The Version Interview... David Mitchell on new Channel 4 comedy Back.
Back is an acerbic new comedy, written by Emmy-award winning Simon Blackwell (Veep, In The Loop, Peep Show) and starring the inimitable and award-winning David Mitchell and Robert Webb (Peep Show, That Mitchell and Webb Look). The series marks the duo’s return to Channel 4.
David Mitchell tells us more...
Describe what Back is about, and who you play?
I play Stephen, and he is basically a struggling local businessman. He previously attempted a career as a lawyer, but it didn’t work out for nebulous reasons, so he’s returned home, and has been working in his family business, which is a pub. And his father’s just died, and it’s his hope-slash-assumption that he will take over the family business, and it will be a way for him to feel like a success. His marriage has fallen apart, and his career has done likewise, so he’s hoping that by turning around this slightly ailing pub, he’ll turn around his own life. That seems like a fairly moderate ambition – he’s not hoping to run a pub from scratch, it is one his family owns. But at his father’s funeral, this chap Andrew turns up, who is a foster brother of his. He spent five formative months with Stephen’s family in the late 80s, and it transformed his life – it’s the happiest part of his mixed up childhood. And so he’s come back to stake a claim to it, to return to a place where he felt happy and secure. But in so doing, he is essentially, from Stephen’s point of view, trying to supplant him. It’s a terrible threat to Stephen’s extremely modest hopes. Everyone else loves Andrew, he’s a breath of fresh air, a creative, interesting person. But to Stephen, he’s the devil.
What was it that attracted you to the project?
Well, it started with us approaching Simon Blackwell. When we knew Peep Show was ending, Rob and I were looking for something else to work on together, and Simon, we knew of old, and he’s a brilliant writer. And we had wind that his involvement with Veep was coming to an end, so we took him out for lunch, with Kenton, who runs Big Talk, and Phil Clark, then head of comedy at Channel 4, and asked him to write something for us. He said yes, and we knocked around a few ideas. Collectively, we discussed the themes we wanted to touch on – we all felt that something non-urban, something that reflected on lost, provincial parts of Britain, would be an interesting place to set a comedy. And we wanted it to reflect the fact that, both individually and collectively, the country feels a bit lost at the moment. And the way Back has been written, you see different ways in which that element of being lost comes through in both Stephen and Andrew. Stephen is an authentic figure – he’s from that place, he has noble hopes, but he’s let down by his own lack of competence, and his drinking problem and various other things. Andrew, meanwhile, is super competent, very plausible, very impressive, but ultimately hollow. He knows he’s hollow. So we talked about those themes as a starting point, and Simon came up with the whole notion of the foster family and the pub, and took it from there.
As executive producers, did you have more control over the characters and the direction of the script than you would normally have done just as an actor?
Yes, I think so. Practically speaking, on Peep Show, which was written for us and which we were involved with from the start, we had quite a lot of input, but we didn’t officially have input. So in this milieu, we had on an official basis the kind of unofficial input that we had on Peep Show and the sketch show, but which in general actors don’t have. We were in a fortunate position – Simon was very keen to hear our thoughts, and if we were worried about a bit, or thought of a line that might be tweaked, he was very receptive to that. But what we mainly wanted to do was let Simon write what he wanted to write, because a lot of things can be spoilt in TV by too many people sticking in their thoughts, and the resultant show isn’t anyone’s vision. And Simon’s script was brilliant, with tremendous depth and hinterland. I think it doesn’t feel like a first series – it feels like it takes place in a pre-existing world.
Why do you think the two of you work so well together? Is it as simple as enjoying working together?
I don’t know. It’s nice that you think we do. We think we do. We first started doing stuff together when we were students, and we just thought “Well, this seems to click.” I think we just felt like it worked, and it’s difficult enough to make it on comedy, so we’d be fools to throw this away. We’ve been working together for over 20 years, and in that time it’s gone through phases when it’s all been tremendous fun, and phases when we’ve felt bleak and hopeless. There have been phases where we’ve been doing stuff that we’re excited to do, but we’re utterly sick of the sight of each other. And then it comes back round to be fun and joyful again. But we did some of our best stuff when we couldn’t stand the sight of each other, so the fun is not key – but it’s nice that the fun has returned.
Fans of Peep Show will be thrilled to hear about Back, but it’s important to say that it’s a very different world – it’s set in a small town, the characters are more middle aged. That said, Stephen has a touch of Mark Corrigan about him, doesn’t he?
[Laughs] Well, inevitably! That’s (a) a bit what I’m like and (b) a bit what other people see in me. Stephen was always going to have a bit of that hectoring nerdiness to him. But I feel at his core, he’s quite different, in that Stephen is a good weak man, and Mark, I think ultimately, is quite bad and quite strong. There was a core of steel to Mark. He will survive, he’ll be there among the cockroaches and the ruins. Whereas I feel that Stephen is a real victim.
Robert, meanwhile, plays the sociopathic, amoral, self-interested bastard once again. Does that come naturally to him?
[Laughs] I would say no, absolutely not. He is a man with a strong moral core. But I would say that there is nothing sociopathic at all about Jeremy in Peep Show – he’s weak and selfish, but he’s deeply human and vulnerable, and has more warmth to him, as a character, than Mark. Andrew absolutely does feel sociopathic and almost reptilian.
Were any scenes improvised, or was it all there on the page?
We did bits and pieces. I find actually improvising a bit weird. I quite enjoy thinking of alternative lines and suggesting them, but the idea of them coming out of us sort of doing a scene, but not with the lines that have been written, I always feel “What are we doing? Who am I trying to make laugh?” And inevitably, you’re just trying to make people who are there laugh, which leads to the wrong sort of line. So Simon’s very up for our suggesting different lines, which we did in several cases, but the times when he said “Now let’s just play with the scene, do it again but say what you like,” I sort of go “What? Say what I like? You wrote this version of it that I’ve learned. I want to say that. Or, if you want to rewrite it, let’s sit down with a piece of paper and do that, and then I’ll learn that.” It’s odd, really, because I do lots of panel shows, which is thinking on your feet, but I’m not trained in the skills of improvising a scene.
Do you and Robert make each other laugh while filming, or are you both too professional for that?
We do occasionally, but I think the glum truth is we’re a bit too focussed on getting what we need to get shot in the time available. There have only been a handful of occasions where we’ve collapsed laughing and delayed everything. Usually we go “Yes, that is funny, now let’s try and do this right, because the sooner we do this right, the sooner we can be on to the next bit.” With every filming day, you always feel you’re trying to achieve a bit more than is ideal. So that’s always in my head. If we’re not done with this scene by 10:30 then by 7 o’clock in the evening, we’ll be running around like headless chicken. Headless chickens, that should be. Headless chicken sounds like the food, which is almost always served headless.
It’s quite an ensemble piece this – there’s a great supporting cast.
Absolutely. Everyone was really brilliant and nice, it was a very enjoyable working environment. It’s a show about a family as much as anything else, and that was an interesting thing to try and recreate – to try and fake, I suppose. Peep Show is absolutely not about family. Mark and Jeremy have families in the background, but this is centred around Stephen’s family, and someone who wants to be part of that family.
Back launches on Channel 4 this September.