Writers Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong and actors David Mitchell and Robert Webb are on stage at Bafta, two nights after Peep Show won the Bafta Award for Best Sitcom. Together, the four are a well-oiled machine, easily answering questions from a largely fan-based audience and laughing at each other’s jokes. But, there does seem to be some confusion. For the second time David and Robert have been compared to their characters and both are at pains to point out that while they look and sound like Mark and Jeremy, they are in fact not them.
‘I hope I’m not quite as stupid, dishonourable, deluded, selfish, feckless and thick as Jeremy,’ protests Robert.
‘You’ve got to love your characters, haven’t you?’ grins David.
The show morphed from an original Beavis And Butthead stoner comedy, in which two characters sit on a sofa and discuss television. Problems with the cost of clips put paid to this idea. Also, as Robert points out, ‘With David and I watching television the whole time, being the sitcom experts that we were, we realised that we wouldn’t be in the show and that was an immediate problem’.
Instead, Sam and Jesse took inspiration from a one-off documentary, Being Caprice, to create the point of view (POV) device that allows us to not only see Mark and Jeremy but to hear their thoughts, which are usually wildly different from their actions.
‘Caprice the model had a camera on her sunglasses and it was like a POV shooting style, which I guess was nicked from Being John Malkovich,’ explains Sam. ‘So it’s a third-hand steal, really. We thought it would be great for comedy, hearing someone else’s thoughts. The voices give you a whole other dimension in terms of jokes’.
The signature POV device also had another benefit, as it distanced Peep Show from anything else on television.
‘We were never accused of doing anything like any other sitcom and actually, if you take away the POV device, it answers to the same description as many other sitcoms,’ expands David. ‘It’s similar to Spaced in premise, it’s similar to Men Behaving Badly but because it looked so different, no-one seemed to notice.
‘Fundamentally I think the underlying similarity between sitcoms that are successful are natural and a good thing, because the kind of things that make a good sitcom don’t really change much over time. They’re about people feeling like they’ve failed and being trapped and fearful of things getting worse and aspirational about things getting better. We were about to use those classic constants without being accused of being unoriginal because the look and feel of it was so original.’
If it sounds like David has thought a lot about sitcoms, that’s not just because he’s a comedian and in one of the most successful British examples of the genre. He and Robert are writing a pilot for the BBC, although they acknowledge that Sam and Jesse have ‘set the bar incredibly and annoyingly high’.
‘I think we’re quite keen with the pilot to make it different to Peep Show,’ explains Robert, adding, ‘Not in a less funny way. Slightly more darker, heightened and fruity.’ ‘It’s going to be a studio sitcom with an audience, essentially,’ adds David.
The pair are wise to opt for a pilot, as going through this learning curve with Channel 4 was the experience that both Sam and Jesse acknowledge helped put Peep Show on the comedy road map.
‘We were particularly well served by the channel because they gave us a quarter-of-an-hour commission,’ says Jesse. ‘We did a little pilot, then we did another one and on the run of doing those two pilots we really created the show in the way that you couldn’t if you hadn’t tried it out. For example, in the original pilot when we had the voice over for Sophie, the camera was much stricter and you never saw anyone else’s POV apart from the person thinking. It was kind of a new vocabulary, so we got a chance to make mistakes and learn. In the first series we actually developed it quite a lot and without the option to make those two pilots I don’t think we would never have hit the ground running the way we did.’
Having come this far, the four intend to keep on running, even if they are working on separate comedy projects.
‘A sitcom is like a machine designed to run forever, the characters never change,’ says Jesse.
Robert agrees. ‘It feels a lot harder to come up with a new idea for a sitcom that works than it is to keep one going. When you look at people’s careers, how many people have written eight great sitcoms? The great people have written two or three. Most people have done none! If you’ve got something that works, use it or you’ll regret it.’
And on that note, Peep Show obsessives will be thrilled to learn that a book containing all five series of shooting scripts is finally being published. David and Robert are writing an introduction, long-term producer Phil Clarke and others involved in the show are contributing and writers Sam and Jesse are penning funny little pieces. Sam is especially enthusiastic about one feature of the upcoming book, something that ‘will fascinate us and maybe one other person’. One of the scripts is reproduced in draft form, with the following draft’s scene-by-scene changes included to show the process.
‘The key thing,’ expands David, ‘would be not to read the first draft, which is nothing like the final episode and think “Bloody Hell, this is good”. That your rewriting style doesn’t improve the script, just uses up the writing time’.
There’s little chance of that.
Series 5 of Peep Show starts on Channel 4 on Friday, May 2. “Peep Show”: The Scripts and More will be released in October.
Linda Gibson is TV editor of TVQuick and TVchoice