Inside No.9: 9 things you didn't know about the comedy anthology series

From The League of Gentlemen reunion to hidden hares, uncover some surprising facts about Inside No. 9, television's most twisted comedy series.

By Lizzie Larkum Published: 16 May 2022 - 8.03pm
BBC Inside No.9

We're well into the seventh series of Inside No.9, and the dark humour, bizarre characters and unexpected twists and turns are showing no signs of letting up.

Inside No.9 is a dark comedy anthology written by Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith which has run on BBC Two since 2014 as a series of 30-minute standalone episodes. Each edition has a different cast of characters and each is set in a place marked by the number 9 - originally houses but recently changing rooms, police cars and even a pedalo. 

Pemberton and Shearsmith have been a formidable writing and acting team for many years. They met, along with fellow actor and writer Mark Gatiss, at Bretton Hall drama school in West Yorkshire and the three later formed The League of Gentlemen with local writer Jeremy Dyson.

Inside No.9 - Nine Lives Kat BBC

The sketch show won the Perrier Award at the Edinburgh fringe and was picked up by the BBC, first as a radio show and then in 1999 as a TV series. Pemberton and Shearsmith went on to write and star in Pyschoville, a similarly macabre comic series with outlandish characters which ran for two series, and Inside No.9 continues their same brand of deliciously dark comedy. 

Across its seven series, the award-winning show - it recently won the BAFTA for Best Scripted Comedy to go with Pemberton's Best Comedy Performance award of 2019 - has explored many different genres and themes including Shakespearean farce, commedia dell'arte and silent comedy as well as homages to Hammer Horror and cult films like The Wicker Man.

Inside No.9 - Series 7 guest stars revealed

As the latest episodes air at 10pm every Wednesday on BBC Two, here are nine things you may not know about the mysterious world of Inside No.9...

1. Series 7 was written in lockdown

Inside No.9 - Mr King BBC

Filming of the sixth series of Inside No.9 was halted due to Covid, but having already secured a seventh series, Reece and Steve were able to make the most of their time in lockdown by writing the new series together, but apart, over Zoom.

It was a new experience for both as they usually write in a room together but the restrictions made the process more difficult.

“It was much more concentrated, more exhausting, we’d do much shorter days,” Reece told Alex Zane's  Just the Facts podcast.

Having written the seventh series before filming had wrapped on the sixth, some episodes that were destined for one series ended up being in the other, often to maintain social distancing guidelines on the set.

For example, the series 7 episode Mr King was originally written for series 6 but as it was set in the confined space of a classroom and featured a large cast of children, production was delayed until Covid restrictions had eased.

2. Merrily Merrily - The League of Gentlemen reunion episode

Inside No.9 - Merrily, Merrily BBC

Merrily Merrily, the first episode of the seventh series, centres around a reunion of three college friends who are meeting for the first time in 12 years.

It was also a reunion of the Bretton Hall and League of Gentlement trio of Pemberton, Gatiss and Shearsmith, above, and marked the first time the three had been on screen together since 2018.

“We were destined to be friends and everything that’s come out of it professionally is a bonus. The greatest part of it is that we’ve always had such a good laugh together," Gatiss, who plays Callum in the episode, told The Radio Times.

"To be part of the cast of Merrily, Merrily was a real treat. It’s very moving and funny, but it speaks of a big universal truth about friendships. That’s what makes it so powerful."

Jeremy Dyson, the fourth member of the League of Gentlemen, was rarely seen on screen so it’s not surprising that he doesn’t make an appearance, and while he was unable to join his erstwhile colleagues for the filming, he did attend the edit of the episode.

But there is a veiled reference to a fourth friend who couldn’t make it, Kenzie, who is in Germany, and Steve told the episode's Inside Inside No.9 podcast that the bear-trapper's hat he wore as Darren was chosen because Dyson always wore a similar hat on the set of League of Gentlemen.

3. Where's the Hare? 

Look carefully and you'll spot a statue of a hare hidden within every episode of Inside No.9. The bronze animal has appeared on mantlepieces, tables and even in a newspaper clipping, and Reece and Steve reveal the location of the hare in their BBC Podcast Inside Inside No.9.

After being a mere prop for three series, the hare took centre stage in Tempting Fate, the final episode of series 4. The Hare grants wishes to the holder but as it’s Inside No.9 each wish comes with diabolical consequences.

As Reece Shearsmith’s character Nick - who cleans the houses of recently deceased people for the council - explains: “Hares are associated with witchcraft and trickery in almost every culture.”

So it certainly makes an apt mascot for the show.

4. Return to Psychoville

Inside No.9 - Death Be Not Proud BBC

After The League of Gentlemen ended, Reece and Steve went on to write Psychoville, a dark comedy thriller featuring, like the League, a cast of strange characters. Nine years after the last episode of Psychoville, two of its central characters, Maureen and David Sowerbutts, made a surprise reappearance in Inside No.9's series 5 episode Death Be Not Proud.

The mother and son who lived together in a miserable flat had an unhealthy interest in serial killers and, through a series of misunderstandings, become killers themselves.

In Death Be Not Proud, young couple, Beattie and Sam - played by Jenna Coleman and  Kadiff Kirwan - move into a flat which they have only been able to afford because of its gruesome past.  As Sam says when trying to put Beattie at ease: "It's not a serial killers flat, it was one dismembered body."

With the premise set up, spooky things start happening in the flat, but this is no ordinary haunting and all is revealed when David Sowerbutts turns up at their door.  Through a seires of flashbacks we find out what happened to David after Psychoville and discover his mother is now a ghost who haunted David in the past and is now haunting Beattie.

Two more Psychoville characters, Emily, played by Sarah Solemani (Him and Her) and Mr Jelly, the disgruntled clown also make cameo appearances.

The return of the Sowerbutts delighted long-time Pemberton and Shearsmith aficionados, but this wasn't the first time a reference to Psychoville has been made in Inside No.9. In season 4 episode Bernie Clifton's Dressing Room, Reece's character Thomas says: "I can't afford to go into a meeting with HSBC and someone's found me as Tina Turner with tights on me head ping pong balls for eyes" - which is exactly what Maureen Sowerbutts does in Psychoville!

5. The cryptic crossword crossover

Inside No.9 - The Riddle of the Sphinx BBC

Series 3, episode 3, The Riddle of the Sphinx, centres around Steve Pemberton's acadmic and crossword setter, Nigel Squires, who is visited late one stormy night by Nina - played by Alexandra Roach - who says she wants to learn to solve cryptic crosswords.

After agreeing to show her the tricks of the puzzles, Nigel unveils a giant-sized crossword on an easel and proceeds to talk her through the clues one by one.

That wasn't the first time that particular crossword had seen the light of day, however. On the morning of the broadcast on 28 February 2017, the same puzzle, compiled by Pemberton himself, had been published in The Guardian Newspaper.

It was the first crossword Pemberton had ever written, and while it served its purpose - containing hidden references to the grisly plot of the episode which were revealed as it progressed - he admited in the Inside Inside No.9 podcast that it may not have been up to the paper's usual high standard. 

"I think I cheated a bit because we were using the crossword as a plot device, we weren't using it to give the people a crossword to solve," he said.

"It had to have these hidden messages inside. I got very bad reviews as a crossword setter."

And the name that crossword solvers give to such a hidden message? Nina.

6. The online-only episode

Inside No.9 - The Inventors BBC

On 12 February 2014 an interactive episode of Inside No.9 called The Inventors was released online. Written not by Reece and Steve but by Ed Hime (Doctor Who) and starring Dan Renton Skinner and Tom Verall as Andy and Dennis, two brothers arguing over what to do with their dead parent's flat when Andy invents a time machine. The British Comedy Guide website explains:

"The tale is told in a unique digital format, replacing linear video with a series of cinematic photographs or 'cinemagraphs' with dialogue. Each cinemagraph captures a single moment in Andy and Dennis's adventure through a still image, which contains an isolated piece of movement that repeats on an infinite loop."

Unfortunately the interactive episode is no longer available online, although a non-interactive version of it does exist on YouTube.

7. The live episode that went very wrong

Inside No.9 - Dead Line BBC

On 28 October 2018, a Halloween special of Inside No.9 went out live on BBC2. At first the duo weren't keen to do a live episode but having been talked into doing it, used the format to their advantage.

"Live episodes are 10 a penny now, they all do them: Holby City, EastEnders," Reece Shearsmith explained in an interview with The Guardian.

"You watch because you hope the actors might go wrong. So we played up to the idea of something going wrong."

Five minutes into a seemingly ordinary - if such a thing is possible - episode of Inside No.9, the sound cuts off and a continuity announcer tells us that an old episode of the show (silent comedy A Quiet Night In) will be shown instead. 

But this was all part of Reece and Steve's plan to transport the action from a standard drama to a behind-the-scenes thriller as the pair, and guest star Stephanie Cole - now playing themselves - begin to learn about the many hauntings that have beset the very studios in which they are filming. 

And it worked - fans took to Twitter to complain about the technical problems and the show lost a fifth of its audience as it looked as though the live experiment had failed, before it became obvious that the twist this time involved millions of viewers at home.

8. Derek Jacobi is the only guest star to appear in more than one episode

Inside No.9 - How Do You Plead BBC

Since Timothy West, Anne Reid and Katherine Parkinson first crammed into a wardrobe in in episode 1, Sardines, the list of Inside No.9 guest stars reads like a Who's Who of British acting, with Alison Steadman, Rory Kinnear, Emilia Fox, Gemma Arteton and Sheridan Smith among the dozens of actors who have joined Steve and Reece on set.

But apart from Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton, the only actor to appear twice across all seven series to date is stage and screen veteran Derek Jacobi. 

Jacobi's first role was in series 3's seasonal special The Devil of Christmas, in which the I, Claudius actor played film director Dennis Fulcher who is seemingly recording an audio commentary for the 1970s movie shown on screen. 

In what turns out to be a shocking tale, however, we never see Jacobi himself, only hear his voice. Thankfully, his second appearance is rather more corporeal: in How Do You Plead, the fifth episode series 6, Jacobi plays Webster, a dying barrister who is involved in a Faustian pact with the Devil.

Steve Pemberton explained their reasons for breaking the golden rule on the episode's Inside Inside No. 9 podcast.

"We semi-broke our rule, which is we don't have the same actor coming back in Inside No.9," he explained.

"We figured because he hadn't physically been in The Devil of Christmas that that was allowed."

9. Happy Endings - and an end in sight?

Inside No.9 - Sardines BBC

The original working title for Inside No.9 was 'Happy Endings', but in the pair's appearance on comedian Richard Herring's Leicester Square Podcast in October 2012, Pemberton revealed what the series was actually going to be called.

"It was announced that it was called that [Happy Endings]," explained Steve, before he revealed what was - almost - the final name of the show.

"We can exclusively reveal the title... it's a rubbish title...  it's called Number 9, the idea is that each week you go to a different house and all the houses are number 9... They're all completely different stories, self-contained little plays and they all take place inside number 9."

In a recent Inside Inside No.9 podcast, the pair seemed to let slip that the show is destined to sign off after nine series.

"If it had been called Inside No.3, would we be done by now?" asked guest Mark Gatiss.

"Yes!" the hosts replied. "If only we'd thought of that," Reece added.

"Imagine if it was Inside No.11!" said Gatiss, to which Shearsmith replied: "Oh no, no..."

So if we really only do have two more series of Inside No.9 to tease, shock and entertain us - enjoy it while you can! 

Watch new episodes of Inside No.9 series 7 every Wednesday 10pm on BBC2.

Watch series 1-6  on BBC iPlayer.

Watch all the shows you love on BT TV

Take a TV Entertainment pack and catch the new series of Stranger Things and Gangs of London and new shows like The Midwich Cuckoos.