Spoilers ahead for this review of Inside No.9. The second episode of their seventh series takes place inside a primary school classroom. Alan Curtis (Shearsmith), seeking a quiet life and under the recommendation of his doctors, moves to rural Wales to take over Class 9 from the former teacher Mr. King.
As a character overview, Alan has a history of mental health issues, takes prescribed medications, and makes terrible jokes about Pinocchio. He’s further living under the shadow of his predecessor, Mr. King. By all accounts, is that one teacher we likely all had in school. Everyone adored him. He gave no homework. He gave lavish assemblies, and he cares enough about his class to send them a postcard from ‘down under’.
Pemberton’s Mr. Edwards is the school’s old-fashioned, oddball headmaster. The episode’s guest spot goes to Annette Badland as the blind school cleaner who grows award-winning vegetables, and she’s simply wonderful.
It’s soon evident that Alan is having trouble adjusting to his new position. He snaps at the students for their lack of knowledge of global warming and requests they do some research as homework on the subject. Not to mention Alan has an assembly to prepare for, adding to the pressure of his new job. While Alan is sticking up pictures of Greta Thunberg beneath the word hope on the classroom walls, pupil Ceri (Elin Owen) is frightened by the concept of the world ending due to global warming. Alan’s attempts to console Ceri go smoothly.
However, a reference to Michael Jackson lands awkwardly and later comes back to bite him. Soon enough, Alan faces allegations of indecent exposure against a pupil, and it’s painting him in a bad light. There’s a creeping sense that something awful will land on Alan. To disprove the allegations against him, Mr. Edwards requests a few candid shots of Alan’s genitalia. The headmaster explains that he’ll compare the shots against the child’s description to rule him out of the investigation.
It’s bizarre, and alarm bells are ringing as Pemberton’s headmaster relishes the job. The mystery begins to deepen as Alan discovers a child’s drawing of a student and teacher and that Mr. King, whose real name is Mr. Hardy, never existed. Plus, there’s the postcard from ‘down under’ sent to the classroom that leads to the idea that something particularly sinister has happened within the school.
Alan contacts Mr. Edwards and is quick to lay the blame at his door, accusing the headmaster of a child abuse cover-up. Alan further discovers polaroid photos of male genitalia in the headmaster’s office. Midway into the call, the episode cuts away from the classroom to give us a fleeting glimpse of an open field. He returns to the classroom where he finds the students preparing for the assembly. He sits down and watches their presentation on global warming. Suffice to say, Alan won’t be getting up again, and it’s the episode’s final act that throws the story on its head in the best way possible.
In the 15th century, Peruvian children were sacrificed to the gods to try and end natural disasters. The students, including Mr. Edwards and Winnie, intend to offer Alan to mother nature, honouring a centuries-old ritual performed by those in the rural Welsh village. The assembly sequence re-contextualises Mr. Edward’s polaroids, as they prefer their sacrifices to be “as nature intended”. Or as Pemberton puts it, “uncut and still sheathed”.
Mr. Edward happily explains that Alan will be honoured with a triple-death – drowned, strangled, and dismembered – before being buried in the field to ensure a fertile harvest. Grisly and entirely unexpected.
In a twisted tribute to English folklore, Pemberton and Shearsmith reference the folk song John Barleycorn, sacrificed and dismembered to produce crops for people. Shearsmith’s horrified school teacher is adorned with a Corn King head mask before Winnie enters the ceremony in an elaborate costume, presumably the ceremonial Corn Queen to the King. As the class sings the verses to John Barleycorn, they wheel Alan out of the room. The camera lingers on a child’s drawing foreshadowing the awful fate that awaits poor Alan Curtis.
It makes us re-evaluate Mr. Hardy’s postcard from the beginning of the episode, in which he’d written to them from down under. Quite literally – in his case, as he’s lying dead in the field. Of course, we need to mention Winnie’s award-winning vegetables. The trick to a strong harvest would be to butcher an innocent headteacher and bury him in the field.
Pemberton and Shearsmith once again shine at their best with this modernised retelling of a grisly historical tale. The clues, in hindsight, are as clear as day, but it’s their unique writing style that subverts, distracts, and ultimately surprises you at the right moment. For more Inside No.9 content, take a look at last week’s review for “Merrily, Merrily”. What did you think of Inside No.9? Give us your thoughts in the comment section below!