One of the great pleasures of an anthology series is the freedom with which it allows its writers to experiment with different genres and tones on a weekly basis. It’s a big part of why Inside No 9 is such an absorbing and wildly unpredictable watch.
Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith revel in delivering the unexpected, consistently shifting gears through weekly self-contained stories that range from an absurd comedy of manners set inside a wardrobe during a game of sardines to a farcical heist that pays homage to early silent movies. With Inside No 9, you never quite know what you’re going to get.
It’s no great shock, then, that the former League of Gentlemen duo follow last week’s slapstick tale of murder aboard a tiny sleeper carriage train with The 12 Days of Christine, a moving and haunting drama tinged with a classic horror vibe that would make for an excellent double bill with Black Mirror’s White Christmas.
This week’s tale takes us inside flat No 9 of a grim tower block into which stumbles Sheridan Smith’s Christine, along with the handsome fake-fireman she has just copped off with at a New Year’s Eve party.
For the most part, the episode plays like an ordinary relationship drama on fast-forward as the plot frequently skips ahead into the future to chronicle the romance of Christine and Adam, from that first drunken fumble on her sofa and through all the traditional milestones of a relationship – meeting the parents, moving in together, marriage, parenthood, the inevitable break-up, all the way up to their eventual reconciliation.
Yet, as you’ve no doubt come to expect by now, hidden beneath this mundane veneer hides a far darker tale at the heart of Christine’s story. Pemberton and Shearsmith regularly creep into haunted house territory here, using classic tropes of the genre – flickering lights, taps running of their own volition, door hinges in dire need of some WD40 – to spectacularly unsettling effect as it’s suggested that a tragic event from Christine’s past is coming back to torment her in the form of Shearsmith’s Patrick Bateman-esque stranger, who keeps appearing in the flat just to scare the bejesus out of everyone watching at home.
Needless to say, all is not quite as it seems, but the use of paranormal elements is an excellent way of developing the gradual sense of dread that hangs of the entire episode and it more than pays off with an unguessable, shattering final twist.
As always with Inside No 9, the guest stars are almost resoundingly superb. Tom Riley may be wasted slightly as sympathetic-but-bland hunk, Adam, but sitcom legend Michele Dotrice is fantastic as Christine’s fussy and gently probing mother, while Pemberton and the aforementioned Shearsmith crop up in small but pivotal roles.
It’s Smith who shines the brightest, though, delivering yet another layered and deeply affecting turn as a beleaguered Christine. From a cheeky and flirtatious twenty-something to a troubled mum masking a deep pain, Smith plays each and every heartbreaking facet of her character with a depth and empathy that ensures Christine’s fate is every bit as involving and unbearable as it should be.
One of the few criticisms levelled at last week’s episode was that it was too predictable and possibly unoriginal considering its many similarities with the first series’ Sardines. That is surely not something The 12 Days of Christine has to worry about, however, as Pemberton and Shearsmith have delivered an inventive and endlessly shocking drama that smartly toys with multiple genres to great effect, boasting high-calibre performances from its exceptional guest cast and a devastating sting in the tail that will linger in the memory long after the credits have rolled.
Click here to watch Inside No 9 – The 12 Days of Christine on BBC iPlayer