2200 GMT.

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