You know the drill by now, so say it with us: if you haven’t yet seen the latest episode of Inside No 9 – titled ‘The Bill’ – then turn around now, get on iPlayer, and rectify the situation before doing anything else.
The writing and performances are as strong as ever, and even in this, the fourteenth episode to air, it doesn’t look like anyone is running out of ideas (in fact, they may be hitting a purple patch: it’s just been confirmed that Inside No.9 has got the go-ahead for a fourth season).
‘The Bill’ strips things down to basics, and will be familiar to anyone who has been trapped with, or had to continue serving, the very last diners (normally far too loud) to leave a restaurant on an otherwise quiet night.
In truth, those viewers tuning in to see Pemberton and Shearsmith make good on their promise that this is the series where they’ve ‘pushed the horror element’ may be mildly frustrated by this particular episode. Actually, ‘The Bill’ is by far the simplest, least complicated story that they’ve served up yet, with nary a silent-movie or multi-camera gimmick to spice things up.
Since it involves toxic masculinity at the dinner table, ‘The Bill’ has at least something in common with an early League of Gentlemen sketch – Mau Mau – but let’s face it, a restaurant isn’t such a hideously unique place to set a scene and Pemberton and Shearsmith aren’t concerned about invoking their comedic heritage, and even less concerned about avoiding it. It’s tempting to suggest that the boys switched wigs around to get away from Geoff Tipps and the gang, but to be honest, ‘The Bill’ shares very little DNA with that earlier sketch.
The story – told pretty much in real time – involves four diners outstaying their welcome (in a restaurant with a very familiar name). Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith are two old friends, not so passively, but always aggressively building on a relationship since their schooldays.
Phillip Glenister (looking curiously much more relaxed and even younger than many of his recent roles have allowed) is the out-of-towner with a multitude of tantalising secrets at the other end of the phone, while Jason Watkins manages to elicit sympathy as a somewhat fussy diner, delicately counting out coins and unfolding vouchers. After all, he’s announced as the poorest within the dinner party, and therefore doesn’t have as much cash to throw around. It’s this question of money, and who has it to spend, that drives the plot forward, as each of the party argues on how the bill should be split (particularly if they didn’t have a drink).
As is often the case with Inside No 9, there are glimmering references to well-loved classics, be it a James Cameron sequel or two, an iconic Gary Oldman moment, or (possibly) a near quite from Sue Snell. But all of this is merely an extra bit of umami to the menu: elsewhere, ‘The Bill’ is simply a well-crafted, sly piece of story telling. Even more tantalising is the fact that it’s really a simple story, simply told: if Season 3 really is ‘quite a dark series this time around’, it may well be that this episode is merely an appetiser.
The structure of the piece is the closest to a traditional stage-play-adapted-for-TV format that Inside No.9 has done, with no tricksy jump cuts or sleight of hand, and not even a narrative bait of – for instance – sticking too many characters into a too tiny space – but even within that relatively narrow confine, director Guillem Morales has fun: at times whipping the camera disconcertingly across the table, more interested in where the titular bill is ending up than who is speaking.
It’s a spare, effecting and manipulative half hour that takes as long as possible before it lays all the cards on the table.
Aired at 10pm on Tuesday 21 February 2017 on BBC Two.
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