Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton baulk at the idea that they are “totally dark and sinister”. They may be the brains behind the eerie comedy drama Inside No 9, and remembered for the horror comedy of Psychoville and grotesques of The League of Gentlemen, but they insist they really do try to see the sunny side of life.
“I wouldn’t say that horror is what we enjoy, we’re not sadists,” says Pemberton – although he admits to arching an eyebrow when the last series of Inside No 9 was promoted under the slogan “Thursdays are funny on BBC2”.
“It’s weird, people take away the darkness more than they do the silliness in our things,” adds Shearsmith. “Even League of Gentlemen. A lot of that was very silly, but people remember it as this very dark show.”
In fact, a few years ago the BBC wanted Shearsmith and Pemberton to write a homelier, more “traditional sitcom” based on the script of Nana’s Party, an episode from the second series of Inside No 9 about the unpeeling of family secrets and a prank involving a cake. The writers weren’t convinced, however.
Were they uncomfortable in Terry and June territory? “Terry kills June and buries her under the patio,” smiles Shearsmith. “Now, that I would watch,” grins Pemberton.
They admit that, while writing a mainstream comedy is a formidable challenge, they felt their effort was destined to be “just surface comedy without something that’s a little bit deeper,” says Shearsmith. Despite their protests, it seems sinister trumps sunny every time.
The key to Inside No 9, though, really isn’t the horror, but its constant inventiveness. Each episode takes place behind a door marked with the number nine (often a house number, but it has been the couchette on a sleeper train, a barn and an office).
Series three starts this week and includes an episode that uses a crossword puzzle found in the study of a Cambridge don to weave a dark story of revenge, and another set in a karaoke booth. Next year’s fourth series (which they have just started filming) has an episode set in a hotel corridor, written entirely in iambic pentameter.
How do they keep coming up with the ideas? “A lot of the ideas we’ve used we’ve had in the bottom drawer for a while, but that drawer is getting a bit empty now, so it’s harder – but it’s quite freeing, too, in a way because once we’ve made a start we surprise ourselves as we go along,” says Pemberton.
Neither seems keen on bringing in other writers. But they’re up for reviving The League of Gentlemen, their cult comedy set in the weird world of Royston Vasey (with Edward and Tubbs, below), which they made with former collaborators Mark Gatiss and Jeremy Dyson.
They have their sights set on the 20th anniversary of the first TV show, coming up in 2019, and have promised to “mark it with something”.
“We have made a decision to make that happen. When, I don’t know,” says Shearsmith. “We will get together this year and see what flies,” adds Pemberton. “It will be a very difficult thing to do, to go back and try to imagine what Royston Vasey is like now, or whether it’s changed at all, you know? But I’m sure we could keep doing it.”
So you could carry on until..? “We drop down dead,” he says deadpan. Now wouldn’t that be the perfect twist…
Inside No 9 is returning10pm Tuesday 21st February on BBC2