After last week’s Shakespearean farce, Inside No.9 went smaller in scale, and a little bit darker, for this week’s episode, Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room. With this episode, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith prove that they can create thirty minutes of flawless television with a cast of three just as easily as they can with an entire ensemble.
This episode centres around Tommy and Len, also known as Cheese and Crackers, a former comedy double act who have not performed together for thirty years. For those of you not old enough to remember, Bernie Clifton was an entertainer from this era who used to “ride” a stuffed ostrich as part of his act. That was pretty much his entire act actually. This is the kind of thing that passed as comedy back then, in the time of cheesy variety acts and mother-in-law jokes. Clifton actually lives in a village just outside my home town, and I have hazy memories of him owning a joke shop there, and turning up at the odd village carnival. It’s harking back to this kind of vaguely sad nostalgia that makes this episode so good.
Beware: spoilers below.
Len has persuaded Tommy to come back for one last gig, which is a decision that Tommy seems to regret instantly. He’s a successful businessman now, and he employs someone to take down all the clips of Cheese and Crackers from YouTube. He’s embarrassed by his past, and seems reluctant to rekindle his partnership with Len.
Len is down on his luck – he’s unkempt and clearly has a drinking problem, but it’s obvious this reunion means a lot to him. He tries to cajole Tommy into rehearsing some of their old sketches for their final gig, and Tommy grudgingly goes through the motions.
There are some very funny moments as they act out some of their routines that Tommy points out are not really acceptable any more – things that passed without anyone batting an eyelid in the 1980s are not considered politically correct now. There’s a very funny exchange about a list of impressions they can no longer do since the extensive Operation Yewtree investigation, which uncovered allegations of sexual abuse against a slew of celebrity figures from the 1970s and 1980s. Time has moved on, and left Len behind.
Their routines are cheesy and dated, and Tommy becomes increasingly irritated by Len’s enthusiasm, and keeps bringing up the reason they split up in the first place – an incident in Bernie Clifton’s dressing room.
The incident took place during a show, where Tommy found himself on stage alone in front of a hostile audience. When he left the stage, he found Len in Bernie Clifton’s dressing room, passed out and choking on his own vomit. Tommy furiously reminds Len that he had to pay £25 to replace Clifton’s ostrich, and that he never paid him back.
Things come to a head between the pair, as Tommy tearfully tells Len he split up the partnership not because he didn’t want to perform any more, but because he had to do it to save Len, who was an alcoholic destined for self-destruction.
It’s at this moment that Len’s daughter Leanne enters, and the big reveal is that Tommy is not there for Cheese and Crackers’ final gig, but for Len’s final gig – his funeral. Tommy had come to work on his speech for the service, and Leanne had told him to imagine that Len was there with him.
Leanne hands Tommy an envelope that her father insisted she gave to him. When he opens it, he finds £25.
After she leaves, Tommy and Len perform their final comedy musical song together, and then Len disappears, leaving Tommy standing alone, surrounded by all their old props. It is an incredibly poignant moment which left me with tears in my eyes.
Once again, Pemberton and Shearsmith have delivered the goods in an episode which really tugged on the heartstrings. There was an element of the darker kind of story that they favour, but this one was mostly an emotional one, in the same vein as their 12 Days of Christine episode, which remains one of the best bits of TV I’ve ever seen. This one wasn’t quite in the same league as that, but it came very close.