Inside No. 9's Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith and Mark Gatiss interview

This interview was originally published in Radio Times magazine.

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Steve Pemberton

Mark [Gatiss] and I were in the same year at Bretton Hall College [in West Yorkshire], but he wasn’t living on the campus. He was quite dandyish, wearing waistcoats and bow ties; they weren’t flamboyant clothes, it was more charity-shop chic. I didn’t have an ounce of flamboyance about me at all. I’m the same now.

From our initial chats, it was obvious we had the same sense of humour. We loved talking about horror films, so we started a club where we rented a video from the college library and watched a VHS together using two sets of headphones. We introduced each other to our favourite films, many of which we’d already both seen. We felt like we’d had the same life. We felt like the same person in many ways, so it was an instant connection and we wrote from the off.

We never went out into town because the last bus back from Wakefield was at half-past nine and to reach the bus stop you had to walk up a really big hill, so it wasn’t worth it. As a result, we spent a lot of time in our student bar, and one of the first things Mark and I did was to stage a comedy night. We wore padded-out dinner jackets and played spoof Northern club comedians called Fatt and Crass – very Bernard Manning-esque – and we built a whole routine around them. I’ve still got a cassette tape with the first ever gig on.

Every year at Bretton Hall they posted a picture of the students who were joining, and Reece stood out to us, because he was posing with a very funny expression on his face, so we pegged him as someone to watch out for. “Reece” and “Shearsmith” – what a name!

Later on, when I was in a Shakespeare production, Reece came to see it, and we got chatting afterwards. Again, there was that sense that you’d met a fellow soul who understood the world the way you understood it; he had that humour, that love of horror films, and love of comedy.

Reece was quite quiet, actually, but he came alive on stage. I remember seeing him play Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and thinking, “Wow!” He was full of wit, comic business, and was just naturally funny.

Mark Gatiss

The first time I worked with Steve was in our second week at Bretton Hall, or maybe the first. We had to improvise a little story based around two things that we were both most obsessed with. I was paired off with Steve and we devised a Billy Joel/Doctor Who crossover. That’s where I discovered he loved Billy Joel and he discovered I loved Doctor Who. This is so geeky.

We became very self-reliant very quickly. Although this sounds like a Cliff Richard movie, we used to stage shows ourselves all the time and that was really useful. The college’s approach, almost accidentally, was improvisation and self-reliance, and for two successive years Steve and I took shows to the National Student Drama Festival and we went to Edinburgh.

Then I remember, vividly, a photo of the incoming year and Reece was pulling this face, and we cried, “Reece and Shearsmith!” Little did we know… Isn’t that strange?

We were destined to be friends and everything that’s come out of it professionally is a bonus. The greatest part of it is that we’ve always had such a good laugh together. To be part of the cast of Merrily, Merrily [the latest Inside No. 9] was a real treat. It’s very moving and funny, but it speaks of a big universal truth about friendships. That’s what makes it so powerful.

Reece Shearsmith

Bretton Hall was a beautiful place but odd, because you were completely in the middle of nowhere in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, near Wakefield. You were warned of cabin fever before you went, because it was like the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. In a weird way, it bonded you more because you were trapped.

For a year I never came out of my shell and was homesick. I was only an hour away – I’d come from Hull! I used to go home on Friday and I’d be on the train at 4.25pm, and then I would reluctantly have to leave on a Sunday night as late as possible. So, for a while, I never really liked it.

Steve and Mark were these fabled people. They were staging funny sketches and plays in the Student Union bar, and I thought, “These are the people to get in with.” I think I met Mark first – or wanted to meet Mark. He was a character, as he wore tweeds and had the appearance of a time traveller – the Doctor, basically. He was someone you wanted to gravitate towards. In the second year I dared to pluck up the courage to speak to him. I remember approaching him in the canteen, thinking, “I hope that you like me because I feel like I’m like you.”

I think he’d heard of me a little bit and we very quickly found common ground.

The very first time I saw Steve was in the second-year production of The Taming of the Shrew. He was at the back of a main scene with a hat, a walking stick, glasses and an inhaler, and he was walking around, puffing away on this inhaler, and completely pulling focus. I thought, “That’s who I want to be.”

There wasn’t a Machiavellian element to befriending them – that I needed to get in with Mark and Steve because they were really good – it was desperately thinking they would understand my sense of humour, that we were alike. I just wanted to present myself because I thought, “You will like me if you get to know me.” But there was that massive hurdle of trying to speak to them because I was really shy. I’m sort of still like that now, to be honest.

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Inside No. 9 returns on BBC Two and BBC iPlayer at 10pm on Wednesday 20th April.

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