Like a selection box you have lost the little paper menu for, Inside No 9 (BBC Two) is full of surprises. Behind every shiny wrapper is a new take on an old genre, and no two are alike. One minute, writers and stars Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith are clowning around, giving it the full spinning bow tie, the next they’re scaring the life out of you or plumbing the depths of utter turpitude. Or just skilfully and cruelly breaking your heart, as they did in series two’s astonishing episode, The 12 Days of Christine: still one of the finest half-hours of television ever made. Seek it out.
I approach every series with the same gluttony I do the festive chocolates, but also the apprehension that one of the lovely packages will contain a severed thumb. They do love to pick at the frayed edges of humanity and yank mercilessly on the thread.
This time, they begin with a deft party trick of an episode, in which the pair toy with Shakespeare’s verse and narrative tropes. The mix of a Comedy of Errors-style plot, a bit of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, some Macbeth, a dash of Hamlet and large hammy helpings of high farce is very silly and extremely good fun. And not at all as easy as they make it look.
Rory Kinnear plays identical twins who unwittingly check into the Hotel Zanzibar (floor nine, of course) on the same day, one being pursued by a murderous protection officer (Shearsmith), the other with his unhappy girlfriend (Hattie Morahan).
Jaygann Ayeh is the accommodating bell-hop-cum-narrator who can procure his wealthy guests anything, from bespoke baked goods to specialist sex services. Helen Monks is Colette, the cheeky chambermaid whose efforts to help the above-mentioned lovelorn Morahan go awry when a hypnotism (standing in here for A Midsummer Night’s Dream-style love juice) backfires and causes her to fall in love with the wrong man. Kevin Eldon makes a delicious cameo as the mesmerist.
Every trick in Shakespeare’s armoury is deployed, including mistaken identity, a murderous plot complete with “Now might I do it” malevolent monologue-ing and the eventual making of amends all round.
It is so enjoyably far-fetched and encompasses tragedy, comedy and resolution in 30 packed minutes. Kinnear, particularly, is having a splendid time as a louche member of the royal family with a specific taste in erotic relief, and Ayeh holds the whole thing together nicely, setting the tone at the start so you’re in no doubt as to how much salt to take this with.
Show me another current writing duo who would attempt high farce in iambic pentameter. On television! You might think them smug; a couple of show-offs with clever winks at the audience. But I just sit back and wonder at the restless, resourceful brains that keep coming up with this stuff.
Shearsmith and Pemberton are like two school boys prodding at a dead frog; inquisitive but also a bit sick. They can rarely hide their glee at taking apart another variety of story.
In a more gratuitous autopsy, Prince: Last Year of a Legend (Channel 4) takes us back to the events leading up to the music legend’s death, aged 57, in April 2016. Without mobile phone footage, this documentary would have very little to go on, and the producers are lucky so many of Prince’s fans ignored his direction not to film performances. Some of the amateur footage gives glimpses of his spontaneous generosity, such as his hastily organised peace rally in Baltimore after the 2015 riots.
However, even someone with a passing awareness of Prince’s work may have been put off this doc by the opening, in which Zawe Ashton’s voiceover informs us: “Prince could sing, dance and play all the instruments on his songs.” We could have skipped this thudding exposition and moved straight on to the memories.
After a bit more stating of the bleeding obvious, we have some interesting material about the private man behind the jaw-dropping stage shows. The interviews with former collaborators, lovers and friends painted a picture of someone moving into a new phase of his career. He had begun his first tour without a band just a few months before the fatal overdose of painkillers that so suddenly took him. What began as prosaic ended up close to poetry when the fans, and Prince himself, were given the space to speak.