Television

Is the Comedy Duo Mitchell and Webb Really 'Back'?

(BBC)

Mitchell and Webb's created personas culminated in their groundbreaking sitcom, Peep Show. Reuniting for new series Back, will it be more of the same? Does that even matter?


Back

Airtime: Wednesdays, 10pm
Cast: David Mitchell, Robert Webb, Penny Downie
Network: Channel 4
Amazon

If you know British comedy, you’re familiar with the Mitchell and Webb brand.

You know, they’re the guys from Peep Show.

David Mitchell played the book smart but socially weak Mark Corrigan, while Robert Webb was his feckless, lazy flatmate, Jeremy Usborne. The series followed the two as they tried and failed at being proper grown-ups in a grown-up world. Mark spent his time attempting to find love and career success, while Jez dedicated himself to drugs, sex, and the stupidest of schemes while waiting for his band to finally make it big.

Peep Show used internal monologue voiceovers and point-of-view perspectives, which set it apart stylistically from other sitcoms. It was an intense way to force viewers into Mark and Jeremy’s minds as they found themselves in increasingly ridiculous and depressing situations. It became both a cult favourite and a critical success. Since its start in 2003, it racked up an impressive number of nominations and awards for its writing and performances. Its ninth and final series, broadcast in 2015, triggered numerous reflection pieces and favourites lists (best episodes, favourite moments of Mark’s humiliation, five times Jeremy was a horrible person, etc.), and the show’s importance in television history was sealed. Both The Telegraph and Vice called it the sitcom “that defined a generation”.

That’s why it’s likely that when you think of Mitchell and Webb, you’re going to think of Mark and Jeremy.

In fact, you might even have a hard time separating the actors from their characters.

That's fair. Their Peep Show performances were near perfect, so it’s natural to confuse the unreal with the real when actors truly embody their characters. Also, Mitchell and Webb contributed ‘additional material’ to the writing of the show, so their words are present in the work. Additionally, Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain, Peep Show’s creators (along with executive producer, Andrew O’Connor) and primary writers, have admitted that the two inspired aspects of the characters. Armstrong said, “We wrote very much towards versions of them that we knew they could play... There are bits of attitude towards the world which are kind of comic exaggerations of their own views.”

These facts no doubt explain why Andrew Anthony claimed, “If Webb has copyrighted the voice of the conceited middle-class slacker, so, in playing nit-picking loan manager Mark, has Mitchell become the comic face of uptight, sexually frustrated, convention-bound uncoolness, unleashing some of the finest embittered tirades ever committed to a script” (Andrew Anthony, "Mitchell and Webb on Peep Show: 'We Just Wanted to Milk It'", The Observer, 1 November 2015).

And this, essentially, summarizes the Mitchell and Webb brand.

Mitchell and Webb began their comedy lives together at Cambridge as part of Footlights. After graduation, they got the chance to write and perform in the sketch show Bruiser. Here they were able to work with many who would eventually become big players in British comedy acting and writing (Ricky Gervais, Richard Ayoade, Martin Freeman, and Matthew Holness) as well as Olivia Colman and James Bachman, with whom they would frequently work once they began making their own sketch shows. First came The Mitchell and Webb Situation (2001, Play UK), then The Mitchell and Webb Sound (Radio 4, 2003-2013) which transferred to television as The Mitchell and Webb Look (BBC Two/BBC HD, 2006-2010). The Look won a BAFTA for Best Comedy Programme in 2007.

As their comedy voices developed through the years, so did their personas.

Obviously in sketch shows, they played a variety of roles: old school snooker commentators Ted and Peter, who down their pints as quickly as they fill up their ashtrays; the lazy writers who can’t be bothered to research their scripts (their medical drama includes the lines “Stand back -- we’re going to have to use the electric shock that’s a sort of medicine if you’re very ill but can make you a sort of ill if you’re fine. Clear! Oh no, he was fine -- now he’s poorly from too much electric”); and the crime-fighting duo, Angel Summoner and BMX Bandit (whose theme song explains “one can summon angels, the other rides a BMX”).

Some sketches were very silly indeed; some offered commentary on popular culture, particularly TV. There were numerous game, reality, and news show parodies, mocking the media’s dumbing down (while, of course, also mocking the public for enjoying).

Throughout many sketches, though, bits of the ‘Mitchell and Webb’ brand were also revealed. Webb was the attractive and hip one; Mitchell, smarter but destined to forever be excluded by the cool kids.

They played well with these ideas in the short ‘behind-the-scenes’ bits where we saw the ‘real’ David and Rob sitting around chatting between sketches. Webb needed to double check with David whether or not people can actually levitate and later got annoyed when he found out that David was doing a history documentary (“Where do they get the idea that you’re the clever one?”).

In another chat, Rob buys David a too tight t-shirt as a way to protect him against accusations of homophobia.

Webb: Look, it’s no skin off your nose. You haven’t got a girlfriend.

Mitchell: In what way do those two statements go together?

Webb: Well, you might as well be gay. I mean, one of us ought to be gay. I used to have a go -- remember when I had that earring?

Mitchell: Yeah...

Webb: So now it’s your turn.

Mitchell: But... if everyone thinks I’m gay, I’ll never ever get a girlfriend ...will I?

Webb: Look, I don’t mean to be rude, but that is kind of the case already, you know. I mean, at least this way, you’ve got an excuse -- I never found happiness because Rob made me pretend to be gay for his career. That’s a lot better than I never found happiness because of reasons to do with, I don’t know, attractiveness or ... smell.

Mitchell: I don’t smell!

Webb: Well, must be attractiveness then. I’m just trying to give you a get-out, mate.

Mitchell: .Thanks.

In the final series, we saw prototypes of the Mitchell and Webb action figures being delivered. Based on ‘the essence’ of their personalities, the talking Mitchell doll had the special features of a “28,000 word vocabulary and three different settings: trenchant wit, articulate outrage, or quickfire panel-show mode.” Webb’s doll’s features were “comes with a spare t-shirt.” However, a peek inside the trousers revealed that Rob’s doll was anatomically correct while David’s was not (instead it wore plastic underpants).

The Mitchell and Webb brand even carried over to the ‘Get a Mac’ ads they did in 2007 -- unsurprisingly, Mitchell was the boring, uptight, and complicated PC and Webb was Mac, the cool, casual, creative one.

In many ways, much of the work they’ve done separately has only furthered supported the characters they created together. Mitchell started writing columns for The Guardian and The Observer and, with the comedy genius that is writer John Finnemore, he made four series of the online show David Mitchell’s Soapbox. Through short monologues, he spouted criticisms of a number of topics (Britain’s drinking culture, standards of spelling, making friends, etc.) -- all of which fit perfectly into his perceived persona.

Mitchell also became king of the panel show, appearing as a guest or team captain on some and presenter on others. His rants quickly became draws (there are numerous YouTube videos of his collected outbursts from shows such as QI, Mock the Week, and Would I Lie to You). These appearances cemented the image he’d developed. Rob Brydon teased him about his range as an actor, implying he only played versions of himself. Impersonating Mitchell’s voice, Brydon said, “Should I do posh and repressed or repressed and posh?”

Webb’s post-Mitchell and Webb route was a bit different: although he was brilliant in The Smoking Room and other acting roles (and even got a chance to do a documentary), he was also well-known for presenting low-brow clip shows. In a 2013 piece on Webb, critic Alexis Petridis wrote:

I don't know why I thought Webb might be hard work, but I did. Perhaps it was down to his TV persona. On the one hand, a few years ago he made a fantastic documentary about his love of TS Eliot... On the other, he presents and narrates an awful lot of clip shows -- 10 Things I Hate About, Great Movie Mistakes, Pop's Greatest Dance Crazes -- ostensibly as himself, but in fact as a character based vaguely on the one he's spent 10 years playing in Peep Show: sneering, superior, smug. Apparently, I'm not the only person to make this mistake. "I'm not going to do any more Movie Mistakes, because I think people have started to think that I am this … cunt," [Webb] frowns. ("Robert Webb: A Peep into the Future", The Guardian, 31 May 2013).

In 2006, Webb was part of the ensemble cast of Confetti, in which he and Olivia Colman played a naturist couple. He didn’t enjoy the experience of making the film and enjoyed even less the fact that his genitals were on display in the final version, despite being told they’d be pixellated (the director has denied she said they would be). What it meant was that he had his cock out for most of his first major film role, which is just the kind of mess Jeremy would have gotten himself into.

In 2009, though, he seemed to have fun with his hilarious Flashdance performance, which won him the Let’s Dance competition for Comic Relief.

Webb, too, did some panel show appearances, and he wrote for a newspaper, but he didn’t really settle into either, and neither met with Mitchell’s success. In fact, he was greatly troubled by the comments which appeared under his column in Daily Telegraph and after complaining elsewhere, he ended up getting fired.

Eventually, both Webb and Mitchell began to step a bit away from the brand.

In 2012, Mitchell published his memoir, David Mitchell: Back Story, which came out shortly after his engagement to fellow writer and presenter Victoria Coren was announced. Hadley Freeman wrote:

It is ridiculous to conflate an actor with the character he plays, especially when he didn't even write the role, but in interviews Mitchell seems to have been at pains to portray himself as a real-life version of Peep Show's Mark Corrigan: useless at romance and at a loss as to how to live a functional adult life... It turns out he wasn't entirely telling the truth. It wasn't that he didn't know how to have a relationship; he was heartbroken. ("David Mitchell: Goodbye Lonely Nerd", The Guardian, 19 October 2012)

Mitchell and Coren went on a few dates, then she called it off. Sadly, he’d fallen in love with her, so he waited. Three years later, she came back. Suddenly, he was in a happy relationship with a beautiful and successful woman. (They married a month after the book’s release and in 2015, welcomed their first child.)

In 2013, Mitchell and Webb starred in Ambassadors, a three-part comedy-drama series on BBC Two. Written by James Wood and Rupert Walters, it featured Mitchell as the British ambassador to the fictional nation of Tazbekistan, with Webb as the Deputy Head of Mission.

After the first episode, The Guardian’s Sam Wollaston wrote, “As actors they don't have massive range, and actually their roles and relationship aren't so very different from Mark and Jeremy (and possibly their real-life selves as well)” ("Ambassadors - TV Review", 23 October 2013). I think his comments were unfair (or, to give him the benefit of the doubt, premature). Webb is a good actor, and while Mitchell’s ambassador was not a million miles away from characters he’d played before, this time he had a little more depth to work with. I enjoyed getting sucked into the storyline and was pleased to see them step up to the challenge of a meatier, more dramatic series.

Away from television, Webb was writing for The New Statesman and developing a clear political voice. He wrote a powerful response to Russell Brand’s call for a ‘revolution’ (by telling young people not to vote), explaining that it had led to his rejoining the Labour Party. He was also writing about feminism and mental health issues.

However, as a vocal opponent of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, Webb left the party in November 2015. It made newspaper headlines as an ‘announcement’ after a ‘Twitter rant’ but Webb hadn’t intended for it to play out that way. He tweeted that he “didn't mean to make some big deal announcement, was just chatting, albeit loudly in public” adding “but heart not in it now, any of it. Obvs lots of decent people votes for JC; I think they made a mistake but wish them well.” He got some slack via social media and someone altered his Wikipedia entry to say: “Tory. Hates the poor” (Adam Boult, "Peep Show Star Robert Webb Quits Labour After Slamming Jeremy Corbyn", The Telegraph, 20 November 2015).

During this time, he was also writing his memoir, which was published in August 2017. Called How Not to Be a Boy, it tells the story of his upbringing but also “examines, with enormous poignancy and insight, the damage that can be done when young boys are encouraged to behave in ways supposedly befitting their gender” (Fiona Surges, "How Not to Be a Boy by Robert Webb review - The Gender Conditioning of Men", The Guardian, 1 September 2017). His book promotion has, of course, brought him some online grief, but most reviewers and readers find the book both funny and powerful.

The developments over the last few years, though, do not mean that Mitchell or Webb has permanently abandoned their brand. In 2016, as part of the BBC’s celebrations of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, the BBC broadcast the sitcom Upstart Crow; of course, Mitchell played the bard.

Gerard Gilbert noted that “In some ways Mitchell's Shakespeare is a long way from Mark Corrigan in the ultra-naturalistic Peep Show, which came to an end last December after 12 years. In other ways -- especially in the acerbic asides -- there's no distance at all” ("David Mitchell Interview: Peep Show Star Talks Giving William Shakespeare the Sitcom Treatment in Upstart Crow", The Independent, 4 May 2016). A second series of the sitcom began earlier this month.

This month also saw Mitchell and Webb reunite in Back, a new comedy series on Channel 4. Written by Simon Blackwell (whose credits include Veep and Peep Show), it's a show about death and life after a death. Mitchell plays Stephen Nichols, whose father has just died and who is preparing to take over the family business. His plans for his new life are disrupted, though, when his former foster brother Andrew Donnelly (Webb) shows up and proceeds to charm the pants off everyone -- except for Andrew, who is full of questions and suspicions.

So far at least, Mitchell’s Stephen seems familiar territory. As Rachel Aroesti wrote, “Character-wise, Stephen is standard Mitchell fare: anal, seething, reluctantly moral. He’s prone to the sort of furiously logical diatribes that have characterised most of Mitchell’s comedy creations.” Webb’s character has more complexity -- the likeable charm is there to fool the family, but not necessarily the viewers. We, like Stephen, sense a darkness to him. Webb told Aroesti “that sometimes he’d do two takes -- as ‘Mr Evil and then Mr Nice Guy’-- and leave it up to the creators to decide which to use. He also worked hard to distance himself from his best-known creation, ‘making sure that Jeremy from Peep Show’s petulance doesn’t seep through in a way I’m not in control of’” ("Mitchell and Webb: 'We Mustn’t Destroy All Our Comedy'", The Guardian, 5 September 2017).

There have been some great laughs so far, with a strong supporting cast (including the always reliably over-the-top Geoffrey McGivern). While its format is pretty traditional, there’s a nice touch with flashbacks of the young Stephen and Andrew and their father (Matthew Holness). In some scenes, the boys are played by children; in others, they’re Mitchell and Webb in child-mode.

The flashbacks differ based on who is doing the remembering. When Andrew recalls a scene, we see two boys in colorful clothing bouncing on their bunk beds while a Wham song plays; the camera angle shifts and it’s Mitchell in a Back to the Future t-shirt and shorts, laughing and eating chocolate. Their father comes in and offers them a day trip in his shiny red car, and everyone cheers.

Stephen’s memory is bleaker: the two boys are in bed in an entirely grey room. Their father comes in to find Mitchell (in a t-shirt with the words ‘80s Movie?’ on its chest -- a detail that deserves a mention). He tells him off for eating a chocolate bar in his bedroom and then sends him out to clean the bins.

Critics praised the first episode: Michael Hogan said that if it maintains its current standard, it could become one of Britain’s “best home-grown sitcoms”, noting “Thankfully, Blackwell’s astute writing soon banished the spectre of Peep Show and made Back work beautifully on its own terms. Characters were skilfully drawn. The fictional world arrived fully fleshed out, with none of that clumsy scene-setting you often get with a sitcom opener” ("Mitchell and Webb triumph in a very British sitcom", The Telegraph, 6 September 2017).

In all honesty, I don’t care if there’s always a little bit of Mark and Jez in Mitchell and Webb’s work. Peep Show’s popularity means the show will forever be referenced when talking about the comedians. I do believe there’s a bit of Mark and Jez in the men themselves. Just like there’s a little bit of Angel Summoner and BMX Bandit in there as well. In the end, perhaps their greatest comedy creations are themselves -- two very funny friends who have managed to stay funny and friends as they’ve achieved both professional and personal success.

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