James Holden: The best short stories of the moment are on the telly

Two things in the past fortnight have gotten me thinking about where and how we access stories, and in particular where we can find short stories outside of books or magazines. The first thing was the post fellow Asylum inmate Mat Danaher put up last week, looking at how we access stories. To reduce his really interesting post to one sentence, he said that we need to think more about opportunities to present stories in different ways, looking at a website for a fictional northern town and the re-tweeting of the second world war as examples. (You can find his post here).

Inside_No__9_series_one_DVD_coverAnd then there was the launch of the second series of the Inside No. 9. If you missed it first time round, it’s a series of one-of episodes, the hook being that each is set at an address that is “number 9” (or in one case a dressing room). It was created by Steve Pemberton and Reece Sheersmith, two of the League of Gentlemen and, as you might expect from the creators of Papa Lazarou and Pauline from the Job Centre, is dark but very funny. My favourites from the first series were an episode that was almost entirely set in a wardrobe, and an art-heist that was played out as a silent movie.

It was a bold series, encompassing many different genres, themes, tones and characters, and was hugely rewarding. But perhaps the thing that – for me – made it stand out more than anything else on TV was the concept of having a series of one-off episodes.

As Pemberton and Sheersmith have acknowledged in interviews, this is a format that people will try and tell you doesn’t work anymore, the thinking being that nowadays audiences are only interested in series that will take you on a journey with the same set of characters. They said they wanted to “go back to that anthology thing, so Play For Today, Tales Of The Unexpected, stuff like Beasts by Nigel Kneale – a reaction against the ‘box set culture’”.

Tales of the Unexpected was fronted by Roald Dahl, and a number of the episodes were based on his own short stories (as were a number of episodes of Alfred Hitchcok Presents). What Inside No. 9 has done is resurrect a vehicle to bring “short stories” back to the small screen. In a world where adaptations for door-stoppers like Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bringing Up The Bodies and the continuing adaptation of George R.R. Martion’s novels in Game of Thrones appear to carry the greatest cultural weight, Inside No. 9 is a breath of fresh air for anyone interested in short stories, or indeed story-telling. The wisdom might be that – like short stories – the public prefers longer-form story-telling. But the stories told by Inside No. 9 do not carry a lesser punch for only being half an hour but are perfectly formed witty, dark, dramatic and thought-provoking. They just happen to be in a compressed form.

The latest series (broadcast on a Thursday evening on BBC 2) got off to a cracking start with an episode set in a sleeper-train carriage, and I’m sure that for the next few weeks they will be the best short stories around.

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About James Holden

Brought up in Yorkshire, James has washed up on the shores of London. He spends his days working as a political geek. His short stories have previously been read by the Liars League.
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