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'Inside No 9', Witch Trials and Laughing in Church

14/04/2015 11:46 BST | Updated 13/06/2015 10:59 BST

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Photo credit: vidalia_11 / Foter / CC BY

Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton's Inside No. 9 is a delightfully twisted tour de force and The Trial of Elizabeth Gadge was no exception. Not to spoil the story, but Ruth Sheen plays the accused Mistress Gadge, hauled into court on the shaky evidence of her daughter and son-in-law, Thomas and Sarah Nutter - which deftly informs the audience as to where their sympathies should lie. There was a moment in it in which another supposed 'witness' to witchcraft, George Waterhouse (played by Trevor Cooper), laughs at a juvenile repost by Mistress Gadge about, 'a hat with titties' which got me thinking about laughing in church.

Shearsmith's sadistic witch finder, Mr. Warren, spits, 'laughter contorts the face and makes monkeys of men,' and proclaims, 'the next person to laugh will immediate die as a witch.' There then follows a hilarious moment as Shearsmith inspects each and every member of the assembled court for signs of stifled laughter.

Laughter, when held back for the sake of politeness, or out of respect or fear of a sombre occasion is the most potent laughter I know of. I remember in my leaving ceremony at junior school, my oldest friend Craig and me got a terrific fit of the giggles. For the life of me I can't now remember why, but no doubt it was at the expense of some pious member of the church. We were caught, ducking down below the pews, purple-cheeked with the pressure of holding back our laughter. Our punishment was spending our last day in school with the first years, which as it turned out was quite a fun day.

The scene in Inside No. 9 is for me reminiscent also of the famous Life of Brian scene, Biggus Dickus. Again it is the mirthless authority that is being ridiculed. The dangers of humourlessness are apparent looking back at the witch-hunting craze.

To us it seems hilarious to put a chicken in the dock, but that's apparently what happened in 1474. A rooster was accused of laying eggs and put to trial. Witch fever spread across Europe, even spawning a book, the Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches), a kind of potted history come how-to book for budding witch hunters. Interesting to note that the word 'male' can be derived from both words of the title, though I'm sure that's just a coincidence. The book contained such horrors as women getting it on with Demons and even half-inching (excuse the pun) men's penises, which they would keep, 'in a bird's nest' or, 'a box'.

Funny right? Though I doubt that many from that time would laugh in the face of a witch finder, to mock or challenge their authority. The church was a powerful and rich feudal system that kept lay people poorly educated. In 1208, Pope Innocent III began a crusade against Christian sects such as the Cathars, whose more liberal, less patriarchal beliefs were deemed heretical. The subsequent holy war in Europe led to the formation of the Dominican Order and later the Inquisition, to root out the last vestiges of opposition. Even the reading or possession of the bible by any layperson became a capital crime. It kept the peasants subservient to the church, which by keeping knowledge strictly for the privileged few essentially told the people how to think. No wonder people started arresting poultry.

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Photo credit: Foter / GNU Free Documentation License

Humour has a great capacity to undermine the powers that be, to get under its skin, to reveal the Emperor's clothes for what they really are. It doesn't require an enormous bank account, it doesn't need friends in high places or an Eton education, but with enough passion it can bring down institutions.

Inside No 9 is currently on BBC 2 Thursdays at 10:00 pm. The Trial of Elizabeth Gadge is available on the iPlayer until 9 May 2015