Peep Show’s Mitchell And Webb Say Best Sitcom Characters Do Nasty Things
There are some moments in life which are so utterly, profoundly humiliating, they can only be compared to a scene from Peep Show.
For myself, such an occurrence happened in early December during a virtual press conference with David Mitchell and Robert Webb – two of my favourite comic actors – about the second season of their brilliant Channel 4 series, Back.
For those yet to become acquainted with the laugh-out-loud British sitcom, Back follows the strained reconciliation of ‘brothers’ Stephen (Mitchell) and Andrew (Webb) following the death of Stephen’s father, Laurie (Matthew Holness).
With a failed legal career and marriage trailing behind him, Stephen has set about filling his late father’s shoes as landlord at the helm of the John Barleycorn pub, with mixed successes and rather a lot of pine furniture.
Upon a rewatch, the spot-on aesthetic of this bang average pub made me long for a reliably fine chicken burger and chips from my own local, perhaps chowed down to the sounds of Stereophonics and Robbie Williams. The set is like a somewhat dreary echo from another life, while being so instantly, soothingly familiar. A slightly warm J20 on your Friday lunch hour.
But while Stephen is keen to keep the John Barleycorn tiding over as an unimaginative yet perfectly serviceable establishment, newly landed cuckoo-in-the-nest Andrew has far grander plans for a shake-up.
As with Peep Show, this is a comedy of opposites, with the charming and seemingly worldly Andrew grating against downbeat, irritable Stephen. However, there’s a cunning edge to Andrew that brings an undercurrent of seething tension to the show.
While Peep Show’s Mark and Jeremy are bonded by years of uncomfortable, begrudging intimacy, Stephen and Andrew are unknown entities to each other, with Andrew’s secretive, contradictory nature leaving Stephen decidedly less dazzled than his eccentric family members.
As with other shows penned by Simon Blackwell (The Thick of It, Peep Show, Veep), the supporting cast is comprised of uniquely memorable and perfectly observed characters, with not one line or loaded glance wasted.
As well as Stephen’s born again Christian mum Ellen (Penny Downie), and his dippy, would-be traveller sister Cass (Louise Brealey), we have the rather outrageous but likeable Uncle Geoff (Geoffrey McGivern), who in real life should of course never, ever be given any real business responsibilities.
My personal favourites have to be cheerful bar staff duo Mike (Oliver Maltman) and Jan (Jessica Gunning), whose fates are tossed rather cruelly in the air during the John Barleycorn’s initial rapid transformation in season one, but thankfully seem to be quite settled this time around.
I was delighted to hear that there was going to be a season two of Back, after three long years, and was thrilled to be invited to attend a press conference where I would get to ask a question of my own. I had many.
I set about on a studious rewatch, happily jotting away notes and feeling only too pleased to be basking in an extremely funny comedy universe for a bit, all while the pressure cooker of festive lockdown boiled over all around me.
So when the day itself arrived, I felt very prepared and piped up with what I thought was a very insightful question about the role of Laurie in the upcoming season. Would we find out more about him, or was his mysterious nature more representative of how none of us ever really know our parents?
I sat back rather smugly, the article forming nicely in my head. So I was surprised when Mitchell, with polite confusion, asked if everyone had seen season two. Nods all round and, with a creeping sense of dread, I realised I had indeed been sent season two previews but they’d gone to my junk folder.
In a matter of moments I’d gone from confident reporter extraordinaire to Mark Corrigan himself. I felt like I was sat on a toilet in a bathroom with no door, apologising profusely in front of Johnson and Big Suze, and I desperately wanted to bury my face in some warm photocopier paper.
Unfortunately, I had to sit through the remainder of the roundtable, my face a slice of beetroot with a twitching rictus grin. I managed to laugh at the right moments and was able to unfreeze enough to mute myself when my dog began barking ferociously at the postman.
Sadly, with my voice reduced to a horrified croak, I was unable to ask Mitchell and Webb about their thoughts on the perfect pub, or how their characters would have reacted to the pandemic. And, for some time afterwards, I was simply too crushingly embarrassed to crack open season two.
But how glad I am that I did eventually give it a watch. Season two is just as darkly funny and astute as the first, building upon the small yet established world with all its ordinariness and quiet despair. It’s also ideal viewing for those of us who regularly find ourselves completely, totally mortified.
As was the case with season one, the second season of Back opens with a significant return. However, this time around, Stephen is the one returning to the now pine-less Barleycorn, regarding himself – fairly inaccurately – to be ‘the exotic one’.
Thematically, this season is slightly yet notably different to the first, and the stylistic choices reflect this. As explained by Blackwell, this time around there is less of an emphasis on ‘the flashbacks and the unreliable memories’, with fewer conflicting memories to pick apart.
Apart from one very significant flashback towards the end of the series, we’re not really using that element, because Stephen and Andrew aren’t remembering their childhoods in this story, they’re moving forwards.
Many of the supporting characters are also shown to have moved forward a bit. Stephen’s widowed mum Ellen can be seen embarking on quite a serious romance, while sister Cass finally, decisively, flies the nest by following her student living dreams, tagines in tow.
Uncle Geoff too can be seen taking a pretty significant step forward, although this is done in such a riotously silly and typical manner that it won’t really alter your perceptions of the character that much, and thank goodness.
Geoff is still very much Geoff, dropping endlessly bizarre and sometimes pretty morbid one liners that’ll have you spitting out your glass of Lilt.
Whether querying the career of a former working dog (‘a prostitute?’) or recalling an old romance with the woman who used to collect bull semen from him (‘Very strong wrists. Used to open all my jars. After she’d washed her hands of course’), Geoff steals every scene he’s in with ease.
Fans will be glad to know that Mike and Jan remain largely the same, with Jan’s refrain of ‘aww’ continuing to be used at the most un-adorable moments imaginable. There’s also a handful of new characters, with ‘Charismatic Mike’ (Anthony Head) being the most memorable, and indeed charismatic newcomer.
At the beginning of the new season, Andrew is comfortably and competently installed as the landlord of the Barleycorn, while Stephen, in the words of Blackwell, is now the ‘prodigal son returning’, with his own parental lineage being a bit of a puzzle.
However, although their situations may have shifted, the competitive, rather Machiavellian dynamic between the pair remains fairly similar, played out during vicious pub quizzes and some genuinely cruel acts of backstabbing.
The good thing about sitcoms, if you do them right, and Simon [Blackwell] generally does, is that if you’ve got characters that work, then don’t muck about with it.
So Andrew is still Andrew, but their situation has changed in that he is now in charge of the Barleycorn, and got what he wanted and really successfully pushed Stephen all the way out.
And now he’s kind of bored and he’s looking around for someone else to pick on, so that kind of changes the dynamic a bit. But still, they are the same people.
Mitchell agreed, adding that the pair are still ‘caught in the same sort of unpleasant embrace’:
I think that’s the key to a good sitcom is that people are stuck together in some sort of way, but that way is not harmonious. The comedy comes off the fact that they can’t escape and they don’t like it.
Essentially, Andrew is rooted in Stephen’s world, a world that he wasn’t aware that he drew any self esteem from at all. But he now notices it now it’s gone, and he’s trying to reassert himself and find some sort of sense of worth.
And Andrew, by accident or design – we never really know – seems genetically engineered to undermine anything that makes Stephen feel contented.
According to producer Kenton Allen, the initial idea for Back was expanded upon during ‘two or three extremely enjoyable – i.e. quite long and expensive – lunches’, where they would mull over topics such as authenticity, English identities and gentrification.
Both Mitchell and and Blackwell had been to separate ‘terrible pubs’ called the John Barleycorn, and Blackwell’s extraordinary eye for ordinary detail can be felt in every scene. In Allen’s words, Blackwell is ‘a brilliant sponge at sucking up things’ that might go undetected by others.
The John Barleycorn, in both its banal and revamped state, practically hums with anxieties about ‘Englishness’ that feel extremely prescient in the age of Brexit. Indeed, as remarked upon by Webb, this is a very ‘Brexit-y show’.
I think the way the British go to a country pub is ‘yes, this is going to a country pub, isn’t it, like we’ve always said we should be doing? Is this a traditional Sunday roast like people have? Am I having it like people have?’
We all look for it so often, sort of desperately, but even by looking for it in that way, we’re already out of the moment that we’re trying to catch.
In this same vein, Mitchell went on to note the ‘paradox/irony of Andrew’, who he describes as being ‘a deeply fake but plausible person, nevertheless having the eye and the ear to be able to make it seem authentic’.
Stephen, who has no artistry about himself at all, all of his instincts make the pub seem fake and modern and inauthentic. And yet he is an authentic publican, whose father was a publican and everything.
Despite being an arguably more trustworthy character than Andrew, Stephen isn’t strictly a particularly admirable person, and can often be blinded by his own blinkered thoughts of vengeance and self interest.
This isn’t a flaw which troubles Mitchell too much, who noted that he doesn’t ‘think many people feel very nice to themselves’:
We’re all aware of our selfish motivations, and so we empathise for comic characters who push through on those selfish motivations perhaps more than most people actually do.
And that’s where the comedy comes from. I don’t think it would be as funny if they were nicer.
For Mitchell, although ‘you don’t want them to be absolute monsters’, sitcom characters don’t necessarily have to be intrinsically good people:
You need to understand where they’re coming from and what they’re doing and it comes from a place of weakness. And they’re lashing out against the circumstances and the feelings that they’re undergoing.
Basically, the comedy comes from the nasty things that happened to them, and the nasty things they do. You just have to want to follow them through that, I think, those are the fundamentals of sitcoms and I think that’s true of Back.
For Webb, ‘Andrew is certainly an improvement on Jez’, despite having a somewhat evil air about him. Webb compared the experience of portraying Andrew as ‘playing a murderer basically for two whole series’, and you definitely wouldn’t put anything past this duplicitous character.
It’s such a different character from Jeremy, say, because Jeremy was lying all the time but Jeremy is a terrible liar. Whereas it takes a little bit more subtlety with Andrew because you don’t know what he’s up to, and he’s very good at it.
However, for Webb, there is also enough vulnerability to his character that he can be afforded a touch more humanity, while explaining his darker tendencies to some extent. For example, this season sees a genuinely quite heartbreaking storyline involving his estranged biological mum.
Webb added that he is grateful for such moments, where Andrew ‘just drops everything and you see he is actually a human being’:
I think it’s kind of important that I didn’t decide whether Andrew is motivated by malice and just out to get Stephen.
Or whether he’s just this very needy guy who had quite a challenging childhood and whose need for attention comes in various harmful ways. It’s really been a question of me finding a way through that. Hopefully the funniest way through that!
It didn’t feel like it was a horrible reflection on my personality, even though I probably am a liar as well as everything else.
Blackwell has worked with Mitchell and Webb for many years, and you can feel their mutual understanding in every fraught interaction, every hilariously nasty twist of the knife. It all feels natural and plausible, even when the characters are pushed to their absolute limits.
For Blackwell, getting Mitchell and Webb to share a screen as much as possible in Back was important, ‘because that’s the best it gets in this show’:
You just get to know the comic rhythms, so you think ‘oh I know how Robert is going to say this, because its his comic rhythm and similarly David’s comic rhythm’.
So that’s a pleasure as a writer, to know the voices that well. It makes it so much easier to write the dialogue.
There’s something funny about them thrown into any situation, they just understand the comic rhythms of each other and find the comedy and the humour and just the bounce in anything.
So they’re a gift to write for, because you know who you’re writing for.
When thinking ahead to a potential third series, Blackwell remarked that ‘we know where it might go’:
There’s a very particular ending to this series and I think we know where we might go in terms of the story if there were one.
Oh, and if you’re wondering about the answer to my own deeply embarrassing question, we don’t in fact find out too much more about Laurie in season two.
However, Mitchell did state that the team ‘hope to make more of the show, so perhaps that can be mined in future series’.
If you missed out on the first season of Back in 2017, I would recommend catching up in time for the new series.
Ideal lockdown viewing for those who love British observational humour and clever dialogue, the return of Back is far more welcome than any charged reappearances we encounter in the show.
The second series of Back is set to air on January 21, 2021.
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