From the very beginning Inside No.9, the anthology series of dark, macabre but always very funny tales written by and starring the League of Gentlemen‘s Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton had happily played with the conventions of television. The second episode of the first series, A Quiet Night In, had unfolded without a single word of dialogue being spoken, the third series’ The Devil of Christmas initially presented itself as a lost TV ghost story until it transformed into something very different, and series 4 debut Zanzibar was told entirely in iambic pentameter. The pair’s 2018 Halloween special Dead Line was touted in advance as a special live presentation – and of course it turned out to be something completely unexpected.
It begins straightforwardly enough. Pemberton plays Arthur Flitwick, returning home with an old Nokia mobile phone he’s found abandoned in graveyard. His initial attempts to contact the owner lead to the sort of maddening misunderstanding that you know are going to lead to something nasty happening. But then it all starts to go wrong. The sound drops out as Shearsmith turns up playing a priest who knew – and, we later learned, murdered – the phone’s owner – and at first I, like so many it seems (social media lit up at the first sign of the technical hitch), fell for it. My heart sank and I felt awful for Shearsmith and Pemberton – all that work ruined by a technical fault… The sound comes back, then disappears again and eventually the programme itself is pulled, replaced by a card apologising for the problem. The show resumes but not for long – it goes off air again and this time an announcer tells us that the live broadcast has been abandoned, will be shown at a later date and that the BBC will be broadcasting A Quiet Night In – the one with no dialogue remember – in its place.
It soon becomes clear that something very nasty is happening on BBC Two. The repeat episode falls apart almost as soon as it’s begun and we get instead time-coded footage from the rehearsal version of the play, CCTV of the bemused Shearsmith and Pemberton in their dressing room checking their phones for Twitter reactions (Shearsmith really did send that tweet asking if they could be seen on BBC Two…) and an episode of the ghost-hunting reality show Most Haunted keeps interrupting the already problematic broadcast. Their television studio is haunted it transpires, stalked by restless spirits who want people to “let us be” and who appear in the background of shots when we least expect them.
The League have never made any secret of their love for Stephen Volk’s controversial Screen One play, GhostWatch, also a tale of the dead using the medium of television to intrude on the world of the living, and Dead Line clearly owes it a huge debt. But Shearsmith and Pemberton are too canny to simply copy someone else’s work – they tip their hat to their influence but Dead Line goes of in directions that no-one could have expected. Co-star Stephanie Cole appears to kill herself, unnoticed by Pemberton who’s too busy checking his phone though her death is being streamed to the studio’s internal television system; entertainer Bobby Davro is injured in a freak accident involving a faulty prop (actual footage from the long-forgotten BBC show Public Enemy Number One (1992)); the intruding Most Haunted footage features the team investigating supposed spooks haunting the set of long-running soap opera Coronation Street.
It’s all fantastically clever, brilliantly written and made with a genuine understanding of just how television works – or in this case doesn’t. In a world when viewers are supposed to be migrating to online and catch-up services, it was a story that could only work effectively if you watched it on the night, before anyone else could spoil it for you. The “live” aspects simply wouldn’t have worked if you’d try to watch it on the BBC’s iPlayer service or caught up with it in less legal ways – you’d have simply wondered why they were preserving the programme with all its technical faults and the cat would have been out of the back too early. Those watching live on the night would have been disappointed, confused, angry, terrified all in equal measure.
For a seemingly simple tale told in just 30 minutes – though when it was over and the BBC went to a repeat of that week’s comedy current affairs show The Mash Report there was the nagging feeling that it might actually not be over and that the haunting spirits may yet return… – there’s an awful lot going on in Dead Line. It’s an episode that, more than any other Inside No.9, is going to reward multiple viewings as we tease out all if the subtleties and incidentals. It’s all so convincingly done – from the authentic breakdown card to the increasingly flustered continuity announcer trying to find out what was going on; from the amount of time they allowed A Quiet Night In to play before it too broke down (the timing throughout the episode was exemplary) to the ghostly apparitions intruding on the multi-layered narrative (they appear in just about every level of the increasingly meta narrative), all if it was so detailed, so meticulously planned and so well realised that it even forces you to start doubting just how much of the broadcast was ever actually live at all.
Pre-broadcast publicity maintained the pretense that it was all going to be a genuine live broadcast and four days before the broadcast, Shearsmith and Pemberton had turned up on frothy light entertainment programme The One Show to promote the episode, culminating in a rather odd exchange about whether or not they really believed in ghosts. It too turned out to be part of the plan, the clip of Shearsmith bluntly dismissing a belief in ghosts being almost the last thing we see in Dead Line.
Like GhostWatch before it, Dead Line uses Halloween as the perfect excuse to unleash the ghosts in the machine, to play with viewers’ understanding of television and its conventions, playfully using the medium itself as a central part of the story. But even if you were familiar with GhostWatch or had had your fill of the seemingly endless parade of ghost-oriented found footage films, Dead Line still has enough hew wrinkles and clever ideas to wrong-foot you throughout. Bold, funny, self-reflexive, ambitious and at times very scary, Dead Line may well be the best Inside No.9 so far. And if you were smart enough to stay in on the cold Sunday night of 28 October 2018 (no, it wasn’t broadcast on Halloween itself, a fact that plays as a throwaway joke in the story itself) you were amply rewarded by one of the cleverest and most audacious bits of television for many a year. And, like those of us who tuned in to GhostWatch back in 1992, unprepared and unaware of what was going to happen, you’ll be able to say “I was there when it happened…”