The surreal world of ‘Inside No. 9’ returns on BritBox

“Inside No. 9” is back for another genre-bending season of heavy-meta humor and dark, psychological drama — a recipe that’s earned British co-creators Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton international acclaim (and a slew of awards).

“We thought, ‘If “Inside No. 9″ is not bold and challenging, if it becomes safe…then we’ve lost what was innovative about it in the first place,” Shearsmith told The Post as the series returns for its sixth season Tuesday (June 22) on BritBox. “We never want the audience to feel comfortable tuning in and feeling like they know what to expect. That gets harder and harder the more we write, but that’s our ethos: keep surprising the audience.”

That certainly applies to the Season 6 opener, “Wuthering Heist,” which melds elements of commedia dell’arte with heist-genre tropes as a gang of mask-wearing criminals — including Scaramouche (Shearsmith) and The Doctor (Pemberton) — plan a diamond heist. The characters (cast members include Kevin Bishop and Gemma Whelan, aka Yara Greyjoy from “Game of Thrones”) drop references to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the BBC/Amazon series “Fleabag,” Bob Geldof, BBC2 and even the episode’s script (“It’s from the subplot so it might not be important.”) Sharp-eyed viewers will recognize elements from big-screen movies including “Reservoir Dogs,” “Dead Presidents” and “The Town” as the story mixes dashes of slapstick and clever wordplay.

Photo showing Steve Pemberton as The Doctor and Reece Shearsmith as Scaramouche in the season premiere of "Inside No. 9."
The Doctor (Steve Pemberton, left) and Scaramouche (Reece Shearsmith) in the “Wuthering Heist” episode.
BBC/Sophie Mutevelian

“This is probably the one [episode] that felt very different and irreverent to…talk about ‘Inside No. 9’ and its popularity on television in territories around the world,” Shearsmith said. “That was the most meta we’ve been — aside from the live episode we did where we played ourselves doing a live episode on TV and it went wrong.

“I think the initial impetus [for the episode] came from the commedia dell’arte,” he said. “Mask-wearing characters is something we studied at college…so it was really appealing to tell a story using stock characters with masks on. We were worried it would be too theatrical and off-putting, so it was like, ‘What’s the context for having these characters with masks on?’ and we somehow ended up at heist movies.

“You can’t do this [type of episode] very often because I think it very quickly looks like a last resort that you’ve run out of ideas and storytelling you’ve started to turn on yourself…and it can appear to be indulgent. We’ve got to use it sparingly.”

Shearsmith points to successive episode as examples of changing the pace of “Inside No. 9.”

“We wrote a very sparse, almost ’70s-movie kind of episode called ‘Lip Service’ with two people [played by Shearsmith and Pemberton] in a grubby hotel room looking out of their window with binoculars,” he said. “And we did an episode called ‘Simon Says,’ about a showrunner and writer of a successful TV series that comes to an end. The fans don’t really like the way he ended it and one of them persuades him to write a new ending. That was largely inspired by what happened with ‘Game of Thrones.’”

Steve Pemberton, holding binoculars, and Reece Shearsmith in the "Lip Service" episode of "Inside No. 9" on BritBox.
Steve Pemberton (left) and Reece Shearsmith in the “Lip Service” episode of “Inside No. 9” on BritBox.
BBC/Sophie Mutevelian

Co-stars this season include Sian Clifford (“Fleabag”), Adrian Dunbar (“Line of Duty”), Derek Jacobi and Julian Glover.

“Inside No. 9,” which was renewed for a six-episode seventh season, will go back into production in August.

“We hear that more and more actors are fans of the show and are putting in a call to their agent when they hear we’re casting,” Shearsmith said. “I guess [the series] now has its own momentum and cachet. Being actors ourselves, we know what it’s like to read a script and quickly turn to the page your character is on and think, ‘Why would I want to do this?’”

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