Inside No. 9 enjoys a reasonable level of popularity. It can achieve around two million viewers for an episode, which may not seem high but is a respectable figure for a 10pm weekday broadcast. Still, writers Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith spend their half hour slot making viewers wonder why this gem is not more well-known. The anthology series includes clever stories, quality acting and ambition. That ambition led to the October 28th broadcast being live.
Live shows are nothing new for television; we have chat shows, the news and soaps which decide their anniversary specials must include cast cock-ups. Still, it’s unusual for a drama (or, specifically, anthropology) such as this. Venturing inside number nine always comes with a dose of the unexpected, but broadcasting in real time added to the possibilities and intrigue.
‘Dead Line’ started with a rather mundane idea we’re fairly familiar with. A man found a mobile phone in a graveyard and was trying to return it to its owner by calling one of the contacts. The discomfort was merely generated by hoping nothing would go wrong and things were going well…until the sound stopped. And that’s where the audience came in.
People are glued to their phones, thumbs hovering over Twitter as they watch a show. For half an hour, this was beneficial. As the technical issues seemingly persisted, viewers rushed to social media to offer condolences to cast and crew, tut at the anticlimax of this TV event or question if this was intentional. There was cause for real concern as we were left unsure for several minutes before a pre-loaded repeat of ‘A Quiet Night In’ was broadcast at the nine-minute mark, and an apology issued from the continuity announcer.
The irony of the sound cutting out and the backup episode being one with almost entirely devoid of dialogue was lost on many people, as a fifth tuned out, turning again to the internet to disparage the BBC. As the hoax became clearer, they were called out and it became clear the nature of this ghost story had changed.
Post-reveal, the episode took on a more found-footage feel, tracking through CCTV and cameras around the studio. Reece and Steve had retired to their dressing room to scroll through Twitter, apparently reading those very same queries and condolences sent earlier. Stephanie Cole was sat in the set we were initially introduced to, answering the phone from the original story and apparently speaking to a dead man.
Rather than all-out horror, what the episode achieved was unease. Instead of overtly gruesome murders and jump scares, spirits lingered at the side of frame, ready to pick off the three actors one by one. In that way, it was still a traditional ghost story but relied on having subverted your expectations. Neither talking to the dead through a mobile or spirits killing the living would be original ideas, but to combine the two worked as a fresh take.
This episode was well-prepped. Stories had appeared in newspaper articles about the Granada studio being too haunted at Inside No. 9 pulling out of filming there and an interview with The One Show denouncing any existence of ghosts was included at the end. The pair also made a point of saying it was an episode which needed to be watched live and they were right. ‘Dead Line’ will age worse than the other 24 existing stories because we know the faults are fake and that Shearsmith, Pemberton and Cole were not killed in a haunted studio.
We were given an episode that utilised being broadcast live and had a purpose to be so. Realistically, a regular episode in one take would be somewhat of a letdown. What we had instead was an episode which allowed for your attention to wain but then made sure you were engaged and proved it was actually happening in real time. It was a risk to include a prolonged but intentional fault, and one which may have proved a bad idea due to viewers switching over or off, but for those who stayed it was a Halloween treat.