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Television: Inside No 9; Bunkers, Brutalism and Bloodymindedness

Two of the League of Gentleman offer up a sublime new series, while Jonathan Meades’s films about concrete architecture are his richest yet.

Inside No 9; Bunkers, Brutalism and Bloodymindedness: Concrete Poetry
BBC2; BBC4

This review comes to you from a place of uncharacteristic restraint and patience. Knowing that it wouldn’t be fair to review an anthology series after its first outing – if each programme is going to be different from the last, you need to have seen at least three to know if it’s any good – I was determined to wait before giving my verdict on Inside No 9 (Wednesdays, 10pm).

Oh, it was hard. It stars and is written by Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, of whom I’m a major fan (they’re the ones from The League of Gentlemen who aren’t Mark Gatiss). So, there was that: simple, mindless adoration. I saw the first episode, “Sardines”, and I thought: this reminds me in a good way of Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected. Then I saw the second episode, “A Quiet Night In”, and it was astonishing … You get the picture.

So far, the address of the title, No 9, has referred to a country pile, a rich man’s minimalist pad and a London flat of the kind that rattles when a bus goes by. What a conjuring trick, squeezing these perfectly formed narratives – characters with proper backstories, scenarios that are complicated and unwind relatively slowly – into just 30 minutes. It helps that Pemberton and Shearsmith are such accomplished actors (so complete are their performances, they seem hardly to be acting at all) and that they’ve signed up so many excellent actors to co-star (Anna Chancellor, Denis Lawson, Gemma Arterton). Yet it’s the writing that’s most amazing: the sheer mechanics of the thing.

 Hot number: Helen McCrory as Tabitha and Reece Shearsmith as Hector in Inside No. 9. Photo: BBC

“A Quiet Night In” was silent: not a word was uttered in 30 minutes. The two characters whose home we were in also remained unaware that only yards away there crouched a pair of inept cat burglars (Pemberton and Shearsmith in balaclavas). The two couples danced around each other, somehow never colliding. I can think of only one other writer in Britain who could pull off such a brilliant and sustained feat of theatre and that’s Michael Frayn.

The most recent episode, “Tom and Gerri”, had all the pair’s grisly hallmarks, quotidian life gradually shading into something more macabre. Tom (Shearsmith) reluctantly invited a tramp called Migg (Pemberton) into his flat. “No, better just … contain it,” he said, when Migg, noticing the disgusted look on his face, asked him if he shouldn’t have lowered his filthy backside on to Tom’s sofa. “Contain it.” Another writer would have had him say: “Just stay put.” When Tom’s colleague came to see him at home – Tom had, by this point, given up work, either because Migg had corrupted him or because he was in the throes of a nervous breakdown – he revealed there had been a staff whip-round for him. “I asked myself: would he rather have money or Body Shop vouchers?” said the colleague, waving an envelope. “Body Shop vouchers” – the genius lies in those three words, the home of useless stuff made from hemp and of Chocomania body lotion.

Grey matter: Jonathan Meades outside Wotruba Church, Vienna. Photo: BBC

While we’re on the subject of genius, Jonathan Meades is back with a series about brutalism (Sundays, 9pm), in which he stands in front of various screamingly ugly buildings while daring his audience to switch to BBC2 to search for something nice about the Georgians. These might be his richest films yet: the TV equivalent of an afternoon spent in the stacks at the Royal Institute of British Architects with a highfalutin soundtrack on your retro, leather-look headphones.

You need to watch each one twice to get all the references (or even half of them). Meades believes the architecture of the 1860s and the 1960s have something in common, the term “Victorian monstrosity” having given way to “concrete monstrosity” some time around 1963. As it happens, I have a special interest in postwar concrete (Alison Smithson, an architect he loathes, is one of the subjects of my recent book). Combine this with my special interest in Meades (which approaches judgement-impairing fandom) and you’ll understand that Bunkers, Brutalism and Bloodymindedness: Concrete Poetry might have been written for me. Crikey, TV is good right now. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either an ass or Grant Shapps.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 19 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Space Issue

HELEN SLOAN / THE FALL 3 LTD
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The Fall is back - and once again making me weary

Five more episodes to go, after which its “feminist” writer (his word, not mine), Allan Cubitt, should pull the plug on it at last. Plus: Damned.

It is with much weariness that I return to The Fall (Thursdays, 9pm), the creepy drama that still doesn’t know whether it wants to be a horror-fest or a love story. I’ve written in the past about what I regard as its basic misogyny – to sum up, it seems to me to make a fetish of the violence committed against women, a preoccupation it pathetically tries to disguise by dint of its main character being a female detective – and I don’t propose to return to that theme now. However, in its early days, it was at least moderately gripping. Now, though, it appears to be recovering from some kind of nervous breakdown. If in series two the plot was wobbling all over the place, series three has misplaced the idea of drama altogether. Nothing is happening. At all.

To recap: at the end of the last series, Paul Spector, aka the Belfast Strangler (Jamie Dornan), had been shot while in police custody, somewhat improbably by a man who blames him for the demise of his marriage (oh, that Spector were only responsible for breaking up a few relationships). On the plus side for his supposed nemesis, DSI Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson), before he fell he led them to Rose Stagg, the ex-girlfriend he’d locked in the boot of a car some days previously, and she is going to live. On the minus side, Spector’s injuries are so bad, it’s touch and go whether he’ll survive, and so Gibson may never see him brought to justice. Of course, the word “justice” is something of a red herring here.

The real reason she wants Spector to live is more dubious. As she stared at his body in the ICU, all tubes and monitors, her expression was so obviously sexual – her mouth opened, and stayed that way, as her eyes ran over every part of his body – that I half expected her to reach out and stroke him. Just in time for this nocturnal visit, she’d slipped into another of her slinky silk blouses that look like poured cream. (Moments earlier – think Jackie Kennedy in 1963 – she’d still been covered in her love object’s blood.)

The entire episode took place at the hospital, police procedural having morphed suddenly into Bodies or Cardiac Arrest. Except, this was so much more boring and cliché-bound than those excellent series – and so badly in need of their verisimilitude. When I watch The Fall, I’m all questions. Why doesn’t Stella ever tie her hair back? And why does she always wear high heels, even when trying to apprehend criminals? For how much longer will the presumably cash-strapped Police Service of Northern Ireland allow her to live in a posh hotel? Above all, I find myself thinking: why has this series been so acclaimed? First it was nasty, and then it was only bad. Five more episodes to go, after which its “feminist” writer (his word, not mine), Allan Cubitt, should join Gibson in the ICU, where together they can ceremonially pull the plug on it at last.

Can Jo Brand do for social workers in her new comedy, Damned, what she did a few years ago for geriatric nurses in the brilliant Getting On? I expect she probably can, even though this Channel 4 series (Tuesdays, 10pm), co-written with Morwenna Banks and Will Smith, does have an awfully inky heart. Hungry children, drug-addict parents, a man who can go nowhere without his oxygen tank: all three were present and correct when Rose (Brand) went to visit a client who turned out to be a woman who, long ago, had nicked her (Rose’s) boyfriend. Ha ha? Boohoo, more like.

Damned is basically The Office with added family dysfunction. Al (Alan Davies) is a hen-pecked wimp, Nitin (Himesh Patel) is a snitch, and Nat (Isy Suttie) is the stupidest and most annoying temp in the Western world. This lot have two bosses: Martin (Kevin Eldon), a kindly widower, and Denise (Georgie Glen), the cost-cutting line manager from hell. And Rose has a plonker of an ex-husband, Lee (Nick Hancock). “I’ve been invited to the Cotswolds for the weekend,” he told her, trying to wriggle out of looking after the children. “Is that why you look like a knob?” she replied.

Jerky camerawork, naturalistic acting, a certain daring when it comes to jokes about, say, race: these things are pretty familiar by now, but I like it all the same.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories