Inside No. 9 Christmas Special: The Bones of St Nicholas

by thethreepennyguignol

As we draw in on Christmas and indulge ourselves in all things festive, I am craving horror – well, more than usual, that is. But what is it about Christmas that makes it such a perfect time for horror?

I think it’s something to do with the sweetness, cosiness, gift-giving and general sense of community that’s sold as the inherent backdrop to the Christmas season, and what a perfect contrast it makes to the nastiness at the heart of a great horror story. In all the rich fattiness of being surrounded by our friends or family or the people we love, sometimes we need something to cut right through the loveliness, and sometimes, that something is a deeply unpleasant tome of horror.

Of course, if there’s any show that really gets nastiness, it’s Inside No. 9, and I can’t imagine anything else on TV right better suited to balance the Christmas spirit with unrelenting horribleness just for the sake of it. Which brings us to The Bones of St Nicholas, the show’s first dedicated Christmas special, and my sure sign to get into the spooky seasonal spirit.

It’s a simple set-up: Dr Parkway (Steve Pemberton) spends the night at a church which is allegedly home to the jawbone of Saint Nicholas, only to find his plans disturbed by another couple (Shobna Gulati and Reece Shearsmith) who have also booked a Christmas Eve in the atmospheric parish. But, according to the caretaker (Simon Callow, with a voice so absurdly melodic I almost entered a full trance listening to it when he spoke for more than two sentences in a row), the church is haunted by a terrifying specter, who previously visited him on Christmas Eve.

The Bones of St Nicholas, like so many great Christmas horror stories, is one all about atmosphere. The single setting inside the church really lets director George Kane play with various lighting styles over the course of the episode; from the warm, glowing softness of the tree and the golden candles, to the blueish coldness of a murmured conversation in the middle of the night, it’s simple, but exceptionally effective. The glimpses of what seem to be the specter of St Nicholas are deeply unsettling, looming at the pulpit or retreating behind the tree, a delightfully twisted contrast to the warmth and welcome of the church. There’s something about a church that’s imbued with an ancient, stately energy, and I love seeing that used as the backdrop for a horror tale (even though some people probably think it’s sacrilegious. But that’s the best part!).

It’s also an episode that makes me appreciate how well Pemberton and Shearsmith can write relationships and characters who feel really lived-in. Gulati and Shearsmith have barely a few minutes total of focused screentime, but the deft casting and excellent writing imbue then with a sense of humanity and history that I really appreciate. Making them functional characters within the story without rendering them cardboard cut-outs in the process, especially with a story this short, is not an easy feat, but the scene they share discussing the loss of their child is so soft, so emotional, and so unlaboured in a way only really, really great writers and actors can pull off. In a closed setting like this, any crack in the façade shows up pretty unavoidably, and that there are none to see is a bit of a marvel.

But what of Dr Parkway? It’s his story that makes up the bones (yes, pun intended) of the horror plot, as he tries to locate the rumoured jawbone of Saint Nicholas during his stay. His plot is delightfully mean, a slow burn of discomforting details (the sound of a man choking just out of shot, an abandoned shoe in the bellfry) that build to a perfectly nasty end. Like all great twists, it’s fairly seeded in the plot long before we get there, and when the reveal comes, it fills out the existing story without muddying the rest of the good work the writing has done so far. With a show so built around the shock ending as this one, it’s hard to feel genuinely shocked when they come, but this one, at least, has a brutality to it’s banality that serves to twist the knife. After all the talk of ghosts, for Parkway’s death to come from a simple accident feels unfair in the most unsettling way possible.

The Bones of St Nicholas feels like a classic-flavour episode of Inside No. 9, with the well-drawn characters, unsettling atmosphere, and the build to a great twist that feels earned. As Christmas horror goes, it’s particularly cruel, but that only serves to draw a starker line between the sweetness of the season and the nastiness inherent in the story – and I wouldn’t expect anything less from these two by now. Even if it is Christmas.

If you liked this article and want to see more stuff like it, please check out the rest of my Inside No. 9 reviews. I’d also love it if you would check out my horrible short story collection, and, if you’d like to support my work, please consider supporting me on Patreon!

(header image via Radio Times)