Following last week’s devilishly funny, if ultimately underwhelming, horror spoof based on the witch trials of the 17th century, Cold Comfort brings us back to the present day and stuffs us into the claustrophobic confines of a bleak call centre for a heart-pounding chiller that will leave you pinned to your sofa long after the credits have rolled.
It’s Andy’s (Steve Pemberton) first day as a volunteer for the Comfort Support Line – or CSL, for short – a dedicated telephone service that offers solace and conversation to the lonely and desperate. While the majority of calls are either pesky PPI claims or (literal) wankers, some of the callers appear to be in genuine need of help, such as a young woman struggling with guilt following a planned abortion and a depressed teenager on the brink of suicide. As the ramifications of these conversations become increasingly harrowing, Andy begins to question if he can cope with such unremitting pressure.
Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s direction here is masterful, evoking an Orwellian sense of paranoia through the use of CCTV footage. The drama unfolds via a fixed camera in booth no 9 while other angles are displayed split-screen on the side, intensifying the feeling of anxiety as we become aware of potentially important interactions happening just outside our field of vision and also creating an unsettling sense of voyeurism as we begin to question who else might be watching.
But it’s not just in the visuals where Shearsmith and Pemberton excel. The use of tight, static camera angles to translate the suffocating environment of Andy’s cubicle is complimented by a sparing use of sound – the piercing chirp of a ringing telephone; the bone-rattling thrum that accompanies every scene transition – to expertly ratchet up the tension to the point where you’ll be biting your fingernails to the bone waiting for the inevitable breaking point to come.
The supporting cast plays a vital part in developing this disturbing tone by forming a discordant mix of individuals who man the support line but don’t always see eye to eye. Jane Horrocks and Nikki Amuka-Bird, who play snarky Liz and unsympathetic Joanne respectively, do an excellent job of suggesting this inter-office tension despite having very little screen time, while Shearsmith is a constant unnerving presence as Andy’s uptight supervisor.
However, Cold Comfort most relies on the strength of Pemberton’s capricious performance as the beleaguered Andy. Pemberton is required to run a whole gamut of weary emotions to portray his character’s transformation from an eager and likeable newbie to an irritable and, at times, callous senior volunteer. Yet, the actor-writer-director ensures Andy is always a sympathetic character by convincing us that he is a man with a genuine desire to help people, albeit one who may not posses the mental fortitude to survive the harrowing nature of his work – as so few of us probably could.
Last week, I wrote of my concern that Pemberton and Shearsmith’s repetitive use of a concluding twist was beginning to lose its effect; happily, Cold Comfort proves just how wrong I was with the writing duo delivering a breathless twist that comes as a genuine shock as the culprit behind a series of dark prank phone calls dramatically turns the tables on his accusers.
It’s a truly chilling end to a gripping and unsettling tale that kept me guessing right up till the very end.
And just when I thought I knew what to expect from Inside No 9, too.
Click here to watch Inside No 9: Cold Comfort on BBC iPlayer