Inside No. 9 sinks its teeth into Cambridge’s dark side

Eliza Dickinson 2 March 2017

The latest episode of the deliciously dark Inside No. 9 is set in Cambridge, and invokes all of our favourite stereotypes, from the very first scene in which a hooded figure runs through the rain across a grassy court. What follows is a lesson in pulling off dark comedy and gruesome plot twists, as flashes of lightning illuminate the cluttered office of a Cambridge academic – the setting for a whole multitude of horrors (and I’m not just talking about a bad supervision).

Steve Pemberton stars as Nigel Squires, a Classics professor who moonlights as The Sphinx, the crossword writer for Varsity newspaper. As much as it hurts that TCS was snubbed for a shout-out, it’s hard to hold a grudge when the plot is so absorbing and tricky. Squires’ office is broken into by Nina, played by Alexandra Roach, a townie who wants to impress her boyfriend with the answers to the next day’s crossword puzzle, and the action unravels from there.

Nina’s description of her boyfriend is one of the funniest lines of the episode, as she says “he’s properly clever – he’s got a bike and scarf and all the Harry Potter shit.” He also, apparently, studies architecture, which probably means he punctuates his crossword-solving with completing huge piles of work and then getting suitably ~wavy~ at arcsoc cabaret.

However, in signature Inside No. 9 style, it is soon revealed that Nina is not in fact a townie, her boyfriend does not exist, and that she’s actually set on a path for twisted revenge. And that’s probably the smallest plot twist of the last 15 minutes. The entrance of Nina’s tutor, Tyler, played by Reece Shearsmith (who writes the show alongside Pemberton), adds another layer of intrigue and deceit.

While the plot is warped and contorted, the setting is strikingly familiar. Squires’ office, with its stacks of books, tiny electric hob, and eclectic furniture, is like every office I’ve ever had a supervision in. His personality is cruel and, in parts, disgusting, but his appearance and demeanour, particularly when teaching Nina the art of the cryptic crossword, are really quite terrifyingly realistic. Parts of the episode have the air of a particularly vigorous supervision, as he and Nina feverishly try to outdo each other in displaying their crossword prowess.

It’s easy to see why some critics think of Inside No. 9 as an acquired taste, as some of the horror and suffering could definitely be seen as unnecessary. The only real similarity between the episodes is that they all get startling dark very quickly, with the humour and tone varying wildly from week to week, and from series to series. At a few points, this episode was too dark even for me, although that may just be a result of the familiarity of the location.

Still, the episode is another strong one from the Inside No. 9 team. Part of the show’s beauty is not knowing where it’ll go next, and where its humour will come from. The surreal idea of the plot being tied together by the competitiveness of a crossword is rather inspired, and where better to set something so quaintly dramatic but Cambridge?