Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton have a knack for taking elements of classic horror and giving them a subversive twist by infusing them with their trademark dark wit.
It worked to great effect in the first series’s gothic chiller The Harrowing, and on the face of it Séance Time, the final episode in this excellent second run, is more of the same as a gauche young woman enters a spooky house and encounters a series of strange goings on. That, however, is just a piece of sly misdirection from the writers; the real horror in this tightly wound half-hour is something altogether more frightful.
The story sees gullible Tina (Sophi McShera, Downton Abbey’s Daisy) attend a séance set up by her sister. As a first-time visitor to the spiritual world, Tina is unsure what to expect (always a wise mindset when dealing with Inside No 9) and is glad to be greeted by Reece Shearsmith’s Hives before she is introduced to blind and hoarse medium Madam Talbot who reveals something unexpected waiting for Tina on the Other Side.
Earlier in the anthology’s run, I criticised the show for its overuse of the final plot twist, suggesting that deploying the device earlier in the story could be more effective. This episode proves how well the idea can work when used appropriately.
Less than half way through Séance Time, the story makes a truly shocking about turn as (SPOILER ALERT) it is revealed that the séance is actually part of an elaborate prank set up by the makers of fictional – yet incredibly plausible – hidden camera show ‘Scardy Cam’. It’s an impressively handled twist, coming as a complete surprise, and it sets the tone nicely for the remainder of the episode where you can never be sure what will happen next.
Instead of training their comedic cross-hairs on the easy target of spiritual hokum, Shearsmith and Pemberton return to territory they previously covered in series one’s The Understudy by writing a playfully biting satire of the acting profession, flooding the cast with stuck-up performers – Shearsmith’s bumptious and selfish host and Alison Steadman’s hilariously theatrical old crone are particularly disdainful delights – and taking mirthful swipes at the acting process.
They never forget to make the story inexorably terrifying, though, walking the fine line between comedy and horror with aplomb. One of the most enjoyable parts of the episode is the way Shearsmith and Pemberton build suspense by recycling classic horror tropes – flickering light bulbs, creaky door hinges, unsuitably creepy dolls – before for firing off another gag that is all the more funny for the way it briefly alleviates the tension.
One other advantage of deploying the plot twist early on is that it invites the audience into a false sense of expectation, relaxing because they believe they now know how the story is going to pan out. It’s more fool anyone who thinks that way, of course, as Shearsmith and Pemberton inevitably have on final sting in their tail.
Séance Time is sprinkled with weird occurrences seemingly unconnected to the hidden camera show’s hoax, with a puddle of water that vanishes and then reappears and a child’s teddy that keeps popping up in odd places, and when Pemberton’s bolshy sceptic inadvertently kills an under-appreciated performer, the stage is set for one more frightening reveal that will chill you to the very core.
As this excellent series has proved, Inside No 9 revels in its ability to keep viewers guessing, entertaining us all with inventive comedies, wrenching dramas and disturbing thrillers throughout its run, and it’s a testament to Shearsmith and Pemberton’s talent that they are able to traverse so many genres without their output ever suffering a dip in quality.
Séance Time is a shining example of their skills, offering up a unique tale packed with knowing humour and shocking reveals, punctuated by a moment of genuine horror that will leave you almost relieved that the series is over. At least until next week when you notice the gapping hole in the schedules where this brilliant, endlessly surprising show should be.
Click here to watch Inside No 9: Séance Time on BBC iPlayer