After last week’s ‘Zanzibar’ took on light-hearted farce and Shakespearean drama, this week’s Inside No 9 takes a different tone entirely in ‘Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room’. On the face of it, we have the earnest portrayal of two former comedy partners reuniting for one last show – at its heart, however, is an entirely different and incredibly emotional tale.
Comedy partners Tommy Drake (Reece Shearsmith) and Len Shelby (Steve Pemberton) reunite in a church hall for one last show as comedy act Cheese and Crackers – ‘one last gig in front of an invited audience.’ The two rehearse some of their old material, with Tommy growing increasingly frustrated with his partner and the old material. It seems that the hidden tension in the room is down to an incident in Bernie Clifton’s dressing room 25 years ago that Len doesn’t remember but, as the practice session goes on, it’s one that threatens to boil to the surface.
A touching homage to the entertainment industry of yesteryear gives way to the sadness of those who success has bypassed
For an episode based in a comedy setting, ‘Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room’ isn’t particularly rooted in laughs. Sure, we have amusing moments (the duo find that one of their routines having to be cut down massively because of Operation Yewtree), but they mostly derive from Cheese and Cracker’s old-fashioned act. It’s full of dad jokes (‘How’s your grammar?’ ‘She’s alright, thanks – how’s yours?’), with a wonderful routine full of accents that Tommy decries as racist at the top of the show (I almost guarantee that someone complains, but someone always complains). The snippets that we see do evoke the feel of an eighties comedy act (a poor one – although, in a way, they pretty much all were).
No, the episode’s focus in on the drama between Tommy and Len, and it is here that it shines. For the majority of the episode, it is a two-hander between Shearsmith and Pemberton, and it is really beautifully acted by the both of them. Pemberton is great as the shambolic clown, harping on the nostalgia of his glory days and hoping to bring them back, but this is Shearsmith’s episode in reality. He plays Tommy (now a successful digital marketer) as the straight man, and one rapidly losing patience with the revival. He’s so hostile, it’s hard to figure out why he actually agreed to revive the act. That is, until the episode provides a perfect answer with its gut-punch ending.
If ‘Zanzibar’ astounded you with its technical ability, ‘Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room’ will break your heart
Len’s daughter Leanne appears on the scene a few minutes from the end, thanking Tommy for coming to her father’s funeral – it transpires that all the events we have seen have been in Tommy’s imagination, a way of remembering his comedy partner before he wishes him a final goodbye. This comes just on the heels of the revelation as to what happened in Bernie Clifton’s dressing room (Tommy found Len passed out drunk and choking on his vomit, and so sacrificed the career he loved to stop the pressure that led to Len’s drinking), delivered in a tearful monologue by Shearsmith that already got the emotion going.
‘Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room’ was a different, but far more affecting episode, entertaining and moving in equal measure. It is an episode that really can be summed up in its final scene, a Morecambe and Wise-style song and dance number punctuated with terrible gags that sees Len fade away, leaving Tommy alone with the memories. A touching homage to the entertainment industry of yesteryear gives way to the sadness of those who success has bypassed, and a friendship shattered by deep concern and love. Shearsmith and Pemberton have done it again – if ‘Zanzibar’ astounded you with its technical ability, ‘Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room’ will break your heart.
Next week: A removal man arrives to help a lady move house, in an interesting episode that sees events evolve through reverse chronology – time will move backwards in another formal experiment.