Post-apocalyptic TV, it turns out, is as bleak as David Mitchell imagined. “One thing I’ve noticed about myself is that I am a bit shy really,” says the panel show king, puffling-panted Shakespeare and grandmaster of sitcoms via Zoom. “The thing that makes me talk in a panel show situation is the presence of an audience. The attempts I’ve made to do that kind of thing in lockdown, when there isn’t an audience, I have found very, very difficult. I revert to the quiet person that’s happy to sit and listen. I’m not massively chatty, I’m sort of average. I don’t endlessly try and make jokes. It doesn’t come naturally.”
Good evening, take whatever injections are recommended in your sector and remain indoors. It’s the only way you’ll catch the long-awaited reunion of Mitchell and Webb, the revered double act made legendary by exposing the root horror of humanity as Mark and Jez in Peep Show and, on their celebrated sketch show That Mitchell And Webb Look, inventing such meme-worthy moments as a Nazi realising “are we the baddies?” and the extremely prescient Quiz Broadcast, the game show filmed in a semi-secure bunker in the wake of The Event (don’t think about The Event), with ‘them’ trying to break in through the ducts and the star prize, if you’re extremely lucky, consisting of some uncontaminated food.
Now they’re back, back, back – after a three-year break – with Back, the second series of the sitcom in which David plays maladjusted rural pub owner Stephen and Robert his long-lost foster brother Andrew, who’s either a deeply troubled but well-meaning guy or a con man out to ruin Stephen’s entire life. “I think it’s healthy if I never quite decide whether he’s Satan or not,” says Robert. “He could just be this very needy person who goes about getting attention in quite a harmful and manipulative way.”
“I’ve always seen the show as a historical drama set in a different time,” adds David. “We had to wait for something fundamental to change our era, so that it would seem like it was from a bygone [era]. Now it’s set in the weird pre-COVID age you might dimly remember when people used to just walk up to each other for no reason, like maniacs.”
“They said in two to six months my heart was going to fail” – Robert Webb
He jests, of course. The second series, in which Andrew has succeeded in driving Stephen to a breakdown and taken over his life as landlord of the John Barleycorn pub was always in the works. “The default is,” Robert says, “do the sitcom until somebody stops you doing the sitcom.” But it’s been so long in the making, partly due to pandemic interruptions and partly down to Robert’s discovery, during the cast medical, that he had a serious, life-threatening heart condition.
“It turned out I was incredibly unwell,” he says matter-of-factly. “I knew something was up, but I didn’t realise that my heart was on its last legs. The mitral valve had prolapsed and was flapping about uselessly, and the heart had grown and remodelled to desperately keep the show on the road. The cardiologist said that in two to six months the heart was going to fail.” Hence, after a week of filming, Robert left the set for a life-saving – and life-changing – operation. A few weeks ago he tweeted that he’d hit his one year “soberversary” – was it a tough year to give up drinking?
“No, it’s been a great year to stop drinking because all the pubs are closed,” he laughs. “I’ve been enjoying having a quiet life… The heart condition was not lifestyle based [Webb has previously said he suffered from alcoholism], it’s just a birth defect, it’s congenital. But once you’ve been in hospital – which is not a pleasant experience at the best of times, and it’s not the best of times, it’s the worst of times – I came out with a newfound respect for my internal organs. I’m going: ‘It’s my liver, it’s my lungs, these are my guys, let’s look after them a bit better!’ So I gave up drinking and smoking and I do lots of exercise now and I feel literally younger.”
David’s lockdown hasn’t been quite so traumatic. He’s philosophical about having to cut short his run as Shakespeare in the stage offshoot of Upstart Crow halfway through. “That was a big shock and a pisser. But what I tell myself is that I could have been in a show that wasn’t going well, where I would have been grateful for a pandemic to cut the run halfway through. So, in a way, I was lucky that it was a pisser.” But for a writer whose work has proved uncannily prophetic, he’s been surprisingly unsettled by the experience. “I do find it all weird, and upsetting,” he says. “The suspension of normal life is totally unprecedented. I found the fact of the specifics perfectly relaxing, being at home and things, but still it’s just so fucking weird the sooner it’s over the better.”
“Lockdown was a big shock and a pisser” – David Mitchell
The delay, however, merely adds to the magic. Intended as a more mature vehicle for Mitchell and Webb post-breakthrough, Back’s latest season arrives amid much fan excitement. Just five years ago, after nine series of Peep Show; four of their sketch show That Mitchell And Webb Look; one three-part comedy drama Ambassadors; a dodgy movie, Magicians; and advert voice-overs galore, the duo went on a break. Robert concentrated on acting and writing his autobiography plus another novel, while David switched his focus to baiting the Bard and starring alongside Steve Coogan in Michael Winterbottom’s recent satire Greed.
“It’s happened quite naturally,” says David. “I think it’s quite good for our double act that we do other things as well. When we were establishing ourselves we worked very intensely together for several years. We had great opportunities and things went well, but it was also tough on our personal relationship. Whereas now, when we work together, it’s fun rather than: ’Oh, him again’.”
Is that why they stopped writing together, or was there some big fallout back in the day? “We never had ‘the row’,” Robert says. “I’m aware of other double acts that did have ‘the row’ and they always regretted it. We haven’t consciously stopped writing together, we just ran out of things that we happened to be working on. We had the sketch show, then the BBC didn’t want any more of it – then we didn’t have anything we could write together on.”
With David playing an insecure neurotic and Robert as the confident egotist who constantly antagonises him, Back feels like a spiritual successor to Peep Show, but with more middle-aged concerns and bowel cancer gags. “It’s bound to, just because it’s got such an overlap in terms of personnel,” says Robert (writer Simon Blackwell also penned several episodes of Peep Show).
The pair’s fondest memories of playing Mark and Jez revolve around the few moments they didn’t spend shouting, smirking or snogging directly into a camera. “During the series, we were quite good at having little parties to watch the episode with friends,” David recalls. “Particularly with the last series we actually had a little event for every episode of that series going out. There was a very conscious determination to savour it because you can’t savour when you’re shooting because you’ve got to get on with it, and if you start savouring it you’ve lost the day and then the thing you were savouring didn’t happen. So it has to be away from the exhaustion and stress of the set.”
“It’s lovely watching it with an audience as well, because it got its laughs,” Robert adds. “That meant something because there’s a certain number of comedies where there’s no laugh track and you wonder if you played this into an audience, how would that go? It was always lovely to be in a room full of people laughing exactly where you expected and hoped that they’d laugh.”
“Sometimes on Twitter, you go: ‘Is that a thing from ‘Peep Show’ – or is my shirt just very clean?'”
Do they still get Peep Show lines shouted at them in the street? “Not in the street so much,” Robert says. “I haven’t really been on the street for a year. I know that if I say something on Twitter, half the replies are going to be quotes from Peep Show.”
“There’s a lot of stuff from Peep Show on Twitter,” David agrees. “You start to realise, which you don’t at the time, that it’s a very quotable show – there are a lot of good aphorisms in it. Some of them, you go: ‘Is that a thing from Peep Show?’”
Robert: “Or is my shirt just very clean?”
Despite being perfect for filming over Zoom, there are no plans for a Peep Show comeback or pandemic special. What would Mark and Jez be doing now? “Wanking,” Robert reckons. They’re far more invested in the subtle character power-plays and contemporary political undertones of Back, a series steeped in the divisions of Brexit Britain.
“Brexit is a massive self-conscious crisis of identity for the country,” David argues. “Britain is thinking: ‘What is Britain supposed to be?’ We’re all very confused and very unhappy about it, and the way Simon’s written Back – the pub and the town they’re in – it’s a microcosm for that confusion and unhappiness, and Andrew and Stephen are different manifestations of that.”
Ultimately though, fans will be tuning in for the inimitable, almost clairvoyant Mitchell and Webb chemistry that they first noticed as co-writing students at Cambridge. “It feels like when you’re on stage I’ve got a pretty good idea of what David’s going to be doing without looking at him and vice versa,” says Robert. “Part of it is just the sheer weight of years but also I think there was something there right at the start.”
“When we first did a show together as students we were horrendously ill prepared,” David remembers. “We’d written a script but we hadn’t learned it and we were sort of winging it. But it went very well, albeit in front of pissed students but it went well, and we both felt there was something about performing together that clicked and we had the foresight to realise that, as you don’t know when you’re that age, this isn’t something you’re going to stumble across every day. That there was something serendipitous about this, and it’s worth looking after it and persevering.” “Partly for that reason,” Robert says, “we stayed pretty monogamous.”
Their work apart, however, has served to highlight their differences. While David relishes the quick-witted spontaneity of the panel show, for instance, Robert finds them stressful. “I’ve done everything once, but I don’t enjoy them as much and I’m not as good at them as David. It’s perfectly alright to me to come second to David Mitchell in a witty contest! I was reading a book about introverts and there’s such a thing as an introvert who pretends to be an extrovert and I wonder if I’m one of those. I do find myself on panel shows going: ‘This is a really good episode of Have I Got News For You – Oh fuck, I haven’t said anything for 45 minutes!’ Then they don’t ask again, and that’s fine.”
And while David’s dominance of the genre isn’t about to end, he has started to run out of funny-yet-true stories for Would I Lie To You?, the long-running BBC game where celebs must pass fibs off as fact. “If you analyse Would I Lie To You? they’re being extremely parsimonious with truths about mine and Lee Mack’s lives now,” he grins. “If we can think of three more things that will take us another seven series. So, the broadcaster need not worry, we can continue riding that particular cash cow indefinitely.”
“Mitchell and Webb will be a going concern until we’re both in our graves” – Robert Webb
There’s no end in sight for Mitchell and Webb’s alchemy either. “We’ve talked about other projects and other stuff is kind of on the way – acting work and individual projects,” Robert reveals. “As far as I’m concerned, Mitchell and Webb will be a going concern until we’re both in our graves, even if we don’t actually make anything else together. It’s as though no book has been closed or page has been turned.”
It’s refreshing to see a double act that, over 25 years in, have retained their close bond and inimitable charm both on-screen and off (they were each others’ best man). So roast up a dog leg, sit back and relax: the Mitchell and Webb situation is far from concluded.
‘Back’ series two debuts on Channel 4, January 21 at 10pm