Two years since we last had a series of Inside No. 9 on our screens (although thankfully we got the superb Halloween special Dead Line in the meantime to tide us over), Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton’s acclaimed anthology show is finally back for its fifth series on BBC Two.
Over the four series to date, Inside No 9 stories have taken place in all sorts of different locations, from ordinary houses and flats to a claustrophobic sleeper train carriage, a trendy art gallery and a 17th-century witch trial. Episodes have also played around with different formats, including one that was almost completely dialogue-free and another that unfolded entirely via CCTV. Shearsmith and Pemberton are known for their dark sensibilities, but one of the joys of Inside No. 9 is that it’s varied, so you never truly know what you’re going to get when an episode begins.
The opener to series 5, The Referee’s a W***er, proves to be one of Inside No. 9’s lighter instalments. In a referee’s changing room, just over an hour before kick-off, Martin (a suitably stoic David Morrissey) is about to preside over the last match of his career. As he stretches and prepares himself, he’s joined by the other match officials – nervous Brendan (Reece Shearsmith), more laid back Oggy (Steve Pemberton) and vain Phil (Ralf Little), whose main concern is making sure his hair looks good for the Sky cameras.
It’s made clear from the start that there’s a lot riding on this game, in terms of both money and status for the two teams. And strait-laced Martin – who describes being boring as “a very good quality in a referee” – appears to be a safe pair of hands. However, as this is Inside No. 9, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to you that Martin is hiding something from his colleagues (and he might not be the only one), and it isn’t long before a crucial mistake is made that throws things into disarray.
The duo have said in interviews leading up to the new series that Pemberton was the driving force behind this episode because Shearsmith has little interest in football. During a post-screening Q&A at the BFI, Shearsmith joked that some of the dialogue was “gobbledygook” to him, and to be honest I’m in the same boat as a viewer. You certainly don’t need to have extensive knowledge of football to understand what’s going on, but there were a few moments that made me feel a little lost, as well as some references that went over my head. At one point, there’s a debate over whether something was a throw-in (no idea), and I’m afraid remarks like “even Arsene Wenger might have spotted that” mean nothing to me. It probably says a lot about my reference points that my favourite gag of the episode was a pun on Liza Minnelli…
Although there are plenty of witty lines and the performances are great, The Referee’s a W***er didn’t resonate with me as much as other Inside No. 9 episodes have. Perhaps this is just due to my lack of interest in football, or perhaps I was expecting something a bit more jawdropping to kick off the series, since it has been away for so long. But the blessing of an anthology show is that next week we’ll have something completely different – and with upcoming episodes set to feature a police stakeout, a meeting between two magicians and a flat with a ‘dark and sinister past’, I’m looking forward to seeing what Shearsmith and Pemberton have in store for us.
Inside No.9 Continues Monday at 10.00pm on BBC Two.