Once upon a time, all television was live. That era, which slowly petered out across the end of the fifties and into the sixties, has been called “broadcast theatre”, but it’s probably more accurate in terms of production methods to call it “radio with pictures”. Such live television drama, usually for the purposes of anniversary commemorations, has had a small renaissance this century, with two celebratory episodes of Coronation Street and one of EastEnders going live. In the former case, it was a nod to the series’ origins as a live programme. In the latter instance, it seemed to happen simply because the former had.
The promise of a live Halloween episode of BBC Two anthology series Inside No. 9 always promised something bigger, better and cleverer than either of the soaps had achieved. Series creators/writers/stars Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith know their television history, and they know their horror, and their series has always shown a willingness to play with form. The first series featured a silent episode, while the most recent Christmas special was shot multi-camera in long takes and straight thought in story order, a reviving of older television production methods for drama sometimes conflated with the similar “as live”, and undertaken by Graeme Harper, one of the few working directors to have shot drama in such a manner, and the only person to direct Doctor Who in two centuries.
The programme begins with the series’ usual title card, and seems to be a story about a telephone that enables communication with the dead. We hear, but don’t yet see, Stephanie Cole, as a voice on the telephone. Cole, a superb performer with a long career in comedy is exactly the sort of person who turns up in Inside No. 9. There’s some unsettling moments and some comedy, and the plot begins to heat up, like an egg in a microwave, before the technical breakdowns begin; first the sound disappears, and then a caption card and an apologetic presentation voice-over arrive.
Such things were once common in television, and primed for the possibility by the idea that this programme is live, the audience is momentarily deflated, but aware, surely, that this might all be part of the piece itself? If not, what follows would, somehow, seem even more extraordinary. The BBC Two presenter says that instead of the live episode, which will be re-staged at a later date, instead the silent episode of the first series, the award-winning “A Quiet Night In” will be repeated. And so it is, until that breaks down as well.
As the breakdowns and break increase we also get an increasing number of cutaways to other, initially irrelevant-seeming material. A strange clip of Bobby Davro being injured on a children’s programme in the presence of the late Jim Bowen. Sections of the ludicrous multichannel TV series Most Haunted, a programme where former Blue Peter presenter Yvette Fielding and a variety of mediums (media?) investigate ostensible real-life hauntings. News reports. We cut to backstage at the studio that Dead Line should be coming from. The cast have retired to dressing rooms or are sitting quietly on set. Shearsmith and Pemberton appear as themselves. They squabble (“I can’t believe Stephanie Cole can get online and you can’t. She’s a 77 year old woman!” Pemberton yells at Shearsmith at one point) and flick through other television channels to demonstrate that the programme is live. Shearsmith tweets, and the tweet emerged into real life at the right moment as the programme was transmitted. A recording of a rehearsal of the “haunted phone” story is mentioned, and the writer/performers wonder why that can’t be cut to instead. Which it is. For a while. Countdown clocks click in the corner or at the bottom of most shots, again emphasising that this really is live, but also adding to the tension. What are we counting down to?
Back in the dressing room, Shearsmith is briefly pleased that “A Quiet Night In” will be repeated, as he’ll receive a repeat fee, while on set Cole unwisely answers the “haunted” phone from the play within a play when it rings. “I hadn’t heard of it either” she says, of the programme she’s appearing in. Which is perhaps a reference to how Inside No. 9 is a series that despite multiple awards, and a steadily growing audience (the fourth series was watched by, on average, double the people who watched the first, against all assumptions about television viewership) doesn’t quite create the fuss that it should.
At this point, it’s all coming together. There is a story outside the story. The play is being transmitted from Granada Studios, and it becomes increasingly clear the cut-away-to material has a unifying purpose. Real life events, such as the Granada Studios fire of 1984 and the aforementioned Davro accident (which was never transmitted) are mingled with fictional ones, such as the suicide of a Granada prop man backstage at the studios. Startlingly this is an event that, while the invention of Shearsmith and Pemberton, is mentioned in specially created news footage and seemingly referred to in one of the “Most Haunted“ clips. We see the face of the dead prop man, and surely, we’ve seen him already tonight? And so, with the pieces in place, we build to a queasy, unsettling, hilarious and genuinely frightening climax.
The whole thing is remarkable. Television history, urban myth, horror tradition, all bound together and delivered at a breakneck pace through live television, one of the most demanding mediums there can be. Yet it’s done so with both dizzying complexity and absolute clarity. And there’s a final coup de grace waiting in the end credits for those really paying attention; the programme has come to us, not from Granada, but from the Maidstone Studios, the former home of TVS. In Kent. The episode has no physical connection with the myths of Granadaland at all. How appropriate.
“Dead Line” has an absolute unity of form and content. It is something that could only possibly exist in the form into which they have put it. It is an exceptionally clever, genuinely remarkable and unique piece of television.
Which is what you expect, when you go Inside no 9.