“Well this is awkward” tweeted @BBCTwo last Sunday, a few minutes into its scheduled programming for the evening. The show they had been airing, Inside No 9, had come a cropper due to sound issues in its much-anticipated live Halloween episode, leading to several apologetic tweets, an error card and, finally, a statement that they would re-air a classic episode instead. Fans of the dark/comedy horror anthology were aghast, with 20 per cent changing the channel there and then, and others responding instantly with confusion, anger and irritation.
“FFS” tweeted Karl Murch, one of hundreds who complained in kind, “was really looking forward to Inside No.9 live! Technical problems 5 mins in and so it cancelled!”.
The “live episode” is a time-honoured tradition, and one fraught with pratfalls for even the most sophisticated producers, which may explain why it hasn’t been utilised to its full potential on modern TV. As live entertainment dominates the online landscape in ways that might shock even avid internet users – livestreaming accounted for 75 per cent of internet traffic last year – its use in drama is still slight.
As part of its 30-year anniversary in 2015, Eastenders mounted an entire week of live shows, so viewers could hear their favourite characters say things like “leave it out” and “what about me, howdya fink I feel?” mere seconds after they were uttered on set.
In 1997, ER kicked off its fourth series with a landmark live episode that even featured the camera panning in on characters watching a baseball game that was happening simultaneously. Most impressive of all, the cast and crew had to do the entire episode twice, with a run-through for each coast, broadcast two hours apart.
Of course, none of this came close to the achievement of Inside No. 9, which quickly showed their detractors they’d been conned. Shortly after the “error message”, the replacement episode they were showing went off air and was replaced by CCTV footage of its writer/stars Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith in the green room who, in ER style, switched the channels on their TV to prove they were very much live. In a particularly ingenious touch, Shearsmith tweeted his followers to ask what was going on, a message seen by everyone watching things unfold with phone in hand. Not long after, dozens of viewers took to Twitter to recant on their previous disappointment.
It would be crass to give spoilers, but the ensuing episode deserves to go down as one of the boldest half hours of television this year, and one of the best uses of social media ever devised. Inside No 9’s live episode showed that, however old a technique might be, you can still find new ghosts in the machine.