The BFI Southbank is one of my favourite places in London which has been churning out showings of classic films for decades. Always wanted to see that great Humphrey Bogart film noir or Bette Davis melodrama on the big screen, well the BFI has long been the main place to do that in one of their amazing seasons, and see an impressive array of international and art house films while you’re there. In the last few years, it feels as though its range has diversified as well, opening up their lovely building to mainstream film seasons like Bond (possibly the best summer ever!), Gothic Horror and Hitchcock whilst running an increasingly reputable film festival every October to showcase new work.
Added to this long list are their previews of BFI-funded films which recently including pre-release peaks at The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything. Increasingly deals with the BBC and ITV have given advanced access to TV shows, so audiences have enjoyed earl bird viewings of anything from Poirot to Wolf Hall all with a Q&A session for that sense of occasion. The BFI’s latest event screened two episodes from the second series of the anthology comedy Inside No 9, written by Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton. For those not familiar with series 1, the central premise is that each of the six 30 minute episodes takes you behind a different No 9 door each week and tells the story of the people within.
Shearsmith and Pemberton will be known to most as half of the League of Gentleman whose wonderfully weird and incredibly dark comedy set in the fictional town of Royston Vasey started the best part of 15 years ago and ended after 3 brilliant series and an ok film. Since then the League members have become established writers and actors both together and apart on shows as diverse as Sherlock, Dr Who, Psychoville and Mapp & Lucia. Series one of Inside No 9 first aired last February starting with a ton of people hiding in a wardrobe during a party and ending with a Carry on Screaming style creepy house and bed-ridden patient needing a teenage carer. The best and most stylish episode however had no talking whatsoever involving a burglary in a fancy modern home while the owners were in – absolute genius!
Series 2 opens with ‘La Couchette’, set aboard the compartment 9 sleeper berth on a French night train. It opens with Dr Maxwell carefully preparing for bed, and as he settles his eye-mask in place, his much needed rest is disturbed at intervals by the arrival of 5 other passengers all with bunks in the same room – a very drunk and flatulent German man, a middle-aged couple en route to their daughter’s wedding and a young Australian traveller with the man she met on the train. During the night this assorted group of passengers must decide whether their conscience or the completion of their journey is most important.
It’s a great premise for an episode – a group of strangers in an intimately confined space – and despite being only 30 minutes has the feel of an intricately plotted film. We get to know just enough about the individuals to believe in their circumstances but not so much that we are too drawn to any of them, they are still strangers after all. As usual with Shearsmith and Pemberton their work is packed with elegantly integrated references to everything from film noir to Hammer Horror to Hitchcock and spotting these is as much fun as watching these murky vignettes play out. Did I even see a reference to Carry on Camping in this one (Charles Hawtrey, Terry Scott and Betty Marsden trying to change into their pyjamas in a tiny tent) or just coincidence? I also love the seamless integration of sophisticated humour with some real gross-out moments while still maintaining the overall feel of that particular scenario.
Next up was a preview of episode 3 ‘The Trial of Elizabeth Gadge’ set in Barn No 9, where two seventeenth-century witch-finders come to the town of Little Happens (snigger) to investigate the eponymous Mrs Gadge, accused by her daughter and son-in-law of witchcraft. Fans of the writers will recognise their fascination with this period of history and its superstitious practices, which previously popped up in the League of Gentleman film – in fact even David Warner reappears here as a local authority figure, having played an evil conspirator in the movie. This one is more or less a classic courtroom drama with various witness testimony and no little tension between the famous witch-finders the sinister Mr Warren and more kindly Mr Clarke- yes a tidy reference to the actor Warren Clarke who died last year. It’s the period detail that’s so impressive here and the odd modern reference aside a lot of research has clearly gone into creating the setting, language and knowledge of local concerns all used effectively to comically ridicule these events. Plenty of laugh out loud references here too from selfies to the The Crucible – all the married women have the title Goodie followed by their surname and with the local cobbler called Mr Twoshoes, you can see where this is going!
The great thing about an event such as this at the BFI is you also get a Q&A so you can learn a bit more about the process of writing and filming a series. On the panel were Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton, as well as Producer Adam Tandy and there were plenty of fascinating insights on offer. The 6 episodes took around 2 months to write before filming began in December and surprisingly each one took only 3-6 days to film which is an incredibly tight schedule for some of the technical challenges – particular filming the cramped environment of ‘La Couchette’ – and Shearsmith and Pemberton have also directed a couple of episodes this time around. We also learned that the series will contain episodes focused around a séance, a grandmother’s party and the number 9 booth in a call centre filmed from one CCTV camera, so there’s plenty of interesting stories and techniques to look forward to.
These BFI events are offered to members first so there may be little ticket availability when it comes to public sale, and you may think I’ll just wait and watch it on TV for free, but for a reasonable £9-£12 you get to enjoy the cinematic scale of some TV shows in a way smaller screens just can’t offer and learn more about what you’re seeing from the writers, actors and producers. It is this kind of event cinema for which the BFI has become a leader and why it remains one of my favourite places in London.
Inside No 9 begins its 6 week run on BBC2 on Thursday 26 March. For more information on BFI previews and TV screenings, please visit their website. Ticket prices vary but a reasonable and a variety of concessions are available.