They'll perhaps never again create anything with the impact of The League of Gentlemen, which changed the television landscape back in 1999 (inspiring a wave of twisted comedies like Nighty Night, while challenging the very idea of what a BBC comedy could look like), but INSIDE NO.9 is nevertheless a brilliant anthology show that sees former-League members Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton channel their gift for the macabre into fresh weekly stories. The format allows for great ingenuity in often claustrophobic settings; bringing in famous guest-stars (undoubted fans of the creative pair), and ensuring nothing ever outstays its welcome—which I'd argue happened to their previous venture Psychoville.
"La Couchette" bests the extreme claustrophobia of the first series premiere, which was set almost entirely inside a wardrobe. Here, we never leave the confines of an overnight sleeper carriage (No.9, natch) travelling from Paris to Bourg St. Maurice, as a neurotic English doctor called Maxwell (Shearsmith) struggles to sleep ahead of a next-day interview; continually awoken by fellow commuters that include a sweaty, flatulent German called Jorg (Pemberton), a talkative northern couple, Kath (Julie Hesmondhalgh) and Les (Mark Benton), on their way to a friend's wedding, and boisterous Aussie backpacker Shona (Jessica Gunning) and her posh trustafarian companion Hugo (Jack Whitehall).
A lot of the humour came from Maxwell's increasing frustration over his loud, inconsiderate carriage-mates, and the script allowed for amusing character moments from all six—before the plot took an unexpected turn with the discovery of a dead passenger on bunk 9B. This led to the enjoyable development that nobody wanted to alert the authorities because they each needed to reach their various destinations without delay. The discover of a corpse aboard a train is practically a given for anything in the horror/thriller genre, but "La Couchette" managed to keep things fresh because it's usually an inciting incident that triggers an official investigation—not a moment that makes you realise how selfish and collusive ordinary people can be.
It's hard to discuss "La Couchette" without touching on the wonderful climax, as most Inside No.9's are built around twists. This one actually had two—a slightly conventional one that might've been a letdown by itself, fortunately bolstered by an immediate second that left you grinning as the credits rolled. And it all hangs together perfectly well, to induce a second viewing with this extra knowledge.
Also interesting to note this premiere was directed by Spanish filmmaker Guillem Morales, best-known for 2010 horror Julia's Eyes, who hasn't been very active since that film's release. He's directing next week's instalment, too, and did a commendable job with the limitations of "La Couchette", in terms of keeping the location feeling oppressive without it feeling dull to be stuck inside one train carriage for thirty-minutes. Kudos to the script and performances for making that time fly, too. While this wasn't the funniest Inside No.9, and certainly not the most memorable or challenging, it was a very good start to the second series.
written by Reece Shearsmith & Steve Pemberton • directed by Guillem Morales • 26 March 2015 • BBC2