Spoilers, as we look at the penultimate episode of Inside No 9 series 4…
Earlier this month, Idris Elba essentially nixed the idea of ever playing James Bond – or at the very least, voiced a nettled annoyance that his name seems to come up mainly in relation to his ethnicity rather than his talent and charisma. And while it’s by no means the main thrust of this week’s episode of Inside No 9 (titled And The Winner Is …) such blinkered viewings of actors (and directors) who are not middle-aged and white form the backbone of one of the cutest gags in this episode as a disparate bunch of industry professionals attempt to make a selection on who should win a Best Actress award.
Noel Clarke, playing Gordon, gives essentially a version of himself – a passionately focused film director who has connections with Doctor Who, who is talented and successful enough to suggest, without paranoia, that the main reason he’s been invited into this room may not because of his talent and success, despite the protestations of his fellow jury members. He’s really too busy to be here, operating two phones at once, but in truth most of the characters have a moment when they’re distracted by their mobiles. Even when these panel members are deciding the future of an actor’s career, they are expelling a lot of energy in concentrating on their own careers.
To Gordon’s side, Clive Carrol (Reece Shearsmith) appears as a cautionary tale to any talented wannabe who has gained some level of success, as early promise has given way to mediocrity and a lack of originality. Clive has a fear of being judged, or taking risks that means he’s in danger of being entirely ignored. It’s often said that in order to give a convincing performance, actors must take risks. And as it turns out, there’s one industry professional that’s willing to take a ridiculous risk in order to get what they want.
Paula (Zoe Wannamaker) is an apparently famous actress – ‘You all know me’ – who was up for an Oscar at some point (it’s suggested that she didn’t end the evening declaring ‘You like me, you really like me’), and is on air-kissing terms with Rupert (Kenneth Cranham) a stage actor who can’t abide the current trend for mumbled dialogue: dismissing one potential, he comments that he doesn’t even understand how she got on the list. Speaking of people who shouldn’t be there, Phoebe Sparrow plays Jackie, who tells everybody that she actually works in a dentist – but as Giles (Steve Pemberton) points out, she won a competition to be the voice of the public. Almost as an afterthought, Giles reminds the panel that he will remain impartial throughout. Fenella Woolgar plays June, a journalist who sidelines in reviews that are waspishly well written, but don’t really add anything to the world.
Due to a quirk of programming (it would be too much to hope that they’d planned it this way), this episode – in which a panel arbitrarily decides who wins (and loses) an acting award comes not long after Inside No 9 itself has won Comedy Of The Year at the British Comedy Awards, after years of various panels and industry awards failing to see what’s been in front of their faces all along. There are some elegant sleights of hand to distract you from whatever the main plot is, including one joke involving Noel Clarke and Reece Shearsmith’s characters that is essentially set up for a full fifteen minutes.
Speaking of sleights of hand and distractions: yes, there will be those who claim that they’ve spotted the final reveal within the first two minutes – and to be perfectly honest, they’re probably not even lying, but the twist is hardly the point: this is the most unashamedly frothy Inside No 9 has been. Empty Orchestra was joyous and life affirming, and Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room was a love letter to entertainment. And The Winner Is … is simply a good joke, simply told. Yes, there are darker episodes. Yes, there are ones that are more obviously fiendishly clever. But this may well be the one you keep returning to, re-watching for the sheer hell of it. ‘Can’t wait to see what you do next,’ says Woolgar’s reviewer at one point.
Same goes for this reviewer.