You have to hand it to Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton. They don’t make life easy for themselves. After four increasingly successful series of darkly comic horror anthology series Inside No. 9, you might forgive them for resting on their laurels slightly… but no. ‘Dead Line’ is less the duo pushing the envelope than them ripping it up, throwing the pieces out the window and inventing a new way to post a letter.
Well… sort of. Perhaps that’s a bit hyperbolic. ‘Dead Line’ is format breaking but perhaps not quite ground breaking. Shearsmith and Pemberton are not the first writing team to challenge perceptions of how to tell a story, or engage ‘meta’ ideas breaking the fourth wall of engagement with the audience, but ‘Dead Line’ is so brazen in how it plays with convention and frankly messes with your mind that you have to applaud the fact they pulled it off – especially given the experiment was performed live on BBC2. For those watching when it aired, and particularly those unprepared for their trickery, this would have been a deeply disturbing experience.
For those who are yet to watch this, I don’t want to give the game away because it rewards knowing as little as possible. The episode begins conventionally, with the creepy tale of Pemberton’s pensioner Arthur Flitwick and a phone he discovers in a churchyard. In his efforts to return the phone to its owner, Arthur becomes embroiled in a mystery and then, in what appears to be a live recording error, the sound goes off… and then things get progressively stranger and stranger. Inside No. 9 has played with conventions before but never to this degree, never to the point as the audience you may actively begin questioning whether what you’re watching is real or not.
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Anyone who knows a little about TV or watches plenty of it will recognise the trick, if not the execution and where it all goes. ‘Dead Line’ is heavily inspired by the legendary BBC2 drama Ghostwatch from 1992 (Google it, seriously – you’ll be amazed), a piece of TV which was clearly a formative influence on them as writers, but the episode also manages to weave the show’s own history as an anthology, other reality TV programmes and even a brilliantly inventive use of social media to provide a jarring, bizarre and immersive experience we’ve never quite seen before in this way. If you think Black Mirror has lately challenged what’s possible, Inside No. 9 just put Charlie Brooker and company firmly in their place.
Put simply, Inside No. 9 continues to rise above the pack when it comes to British television and has now firmly cemented itself as unmissable, challenging and, importantly, often enormously funny television. There is nothing else quite like it and for that, we should cherish it for as long as we can.
Inside No. 9 is now available to watch on BBC iPlayer.