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Mitchell & Webb

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It's time to get excited comedy fans, because the "best thing on telly" (at last, me and Ricky Gervais agree on something!), Peep Show, is back for a fourth series on Channel 4 on April 13. But that's not all Robert Webb and David Mitchell have been doing recently. They've made their first film, they've been writing another series of their sketch show for BBC Two, a radio version for Radio 4, a new radio sitcom, as well as appearing on panel shows, and in hilarious Apple Mac ads. Plus, they just managed to squeeze in some time to talk to us about all of it.

Robert Webb

Are you excited about your upcoming film The Magicians?
"We are, yeah, it's very exciting. We had a meeting with the marketing team this morning, and so we've seen the posters, and when it comes up with the Universal logo it all looks like a proper film. I shouldn't put myself down; it is a 'proper' film. It's definitely funny and exciting. It's a good film, it's got a little romance."

Who is the romantic element?
"It's Andrea Riseborough (who plays Labour researcher Kirsty MacKenzie in BBC Two's Party Animals). A fine actress. She's very good, very funny."

Did you have any involvement in the writing of the film (also created by Peep Show writers Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain)?
"As with Peep Show, no. In Peep Show we sort of helped out in the early stages, with stories, what might happen with Mark and Jeremy."

Is the humour in the film fairly similar to Peep Show?
"It is, yeah, it's not quite so relentlessly dark, there are a few funnier and lighter [moments]."

Have you seen The Illusionist yet?
"No, I haven't, there are two [films about magicians] aren't there? [The other is The Prestige with Hugh Jackman] It's a crazy coincidence. Sam and Jesse were working on their script about four years ago. I haven't seen either of the more 'po-faced' takes on the magic world!"
 
And when is your sketch show That Mitchell and Webb Look coming back?
"Well, we start filming June, so probably finish the end of August, so it will probably [go on air] around autumn."

Any new characters?
"I hope so. We haven't really got around to writing very much of it yet!"

Will Numberwang be back?
"Numberwang will be back, a bit. I think some of the recurring things will be back, but not in every episode. The point of our sketch show was never so much to play on recurring characters, we just wanted to generate as many funny, interesting ideas as possible and play them in a funny way and write them with jokes."

Was the idea to that really took off the most?
"If an index of what took off is what people yell at you in the street, then it's 'Numberwang.' People go 'Numberwang' and so I go 'It's that's Numberwang, shout 'That's Numberwang!' instead."

 Where is the weirdest place someone has shouted it at you?
"I was queuing to go on my honeymoon at Gatwick Airport, and there were a couple of people there that you might describe as 'part of the demographic' and they were getting quite excited and so I said hello, and signed a few things. It's the last time you want to be in the middle of Gatwick. And on a Boxing Day, who knew, I didn't, it's like the busiest time of year."

Quite a few of the cast from Peep Show turned up in your sketch show. Was that a choice?
"Well, it was just because we know them and we love working with them. Especially in the case of Olivia (Colman, who plays Sophie), and Paterson (Joseph, who plays Mark's boss Alan Johnson). But we didn't use him as much, as he's been very busy. And James Bachman has always been on our radio show. They're our bitches, we just like working with them."

And did you have any involvement in the writing of the Apple `Mac ads' you've just done?
"I thought you said blackouts, not Mac ads! Maybe it's Freudian! No, they're made by a couple of charming, lovely, softly spoken Californian men, and they're always encouraging us to adlib stuff to the scripts. When we turn up, we make suggestions to the sketches here and there. They're very up for that. We don't actually write any of it."

Are you totally 'Mac'ed-up' now then?
"This sounds like some ad man's dream, but we've always been Mac users. I bought my first Mac in 1997, and I was quite keen."

Did you have a fight on your hands over who was going to play 'PC' (David) and who was going to play 'Mac' (Robert)?
"No, they'd seen Peep Show and they decided it would be that way round."

Was it well paid?
"I really mustn't grumble."

Has it made life a bit more comfortable?
"If you're an actor, then definitely, a ludicrous amount of money, means you don't worry too much about the next gig... not for ever. No, I'm not going to retire on it."

So you won't have a washing machine commercial out next week?
"No, I won't, I'm not allowed to do any other adverts. Touch wood, I've never really had to do stuff I actually hate. When I started I was turning down 'crime reconstructions' on Crime Watch. Even when I started I was quite snooty. I've never done anything I thought was rubbish. We wouldn't be doing the Mac adverts if I thought they were shit. They're reasonably harmless, and funny."

They've (the ads) got quite a following online.
"The fall out from the ads wasn't so much 'Why are Mitchell and Webb doing this?' but more a holy war between PC and Mac users, with people taking it seriously, like a 'global jihad'. You look at some of these internet sites and they're really going for each other."

Did it pay for the honeymoon?
"It was in the Canary Islands. Yes it would have covered some of that, I would go that far."

Do you plan to do more films, or more things separate to each other?
"Well, I think it's always healthy when we get to go off and do certain things. I managed to do a little Radio 4 play yesterday."

And when's that on?
"Not long, actually, April 27. It's called Portia. It's about somebody who wakes up in a woman's body. It's nice to get away and do things. All the things we want to do now are lining themselves up in a very smug and lovely way, so there are certain things we know - like the pole position is that we want to do more Peep Show and we want to do more of our BBC sketch show, and then everything else is a sort of brilliant and a bonus."

Have you found many famous people wanting to appear on your TV show?
"It doesn't get back to us. So [if someone from Hollywood] is calling the producer, banging on the door saying he must be in Peep Show, we never get to hear about it. Peep Show will never be like that, in an Extras way. Even though in the first series there was a next door neighbour of Tony, there are a couple of very good, very funny comedy actresses, who that was offered to and were interested, but Channel 4 felt - and that ended being the right decision - to have everyone as 'unknown as Rob and Dave.' It should carry on like that. There are so many good people who aren't the 'usual people,' you might as well introduce them."

Do you know what your Cambridge Footlights peers are doing now?
"Yeah, James Bachman and Mark Evans, were there the same time as us. They write sketches for loads of people, including us. They write Numberwang. And Matt Holness of course did Garth Marenghi, er, and Olivia Coleman was there with us at the same time... Jamie Bamber is now in Battlestar Galactica. Thandie Newton was there, so there are some people who never wanted to do comedy and they're doing phenomenally well, and we're pretty happy too."

Is there scope to do more Peep Show?
"The final episode ends in a way that's kind of like the end of the last series, we don't get to do any more Peep Show then it's satisfying, but it's ambiguous, so there's room for there to be more. [Series five has just been commissioned - JO]

How many more would you like to do?
"Nine more! I think, honestly, as long as the characters never really grow up, it could carry on and on. Sam and Jesse are nowhere near running out of ideas."

Do you ever see something and think there's something impossibly dark in it???
"No. There was once an idea that they were quite close to doing which was that they'd kill Alan Johnson, the big boss, there was going to be an episode where he commits suicide. I think they just thought that would be an end to a great character, but it was quite a funny idea. The massive despair beneath Johnson's facade. It would just be a shame to lose Johnson, because he's so funny."

So how do we start the new series?
"Mark and Sophie are still nominally on track to get married. Mark thinks it's basically a good idea, and even Jeremy can see that it's not."

Does Superhands ever come 'off the crack'?
"He's not taking crack, but he does spend most of the series ill."

And for Jeremy?
"This show, Jeremy tries to impress a girl, he runs over her dog, tries to pretend it wasn't him and goes out looking for it with her. He tries burn it, but it won't burn properly. Then he ends up taking it to where they're having a picnic, and basically ends up eating a bit of it. And this all seems perfectly normal while you're watching it."

Do any of the stories in Peep Show mirror anything that happen life?
"I hope not."

Are there any new characters that are particular favourites in this series?
"They're all kind of interesting. They don't do anything, but Mark starts going on a date with an old friend from school. She's got a boyfriend who's an absolute bastard who always used to bully Mark. And then Jeremy meets someone who is a sort of music-techno pioneer and Jeremy is enamoured with this guy and ends up being his handyman, which involves more than Jeremy really bargained for at the time."

Any Mac product placement?
"Not so far. I think Sam definitely toyed with the idea of Jeremy having a rant about 'I'm a Mac, you're a PC, you're square, you're an idiot, I'm cool'. They decided that would be a bit too in and a bit too icky."

What do you think it is that  keeps Mark and Jeremy together?
"I think as the series goes on you can see that a bit more often there is some warmth there. They do rely on each other and a lot of the time they agree about stuff. There's a bit in the second series where Jeremy's being very territorial about someone being Mark's friend. Saying 'You can't be Mark's friend, I'm Mark's friend. You know, We sit at home, we play Guess The Revels, we watch Men In Black, on our f**king big TV and we have a bloody good time.' And they sort of do. And what it shows is that neither of them think they're part of the mainstream, they both think they're in this puddle. They've both got 'cosmic party syndrome.' They think everybody else is having a great time, and the great time stops as soon as they walk in the door."

Thanks for chatting, Rob!

Click on to the next page to read our interview with David Mitchell


David Mitchell

Going back to the beginning... tell me your life in a few sentences.
"Okay... I was born in 1974 in Salisbury, the son of two hotel managers! They gave up the hotel management trade in 1977 in order to lecture and look after a two year old child. I was the two year old child. I moved to Oxford, where we lived until 1993, when I went to university for three years, I left there in 1996 to come to London, where I still live. I've been a comedian since 1996, solvent since 1998, my name is..... Robert Webb, no. Joke."

In Peep Show, there's a great scene in the second series where your character Mark is 'winning the war for the Nazis' on his computer game on his week off, and you made jokes about the Nazis in your sketch show. Is WWII a particular fascination for you?
"I like history, I did a history degree, although I didn't do any work then. In a perverse way, I've got a lot more interested in it since. Not particularly, I'm not particularly interested in the Nazis. The Second World War is obviously an interesting bit of history because it's quite recent and it's got a 'pleasing plot structure' where the obvious baddies lose. At the same time, I'm always a little bit worried making light of it because of the millions of people who died! I suppose yeah, I'm quite interested in it, like anyone would be."

So anymore sketches like that in new sketch show?
"I don't know if we've got any more Nazi sketches. People kept saying - 'Why didn't we bring the Nazis back?' Actually they weren't characters, though, it was just a joke. 'We've got skulls on our helmets, we must be baddies.' There's not really anything else they could say - 'We've got long boots, are we expecting wet weather?'"

Do you enjoy dressing up in the costumes?
"A sexual thrill, haha? It's fun, it makes a nice change from something like Peep Show where you're largely realistic. I spend my time in a lot of naff BHS suits. It's nice to do something where one time you might be a soldier, one time you might be a wizard, next you're a caveman, you know. It makes a nice change."

So the new film you've done, Magicians, tell me a bit about the plot?
"Rob and I play a magician double act who fell out when Rob's character was having an affair with my wife. I discovered it and that very same day I accidentally cut her head off doing a guillotine trick on stage. So we've become estranged, as you can imagine, and the story of the film is about us coming together to try and win a magic competition and overcome our massive differences as well. Rob plays an aspirant Derren Brown type, trying to make it in the media TV world, and I'm more of a traditionalist, bow tie, silk handkerchief type."

Are there any new projects coming up that don't involved Robert?
"To be honest, there isn't, no. I've been doing a panel show called Would I Lie To You? on BBC One, and one, also about lying, called The Unbelievable Truth on Radio 4."

What's the format of Would I Lie To You?
"The idea is it's a series of rounds like Call My Bluff, except not about words. There's one round where you get to read some facts off a card, and some of the facts are true, some aren't, you get questioned by the other team about that fact - they have to guess whether it's true or not. There's a round about celebrities, and one round about television shows, so it's kind of about determining the unlikely truth from the believable lie. There are two regular team captains - me and Lee Mack. Angus Deayton's the host and there are four changing people."

You like doing panel shows, don't you?
"Yes. I particularly like doing this one because it's a game worth playing. The game isn't just incidental to doing some comedy material, it's a play in itself. You could make a board game of this, in a way you couldn't make a board game out of 8 out of 10 Cats."

Or Numberwang?
"Who knows? You never know!"

Is there any comedy on TV you're particularly keen on?
"The comedy I watch most essentially is The Simpsons. I love The Simpsons.  I watch a lot less new comedy than I used to, because I've never found watching other comedy inspired, it inhibits me, basically. So it's not something I can really talk about. I think Little Britain is excellent. I think the fact people have started to turn against it a bit is very unfair, they've lost the overall fact that it is imagination brilliantly played. I think Extras is very funny - although I did prefer The Office, like most people. What else is around? I feel more comfortable watching older comedies, which is a bit of a shameful admission I suppose. The Thick Of It is very good."

Rob was saying he gets people saying 'Numberwang' to him a lot when he gets recognised. What about you?
"Mainly I get 'It's the guy from Peep Show.' I never thought that would be a phrase that would haunt me, but yeah."

Where's the most unlikely place you've been recognised?
"I was recognised in Boston in America, but it was by someone British, so it doesn't really count. I was quite impressed. A few people now know my name. I love that, so much, rather than being 'the guy from Peep Show.' But there's no reason why they should learn my name."

You have quite an intellectual persona thanks to some of your characters. People say you are of the same ilk as Stephen Fry. What do you think of this?
"It's a very flattering comparison, but I don't think I'm anywhere near as clever as he is. I'm never going to compare myself to him, but being compared to someone that's really good, that's nice."

Beyond That Mitchell And Webb Look, have you got any future projects as a pairing?
"We're doing another radio show, as well as another TV show, and then hopefully we're doing Peep Show again next year, and then Mitchell And Webb. Those are the main - that's quite a while into the future. We're developing another idea with Hartswood Films, but because of all the other stuff, that's been going slowly as we do have ongoing shows."

Can you talk about the content of that?
"We will when we've written stuff! It's going to be a sitcom... but more a studio sitcom."

Is one of you more driven?
"No, I don't think so. I think we're both quite ambitious, and quite lazy. That's the thing we find within ourselves. We dread the thought of something f**king up because we haven't worked hard enough. To be honest, we've both been so busy for the last year and a half - which is great - we haven't had much chance to be lazy."

What was the most challenging thing about making the film?
"Showing a character who changes, and that's the key, it seems to me, to a film. In a sitcom, a character has to remain the same. Every week, they might try and change themselves, someone might try and change them, but they have to revert to type by the end of the episode. Making sure I'm showing that progression in an environment where I'm shooting all out of order - so you might be shooting a scene from near the end and then a scene right at the beginning, and then something at the middle. That was worrying, but Andrew O'Connor the director was really very good with actors and very good at talking you through the scenario, so you could feel it in context. You really have to trust people in any sort of acting - if they say 'you need to give it a bit more welly', then you have to trust them that you're not going to look like a ham. If it's the other way around, if you're doing it a bit big, and they say 'bring it down', you've got to trust them that it will still come across. And trust that they're also right."

How do you guys write together?
"We write in my flat. We sit next to each other at a computer and bang it out."

Is that nice - or is it part of being lazy?
"I'm usually dressed! I find offices horrible."

Why aren't there more good sitcoms out there?
"The bottom line with a sitcom is that you get a good idea about a sitcom rarely, and something that works about a sitcom, there's an element of luck in every functioning sitcom. You can see so many examples of people who did one functioning sitcom, and then their next thing was despite all their experience, hard work and talent, it doesn't work. I think if you've got a good idea that works, it's a lot easier to come up with some good episodes for an existing idea than it is to come up with a whole new idea. I feel [you should] treat a sitcom idea with respect. The Americans get 200 episodes out of it, we've got 24 from Peep Show so far, so I think there's a few more in it."

Rob was saying he'd be happy to do nine more.
"Nine more episodes or nine more series?"

Series!
"I think I'd be happy to do nine. Obviously, we might get to the point where actually no one can think of a single thing to happen to Mark and Jeremy now, and that might be a point to stop, but I don't think we feel that remotely - they're two 30 something blokes living in a flat. That's a pretty open scenario, a lot of things can happen to those people. Every series Sam and Jesse come up with some really good guest characters who feel like real people in themselves, so yeah, I just feel there's a lot of legs in it yet. I just keep thinking - 200 episodes of Seinfeld, every one of them great. We've done 24."

Will they ever stop? Hope not. Thanks, Robert and David!

The fourth series of Peep Show begins on Channel 4 on April 13, and you can see the pair in their film debut together in Magicians, out on May 17. Sketch show That Mitchell and Webb Look will be back in the autumn on BBC Two, but if you can't wait until then  That Mitchell and Webb Sound will be on Radio 4 this spring, along with new radio sitcom Daydream Believers on May 5.

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