The Bones of St Nicholas – Inside No 9’s Christmas Special for 2022 – is a deliciously dark festive treat, writes CHRIS NEWTON
TITLE: The Bones of St Nicholas
FIRST BROADCAST: 22 December 2022, at 9pm on BBC2
DIRECTOR: George Kane
CAST: Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith, Simon Callow, Shobna Gulati
The Bones of St Nicholas, Inside No 9 Review
Unless you’ve been hiding in a wardrobe for the past eight years, you’ll probably know that, over the course of its seven seasons (and counting), Inside No. 9 has covered just about every genre from heart-breaking drama to riotous farce to sci-fi.
Yet, despite broadly being classed as a ‘comedy’ programme, this anthology series from League of Gentlemen alumni Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, has always had a sinister streak, with certain episodes crossing the line into full-on horror. Whilst a couple of Inside No. 9 episodes have featured ghosts (sometimes as part of the series’ trademark twist endings) – this latest episode is the first to feel like a genuine Ghost Story or, more specifically, ‘A Ghost Story for Christmas’.
The long-standing tradition of the Christmas Ghost story can arguably be attributed to MR James, who famously entertained guests on Christmas Eve with ghost stories which found their way into many now-legendary anthologies. ‘The Bones of St Nicholas’ not only has a distinctly Jamesian feel with its fusty academic, Dr Parkway (played by Steve Pemberton) in search of a mysterious relic, but also honours the festive tradition itself by featuring its characters telling ghostly tales of their own throughout the episode.
It’s a testament to the acting skills of Simon Callow and Shobna Gulati that their supernatural encounters are related almost directly to the camera, without flashbacks or cutaways. In the wrong hands, these vignettes could feel flat or overly-expositional, but here they only add to the chilling charm of Inside No.9 at its best: a minimal cast in a single location conveying complex story beats and details with deceptively simple dialogue.
There are few actors who could pull off sitting in a chair, sipping sherry and reciting a Christmas Ghost Story without it seeming forced, overly camp, or even breaking the fourth wall. But Simon Callow gives a masterfully believable performance as Dick. Hardly surprising as Callow himself is virtually synonymous with the festive period for his multiple appearances as Charles Dickens – including in the 2005 Doctor Who episode ‘The Unquiet Dead’, and a one-man rendition of A Christmas Carol for the BBC in 2018. (I can’t help but wonder if his characters’ name is a nod to Dickens…)
Shobna Gulati’s Posy delivers an equally powerful, albeit less theatrical, account of a ghostly experience. By now, Pemberton and Shearsmith have really honed their talent for dialogue that is simultaneously humorous (“Do you spend the night here also, or will you eventually leave?”) and realistic (“I’ve got my swiper!”), which rattles the story along at a remarkable pace that somehow never feels rushed. Here we have a classic No. 9 scenario of four wholly original characters with fully formed personalities and backstories all established and given a satisfactory arc within the space of half an hour.
When Pierce (played by Shearsmith) asks Dr Parkway if his work is “Indiana Jones, Da Vinci Code stuff”, it’s not only funny but it tells us everything we need to know about both characters. Similarly, Dr Parkways’ conflicting accounts as to why he is ‘champing’ (camping in a disused church) alone at on Christmas Eve hint at his ulterior motive without labouring the point.
As for the supernatural element? I won’t spoil anything here, but the plot centres around the myth that the jawbone of Saint Nicholas himself resides somewhere in the church. Could it be that the spirit of the saint haunts the building, longing to be whole?
The plot is rooted in historical fact. Italian sailors did actually raid Saint Nicholas’s tomb, and parts of him are claimed to have ended up all over the world, including in the (appropriately named) St Nicholas’ Orthodox Church in Manhattan. Unfortunately that particular church – and possibly the bones of Saint Nicholas along with it? – were destroyed during the 9/11 attacks.
This is the third Inside No.9 to take place at Christmas. ‘The Devil of Christmas’, and the advent-themed family drama ‘Love’s Great Adventure’ share a festive theme, but ‘The Bones of St Nicholas’ is the first episode written specifically to air at Christmastime. And, technically, ‘The Devil of Christmas’ takes place on Krampusnacht (sort of), which falls on the 5th December, not Christmas Day itself.
More to the point, this episode shares a DNA with those traditional Ghost Stories For Christmas, sitting comfortably beside the likes of 1976’s The Signalman, 1989’s The Woman in Black, or the more recent adaptation of The Mezzotint, directed by Mark Gatiss (also of League of Gentlemen fame.) Although, with this being an Inside No. 9, you could be forgiven for suspecting that perhaps nothing is quite what it seems… As James himself would say: “If I’m not very careful, something of this kind may happen to me!”
Hopefully, ‘The Bones of St Nicholas’ will become traditional macabre Yuletide viewing, as the 2000 League of Gentlemen Christmas Special remains to many. It seems safe to predict that this will form a perfect double bill with Gatiss’ 2022 adaptation of Count Magnus (an adaptation of another MR James classic).
But Inside No.9 is for life (or, at least, two more series) and not just for Christmas. Like ‘The Devil of Christmas’ in 2016, this episode is merely the beginning of a new series of No.9s, with a ninth – and probably final – series already safely commissioned. In a way, it’s shame to think that this consistently brilliant and endlessly inventive series may draw to an end, but on the other, it’s always great to bow out at the top of one’s game, and we’ve still got 11 more episodes to look forward to over the next few years. If ‘The Bones of St Nicholas’ is anything to go by, we’re in for some deliciously dark treats.
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