Last week, Inside No 9 delivered a joyous, life-affirming piece of sentiment, so it’s somewhat startling to see that for episode two of the fourth series, the dark shadows are still being held at bay. Not that the two characters don’t have their demons: It’s just that these demons are not from hell, and are more about what can destroy a decades long friendship. Shearsmith and Pemberton play Cheese And Crackers (not their real names), a barely remembered – and likely not particularly talented – comedy du0 from the eighties, reunited for one last gig.
Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room is – for the most part – a true two hander between Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith. Somewhat surprisingly, it’s actually the first two hander Inside No 9 has given us. And it’s a fine balancing act, looking at why two men may desperately need each other to further their comedic career while at the same time being fatally toxic for one another. It’s telling that the duo’s best sketch involves ten bottles of beer, hinting at a savagely ironic backstory.
It’s a bittersweet story, with both the bitter and the sweet jostling for supremacy. It also slyly hints at both Pemberton and Shearsmith’s own comedic heritage: at any time in the UK from the fifties to the seventies, it’s easy for comedy fans to point to an undisputed classic. This is also largely true of the nineties (which gave us The League Of Gentlemen, amongst others). As for the eighties, however … well, it’s a bit more of a challenge. And it’s in this decade – the ‘arse end of variety’ as Shearsmith’s character Thomas cynically snaps – that Cheese and Crackers hail from. There’s obviously a bit of Cannon and Ball or Little and Large there (or indeed any comedy group for whom an ampersand makes up a third of the name), and this duo didn’t have the material or even charm of even Mike and Bernie Clifton.
Thomas has left the comedy game long ago – although it’s clearly still in his DNA: it doesn’t take long for him to be drawn into an argument about nuance, and which comics are ‘allowed’ to do certain material. It’s apparent that he understands comedy better than Len (Pemberton) who, as well as being more emotionally invested in the gig, is passionate in his belief that ‘a laugh’s a laugh, no matter how you get it.’ Buried not that deep in the script is what might be argued as the Inside No 9 manifesto: there’s nothing necessarily wrong with comedy that’s lazy or obvious – indeed, it can be as comforting as a mug of builder’s tea laced with whisky – but times have moved on, and Shearsmith and Pemberton are more demanding of themselves than any critic. Although they do allow themselves a sublime gag at the expense of a fondly remembered character from Pyschoville.
Mid argument, Len angrily demands of his former comedy partner. ‘Why have you come?’ Thomas’ answer is simple, and heartfelt: ‘How could I not?’. Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room, despite the light touch, could very well have served as the final episode of the series: it’s a love letter to variety, to comedy, and indeed to these comedy actors (the fictional or real-life ones; take your pick) from each other. There’s a sequence that’s partially iconic Morecambe And Wise with a dash of what sounds like the title of a Bob Monkhouse autobiography. If the boys aren’t careful, it’s the clip that will be wheeled out at every reunion from hereon in.