Spoilers ahead for this Christmas Special review of Inside No.9. The BBC Two anthology series returns for another darkly comic caper, and this time, quite fittingly, takes place inside a church, the most appropriate setting for a festive special of the dark comedy variety. We meet Jasper Parkway (Pemberton), approaching the church on Christmas Eve. He’s a cranky, mysterious, non-believer of the word ghost and anything remotely spiritual. Jasper is also fond of brass rubbing with a strange interest in the church.
Before long, we’re introduced to Dick Wilson (Simon Callow), the kooky, talkative church proprietor. It’s evident from the get-go that Jasper would like nothing more than to be left alone, telling Dick he wants to spend the night reflecting on the memories of his late wife. He has the church exclusively to himself, or so he believes until the spooky shenanigans begin to come into play. The first instance involves the base of a red gown, which can be spotted concealed behind a curtain, or perhaps its just Jasper’s mind playing tricks on him. Shortly after, Jasper glimpses a figure in red hidden behind a Christmas tree. As he approaches the tree, a bauble drops, clinking ominously across the church floor to his feet. He picks it up, and he’s met with Santa’s face, mouth ajar, and eyes dark and unnerving. Jasper promptly returns the bauble to its rightful place on the tree before a red blur passes behind him, and a candle goes out, and we all know what this little trope implies.
The tension drops as Pierce (Shearsmith) and Posy (Shobna Gulati) arrive. Despite having booked the church earlier in the day, Jasper’s night alone to contemplate his thoughts is ruined. Following the passing of his mother (the story changes from his late wife as he meets Pierce and Posy), he intends to spend a night undisturbed alone. Pierce and Posy fail to take the hint and set up their beds for the night. While Pierce is busy cracking endless jokes, Posy is disturbed by a statue of the titular St. Nicholas, an eerie gawping monument. Though the figure reminds her of Paul Hollywood, the humour of the moment is overshadowed by a sinister tale of child murder and a gruesome discovery inside salting tubs, courtesy of Pemberton’s perfect monotone voice delivering the chills in style.
St. Nicholas, widely considered the original Santa Claus (and not the Coca-Cola one – Posy quips), was a historical figure from 300AD. Pemberton recounts the story of three lost children lured into the home of a resident butcher. The three were subsequently murdered and whose body parts were dumped inside salting tubs. St. Nicholas would later perform a miracle, resurrecting the children inside the butcher’s home and returning them to their parents. This suitably grisly tale adds a new layer to the narrative, but Pemberton’s Jasper continues to catch glimpses of the figure in red and later tracks it up a winding staircase. He hears the unmistakable sounds of choking and reaches an empty bell tower attic. After finding a lone shoe discarded on the floor, Jasper climbs a ladder and crosses a dodgy-looking beam to find symbols and markings on brickwork. He catches the sound of scraping before Dick reappears with a bottle of Bristol Cream.
The liquor warms the cockles, but Callow’s ghost story chills the air and sets Pierce, Posy and a reluctant Jasper on edge. Callow’s tale of St. Nicholas standing by the tree in a red gown with no bottom jaw is utterly mesmerising and a testament to his acting ability. The church proprietor believes the missing jawbone of St. Nicholas can be found somewhere inside the church, or so the legend says. Despite never being found, Dick remains confident it exists. There’s one image that will take your breath away, in which Jasper spots the leering face of St. Nicholas’ statue glaring at him through a curtain, leaving Pemberton’s character startled, while Dick wraps up his story for the night. Later in the night, with Jasper sleeping, Pierce and Posy talk about Paisley, the child they’d lost in an accident eighteen years ago. After hearing Dick’s story, Posy is reminded of one chilling encounter in the hours before the event.
She recalls seeing her mother watching her and crying. The same night, Posy is clipped by a bike and loses her child. In the hospital, it’s revealed the image of her mother was a premonition, after Posy watches her cry in the hospital. Posy believes it was a warning for what was to come. After Pierce pranks his wife with a phone call, the couple are scared away by another appearance of cloaked figure in red. Much like Pierce’s ill-timed phone prank, it transpires the ghoul under the red cloak is Jasper scaring the couple away to ensure he can be left alone. We discover that Jasper’s interest in the church is connected to the missing jawbone of St. Nicholas, and the brass rubbings he keeps with him identify the church as the hiding place for the missing relic.
Before he can begin his search, Dick returns, forcing Jasper to hide behind a tree. He knocks off a bauble and distracts the proprietor with the ringing phone Pierce answered in the office moments ago. Eventually, he returns to the bell tower, causing a candle to go out as he passes by, climbs the ladder, and crosses the beam, removing a brick to find the missing jawbone wrapped in cloth. As Dick emerges into the attic, Posy’s conversation with Pierce about her premonition dawns on Jasper. She states it was not a ghost but a warning.
Jasper remembers the figure in red obscured by the curtain and the shape lurking behind the tree. He recalls Santa’s creepy bauble, the statue of a gawping St. Nicholas, and the extinguished candle. Prepare yourself for the twist in the story. These events were not supernatural occurrences but premonitions of something awful to come. A second after, the beam snaps and Jasper drops. He’s caught on a hook and hangs from the bell tower. The single shoe found in the bell tower and the sounds of someone choking were the sounds of his death. Dick finds Jasper’s body moments after he dies and opens the cloth discarded on the floor, finding the jawbone belonging to St. Nicholas.
“The Bones of St. Nicholas” is a fittingly spooky episode and a return to form for Pemberton and Shearsmith following an uncharacteristically poor seventh series. In summary, this episode is worthy of a ten out of ten. The highlights include Simon Callow’s performance as the church caretaker with his fear-inducing monologues. He was funny, sharp and the perfect addition to an Inside No.9 Christmas special. Other highlights include Shearsmith’s pub-themed recital of the Lord’s Prayer, Shobna Gulati’s kookiness as Posy, and the never-failing plot twist that tips this festive special on its head in the best way possible. The concept of a premonition has been written masterfully and reaffirms why Pemberton and Shearsmith are two of the best television writers in the land. An Inside No.9 special like this is one of the best early Christmas presents one could ask for.
For more Inside No.9 content, take a look at the Series 7 finale review for “Wise Owl.” What did you think of Inside No.9? Give us your thoughts in the comment section below!