Inside No. 9 – ‘Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room’

CONTAINS SPOILERS

A comedy duo from the past who were known as Cheese & Crackers reunite after many years. Cheese was Tommy Drake (Reece Shearsmith) and Crackers was Len Shelby (Steve Pemberton).

The number 9 isn’t a building this time. It is set in a church hall, but the 9 is a number on a hamper.

Tommy is there first, but he goes by Thomas now and has done for the past 30 years. He wears a suit and works in digital marketing. Len arrives, and he looks more dishevelled. He has carrier bags of funny props. He even has the VHS of Cheese and Crackers’ one TV series, though he has nothing to play it on.

Tommy and Len redo one of their old interview sketches, with Tommy as the interviewer and Len swapping lots of hats as he does different accents; Scotland, Ireland, Leeds, Japan, India, Buckingham, Moscow and London.

Tommy points out they can’t do Asian voices anymore. He is ashamed at their old sketches, and even hires someone to take their clips down off YouTube, as he’d never
live it down if he goes into a meeting where people have seen “me as Tina Turner with tights on my head and ping-pong balls for eyes!” This is a meta reference, as Maureen in Psychoville did this, and like Tommy, she was played by Reece Shearsmith.

Tommy laments that Cheese and Crackers were never that good anyway. They came out “in the mid-’80s, arse end of variety, got lucky with one series on Anglia television”. They do a routine with Len dressed as a punk rocker and Tommy as a teacher (complete with mortar board and cane). Tommy says that punk rockers were already an outdated reference in 1984 when they first did that sketch.

Len still thinks their act will work today, and has put in an application for Britain’s Got Talent!

But even he has to admit that they can’t do any of their old celebrity impressions, and not just because they are has-beens. Worse than that. They’re “all Yewtree” – and the only one that isn’t “will be!”.

Tommy expresses annoyance that Len always mugged to the audience whenever Tommy had a funny line, and that Len still owes him £25 for “Bernie Clifton’s dressing room”.
Len is a little bitter than Tommy got to be a regular on Blankety Blank when Len didn’t.

Tommy mentions that Len’s daughter Leanne wrote to him saying Len hadn’t been in a good place for a while now. Tommy goes through Len’s bag, and finds Len’s passport,
a toilet roll and a razor. Len is homeless. He was evicted from his flat and stays at Leanne’s place now and again, but has no fixed address. Tommy tells him “I wish you’d told me sooner”.

Tommy and Len rehearse their finale, a variation of ‘Ten Green Bottles’, but with brown beer bottles instead. The joke is that Len is drinking all of the bottles one at a time, getting more drunk as the song goes on until Tommy smashes a fake bottle over Len’s head. But there is a dark reality to this sketch.

The last time they did it, Len walked off stage to get a prop, and ended up nearly choking on his own vomit in Bernie Clifton’s dressing room. Len really was an alcoholic. After the duo got their TV series his drinking problem got worse. It’s why their career went downhill in the first place, why Blankety Blank refused to have Len on, and why Tommy quit performing. He hoped that it would save Len’s life.

Leanne (Sian Gibson) comes in at this point. Len isn’t there. He has in fact recently died, and what we have been seeing is a representation of Tommy’s thoughts. He’s remembering his time with Len. Leanne had also suggested that Tommy should imagine what he would say to Len if he were in the room. She tells Tommy that they will be playing ‘Tears Of Laughter’ as Len’s funeral song and serving cheese and crackers at the wake, and gives Tommy a letter from Len. It is the £25 he owed him. Tommy then imagines himself and Len singing ‘Tears Of Laughter’.

They do a lot of corny old jokes, such as jigsaw with 3-5 years (joke on it referring to length of time to complete it rather than age), a grammar/grandma pun and stuff like “Where was the Magna Carter signed?” “At the bottom!”. Having said that, I did find the ‘Ten Brown Bottles’ routine genuinely funny and entertaining, including the elf (health) and safety pun!

Tommy states that the first rule of comedy is be specific rather than generic. “You never say biscuit, you say Garibaldi!”. This is a good point. If you look at it scientifically and chemically, a purpose of humour is about recognition and forming bonds, so it makes sense that people would find specific references funnier.

Humour also offers the benefit of light and shade in a drama. The reveal as to what happened in Bernie Clifton’s dressing room and the events around it is one of the
saddest moments in the episode, but there are still some laughs. The £25 was to compensate Bernie Clifton for a ruined ostrich!

Speaking of the title, it was very likely inspired by an argument in Celebrity Big Brother 13 involving Jim Davidson and Linda Nolan about “Frank Carson’s dressing room”. The Nolans themselves get a shout out in the episode too, as Leanne mentions some of them are attending the funeral. Jeanette Krankie is too.

There is a reference to Bobby Knutt, who passed away in September last year.

I liked the reference to the cartoon Help!… It’s The Hair Bear Bunch! I wasn’t even born when it was first on, but I did see some repeats of it at some point when I was a kid. So I guess sometimes old references can work if they have been repeated on TV in later decades.

The name Cheese and Crackers are a reference to comedy duos of the past such as Cannon and Ball. I suppose that Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith probably don’t count
as a “comedy duo” per se, more they are two comedic actors and writers who often work together, but still, I suppose they were bound to do an episode about former comedy duos at some point.

I was reminded a bit of when a modern comedy duo, Mitchell and Webb, played two old-fashioned comedy duos in their sketch show That Mitchell and Webb Look. One was called Fish and Chip, the other was called Pin and Cushion. However, Chip and Pin decided to leave their respective duos to a form a new one together, so a new more successful than ever comedy duo was born. But it was by their former partners who became Fish and Cushion! And they even got the chip and pin adverts!

Anyway, back to ‘Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room’. Cheese and Crackers were going to be called Cheese and Onion, but another duo had already registered that name. The names do fit in a way though, Cheese was the “straight man” and Crackers (or Onion) was the “funny one”.

‘Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room’ was a very good episode. It is has a lot of poignancy. Very much about the concept of a Sad Clown, something which there is definitely truth in, many comedians have suffered from depression, bipolar or alcoholism among other things. In fact, a lot of people in general who go through those problems can have a strong sense of humour. That is another purpose of humour, as a way of getting through or coping with tough situations.

From the start Len appears as a tragic figure, as he hasn’t been able to move on in his life after his brief 15 minutes. He’s still clinging on to a time which has long gone. Tommy did manage to move on in a way, but at the cost of giving up dreams, and there are signs he has regrets about how his own life turned out.

But this situation turns out to be even more tragic than that. The success that Len had made his existing problems with alcohol even worse, and that caused him to go on a downward spiral which ultimately led to his death. Tommy might have thought that giving up performing would have saved Len’s life, but it didn’t.

The ending is oddly upbeat though, and I think it’s because of the song. I didn’t feel sad at the end of this episode compared to, say, ‘The 12 Days Of Christine’. That’s not to say ‘Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room’ isn’t moving itself, but I suppose the ending is the note you leave on, and the song and dance about “tears of laughter” can cheer you up a bit.

The episode includes a real poster of Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton themselves when they were younger, and as a whole it does read like an affectionate shout out to their comedy influences.

I think this one will be considered the strongest episode of series 4, there was so much to it, and it only featured three people, most of it featuring only two.

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