Hello, Peeps... | Interview with Peep Show writers Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong

Hello, Peeps...

Interview with Peep Show writers Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong

It’s the question that puzzles everyone in TV comedy. Just why isn’t Peep Show a bigger hit? Beautifully written, hilariously funny and wonderfully performed, it still struggles to muster more than 1.5million viewers – even when the full might of Channel 4’s marketing budget is employed to promote it.

Writers Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain seem just as baffled when we interrupt a storyboarding session for the upcoming fifth series to ask them.

‘Why’s it not more popular? I don’t know,’ Armstrong ponders.

‘Because it’s shit,’ Bain yells helpfully from the background.

Unlikely, given the devoted loyalty of that small band of viewers, the growing fame of stars David Mitchell and Robert Webb and robust DVD sales (series four is out this week). But it seems the distinctive style, filmed with wobbly camerawork from the characters’ point of view with voiceovers explaining their inner thoughts, makes it difficult to get into the embarrassing world of flatmates Jeremy and Mark.

‘Maybe the filming style can be offputting,’ Armstrong agrees. ‘Channel 4 gave us a big push on the third series, when Dave and Rob’s sketch show started on BBC Two, but it didn’t do much to the ratings. It’s stuck around the 1.5 million viewer mark.’

The pair have previously admitted wondering what it would be like if the show was shot normally, saying: ‘Perhaps it would have more mainstream appeal and be considered less of a cult. The style makes the show appear edgy even when we're writing quite traditional comedy.’

But, ultimately, they’ll stick with the internal dialogue that is, after all, the show’s unique selling point. The pilot episode even had the working title PoV to indicate it was about the characters’ point of view.

‘We couldn’t do the voiceovers on the show without that shooting style,’ Armstrong says. ‘They’re an integral part of the plot.’

He adds that there’s also a practical benefit to voiceovers that are added after filming has been complete. ‘We write most of them in the script, but we get a second stab at it in the edit. If we can explain something better, or get a great reaction shot, or see another joke, we can write it in the voiceover.’

There, is, however, an undeniable kudos of being a cult hit – of being, as vocal Peep Show fan Ricky Gervais is fond of saying of his own work, ‘a million people's favourite show rather than 20 million people's 19th-favorite show’.

‘I definitely get that feeling, ’ Armstrong says. ‘Probably from being that NME-reading 18-year-old into Jesus and Mary Chain because nobody else was. Peep Show is the comedy form of that.’

It was that Jesus and Mary Chain fan that met Sam Bain while they were both on a creative writing course at Manchester University. They lived together for a year, then went their separate ways for a while before renewing their creative partnership. They worked on several programmes, such as a British remake of US hit That 70s Show, the ill-fated Richard Blackwood vehicle Ed Stone Is Dead, and as jobbing writers creating links for the likes of TV Moments Of The Year. They even wrote a pilot for Ant and Dec. But it was hooking up with Mitchell and Webb, and ‘riding on their coat-tails’ that brought them success.

‘I used to teach comedy writing,’ says Bain. ‘And then I realised quite how incredibly hard it is. We were very fortunate to latch on to a double act to write for – that made all the difference.

‘Performers or writer-performers are always in demand, less so writers. It’s easier to go to commissioning editors and say your show will star Lee Mack, for instance, or Dave and Rob. It gives them an idea what it’s going to be like.

‘We wrote the series for Mitchell and Webb, based vaguely on their personalities and knowing them a bit. Mark [played by Mitchell] is more introvert, while Jeremy is more extrovert, and they’re very good at playing those roles.’

Bain and Armstrong write by getting together to workg out the story arc of the series and of individual episodes – which is what they are currently doing for series five – then work separately on the nuts and bolts of dialogue.

‘We spend ages, maybe six months, writing a massive dossier of all our ideas – everything we can think of,’ says Armstrong. ‘We end up with this unreadable 150-page document, and we then know what the shape of the series will be. Then we split up and work individually on episodes or half-episodes, then cross-edit.’

The old question of ‘where do you get your ideas from’ is easy for Bain and Armstrong, who recycle all sort of embarrassing incidents from their lives, as well as those of their friends and colleagues. Famously, they tell the story of how their boss at Channel 4, Ian Morris, supplied them with an idea for series three: ‘He did a shit into a McDonald's bag because he was on the telephone and couldn't get to the toilet. He tried to flush the bag down the loo but it got blocked and for the next three weeks he had to go to the pub every time he needed the toilet.’

Despite this, Armstrong insists: ‘People never think their experiences will end up in the show. ’

Series four ended with an agonising wedding day for Mark, who finally decided to go ahead with the ceremony on the flip of a coin. But new wife Sophie suddenly realised the mistake she had made and ran off en route to the reception.

‘In this next, post-wedding, series we can test our dating theories,’ says Armstrong, ‘Having Mark and Jeremy out and about in the world of singles.’

As well as the Channel 4 series, the almost obligatory US remake is also on the cards – the second attempt to export the Peep Show format following an earlier, ‘unspeakably bad’, pilot version.

‘One US version was made for Fox, but it wasn’t very good and didn’t get commissioned,’ says Bain. ‘It wasn’t really a network show, and it felt watered down. They took out all the point-of-view shooting. It was also really hard without Dave and Rob. It’s hard to replace a double act

‘We’re developing a new one for a cable channel called Spike, and we’re more involved in that one. But we’ve no cast yet.’

And how long will the original go on? ‘As long as Channel 4 keep commissioning it,’ says Armstrong, again acknowledging that even though Peep Show’s ratings don’t match its reputation, the broadcaster has shown great commitment in repeatedly bringing the series back. ‘We’re disappointed for them really,’ he shrugs. ‘But the quality of the show is good and always improves.’

Peep Show Series 4 was released on DVD on Monday. Here are some clips from the series: Holiday plan | Gym instructor

And to mark the launch. we also have three copies to give away. Follow this link to play the Peep Show Challenge to stand a chance of winning one. Entrants must be over 18, and the closing date is November 19. Good luck!

Published: 6 Nov 2007

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