Series 6 of Inside No. 9 has been available for over a month now, so this is very much not a review of the episode “Last Night of the Proms”, but rather a reflection on a subject that I have been returning to a great deal in recent years: how the Blake-Parry hymn serves as a paradigm of Englishness. As it is a reflection, there are also plenty of spoilers in this piece because the most Blakean moments occur in the concluding part of the episode.
For those unfamiliar with the series (most likely those who may come to this post from outside the UK), Inside No. 9 is a British black comedy written by Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton, who first rose to fame as part of the team behind The League of Gentleman. This series (as with much of their work) combines elements of morbid comedy and creepiness, although is less melodramatic than much of their earlier work. While it still displays elements of caricature that I’ve started to find less appealing over the years (more of which below), there are also plenty of elements of comic genius on display. It frequently reminds me of a combination of Tales of the Unexpected and Dennis Potter’s phantasies, although rarely rising to the the profound moments of the latter – in the end, caricture tends to win over complexity.
As a number of commentators have observed, “Last Night of the Proms” is the first overtly political episode in any of the series, centred as it is on the various scions of a traditional English family – and for all that some of them wave Union Jacks, it is a particular conception of Englishness that runs through this episode rather than Britishness. The backdrop is a plush, middle class house in Somerset, owned by Dawn (Sarah Parish) and Mick (Steve Pemberton), who also care for their elderly father Ralph (Julian Glover), who experiences the world through a confusing, Tourette’s-laced veil of confusion. With them for the evening are Dawn’s sister, Penny (Debra Gillett), her husband Brian (Reece Shearsmith) and their teenage son, Oliver (Jack Wolfe) – the latter clearly embarrassed by the mere fact of having to be with his parents and relatives while they gather to watch the Last Night of the Proms.
As a state of the nation set piece, it is not especially subtle – at least at first. The primary antagonists are Dawn and Brian as the respective bullish Leave and peevish Remain voters respectively. For nearly everyone else in the room, the dialectic of being pro- and anti-Brexit, or desiring to leave or remain in the EU seem to be a battle that has left them exhausted and bored, but this is very much intended as social commentary on the nation: the more important question, however, is which nation.
To repeat, while the flags waved at the patriot-fest that is LNotP (which suits me as an acronym for the whole event) are intended to celebrate the Union, like that event this episode is much more concerned with England. Even then, this is a subsection of what it means to be England – spanning all shades of the middle classes and not much beyond that. This is semi-rural suburbia rather than inner-city England (although Brian’s snobbery is meant to invite comparisons to metropolitan elitism), and in the end what connects this group is that they are all white. All of which makes the entrance of Yusef (Bamshad Abedi-Amin) all the more disruptive.
Yusef’s presence in the house is rationalised by the suggestion that he has wandered there from a nearby refugee detention centre, his evident hunger at the party spread he sees before him a comment on the hostile environment he would have found in his temporary home. His effect on each of the members of the household is radically different – whether serving as a source of clandestine sexual relief for Penny or inviting Mick to respond with cheery bonhomie. It is clear that Yusef is treated as a blank slate by each of the other characters, allowing them to project their own fears or desires on him, with the biggest surprise being reserved for Brian’s murderous response – the result, we are led to believe, of his closet homosexuality. This latter motivation feels as though itwould be more at home in a Play for Today from the seventies rather than the 2020s, but it’s a good touch to make the ostensible cosmopolitan internationalist the biggest xenophobe of them all: in the end, we are perhaps meant to conclude, all of them (us?) are the same.
So where is Blake in all of this? Dramatic moments are played against the old stalwarts of LNotP, as when Brian murders Yusef while the choir belts out “Land of Hope and Glory”. As the family cleans up after the monstrous scene and wrap Yusef in a Union Jack, it is to the strains of “Jerusalem”. We have plenty of indications that Yusef’s presence may not have a secular explanation – the meal he has devoured is restored in a way that cannot be explained by him simply being a chef as is suggested, and he has wounds in his hands similar to the stigmata, while his flag-cloaked corpse is clearly meant to represent a shrouded Christ. Yusef, then, is Jesus come again, and as the choir at the Albert Hall exhorts its listeners to build Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land, we are shown all members of the family coming together at last to cover up the evidence of their crime.
If Yusef is a Christ-like figure, it is not because of “Land of Hope and Glory” or “Rule Britannia”, but because of “Jerusalem”. The fact that Blake had no concept of the legend that Jesus was meant to have visited Britannia with Joseph of Arimathea is irrelevant: the myth has become deeply embedded in the English psyche during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, so much so that people can lustily sing along to Parry’s music even as they realise that the idea of Christ in Britain is ludicrous. That Inside No. 9 sets the events in Somerset is an excellent choice, Glastonbury being frequently invoked as the place where Jesus was brought and where Joseph (Yusef) of Arimathea consecrated one of the first Christian churches.
“Last Night of the Proms”, then, interweaves pop mythology and contemporary social commentary: for me, the degree of caricture means that it is less successful a satire than it could be, but the more relevant question is which country is at the centre of this state of the nation play? The flag in which Yusef’s body is wrapped is a unionist one, and it was Thomas Arne and James Thomson who insisted that Britannia ruled the waves in the eighteenth century, yet the family here contains no Scots nor Welsh. They are English through and through… and yet, they are not all England by any means, being far less representative than the England team about to play in the Euro 2020 finals, and lacking the kind of working-class ethos seen when the Gallaghers sing “Jerusalem” in an episode of Shameless. As with the yearly ritual itself, “Last Night of the Proms” shows itself not so much a state of the nation event as a fragment of a place and people that does not really know what it could become.