'I was trying to keep it as far from Peep Show as possible' | Comedy writer Simon Blackwell on his new show, reuniting Mitchell and Webb

'I was trying to keep it as far from Peep Show as possible'

Comedy writer Simon Blackwell on his new show, reuniting Mitchell and Webb

David Mitchell and  Robert Webb are  to reunite in the new Channel 4 sitcom Back. Here writer Simon Blackwell talks about the show, how he got started in comedy, and his proudest moment…

What’s Back about?

It’s about Stephen [Mitchell] and Andrew [Webb]. They’re in their early 40s. Andrew was fostered with Stephen’s family 30 years ago, along with many other kids, and Andrew remembers it very well, because he kept a diary of everything that happened. 

Stephen barely remembers it at all, because there were so many other kids who were fostered. So they flash back to see incidents from their childhood, and to see their father Laurie, who’s played by Matt Holness [from Garth Marenghi] . Laurie has just died at the start of the series, and Stephen is ready to step up and run the family business, the pub. But Andrew arrives at the funeral, and that changes things. 

Everyone thinks Andrew is very charming and very brilliant. Only Stephen thinks he’s a sociopath.

Did you write it specifically for Robert and David?

Yes, I did. Channel 4 and [producers] Big Talk asked if I had some ideas for them, post-Peep Show, and I came up with a bunch of ideas, and this was the one we thought had legs comedically and dramatically. 

This was a while ago, when I was doing Veep in America, so I didn’t have much chance of doing anything on it, but once I came back from Veep, I started thinking about it more. We did a pilot last year, and we wrapped shooting the first series the other day. It’s six episodes.

What is it about David and Robert that makes them work so well as a duo?

They’ve been doing it for over 20 years, so they know each other as performers. When you get the two of them in a scene, they just know each other’s rhythms. 

They know when to leave a beat, and when not to. It’s like two musicians who have played together for a long time. There are very few comic performers who can be very, very funny, but also emotionally real, which is precisely what both of them can do, and it’s a rare thing indeed to find it, to be able to get the emotional reality, which is what I like to try and get in the stuff I write. 

But they also need to hit the laughs, and deliver a line, with the rhythm that gets a laugh, but also sounds like something that someone would say at that moment. When you find someone who can do it, you cling on to them! 

Julia Louis-Dreyfus could do it in Veep, Peter Capaldi could do it in The Thick Of It – as a writer, you see it in people and you think ‘Okay, I want to work with you.’

As you say, you’ve just finished filming. Do you prefer the writing or the filming part of the process?

This time around I think I enjoyed the filming 

more. Because it’s quite an emotional piece, the writing was quite difficult, and I went a little bit loopy writing it. So the filming was great, even though it’s hours that a writer isn’t used to. You’re leaving the house at 6:30 every morning, which is not writers’ hours.

I enjoyed it. We were on a sound stage at Pinewood for much of it, which felt showbiz. Sometimes, when you’re sitting in a room writing, it can get a little bit claustrophobic, a little bit intense. So to be on set with a lot of other people who were contributing creatively to it, that was great, yeah.

Much of your work, with Veep and The Thick of It, is as part of a team. You wrote this on your own. Is that quite liberating, or terrifying?

It’s a mixture of the two. You are your own boss, but there’s a safety net of working with other people, in that you know that anything that’s really lousy will get picked up on somewhere along the way. As it gets passed between the writers, someone will go: ‘Really? I think there may be a better line than this.’

So that, in a way, gives you more freedom to try stuff, because if it’s lousy, someone will spot it, and if it works, then great. If you’re working on your own, you might play it safe, and err on the side of caution. 

But Will Smith, who I worked with in The Thick Of It and Veep, was script-editing this, and Tony Roche looked at some of the scripts as well. I did show it to people to make sure it was working.

Stephen is a single, 40-something man living with his mum above a pub. Why is it so much easier to write comedy about tragic people?

Maybe it’s the fear that we are them, and that if we can find humour in that situation, then maybe we can find a way out of our becoming those people. From Hancock and Milligan onwards, there is the cliché of the depressed clown, and there’s a certain truth to it. I think there’s just more dramatic juice to it, and therefore more comic juice.

If you just see someone being very happy and contented, there’s not a lot you can do to make them seem interesting. Whereas if there’s someone who has tried to make his way in the world, and failed – which is what Stephen had done, he tried to make a career as a lawyer and it all went tits up – there’s just more comedy there to find than if he was a handsome high-achiever. 

You’re not going to find much comic potential to an Olympic athlete with a successful love life unless you do something terrible to them.

Does David ever take it personally being asked to play a series of emotionally stunted losers?

I hope not! He does it so well, this is the thing. You find yourself writing in his rhythms, which aren’t necessarily Peep Show rhythms, but are David Mitchell rhythms, and it crosses all the things he’s done, from Peep Show to Mitchell and Webb to Would I Lie to You. And there is a certain rhythm he hits which, if you write it, you know he will do brilliantly. 

He’s a very happy and contented man, who can empathise enough to play that type of character, and I think he enjoys it. I think actors would rather play a tragic figure or a villain than the guy with the sweater over his shoulders who’s very good at tennis.

Obviously fans of Peep Show will be thrilled to hear David and Robert are making another comedy together. As a writer, do you consciously try and harness that, or try to distance your scripts from anything Peep Show-like?

I think I was trying – particularly in the first couple of episodes – to keep it as far away from Peep Show as possible. It was one of the greatest sitcoms ever made, so you feel the shadow of it.  I was trying to stay away from it as much as possible, just so you’re not doing the next ‘John Cleese and Prunella Scales’ project. 

People will inevitably say: ‘Oh, this isn’t Peep Show,’and we’ve just got to ride that. But it is quite different. It’s set rurally, it’s shown in a different way, it’s a much more middle-aged piece, there’s not that sort of student flat share vibe about it. They’re older, they’re not necessarily wiser, but they’re at a different place in their lives.

I read that you recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of selling your first joke to the BBC. What did you do before that?

I was a late starter. I went to university as a mature student, so I hadn’t graduated until I was 25, and then I was a sub-editor mainly on magazines, although I did shifts on papers as well. 

I didn’t start writing comedy until I was 31. It was my ideal job, I’d always wanted to do it, but I was scared that if I tried it, and found out I was shit at it, it would cease to be a dream, whereas if I didn’t try it, it would always be that thing I could possibly do down the line. 

We had a child, we had another one on the way, and I thought: ‘Let’s give it a go.’ Having children turns your life upside down, and I thought ‘Why not turn work upside down and see if I can make a go of it.’ So I went in via BBC Radio, which was the way in in those days, if you wanted to write and not perform.

So you never had the desire to perform, to do stand-up or act?

Oh no, no, no! I hate being on the stage, I just want to write. And as a kid, it was always the names of the writers I noticed. When I watched Morecambe and Wise, I noticed it was Eddie Braben there. I watched other stuff, I’d remember the names of John Junkin and Barry Cryer

I liked the idea, as a kid, that there were these guys you didn’t see who were coming up with the jokes. I’m just much happier behind the scenes. They’ve been trying to get me to be in a crowd shot in a pub in this, but I just don’t want to be in front of the camera. 

I know a load of stand-ups, and I have such admiration for them, because the idea of it just brings me out in a cold sweat. Just talking about it now has bought me out in a cold sweat!

When you started out, did you ever think you’d have made a go of it and be so successful 20 years later?

No, I just wanted to see if I could get some stuff broadcast – I wanted to find out if I was good enough to get a joke on the radio. A little bit later, Rory Bremner had a show on Channel 4 which was open-door, you could send stuff in to it, and I started getting jokes on his show. 

When I saw my name go up in the credits on TV for the first time. it was one of the most fantastic moments, and I thought: ‘Oh, I like this, so I’ll keep going.’ And then you find you’ve got a career. 

You haven’t planned it, but you’ve been commissioned on another show for radio, and then that producer has moved on to TV and asked if you want to write some TV stuff, and suddenly TV pays much better than radio, and you think: ‘Maybe I could not do as many sub-editing shifts.’ And then I finally found that I was doing it full time. 

It was a lot of luck and being in the right place at the right time, and working with people like Armando [Iannucci] and so on. But initially I just wanted to see if I could get some jokes on the radio, and suddenly it’s 20 years later.

Looking at your career to date, what are you most proud of, and what projects have meant the most to you?

I think professionally I’m most proud of the writing Emmy that Tony and Armando and I got for Veep.

Do you get one each?

Yeah, you do get one each. And we got one for producing as well, so there are two of them sitting on top of the piano. It was a fantastic night.

 I think I’m most proud of that, because it’s for ‘Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series’ and I’m a comedy writer for television, so it was the best thing I could get. Apart from the fact that I had to make the speech onstage. I was terrified, but once we walked off, it was one of the best nights of my life. 

And in terms of the stuff I’ve enjoyed – everything with Armando, really. The Thick Of It was a joy to do, but all of it’s been fun, because he’s a genius. And working with Sam and Jesse on Peep Show – they’re such great writers. It’s always been my plan, as much as possible, to surround myself with people who are better than me, and try to work out how they do it.

• Back is coming to Channel 4 later this autumn. Interview courtesy Channel 4 Press

Published: 22 Aug 2017

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