CHRIS NEWTON reviews Inside Number 9’s live 2018 Halloween Special…
The Inside Number 9 Halloween Special, Dead Line, broadcast live on 28th October 2018, told the story of Arthur Flitwick (Steve Pemberton), who began to receive strange calls on a telephone he found whilst taking a shortcut through a graveyard.
Except… It didn’t. Because no sooner than Reverend Neil (Reece Shearsmith) arrived, the sound cut out and eventually a title card appeared: ‘We are sorry for the break in this programme and are trying to correct the fault.’
If you weren’t watching live (what were you thinking?), I would warn you that spoilers lie ahead but, to be honest, missing the live broadcast itself is the biggest spoiler of all.
In the era of streaming and on-demand, Shearsmith and Pemberton succeeded in creating something quite remarkable: an unmissable Television Event; a unique viewing experience which couldn’t be replicated on Netflix or iPlayer and, if you missed it – too bad!
As a seasoned horror fan (and one who remembered Psychoville’s Joyce Ashton’s ‘Freddy Fruit Cam’) I suspected something was afoot.
We’re suspicious of stationary images – expecting something to appear and scream at us at any moment.
But it didn’t. And when the programme returned – still troubled by audio issues – only to be interrupted by an announcer once more, even I was fooled as, due to the ‘gremlins in the studio’, BBC 2 began airing a repeat of the series one episode A Quiet Night In instead.
Looks like it wasn’t a hoax, after all. Surely nobody would go to that much trouble…
Will I never learn? This is Inside No. 9 we’re talking about…
Inside Number 9 follows in Blair Witch’s footsteps
I was 13 years old when The Blair Witch Project was released.
It’s hard to imagine now, in the age of Wikipedia and reddit, in which found footage horrors are 10 a penny, quite what a stir that film caused.
When reports first surfaced, they told that the terrifying footage was genuine.
Missing posters and, in the infancy of the internet, whole websites were made dedicated to the documentary makers who had ‘vanished’ in their search for the Blair Witch.
During the time of the film’s release, the actors IMDb pages listed them as ‘missing, presumed dead’.
The campaign was so meticulous and sincere that the actress Heather Donahue’s mother actually received sympathy cards and condolence flowers from relatives who genuinely believed her mother was deceased.
Even leading up to the film’s UK release, by which point we we’re reasonably sure it wasn’t actually real, it was still being described as the most terrifying movie ever made, and I will always remember watching Jonny Vaughan on The Big Breakfast reporting that one woman was so traumatised after seeing it that she could only sleep if she painted a cross upon her forehead.
I never imagined that anything would ever come as close to messing with its audience.
Until now. Prior to watching Dead Line, I had intended to write a straight, spoiler-free review.
But, having seen it, there isn’t really much point. You either experienced it or you didn’t.
So, instead, here are nine ways Inside No. 9 expertly crafted what will probably come to be regarded as television’s greatest Halloween special.
1. A True(ish) Backstory
As well as a horror fuelled fright-fest, Dead Line, was also something of a love letter to television as a medium, with a meta reference to the pitfalls of live television in the form of a clip of Bobby Davro’s infamous stocks mishap. It was fitting, then, that the episode’s backstory about Granada studios being built on what was once an old burial ground, is related in the form of clips from a genuine 2005 episode of Most Haunted which visited the cobbles of Coronation Street. (Even this seemed tonally appropriate – ‘Corrie with ghosts’ seems a fitting description of the works of a group of writers who bonded over a shared love of Carry On Screaming. In fact, Dead Line even starred Corrie alumni Stephanie Cole as Moira O’Keefe.)
2. The Crafty Publicity
Unlike The Blair Witch Project, which was hyped to the point where my teenage self was frightened of it before I’d even seen it, all of the publicity regarding Dead Line was a masterfully subtle act of misdirection which, if anything, played down our expectations. The clip at the episode’s climax of Reece and Steve on The One Show seemingly tempting fate by claiming that they didn’t actually believe in ghosts was from a real episode broadcast on 25th October, in which Steve commented “I think live television is scary enough without having to worry about supernatural things.” Not to mention the numerous TV magazines perpetuating the ‘fake’ plot regarding Arthur and his mobile phone. The Radio Times even ran an article in which the writers claimed they hadn’t actually met the episode’s guest star – seemingly seeding her ‘dreadful’ performance.
‘They haven’t yet spoken to the Open All Hours and Doc Martin actress (“We just know she’s said yes,” smiles Shearsmith), although when producer Adam Tandy speaks to Radio Times later in the week he’s fresh from “a delightful cup of coffee” with 77-year-old Cole.’
3. Fake News
On the 26th October, The Sun ran an article reporting that Inside No. 9 had pulled out of filming in Manchester on the grounds that the studio was haunted.
‘Stars of the comedy series Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith have decided not to film their live Halloween special at the studio, after hearing it was haunted.
The actors were reportedly freaked out by rumours that Jean Alexander and Pat Phoenix, who played Hilda Ogden and Elsie Tanner on the soap, often visit the set as ghosts.’
Most of us who read the article dismissed it as rubbish, especially given the writers well-known opinions on the existence of ghosts. Little did we know this was foreshadowing things to come. But were The Sun in on it, or were Shearsmith and Pemberton trolling them too, I wonder?
4. Revelation 9
As I previously stated, by the time the ‘repeat’ of A Quiet Night In began, I was well and truly duped, and the spectres which appeared behind Dennis Lawson when the music began to distort scared me half to death. But – as with every other aspect of this meticulously orchestrated affair – the signs were there, as the ‘repeat’ began exactly nine minutes into the episode.
5. The Sound of Silence
Whilst the timing may have been a rather subtle clue, a slightly more obvious sign that many of us still missed was the significant choice of the repeat episode. An episode seemingly without sound was replaced by a deliberately silent episode…
6. A Live Episode Within a Live Episode
It’s often impossible to tell whether ‘live’ TV genuinely hasn’t been pre-recorded and, I suspect that certain parts of this episode were in fact already filmed (Reece’s headcam for a start) and that even the ‘live’ element was part of the overall hoax. As Steve says with regard to Reece’s suggestion that they just air a recording of the dress rehearsal: “No one would know it was live then!” To which his co-star replies. “No one knows anyway. Who f**king cares? And it’s not on Halloween…”
This is immediately followed by a message from their fellow member of The League of Gentlemen Mark Gatiss, prompting them to turn on BBC 2, and they channel surf live TV before watching themselves watching themselves watching themselves… Proving this is indeed happening in real time.
“I’d laugh if people were just watching this.” Pemberton comments as he looks at the camera.
7. Live Tweets From The BBC…
Not only did the srious-looking title card trick us all, but even the official BBC 2 twitter account were posting live updates apologising for the interruption.
‘Sorry, everyone – we’re really not sure what’s going on with #InsideNo9. Bear with us.’
It was a wonderful way of bringing something as old-school as live television (and a part of me wonders if this was the real reason for the Sunday broadcast, when people were more likely to be at home watching) to the digital generation. Not only did these live tweets make the ‘faults’ seem realistic, but it pre-empted the fact that, as soon as the title card appeared, the viewers would reach for their phones, and insisting that the tech guys were working on the problem kept us from changing the channel or wandering off to make a cup of tea.
8. … And Reece Shearsmith
After the ‘repeat’ cuts to Reece and Steve sat complaining about Stephanie Cole in their dressing room – “She can’t do it, the accent’s shit!” – Shearsmith begins reading the viewer’s comments: “’What is going on with Inside No. 9? Is this part of the twist?’ Oh, do fuck off!” Before tweeting himself: ‘Are me and Steve Pemberton on BBC two now?’, garnering hundreds of retweets and comments, most notably from Mark Gatiss: ‘YES!!’
Immediately after the episode aired, in true Blair Witch style, the Wikipedia pages for each of the three stars listed them as deceased, having died at ‘Granada Studios’ on 28th October 2018. Pemberton’s cause of death was listed as ‘electrocution’, whilst Shearsmith’s stated: ‘He died of a heart attack on 28th October 2018, when he tripped on the stairs and broke his neck. He was filming the Inside No.9 live special for BBC2.’ Best of all was Stephanie Cole’s: ‘She committed suicide while possessed by demons during a live TV broadcast in 2018. RIP.’
Come to think of it, Shearsmith hasn’t tweeted since…
Let us be.