They are puppeteers of fear. From The League of Gentlemen to Psychoville and most recently Inside No 9, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith have been coaxing humour from the darkest recesses of comedy for 20 years.
They may be used to pulling the strings, but this week they have reason to be afraid. It’s Halloween, and their brilliantly twisted anthology is going live.
But how exactly will the spooky show work live? Here’s everything you need to know.
Where did the idea for a live episode of Inside No 9 come from?
Surprisingly, the notion of doing a live episode of No 9 didn’t come from the writers and actors themselves, but was a proposition from the BBC. “We thought about it, and then dismissed it,” Shearsmith, 49, tells Radio Times.
“It’s a big headache, just for people to watch and think, ‘Oh, right. It’s live.’ We had to get the story right, to feel it was worth it. We’ve incorporated some deliberate challenges to help show off the fact that it’s live. If we can achieve it, it’ll be good. If not, it’ll crumble around us.”
What’s going to happen?
The tale begins with Pemberton’s character Arthur walking home on Halloween. In a graveyard, he finds a mobile phone and tries to find out who it belongs to. Shearsmith plays the church’s vicar, while guest star Stephanie Cole plays parishioner Moira.
They haven’t yet spoken to the Open All Hours and Doc Martin actress (“We just know she’s said yes,” smiles Shearsmith), although when producer Adam Tandy speaks to Radio Times later in the week he’s fresh from “a delightful cup of coffee” with 77-year-old Cole.
“She’s in great form,” he says, “and looking forward to the show. It being live was one of the things that made her go, ‘Oh, yes please, I’ll have some of that.’”
Tandy adds that they have been forced to make changes after the BBC decided to broadcast the episode on Sunday 28th October rather than Halloween itself.
“It was commissioned as a Halloween piece, but because of the BBC2 schedules we’re going out on Sunday,” explains producer Adam Tandy. “We’ll be rewriting the show to reflect that .”
Additionally, rehearsals for the episode will take place the week before broadcast, and they’ll only be doing two full run-throughs before going live. In terms of logistics, Tandy says there’ll be “extra safeguards” in place to ensure things don’t go wrong.
“And I can’t confirm exactly where we’re filming it. We’re still trying to sort out the contracts and haven’t paid for it yet. Also, we don’t want people turning up on the night.”
What happens if they forget their lines?
Both actors are seasoned West End performers, and have recently finished a live League of Gentlemen tour.
During their tour, Pemberton, 51, says they “didn’t grind to a halt very often” performing live – although they both candidly admit to having gone blank on stage in the past.
Rather worryingly, Pemberton says he’s had one such moment in every play he’s been in. “And it’s the scariest… the absolute scariest thing.”
He recollects Art in 2002 in which he appeared alongside Shearsmith and Gatiss: “It’s full of big, long speeches about why this piece of art is either worth something or worthless. They’re very detailed arguments. Mark made his pitch about why the painting was valuable, and I had a two-page speech back. But instead I just went, ‘So what?’ and I batted it straight back to him. I didn’t have a clue what to say.”
Shearsmith’s horror story is even worse. “I did Alan Ayckbourn’s play Absent Friends and I had a big speech. In one of the previews, I completely forgot it. I had to say to the side, ‘Sorry, what’s the line?’, which I’d never done. That was the worst – actually to be out of the character completely.”
Why are they doing the live special?
“You don’t want to just keep doing the same performances and writing the same material, as it could become very safe,” says Pemberton.
Though even by their ambitious standards, a live episode is bold. “It’s all about preparation. We’ve kept the action mainly between us. We have Stephanie Cole, but we’ve put the pressure on us rather than on other people.”
Pemberton concludes, “We’ve been doing this for 20 years now in some form or another, and it’s hard to find things that do make you scared and challenge you in that way. This is certainly one of them.”
Inside No 9 Live Special airs at 10pm on BBC2 on Sunday 28th October