Inside Number 9, 1/6, Wednesday 20th April, 10pm, BBC Two
Most of the time, in this column, I like to review new stuff. There’s not an awful lot of point in my writing about episode three trillion of Coronation Street. By now, you know what it is, and you know whether you’ll want to watch it or not. But this week, I make no apology in bringing to the table for your delectation episode one of series seven of Inside No. 9. Because, even though it is an absolute classic, it remains relatively niche, and deserving of a much wider audience.
Each episode is a stand-alone, half hour, darkly comic TV play, written by and starring Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton. The premise is that all the action takes place in a single location, numbered 9. That might be a hotel room, a house, a karaoke booth, a meeting room, or a sleeping compartment on a train.
Every episode is written with such care and attention to detail, and the result is scripts that are pitch perfect, superbly funny, and often either sinister, disturbing or, on occasion, profoundly moving. And because the show is an anthology, it allows for some fabulous cameos. The list of guest stars from the six series so far reads like a Who’s Who of British acting talent. It includes such luminaries as Timothy West, Gemma Arterton, Helen McCrory, Sheridan Smith, Jane Horrocks, Jessica Raine, Derek Jacobi, Keeley Hawes, Felicity Kendal, David Morrissey, Rory Kinnear and Bill Paterson.
The simplicity if the format has allowed Pemberton and Shearsmith to come up with some incredibly clever storylines. One was delivered entirely in iambic pentameter, one in reverse chronology, and one was totally silent. Meanwhile, the live Halloween episode, shown in 2018, was an absolute masterpiece, playing with the idea of technical difficulties to produce one of the most memorable and haunting pieces of television I can remember.
The whole lot is on iPlayer, and if you’ve not seen it, I urge you to seek it out.
And so to the first episode of this series. I’ve given you several paragraphs of what my old history teacher used to refer to as ‘otiose waffle’ because I can’t write too much about the programme without giving away any dreaded spoilers. But the action all takes place on board a pedalo (unsurprisingly numbered 9) on a quiet, wintry lake in the countryside.
Shearsmith plays Lawrence, who has organised a university reunion with two old friends who’ve not seen each other for a decade. First to arrive is Callum (played by their old League of Gentlemen compadre Mark Gatiss) a rather snobbish head of obstetrics and gynaecology at a London hospital. The third part of the triumvirate is Darren (played by Pemberton) who dropped out of University and is currently between jobs. Unfortunately, Darren was expecting it to be a party on a yacht, rather than a somewhat morose outing on a pedalo, and so has brought along with him his new girlfriend, the coarse but warm-hearted Donna (played by the marvellous Diane Morgan).
What unfolds is a beautiful vignette of sadness, ageing and missed opportunities, filled with the regret we all feel sometimes that life doesn’t necessarily turn out in quite the glorious way we’d anticipated when we were young. Of course, this being Inside No. 9, there are a couple of twists along the way, and a couple of marvellous one-liners. I was a particular fan of “If life gives you melons, you’re probably dyslexic.” But, in among the laughter, this is a poignant, quietly beautiful work.
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Chivalry 1/6, Thursday 21st April, 10pm, Channel 4
Okay, first off, a health warning. Those who are offended by the c-word might want to give this programme a wide berth. It is distributed liberally through the dialogue, and I don’t want to be responsible for the carpet cleaning bills as drinks are spilled in a frantic effort to hit the ‘off’ button so that little Timmy doesn’t hear any more bad words. Though quite what little Timmy is doing watching a TV sitcom with his grandparents at 10pm on a weeknight is anyone’s guess. He should be in bed. What were you thinking? He’ll be really grouchy now at Cubs tomorrow, not to mention eager to share his new vocabulary with the rest of the pack.
Bad language aside, this new six-part comedy drama from Channel 4 is written by Steve Coogan, who needs no introduction, and Sarah Solemani, who starred in the brilliant sitcom Him and Her (another one on iPlayer in its entirety, go check it out). The pair also star in the show. Coogan plays Cameron O’Neill, a cynical, middle-aged film producer with a deserved reputation as a lothario. Solemani is Bobby Sohrabi, an up-and-coming director and darling of the indie scene who is brought in to ‘detoxify’ Cameron’s latest production.
It's fair to say, Bobby takes an instant dislike to Cameron. He has just split up from his 23-year-old girlfriend (and personal assistant), has probably slept with the film’s leading lady, Lark (played with gusto by Sienna Miller) and treats underlings with contempt. Bobby is also warned, by manipulative studio executive Jean (Wanda Sykes) that he will try to sleep with her. Meanwhile, Cameron considers Bobby to be an over-hyped feminist, and it’s clear he’s not nuts about her working on his film.
This being a comedy set in Hollywood, about the movie business, it would be disappointing if there wasn’t the odd celebrity cameo, and sure enough, Paul Rudd pops up for the sort of self-mocking scene that is as predictable as it is satisfying. Who doesn’t love a bit of comedic celebrity stardust sprinkled over their TV fare. There are also appearances from Aisling Bea and John C Reilly in later episodes, and Lolly Adefope (so brilliant in Ghosts) plays Cameron’s new assistant, Ama, with relish.
But the crux of the story is the relationship between Bobby and Cameron. They see the world fundamentally differently, and appear to have very little in common, and even less respect for one another. Therefore, it seems almost inevitable that they will fall in love.
Intriguingly, the idea for the series originated when Solemani and Coogan were working together on the film Greed, and the #MeToo dam burst. Solemani said in a recent interview: “We started talking, arguing, making each other furious and also laughing.” From that, they had the idea of putting differing viewpoints into the mouths of two characters caught up in the landscape of the movie industry in the post-#MeToo world.
The result is a whip-smart look at sexism, gender politics and cancel culture. Coogan and Solemani have created leading characters that are sympathetic and believable. Cameron is unreconstructed but charming, Solemani is moral without being prissy, so that the pair are well-rounded people rather than caricatures. And the end-product is funny, thought-provoking and timely.
The best… and the rest:
Saturday 16th April
Romeo and Duet 1/7, 7pm, ITV: The title alone makes me despair. Is Duet meant to sound like Juliet? Somebody needs to be punished! Anyway, this is a new dating show, where a participant chooses a potential mate from three singers, based only on the sound of their voice. Oti Mabuse presides over it all.
Titanic: Building the World’s Largest Ship, 7:30pm, Channel 4: Everyone seems to love a bit of televisual titanic action, so Channel 4 is back with yet another documentary about the doomed liner. This one looks at the Herculean task of constructing the ship, undertaken by 15,000 people working around the clock.
Britain’s Got Talent, 8pm, ITV: Ant and Dec are back, as ever accompanied by the judging panel that is Simon Cowell, David Walliams, Alesha Dixon and Amanda Holden. You pretty much know the drill by now. Dancing dogs, ventriloquists, choirs, comedians, dance troops and the like all vie for a life-changing win.
Beatrix: the Queen Who gave Up the Crown, 8pm, Channel 5: Having run out of films about the British monarchy, Channel 5 looks Westwards to Holland for inspiration, and comes back with this film about Queen Beatrix, her popularity, controversies and abdication.
Queens of Country: The Hits and the Heartbreak, 9:15pm, Channel 5: A look at some of the great female stars of country music, from Dolly Parton to Shania Twain, Tammy Wynette to Taylor Swift.
Sunday 17th April
Idris Elba’s Fight School 1/5, 9pm, BBC Two: The actor and world’s coolest man puts eight young people through an intensive course of boxing training to see if it will change their lives.
The Thief, His Wife and The Canoe 1/4, 9pm, ITV: Drama starring Eddie Marsan and Monica Dolan based on the extraordinary case of John Darwin, the former school teacher and prison officer who faked his own death in order to avoid bankruptcy. Showing over the next four nights, followed by a documentary telling the real story on Thursday.
Monday 18th April
Yorkshire Midwives on Call 1/8, 8pm, BBC Two: In spite of the word ‘Yorkshire’ in the title, this isn’t a Channel 5 series. Instead, it is a documentary filming midwives assisting with home births in and around the Bradford area.
Tuesday 19th April
Happy Birthday Bill, 8pm, ITV: Documentary celebrating the life and career of Bill Roache who, as Ken Barlow, has been a fixture on Coronation Street for an extraordinary 60 years, as he approaches his 90th birthday.
Life After Life 1/4, 9pm, BBC Two: Drama based on Kate Atkinson’s novel, following the lives of Ursula Todd, who dies and is reborn again and again. An impressive cast includes Thomasin McKenzie, Sian Clifford, James McArdle and Jessica Hynes.
Thursday 21st April
Ben Fogle and the Lost City, 9pm, Channel 5: Feature-length documentary in which Fogle travels to Slab City in the Sonoma Desert of California, where an alternative lifestyle community lives entirely off grid.
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