Reece Shearsmith still remembers the time he first saw Ben Wheatley’s breakthrough flick Kill List at a preview screening in 2011. “I had the very famous, what’s now known as, the Kill List stare at the end of it!” he laughs. “I turned to Ben and said, ‘Why have you made that?!’ It genuinely haunted me for a long time afterwards.”
So when Shearsmith’s phone pinged in April 2020 — at the height of the first UK lockdown — with a text from Wheatley his interest was immediately piqued.
“He said he had some idea for something,” Shearsmith remembers, “So I said, ‘Well, if there's anything for me…?’”
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He may have been traumatised by that viscerally violent gangster movie, but, since then, the Inside No.9 star has made three films with the Billericay-born director – 2013’s avant-garde Civil War-set A Field In England, 2015’s JG Ballard adaptation High Rise and now In The Earth, a lockdown-lensed folk horror that marks a return to Wheatley’s low-budget roots.
Fast-forward four months and Shearsmith found himself on a film set once more – his first since before the first lockdown – in an area of private woodland outside Henley-on-Thames. In The Earth is set at a time in the near-future where humanity is searching for the cure to a deadly virus and tells the story of a scientist (a mesmerising Joel Fry) who travels deep into the woods in order to locate a missing colleague, only to chance upon the mysterious Zach (Shearsmith), a man who has become obsessed with a local legend by the name of Parnag Fegg.
Shooting over a period of 15 days, the movie’s crew of 25 formed their own bubble, all staying at a modest Premier Inn a few miles away from the location. For Shearsmith, the thrill of being able to film for the first time in months meant a few personal sacrifices.
“I missed my wife's 50th birthday,” he winces. “But at the time, it felt like an age since I’d been on a film set, and it sometimes seemed that we might never be able to do it again.”
Like many of Wheatley’s movies, In The Earth ain’t for the faint of heart. Though there’s nothing as brutal as Kill List’s infamous knee hammering scene, viewers of a more nervous disposition may well want to look away when Joel Fry’s character Martin is told his foot injury requires some drastic surgery. It’s the kind of moment Shearsmith’s gore-hungry League Of Gentlemen character Henry Portrait would relish. The real Shearsmith, it appears, not so much.
“I get more and more squeamish as I get older,” he reveals. “I'm not like one of these FrightFest sorts that cheers the blood and the guts and the stabbings.”
So Henry wasn’t based on the young Reece then?
“Oh, I used to be like that, definitely,” he laughs. “But now I’m talking as a 51-year-old man that’s become very, very mortal.”
Despite his new-found squeamishness, Shearsmith is a committed horror-head. In fact, his friendship with Wheatley was founded on their mutual love of all things scary.
“I’m often picking his brains for films to watch,” he says of his director. “We can have very long conversations about quite obscure films and then suddenly there'll be a blind spot where I've never seen a whole raft of things that he’ll recommend something and I'd be like, ‘Oh wow, that's fantastic.’”
If Wheatley has been responsible for keeping the flame burning for British horror on the big screen, it’s probably true to say that Reece Shearmith and Steve Pemberton have been doing much the same on the small. With the sixth series of Inside No.9 having just finished on BBC2, Reece’s attentions are now on series seven, which is due in front of the cameras in August.
Since its debut in 2014, Inside No.9 has cemented itself as one of BBC’s most garlanded shows, even scooping a Best Scripted Comedy BAFTA earlier this month. But despite the accolades and the lashings of Twitter love, Shearsmith still admits to nerves as each new series goes out.
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“It's like I'm holding my breath for the six weeks that they’re sent out into the world,” he says. “I'm just waiting for the tide to turn and everyone say, ‘It’s terrible, they’ve lost it!’”
Does he check social media after an episode has aired just to gauge how it’s gone down?
“I have done in the past year,” he admits. “But I've tried to do it less because it's so dispiriting as there's so much negativity. And that's all I remember, even though some of the greatest writers of television and film might email me saying it's an extraordinary achievement, that can be completely dispelled by a 14-year-old on Twitter.”
Aside from more Inside No.9, Reece reveals that he and Steve Pemberton are busying themselves on various other, currently top secret, writing projects. One thing he will confirm is that none of them, sadly, are League Of Gentlemen-related. Reece and Steve reteamed with Mark Gatiss and Jeremy Dyson in 2017 – after a 15-year gap – for three TV specials and a 2018 tour.
Reece insists all four of them are still close (“we have a League WhatsApp group,” he says, “and we Zoom each other all the time!”), but says there are no plans, tentative or otherwise, to return to the world of Royston Vasey.
“I don't think you can keep doing every 10-15 years, because when do you stop?” he says. “Also, it's humiliating to have these old men come out and they don't look like what the people used to look like. I can't do Benjamin Denton anymore – I'm 51!”
Is that really it then, we ask?
“Never say never,” he says, “there might be a one-off…”
Before you get too excited, though, he stresses that nothing has been talked about. All four of them, it seems, are pretty fed up of reading rumours of their imminent reunion.
“Steve casually said, ‘Oh, yeah, I think we'll do something’, and then the next thing, there was a big clickbait article – “League to return’. And I was like, please don't say that!” He pauses, before adding, “So don't do that with this!”
So there you have it. League NOT returning. You heard it here first.
In The Earth is in cinemas from 18 June.