Review: Inside No. 9, S4 E3 – “Once Removed”

Warning: this review doesn’t contain any major plot points, but I do talk a little bit about the storytelling style and narrative techniques. If you want to watch it totally cold with no prior knowledge, I’d suggest coming back to this review once you’ve seen the episode.

Well, so far in Series 4, Steve Pemberton has ended up on Reece Shearsmith’s lap twice… so there’s that. Just wanted to open with that. I’m not complaining.

We’re halfway through the series! I’m trying not to feel sad about the inevitable end to Series 4; there’s still three more episodes to go, after all. There’s not much to feel sad about, really, because we’ve been blessed with three fantastic episodes already.

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We’ve had such interesting narrative techniques this series – Zanzibar with its iambic pentameter, Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room with its pathos-filled slow burner of a story, and now Once Removed with its storytelling in reverse. The episode starts with the story’s end and concludes with its beginning (“reverse chronology” is the correct term for this). I love some quirky chronology – I’ve submitted an essay this week dealing partially with unconventional temporality in a poem by Jorge Luis Borges – so I was hyped when I clocked what was happening. Inside No. 9 never fails to surprise me and this episode was no exception.

Seeing Emilia Fox in Inside No. 9 was a thrilling moment, I won’t lie. I’ve loved her since she played Morgause in BBC’s Merlin and she was wonderful in this (as always). My only complaint would be that she isn’t in it enough, but that’s not really a concrete thing you could fix (it would just have made me personally happy).

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Reece’s wig in this episode was a choice, but not one I entirely disapproved of. It entertained me. I liked it. Miss Thing worked that lacefront and I wasn’t even that mad about it.

This was my favourite episode of this series (so far). It had all the elements that first drew me to Inside No. 9 – it was hysterically funny, genuinely shocking and it had a good bit of blood splattering around, which I’m always here for. Don’t skimp on the blood, ever. I had tons of fun watching it, to the point that I sort of felt bad for my flatmates and neighbours because I was laughing so hard.

 

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Episode 4, To Have and To Hold, will be broadcast at 10pm on Tuesday 23rd January, BBC2.

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Review: Inside No. 9, S4 E2 – “Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room”

Brief note: I’m tagging my Inside No. 9 reviews under “horror” because some of the previous episodes have strong horror elements. I don’t really have a “hilarious, heartbreaking, sometimes horrifying comedy anthology” tag, so, unfortunately, episodes like this one which aren’t horror-related are going under the tag just to keep the reviews together.

The single spoiler (or semi-spoiler) in this review is in yellow parentheses like [this]. Highlight it with your cursor to read it.

Wow. So this was… upsetting.

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I remember watching 12 Days of Christine (the second episode of the second series) for the first time and just being blown away by how profoundly tragic and well-written it was. I feel similarly about Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room. The episodes with stronger horror influences give me chills of a different kind; the twist can be pretty brutal. But episodes like this one have a different sort of twist. It’s a bit slower, a bit gentler. It gives you chance to really appreciate the pathos of the piece.

It’s more of an “Ohhhh. Oh, that’s sad.” rather than an “OH SHIT WHAT THE FUCK” (I’m looking at you, The Harrowing/Seance Time/The Devil of Christmas).

The plot, very briefly put to avoid spoilers, is that Len Shelby and Tommy Drake, a comedy double-act, have reunited after 30 years for one last gig. Len (Steve Pemberton) is eager to revive their act, but Tommy (Reece Shearsmith) has moved on. And so has the rest of the world: there’s a particularly brilliant scene with “the interview sketch”, culminating in a bit of commentary on political correctness. There’s so much going on in Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room – commentary on stardom [(Len’s alcoholism is revealed to be what ultimately drove them apart)], lots of fun nostalgia for a bygone era of comedy and a desperately bittersweet ending.

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My mom and I laughed throughout the episode. My mom cried at the end. (I didn’t quite get that far, but I’m heartless so please don’t gauge anything by my emotions, really.) I think that’s the mark of a good piece of television; it makes you feel something without being gratuitous or taking the easy route.

This review is a bit shorter than the first, mostly because I wanted to establish in that review why I’ve specifically chosen to write about this series. I also simply have less to say about this one. I started watching Inside No. 9 because I love dark humour, so the episodes that appeal to me the most are the ones with something grotesque, something nasty. That doesn’t mean I don’t deeply enjoy episodes like Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room. It was sweet, funny and beautifully crafted. A strong episode overall.

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Episode 3, Once Removed, will be broadcast at 10pm on Tuesday 16th January, BBC2.

 

Review: Inside No. 9, S4 E1 – “Zanzibar”

I know, I know – I promised to stop writing so many reviews, but I just couldn’t resist sharing a few thoughts about Inside No. 9. So here’s what we’ll do. I’ll review this series and nothing else. I promise. No other film, TV show nor book shall be reviewed in this place until further notice.

Zanzibar takes place along a corridor on Floor 9 of the Hotel Zanzibar. The story plays out like a Shakespearean farce, a comedy of errors. As a big ol’ Shakespeare nerd, I was VERY happy indeed. This episode was written entirely in iambic pentameter and, to be honest, I might start a petition for more TV to be written that way. It was immensely cool to have that on my screen and, whatever you thought of the plot, the actual writing was a great technical achievement in and of itself. Both Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith (Pemberton being the guy in the t-shirt at the front and Shearsmith being the dude in the suit behind him, below) are fantastic writers. (Yes, they’re often in the episodes too. They write and sing da feem toon, leave ’em alone.) It sounds silly for me, a lowly blogger, to say that, but Inside No. 9 just pushes all the buttons for what interests me. Quasi-horror anthology? On it. Ghosts? Bang on the money. Witch trials? They’ve done an episode on that. An episode with dialogue solely in iambic pentameter? They’re reading my goddamn mind.

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This was the first episode of Inside No. 9 that I watched with my parents. It’s always been something I watched on my own (except for the time I traumatised my brother with The Riddle of the Sphinx, the third episode of Series 3). Inside No. 9 is a strange beast to try and explain to people, mostly because it’s a comedy that isn’t overly concerned with being conventionally funny. When I laugh at it, it’s normally more of a hysterical exclamation of “Oh my god, did that really just happen?!” As is always the case with Inside No. 9, I had no clue what to expect and I wasn’t sure my parents would enjoy it.

Zanzibar happened to be one of the lighter episodes, perhaps even the lightest out of all of them. Just to clarify: “light” in this context does not mean “cheerful and innocent”. It’s still as darkly humorous as ever; often, it’s simply dark. I appreciated that it was a touch more lighthearted – not least because an episode in the vein of The Harrowing (my personal favourite episode, Episode 6 of the first series) would have been a very hard sell to my mother, who hates horror films. If you also want to get your squeamish friend or relative into Inside No. 9, Zanzibar would be an excellent place to start.

 

Overall, I really enjoyed the first episode. It probably won’t ever rank among my favourite episodes (although not classing every episode as your favourite is sort of the point of having favourites) but it was definitely up to their usual standards.

Episode 2, Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room, will be broadcast at 10pm on Tuesday 9th January, BBC2.

The Hidden Files #1: British Big Cats

This is the first installment of The Hidden Files, a series of articles based upon my research of cryptids.

What secrets do the forests, fields and moors of Britain hold? Could the British countryside be home to creatures roaming far beyond their natural habitat?

Since the 1950s, many eyewitnesses have asked themselves these same questions.

You wouldn’t think the quaint countryside of the south of England could shelter such mysterious creatures, but Devon and Cornwall made the Big Cats in Britain list of the top 10 counties with the most sightings. The most famous sightings of British big cats are arguably the Beast of Exmoor and the Beast of Bodmin. Sightings of the Beast of Exmoor began to be reported in the 1970s, although it wasn’t until 1983 that the beast achieved a degree of infamy: a farmer, Eric Ley, reported that he had lost over 100 sheep over the course of three months. Each had been mutilated and had had their throats torn out. In 1988, the complaints about the number of livestock deaths prompted the Ministry of Agriculture to send Royal Marines into the area to seek out the Beast of Exmoor. Several men believed they had spotted it, but no conclusive evidence was ever found. Similarly, the Beast of Bodmin made headlines in 1992 as the alleged culprit of livestock mutilations. Both creatures were described as panther-like or puma-like, despite neither of these cats being native to Britain.

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Photograph showing a large cat which is believed to be the Beast of Exmoor

The earliest cases in the 1950s include the Surrey Puma. The Surrey Puma was first seen in 1959 and by the mid-1960s, the police had developed specific records for big cat sightings – a collection which included a plaster cast of a paw print and a photograph of a remarkably long cat taken by Ian Pert, a police photographer. Another interesting case from the 1980s is that of the Fen Tiger, a big cat (unlikely to be an actual tiger!) which had apparently made its home in Cambridgeshire. The first sighting was in 1982, but it wasn’t until 1994 that actual evidence was supplied by William Rooker. He had captured two minutes of footage which appeared to show a large feline with black fur and, in his words, “a flat face”.

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Copyright to British Big Cat Society & William Rooker (1994)

The image above is a still from William Rooker’s original footage. If you scroll down to the end of this article from BBC Cambridgeshire, plenty of people have added their own accounts in the comments section, the most recent comment dating from 2009. Clearly, the Fen Tiger, along with big cat tales nationwide, are still present in the public imagination.

So how might we go about explaining these cats’ peculiar choice of home? The most plausible theory is that the presence of larger cats – especially those which are not native to Britain – is the result of new regulations introduced in 1976 under the Dangerous Wild Animals Act. Prior to this, it was ostensibly legal to own wild animals in this country without any kind of training or licence. The act declared that owners of certain types of exotic animals, particularly big cats, now required a permit. Perhaps some owners simply released their pets into the wild to avoid having to apply (and pay) for an ownership licence. Alternatively, owners may have released big cats they had been keeping as pets when the animals grew too large for their enclosures or became too difficult to handle.

Near where I live, a local man by the name of Lew Foley was well-known for keeping a pride of lions at his home in Cradley Heath. Last year, his friend Norman Catton claimed in the Birmingham Mail that Foley had released his lions over the Malvern Hills and in addition may have helped other people release their animals – possibly other big cats –  after the 1976 act. I must stress that this story remains unconfirmed, but it’s possible. In 2009, a statement from Big Cats In Britain made it clear that “There’s probably more than one up on the hills.” Without knowing how many other big cats may have been released, the Birmingham Mail suggested at least four or five felines could be prowling in the hills. Either way, I think it’s an interesting piece of local history and I like that it has taken on a “local legend” quality.

These cats are often called “phantom cats” and it’s been noted that these stories descend from the tradition in British folklore of the Black Dog, a ghostly canine who roams the moors and is an omen of ill fortune. Sightings of big cats are not generally considered supernatural in the way that the Black Dogs of the past were – instead, the idea of the cats having escaped from captivity bolsters people’s beliefs.

I think it’s entirely plausible that small numbers of big cats were released in the 1970s and might have survived in the countryside, but it’s also important to note that the big cat craze has resulted in several hoaxes, including a toy tiger being left in a field (prompting panic and a police helicopter search) and a cardboard cut-out of a panther being photographed and presented as evidence.

 

Draw whatever conclusion you like from reading the anecdotes and accounts of sightings, but you might want to take care if you’re walking alone across the moors or the hills of England – just in case. You never know what’s out there.

For more:

Please be aware – both documentaries briefly show images of the mutilated livestock in some “big cat” cases.

World of Weird: Secrets of Europe’s Bog Bodies

I read an article earlier from Smithsonian Magazine about the continued research into bodies found in Europe’s peat bogs, how they are studied and how they ended up in the bogs.

Archaeologists have been asking the same questions since the Hojgaards first troubled Tollund Man’s long sleep: Who are you? Where did you come from? How did you live? Who murdered you and why? But the way the researchers ask the questions, using new forensic techniques like dual-energy CT scanners and strontium tests, is getting more sophisticated all the time. There’s new hope that, sometime soon, he may start to speak.

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Article here.

Haunted Files #2: The Enfield Poltergeist

This is the second installment of The Haunted Files, a series of articles based upon my research of alleged ghosts and hauntings.

While Britain has a long, bloody history of haunted castles and mansions, the Enfield Poltergeist case gripped the nation in the late 1970s because the activity focused on a young girl living in a rented house in Enfield, north London. It remains one of the most famous English hauntings, adapted into numerous films and TV series.

It began in August 1977. Peggy Hodgson, a single mother, fled to the bedroom belonging to her daughters when she heard them screaming. The girls – Janet aged 11 and Margaret aged 14 – claimed that a chest of drawers had moved of its own accord. Peggy phoned the police. When the police arrived, they found no evidence of an intruder, but they were greeted with further strange phenomena when a police constable on the scene witnessed a chair move across the floor without being touched.

The activity continued, growing in intensity as time passed. The poltergeist would allegedly throw rocks and toys, knock on walls and it began to speak with a demonic growl, using Janet as its mouthpiece. The case attracted the attention of the national press; you can see real footage here, shown in 1978 on the BBC, which features the testimonies of the police officers as well as the contrast between Janet’s normal voice and the voice of the so-called demon.

As you can see in the video, the case was closely monitored by paranormal investigator Maurice Grosse. He was joined by author and parapsychologist Guy Lyon Playfair. Both men were members of the Society for Psychical Research, where they first met. Other researchers in the SPR remained sceptical of the case and, when it became clear that the girls had faked photographs and certain activity, it was widely regarded as a hoax. Janet was caught on film bending spoons and attempting to bend an iron bar, as well as jumping off her bed to pretend to “levitate”. However, Grosse believed that Margaret and Janet had falsified some of the evidence but also that a large proportion of the events were real and inexplicable. In his book This House Is Haunted, published in 1980, Playfair also maintained that the haunting was genuine.

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Janet appears to levitate, (c) Graham Morris, 1977

Margaret suggested in the BBC interview that Janet had spoken in about 10 different voices, but one of the male voices, “Bill”, is perhaps the best-known. “Bill” is the name by which the entity is referred to in the 2015 TV series The Enfield Haunting (you can see examples of how closely the series was adapted from real events here and here) and in the 2016 film The Conjuring 2. “Bill” was recorded on tape saying “I used to live here” and describing how he died: “I went blind and then I had a haemorrhage and I fell asleep and died in the chair in the corner downstairs.” You can hear this at around 2:30 in the video linked above. According to journalist Michael Hellicar, “Bill” was eventually identified as Bill Wilkins by his son, who recognised his voice from the recording. He had lived and died in the Hodgsons’ house, exactly as described by Janet.

The case is still a matter of debate. Some believe the gruff voice in which “Bill” spoke was well beyond the capabilities of an 11-year-old girl and that her natural voice would have been affected if she had been doing it deliberately; others have hypothesised that Janet was simply a talented ventriloquist and possessed false vocal cords above her actual larynx, which enabled her to create a man’s deep voice. It has also been noted that the voices still appeared to retain the vocabulary and vocal patterns (intonation, the pace of speech, etc.) of a child. This is sometimes attributed to the spirit using Janet’s body as a vessel – it could not form the words with its own adult abilities and was limited by a child’s experience – but it is generally accepted as evidence against the case’s veracity. Psychology professor and sceptic Chris French has also expressed doubt based upon the topics the spirit was willing to talk about: “When Janet was supposedly possessed by the spirit of an old man, he took a lot of interest in menstruation. That’s not something you expect an old man to be interested in. But a young girl? Well yes. “

French’s point is an interesting one. In an interview with Janet by The Telegraph, the activity is said to have “peaked” on 15th December 1977 – the day Janet got her first period. Poltergeist cases often focus on adolescent women and girls at a time of great change in their lives, leading some to wonder if there is a connection between high human emotion and poltergeists.

Janet claims only about 2% of the events were faked by she and her siblings, but that this was only because they felt under pressure to deliver constant evidence. She said she felt like “a failure” when she was unable to produce anything during lulls in the activity. Like everything else in this particular case, there are two ways to look at every piece of evidence. The spirit spoke like a child, either because it was using a child or because it was a child’s invention. Janet faked events, either because she wanted to accentuate the other (ostensibly real) evidence or because the entire investigation was a hoax.

We may never fully know.

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For more on the Enfield Poltergeist:

Lunar Files #2: The Cannock Chase Werewolf

This is the second installment of The Lunar Files, a series of articles based upon my research of werewolf (or wolf-like  creature) cases.

Cannock Chase is an area of dense woodland and countryside in Staffordshire, England. A designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, it encompasses 26 square miles of land.

I’ve visited on several occasions and I can testify to its beauty. However, if local folklore is to be believed, Cannock Chase is home to more than just flora and fauna.

Stories of a werewolf lurking in the vast expanse of forest have circulated since at least the 1970s. In 1975, a group of paranormal investigators witnessed a “snarling beast” rearing up on its hind legs before heading into the bushes out of sight. According to a supernatural survey, the Fringe Weird report, the Chase has been the setting for 20 encounters with an unknown wolf-like creature.

Over three decades later, the Stafford Post published an article in April 2007 with the input of the West Midlands Ghost Club. WM Ghost Club stated that they had received dozens of calls from people with strange stories and spooky sightings of the beast. An early report was that of a local postman, who saw what he believed to be a werewolf near the German War Cemetery on the site. At first, he assumed it was a large dog, but as he got closer, it stood up on its hind legs and fled. A second report from a scout master detailed a similar incident. He also witnessed some sort of canid prowling near the bushes; he too thought it was a peculiarly big dog. When he got into his car and slammed the door, the creature rose to its full height on two legs and ran into the trees: “It just looked like a huge dog… it must have been about six to seven feet tall. I know it sounds absolutely mad, but I know what I saw.”

According to the Stoke Sentinel, in June 2006, a lupine creature was seen dodging traffic on the M6, a main motorway here in England. More chilling is a tale related by the unnamed journalist: a 17-year-old in Eccleshall allegedly sold his soul to the Devil via a ouija board in order to gain the ability to transform into a werewolf. He later committed suicide by stabbing himself to death. This was in 1975, coinciding with the first werewolf sighting. Unfortunately, the reporter did not disclose a source.

Among the reports from residents in the vicinity of Cannock Chase, the war cemetery is a recurring location of sightings, leading some investigators to suggest a supernatural connection. On the other hand, there are multiple proponents of an alternative theory, based on the geography of the Chase and past cases of animal mutilations, that the so-called werewolves are a subterranean species emerging from the old and disused mines in the area and surviving by hunting deer and small wildlife.

Whatever you believe about the alleged werewolf of Cannock Chase, you might join me in vowing not to go wandering through the woods alone, under a full moon.

Further reading: