The Quiet Majesty of ‘Inside No. 9’s Silent Bottle Episode

‘Genie in a Bottle’ is a recurring feature where each week a different bottle episode (an episode set entirely in one location, often designed to save money) from a comedy series is examined

“Not a peep out of anyone.”

This is one of my favorite pieces of television.

So let’s get that out of the way right now. Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton have been highlighted in this column before (and if I could have found a way to include The League of Gentlemen, I would have) and have created some incredibly impressive bodies of work. The setup for their bottle-series, Inside No. 9, is an anthology show where each episode is set in a different claustrophobic setting. In this regard every episode of the series would be eligible here, but “A Quiet Night In,” is such a stand-out (and many would argue the best episode of the series) because not only does it capitalize on the bottle episode construct, but it’s also entirely devoid of dialogue.

The setting for the episode is a wealthy couple’s humble abode, as Shearsmith and Pemberton play cat burglars who are trying to steal a painting from the place. Naturally, in such a situation silence is golden lest your cover be blown, and so the episode operates essentially mute (translating to a script consisting of eighteen pages of stage direction), leading to some extraordinary storytelling and visual humor. To push this theme even further, the couple that is being robbed is in the middle of a fight, wherein they’re both more than eager to give each other the silent treatment. These two separate relationships dovetail in traditional Inside No. 9 fashion conveying both sides of the pitch black comedy that the series comfortably wallows in. A terribly tragic, moving story is coursing on the other side of the coin of this bumbling caper.

It’s clear that there must be a Keaton or Chaplin influence in Pemberton and Shearsmith’s work and on that level alone this episode is a very successful love letter to that hyperbolized sort of silent filmmaking. Additionally, while the two of them typically tackle more cerebral, verbal styles of comedy, this became an episode that forced them to rely on conventions like slapstick comedy that they didn’t typically get to showcase. The change in style is a perfect example of how versatile these two performers are (if playing different characters week in, week out wasn’t enough). There’s also some wonderful visual comedy with dogs of extreme sizes here that feels like it would be out of place in any other episode of the series. Whether it’s the dogs, a renegade automatic dumbwaiter, or a squeaky sex doll, there are plenty of ways that Pemberton and Shearsmith keep the silent entry visually yelling in your face.

Always trying to top themselves, Shearsmith and Pemberton were inspired to attempt such an ambitious feat of television after conquering the similarly unique “David and Maureen” single-take episode of their previous series, Psychoville. Looking to up the stakes for their own brand of progressive surreal comedy, Shearsmith and Pemberton’s script pushed the limits of what they were capable of. The idea of a silent episode was a perfect fit for such an anthology-based series like No. 9, which had them eager to attempt such things in the first place.

There was the thought that such an idea might feel out of place on a serialized show (in fact, they struggled with trying to pull off a variation of this idea with a ten-minute silent sequence on Psychoville, but couldn’t crack it), but here where everything is a different experiment, you might as well subvert the norm this way. In fact, the duo approached the episode’s construct optimistically, but soon found themselves falling into the thing, with the episode coming together more naturally than they ever could have hoped for. It’s not even two minutes into the piece before you’re already in the middle of a solid visual gag involving motion detection lights.

Another triumph of the episode is how it’s such an impressive example of proper blocking and how to convey a real sense of the geography of the home, a detail that can often be neglected in the series. The episode takes its time showing off the setup of the locale so that it will be etched in your mind. This is all about knowing where everything is, and where it stands in relation to each other and the episode absolutely nails this, showing you crucial details without you even realizing their significance initially.

The score is also pretty flawless, accentuating tension and the madness of this vacuum when it needs to, while acting as a strong additional presence to all of this. While an overpowering orchestral accompaniment in itself would be powerful, wisely the episode opts to go the diegetic route as Gerald turns on a recording of the forebodingly playful “Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2” which then continues to act as the episode’s soundtrack for the majority of the entry (the times that the Eastenders theme doesn’t bleed through and dominate). It’s kind of shocking to see how well the score goes with all of this, at times the crescendos of the concerto building at the peaks of the episode’s action. There are times with bottle episodes that you sometimes feel like you’re watching a piece of theater, well with “A Quiet Night In” it feels like you’re at the opera.

Towards the end of the episode, there’s the brilliant introduction of a deaf character who again squashes any attempt the episode makes to insert dialogue into itself. Some other interesting decisions are made in this respect, such as displaying a dialogue (of sorts) in the form of the burglars texting each other details about their mission. This is felt less like the episode cheating, but more so just another stylistic layer to all of this. The texting gets them into more trouble and acts as the punch line to jokes more than it actually being used to facilitate conversation.

While arguably more of the episode’s energy is focused on its muted nature rather than the bottle episode restrictions, it still does some interesting things with the idea. For instance, Eddie and Ray, the two cat burglars are trying to break into Gerald and Kim’s house, rather than out, with Gerald and Kim oblivious to it all. They have no inclination to get out at all, nor do they even feel trapped in their space. Then, once the burglars are successfully inside, it does become all about escaping, but again twisting the norm by having all of the obstacles occurring within the home, as opposed to keeping them in from the outside. In the end, you might even forget you’re watching a bottle episode, but just because “A Quiet Night In” has other priorities shouldn’t take anything away from its minimalist nature.

Beautifully (and in a nice nod to Mel Brooks’ take on silent cinema, Silent Movie), the only spoken dialogue in the episode is the final line, and it’s certainly a whopper. If that verbal cherry on top of all of this wasn’t enough, the episode’s plot itself also contains a brilliant rug pull. All of this comes together in just the perfect blend of everything that makes Inside No. 9 so entertaining in the first place. It’s an ending that’s hard to be dissatisfied with, and one that truly has you eager for whatever the next experiment Shearsmith and Pemberton decide to tackle. Whether it happens in a hypothetical third season for Inside No. 9 or a new series entirely, this surely won’t be the last time you see these geniuses locking themselves into a room and throwing away the key.

The Quiet Majesty of ‘Inside No. 9’s Silent Bottle […]