Inside No 9 is perhaps the best show on TV at the moment – it’s inarguable. Even the worst of its episodes still trump the best other series have to offer. With its trademark mix of clever plotting, humour and darkness, it probably seemed the perfect treat for a dark Halloween night. The show’s creators Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith have mastered every clever idea and setting they’ve turned their hands to – so imagine what they could do with a live episode… ‘Dead Line’ is a typical masterclass in slow-burn horror, that will stay with you long after the credits roll.
When Arthur Flitwick (Pemberton) finds an abandoned phone in a graveyard, he begins to make inquiries to try and reunite it with its owner. His efforts lead him to the dodgy Reverend Neale (Shearsmith) and a forgetful old lady called Moira (Stephanie Cole), but he soon finds that no good deed goes unpunished, and that the phone calls he has been receiving may not be from the living…
Twitter was abuzz
Or, at least, that’s what the official synopsis said – in practice, we were treated to an entirely different beast. In hindsight, it was an episode of Inside No 9, so expecting a standard ghost story was probably a stupid idea from the start. I’m not going to go into what happened too much, because you’ll enjoy this a lot more if you don’t really know what’s going to happen.
Sound errors started to plague the show, and the moments of silence eventually gave way to a programming card and a continuity announcer telling us that the Beeb was hard at work correcting the technical errors. I found it hilarious and really disappointing, especially when the broadcast gave up and starting showing an old replacement episode instead (ironically enough, ‘A Quiet Night In’). Twitter was abuzz with comments and criticisms, and that we all bought this shows just how adept the duo are at manipulating their audience. (The seamlessness of the ‘errors’ means that the live experience was brilliant, but you can’t help but feel the impact will vanish a little bit on iPlayer.)
I don’t think you’ll see anything as chilling as ‘Dead Line’ on TV this Halloween
I’ve recently been revisiting the infamous Ghostwatch, and it was hard not to think of this as a Ghostwatch for the Twitter generation. We spent the remaining 20 minutes in the BBC studio, abandoned except for Pemberton, Shearsmith and Cole – or so we thought… There were a number of panning shots with dark figures standing in the background, ghosts approaching the actors, and a harrowing phone call between Stephanie Cole and one of the ghosts that haunted the studio. With ghost stories, going for a minimal approach often leads to more effective and well-done frights, and ‘Dead Line’ was proof positive of that. When other shows would go for a horrible bloody death front and centre, for example, Inside No 9 relegates it to a corner of the screen, somehow making it more horrific in the way its downplayed.
The acting was on typical top form, especially given the live component, with early elements of humour giving way to the gradual onset of fear (top marks to Shearsmith for the most British of all responses – “I could’ve had a hot cup of tea in my hands!” – to a jump scare that mixes them both). That mix can be especially unsettling – when one of the characters is describing the plight of the ghosts, there’s a quip about it being the wrong show for that (“you’re thinking of Black Mirror!”).
I went online again after the episode, to find near unanimous praise for ‘Dead Line’. After ten minutes, the comments changed – people had kept watching the following show, The Mash Report, in the belief that Shearsmith and Pemberton would have some further tricks to pull out of their hat (as it turns out, it was just a normal broadcast of the show, which was horrific in an entirely different way). That speaks to the effective power of this episode – I don’t think you’ll see anything as chilling as ‘Dead Line’ on TV this Halloween, so make sure to catch up (and good luck getting to sleep afterwards)!