This interview was conducted in a café on Exmouth Market in London’s Clerkenwell during promotion for the That Mitchell And Webb Look series. Robert offered to pay, but I said not to be silly, I’d charge it to Emap. As ever, I forgot to.
But first a note about this article. This is not a new interview. In fact, I actually conducted it six years ago. But digging through an old computer at my parents’ recently – my first Mac, no less, the ridiculously heavy and stylistically unremembered eMac – I uncovered a folder full of my old published magazine copy from the mid-2000s. In amongst it all was a fair few interviews with notable people in the infancy of their success, many of which I found interesting time capsules, so thought others might, too. I’ll upload some more when I can…
Mitchell and Webb
Peep Show’s odd couple return as sketch show masters
[Originally published in ARENA, November 2006]
“One-hundred and 50 pounds for a pullover?” says a shocked David Mitchell, surveying the fine array of autumn/winter wear ARENA has assembled for him. “That’s absurd. But then that’s what you get when you don’t have Chinese children making your clothes.”
It’s the kind of comment we find leaving the mouth of Mark Corrigan on a regular basis, Mitchell’s bumbling character in Channel 4 sleeper hit Peep Show, in which he stars alongside long-term writing partner Robert Webb, last seen disrobing liberally in Brit rom-com Confetti.
But as Mitchell’s acerbic persona on pretty much ever panel show going has proven, the sarcastic asides and enjoyable fuddy-duddy mannerisms are far from fictional. Thankfully, that’s where the similarities end, and Webb doesn’t take his top off and start screaming, “It’s contagious!” at the top of his voice. Much.
Increasingly the Lucas and Walliams it’s OK to like, Mitchell, 32, and Webb, 33, would be justified in saying that 2006 is a “busy year”. Aside from the inevitable celebrations surrounding Webb’s Christmas wedding – “I’ve become a liar and a hypocrite and I’m getting married in a church just because it’s a nice building” – the pair have their first terrestrial TV sketch show, That Mitchell and Webb Look, on BBC2, their Two Faces of Mitchell and Webb national tour, and a joint film project called Magicians in the offing.
Oh and, of course, they’re recording a fourth series of Peep Show early next year, just in case there was any fear of them getting bored. We pulled them away from the style department’s offensively lavish knitwear for coffee and cake…
So, is the new show an extension of your 2011 UK Play series The Mitchell and Webb Situation?
Robert Webb: Er, no. For one thing, we have a budget this time. The Mitchell and Webb Situation was made for 15p in six days. This is a normal BBC2 budget, so obviously it’s better. We do behind-the-scenes sketches where we’re supposedly Robert and David – or not very nice versions of ourselves, at least – talking to each other while the crew are kind of milling around in the background and, er, that sort of thing.
David Mitchell: Wow, you really fucking sold that. It’s more like a TV version of our radio show [Radio 4’s That Mitchell and Webb Sound]. How we write has changed a lot since our first TV series. We’re very glad that it’s on DVD and available, but…
RW: We like to think we’re better than that now.
DM: We are better. We have a live audience now. And people on set didn’t say, “Oh I supposed that will have to do,” too many times.
RW: Or “we’ll salvage it in the edit”.
Will the tour be sketches from the new show exclusively?
RW: I think we’ll end up doing some of it live. People will probably want a bit of familiarity to console themselves that Mark and Jeremy from Peep Show won’t be turning up.
Do you think people will be expecting that?
DM: I don’t know, I hope not. Peep Show is such a televisual concept – you couldn’t put that on stage. The nearest we could do would be a little play about Mark and Jeremy, which would be worse than the TV programme, and therefore a kind of pointless exercise. But it will be lots of funny characters and ideas one after the other.
Is there anyone or anything we should be looking out for in particular?
RW: All the things we weren’t allowed to do in the TV series. There’s a sketch about four people deciding what to call their dry-cleaning business and coming up with the name Touching Cloth.
DM: And we’re hoping to finally do our sketch about someone making a phone call to their ex-girlfriend while having a shit.
RW: Can we not do any material that doesn’t involve faeces?
DM: I hope not.
RW: That Mitchell and Webb Shit.
Is there a lot of stuff you’re not allowed to do on TV, then?
DM: The producer just keeps an eye on the amount of humour we’re deriving from things lavatorial, and at the last analysis I think he’s quite right to. The main problem is that if you want to play a snatch of music, you’ve got to clear it with the whole world, and if you’re having a biscuit, it can’t be a McVitie’s, it’s got to be a Mc-somebody-else. I thought all this stuff about branding was a thing of the past but it’s all coming back because the lawyers have found it’s a good way of making money.
RW: We had to invent some names for biscuits. We came up with a few, including Plopnobs, but we couldn’t use that as it turns out there actually are Plopnobs, which I couldn’t fucking believe. This is the world we’ve made for our children.
DM: In the new show all the lager you see drunk is of a fake brand, because in Peep Show you could see Foster’s cans quite prominently and they nearly pulled an episode.
There was a big furore around Men Behaving Badly a few years ago, when all they drunk was Stella Artois…
DM: But that looked real. So many things you see on telly have people with nine different sorts. No one goes to the off licence and buys a range of lagers – you buy whatever lager you get. Fucking lawyers. But on stage you can do what the fuck you want.
RW: Yeah, we turn ourselves into a massive advert for Ocean Finance.
Because you create comedy as a pair, do people often think you write Peep Show, too?
RW: Yes, and we’re always scrupulous about righting them… if we’re in the right mood [laughs]. We have a bit of input, but [writers] Sam and Jess [Bain and Armstrong] do all the hard work.
Were you surprised at its enormous success once the show made it to DVD? There were a lot of rumours it was going to be cancelled…
DM: That’s the trouble with television: people don’t really watch or listen at all – they just use it as a starting point for their own discussions. It’s a mad thing watching Peep Show. We’ll often arrange for a few friends to come over and make a bit of an event of it, and they’re presumably concentrating 10 times more than they usually do, because they know we’re in it. But, even so, the amount of people starting up little conversations…
RW: But you can’t turn around and say, “Well, I think I fucked that line, but that’s OK as someone will probably be having an annoying chat about bicycles during that point.” You just have to assume that they’re going to be concentrating very hard.
DM: Or have a long silence – that’s a good way of getting the audience’s attention. After about eight minutes people go, “Hold on, has the television stopped? Oh no, it’s going again…”
You met 11 years ago at Cambridge Footlights and have worked together constantly since. Ever come close to having a punch-up?
DM: Ah, you’ve got to be very careful.
RW: The reason that we get on is that we don’t discuss these things. It’s like a marriage – lots of tetchiness and no sex.
DM: No, it’s unlike a marriage – it’s profit-making.
RW: These days. How the the hell we got along when it was loss-making, I don’t know.
And now you’re going to be in a film together, too
RW: Yeah, Magicians. “From the writers that brought you Peep Show.” It’s a minor cinema event.
DM: It’s got Jessica Stevenson and cars.
RW: Proper money, proper people. It’s about two magicians in a double act and David’s character decapitates his wife accidentally in a magic trick. Then we fall out because I think he murdered her deliberately because he found us having sex just before the show, and then there may or may not be a mild reconciliation at the end… who knows?
DM: [Disbelieving look]
RW: What? Am I doing my brilliant selling again?
[Words by Matt Hill, photography by Ben Morris, styling by Helen Germaine]