“When I was a teenager, old people always referred to things in decades,” says comedian, actor and panel show king David Mitchell down the phone. “They said: ‘Oh, that must have been 20 years ago’ – and I just looked at them and thought they were weird, slightly historical even… Well now I know what that’s like, and it makes me feel old.”
He’s talking about Peep Show, of course. The beloved sitcom that documented the increasingly tragic lives of The El Dude Brothers – emotionally constipated loan manager Mark Corrigan and his layabout flatmate, occasional musician Jeremy Usborne – first debuted 20 years ago this week in Channel 4’s late-night slot. It wasn’t an immediate success, but across 54 episodes, we grew to love Mark and Jez. We watched them struggle through monotonous day jobs and calamitous love lives, slowly slipping into middle-age and self-destructive co-dependence. We met their weird mates (crack-addicted Super Hans) as well as unsuitable partners (Olivia Colman’s gradually more sozzled Sophie). And we laughed at the bonkers situations they got themselves into: sitting on burglars, pissing in desk drawers for revenge, even eating a dog they’d accidentally run over. By the finale, the sorry pair had sunk lower than the knackered sofa in Mark’s dingey Croydon apartment – and Peep Show had reached classic status, soon to be binged on Netflix by a brand new generation of fans.
“It seems to have very quietly become an institution,” says Mitchell’s partner-in-crime Robert Webb, on a separate call. “At the time, every recommission seemed like a miracle. The viewing figures were OK and the reviews were good, but we always felt like Channel 4 was going to cancel it at any second.” He adds: “So I’m delighted that we’re still talking about it now!”
“Every recommission seemed like a miracle” – Robert Webb
Rewind to the early 2000s and the story of Peep Show begins in a plain, appropriately humdrum office at the BBC Television Centre. Writing duo Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, later to pen Fresh Meat (together) and Succession (Armstrong solo) had been scrabbling about trying to get one of their many projects off the ground. Mitchell and Webb were in a similar spot. They’d partnered up at Cambridge University, put on several well-received productions at Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and even been on TV a bit. But everyone around the table still needed their big break. And after a few hours, it became clear that this wasn’t it.
“We were put together in an ‘experimental writers’ room’, which is a kind way of putting it,” says Bain. He and Armstrong are chatting to NME on Zoom. Bain’s cat Bruno can be seen sashaying through the back of his converted garage in Los Angeles; while Armstrong pops up from his home in south London, a map of Napoleon’s conquests in Europe appropriately visible in the background. He laughs when we suggest history buff Mark would approve.
“It was interesting that we met them as writers first,” Bain continues. “Obviously they’re most famous now as performers. But we didn’t see them on stage until later, at the Riverside Sitcom Festival, where we were struck by how brilliant they were.”
They started hanging out as a foursome, meeting at a sandwich shop off Oxford Street and in the back rooms of pubs where Mitchell and Webb did their two-man routine. At some point, Bain and Armstrong suggested putting together something else for the BBC. They filmed a pilot, which went nowhere, before starting on the idea that would ultimately morph into Peep Show: a Beavis And Butthead-style comedy in which “two guys talked over TV clips in voiceover”. It was inspired by the documentary cum reality series Being Caprice, Woody Allen’s use of subtitles in Annie Hall and a silent wellness retreat Bain had recently been on where he’d discovered how funny it was to listen to his own “stupid” thoughts all day.
In the end, that didn’t get picked up either, but Bain and Armstrong were onto a winner. They just needed to finesse it. So out went the TV clips (too awkward to sort the rights for), and in came the characters of Mark and Jeremy. They kept the voiceover concept, but switched the camera around so that the person whose internal monologue you were laughing at could be seen on screen. Obviously, the tweaks worked because Channel 4 said yes – commissioning a “10-15 minute taster take”, then a full episode and, finally, the “holy grail” of a complete season. They were away at last.
Predictably, there were teething problems. When the crew went back to shoot the second half of the pilot, they discovered that the owners of Mark’s flat had spent the location fee on a kitchen refurb. This meant any hopes of continuity went out the window. After fixing that with some clever trickery, they got onto making the broadcast episodes. But there were issues there too. Peep Show’s original director was Jeremy Wooding, who shot the opening six episodes and was replaced by Tristram Shapeero and then Becky Martin for the final six series. Wooding was a “nice guy”, says Mitchell, but he “hadn’t done much comedy and hasn’t since”. Occasionally, he would give the note, “Don’t do it like that. That looks weird”, explains Mitchell in a pained voice. “That’s a tremendously confidence-sapping thing to say to a young actor who’s just doing their first [big show]. So I fell back on doing nothing at all with my face for the entire first series.”
“It’s nice that people still give a shit” – David Mitchell
For Webb, it was the POV filming technique that threw him off initially. Instead of acting to a real person, they were constantly looking down the barrel of a camera. It’s tough to give a convincing, human performance when your only co-star is a black box filled with circuits and wires. “I remember watching an interview with Ewan McGregor,” he says, “and he was complaining about all the green screen acting on Star Wars – having to imagine the other character a lot of the time. I was watching and thinking: ‘Dave and I spent 12 years doing that!’ We just had to give our best. We’d been in rehearsal and we’d watched what the other person did. Then we’d have to try to recreate it one [side] at a time. It was really bizarre.”
Out of that confusing process though, came a revolutionary format. Before Peep Show, it had been very hard (“impossible”, says Bain) to get first-person narration into television. Novels? Easy. But how do you tell a TV audience which character, in a scene full of characters, just spoke without anyone moving their mouth? The POV solved this – and paired with Mark’s bitter world view (“Butter the toast. Eat the toast. Shit the toast. God, life’s relentless”), created some of the funniest one-liners in modern comedy. We are often far more interesting, as Bain and Armstrong learned, when we don’t know someone’s listening. “I remember being absolutely fascinated with Sam’s idea about the repetitive nature of one’s thoughts,” says Armstrong, “and that slightly depressing feeling of, ‘Fucking hell, is this all there is?’ It was very, very potent.”
After a “warm but muted” reaction to the first episode, Peep Show started to build a following. “It didn’t set any viewing records… you had to go and find it”, says Bain, but early champions included Ricky Gervais who talked it up in interviews as the “best show on television”. This helped get attention from the right industry heads – and series one was nominated for a BAFTA in 2004. More would come over the next 11 years, and yet it wasn’t until the final two seasons that Channel 4 gave them a double commission, meaning they didn’t have to worry about getting cancelled. Naturally, that was when they decided to call it quits.
“Channel 4 never said they wanted to end it,” says Bain. “By then, though, we were so aware of how precious the show was to us and to other people, that we wanted to make sure we went out on a high.” Armstrong agrees: “The last season, I think, is pretty strong. I’m pleased that we [stopped] while we still thought we were doing good episodes.”
In that fateful finale, Mark and Jeremy are shown at their best and worst. Mark, desperate to seduce bookish April (Catherine Shepherd), lets Super Hans (Matt King) kidnap her husband. In the same scene, however, he gives an almost sentimental speech at Jeremy’s 40th birthday party. Jez, meanwhile, covers up for Mark in front of April before later pitifully requesting that he pull him off. It all closes on that well-worn set-up of TV’s fave sad-sacks watching telly together – Jeremy curled up on the couch in his blanket, Mark slumped against the back of his armchair, remote in hand. It’s pretty perfect in our book – but what do its creators think now, eight years on?
“Roughly speaking, I am happy,” says Bain, before confirming with Armstrong that the nature documentary (wolves tearing at a fleshy carcass) we see the boys taking in was actually a reference to influential Richard E. Grant indie Withnail And I, a student favourite from 1987. In the film’s closing moments, poverty-stricken actor Withnail performs a segment from Hamlet in front of the wolves at London’s Regent’s Park Zoo. “It’s always a bit sad to end something that you enjoy doing,” says Armstrong, “but I like that last episode a lot.”
“A reunion? Never say never” – writer Sam Bain
And what about a reunion? Soon after it finished, Bain and Armstrong received offers to adapt Peep Show into a play. They rejected them though because they couldn’t figure out how to make it work on stage. There have also been calls for a movie. Again, nothing doing. It seems certain that if the gang were to get back together – it would be on the small screen. And if they did, says Mitchell, it would have to be special.
“It’s nice that people still give a shit… I don’t want to tack anything onto the end of it,” he says. “It would have to be a totally separate thing. I wouldn’t want it to drag the original thing down.” Armstrong’s answer is more hopeful (“I’d be interested to know what Mark and Jeremy were up to now…”), as is Webb’s: “We’ve always said that it would be funny to go back and see them as old men, living in the same flat and having the same arguments… I think probably this side of, shall we say, 70?” Bain says “never say never”.
Perhaps it will happen – and the El Dudes are set to see in a new era as the Old Dudes. And if it doesn’t, that’s fine too. There’s plenty of jokes to remember them by. We’ll still be talking about it in another 20 years anyway.