Sardines, episode one of Inside No 9, was a fantastic example of expert storytelling; a very well written dark tale, economically staged and acted by a fantastic cast. This compact 30 minute film could be used as an argument in favour of the supremacy of the script in filmmaking; get that right, and everything else follows.
Sardines took place in one room of the childhood home of two siblings. One was getting married, and to celebrate, her father had arranged a game of Sardines between the invited guests.
The episode started out strongly, slicing off the first 10 minutes of the story and dropping the viewer in once things had kicked off. Leaving the audience always a little behind the developments and revelations is a great way to build intrigue and Sardines managed this throughout the episode. This technique also allows a final twist to be revealed at the end of the episode without it seeming forced or contrived, as the viewer has been continually made aware of little hidden snippets of story that are held just out of view.
Tim Key and Katherine Parkinson opened the episode, the latter playing the engaged woman Rebecca and the former playing a co-worker of her fiancé. Key was fantastically awkward as Ian, the type of boring but inoffensive person you get trapped in a conversation with. It was a very similar performance to his Sidekick Simon role in the new Alan Partridge, but portraying a duller and more tedious character.
Most of the comedy in the episode came from Ian, and for a show billed as a comedy there wasn’t much humour in it. It’s forgivable though, and I’m not expecting to be regularly laughing out loud in a show like this, but it lacked some of the comic relief that other dark Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton shows have had; Psychoville for instance.
Shearsmith was wasted in the episode, playing a stereotypical camp gay that didn’t add much to the story. He’s a great comic actor, especially when playing characters with a disturbing edge to them – he’d make a great child catcher in a Chitty Chitty Bang Bang remake – and could have added more to the episode.
It wasn’t the actors that made the show though – as good as they were – but the story. The set-up, adults playing Sardines, all squashed into a wardrobe, could have been ridiculous if less deftly done but it was well handled. The plot and the nature of the relationships between characters were teased out naturally through dialogue and clipped conversations. As a result, when the twist that Rebecca’s father was a child molester came, it felt like the final piece of a jigsaw puzzle falling into place. The earlier conversation about Stinky John – the party-goers laughing and joking about the origin of his decision to stop washing – became horribly apparent as Rebecca’s father tried to excuse his behaviour as simply washing the children, while John looked aghast in the background.
There were lots of little details like this in the episode, like John’s timidness and fear upon being spoken to by his abuser. It’s great when a TV show or film can do this; include little moments that leave you a little confused and intrigued, but which you shrug off and forget until later when new information is revealed, and you realise they were filled with meaning or portent.
There were flaws in the story of course. You can pick elements apart. Certain people – John for instance – who had no real reason to be at the party, or others – Rebecca’s brother – who wouldn’t in all likelihood take part in the game. And the final twist was maybe a little dodgy if you start linking the reveal of Ian’s true identity to all the comic relief and whacky antics of his character in the first half of the episode. But we should be willing to overlook little flaws in any story that is as interesting, complex and well-structured as this. Sardines was just good storytelling, like a Brothers Grimm fable or a Twilight Zone episode.
There are five more of these films, each with different stories and characters and with one or both of Shearsmith and Pemberton in each. If they are as good as this first one, Inside No 9 could be a great series.
Random notes and Choice lines:
- In their preview of the show, The Guardian gave a credible-sounding reason for the scarcity of these shows that have a different story each episode: it costs much more to make lots of sets and costumes for six different films than it does to make one set for a single series and reuse them each episode.
- ‘Yeah, chill out bitch…Sorry that was misjudged.’
- ‘Now, before I ring Jeremy Kyle…’
- ‘When’s the date?’ ‘November 9th.’ ‘Oh dear. That’s 9/11. You won’t forget that in a hurry.’