Peep Show - They're still worth spying on

Six series on and Mark and Jeremy are the same old losers, living in one another's pockets. That's the secret of Peep Show's success, David Mitchell and Robert Webb tell James Rampton

There's a moment in Peep Show, the ridiculously addictive Channel 4 sitcom about two dysfunctional flatmates, where Jeremy (Robert Webb) dreams of dumping his long-time companion Mark (David Mitchell) for a more socially acceptable friend. Jeremy yearns to join the mainstream rather than being trapped in perpetuity with Mark in what he terms "our own little puddle."

Of course, the joy of Peep Show is that, try as they might, Jeremy and Mark can never escape from their own little puddle. They will never swim in the mainstream. Like the characters in Sartre's Huis Clos or Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in The Odd Couple, they are doomed to live together forever.

Peep Show, "the best British comedy on TV", according to Ricky Gervais, has won a mantelpiece-endangering number of awards. In the process, it has turned Mitchell and Webb – who also have their own BBC2 and Radio 4 sketch shows – into just about the hottest comedy double act currently on television.

My rendezvous with the two stars is at a suitably un-mainstream location. They are filming the sixth season of Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain's series, which begins next Friday at a disused military post office in a far-flung corner of north London. Tumbleweed blows across the car park.

In person, the actors are far more intelligent and likable than their Peep Show personae, although they do admit to some overlap with their alter egos. "You get a gold medal for not asking as your first question, 'how similar are you to your characters?'" smiles Webb, who unlike the eternally fancy-free Jeremy, is married to Abigail, an actress and has a baby daughter, Esme. "But there is one key similarity: in my opinion, David tends to worry too much, and in his opinion I tend not to worry enough."

The 36-year-old Webb goes on to explain how vital it is that the characters remain condemned to their life of loser-dom. "The moment Mark and Jeremy learn anything or become content, it's the end of Peep Show. Life moves on, but they never do. It's like Jerry Seinfeld said about his own sitcom: 'no hugging, no learning'."

Mitchell, who is unmarried and lives in an ex-council flat in London with a lodger, chips in: "Mark and Jeremy's circumstances may change, but their attitudes never do. It would end the joke if they were sensible. It's important in a sitcom that things always return to the status quo. Sam and Jesse don't have to excise much hugging and learning from their scripts.

"In American sitcoms, the underlying attitude is, 'everything's OK'. In British sitcoms, the underlying attitude is, 'everything's maudlin and disappointing and inescapable'. That's the world view of a civilisation that has been knocked off the top spot and continues to meander. I imagine American sitcoms will have a lot less hugging and learning in a hundred years' time."

The characters in Peep Show are marooned by their own intransigent personalities. Mark is an uptight, tweedy financial adviser who is a serial failure with women, while Jeremy is a louche, self-absorbed aspiring musician, who is a serial failure with women. However much he attempts to get down with the kids, Mark is an utter square – by the brown cords and brogues shall ye know him. He looks like a Young Conservative in search of a husting. He is prey to all sorts of nerdy obsessions, such as military history, chess, and Star Wars ("if you ask me, Skywalker was bloody lucky turning off his guidance system").

Jeremy is a self-deluded, workshy, wannabe hipster. In one episode, for instance, he urges his flatmate to experiment with drugs: "It's not the Eighties, Mark! No one's dying in a puddle in an advert". Jeremy's speciality is spectacular acts of egotism, followed quickly by even more spectacular acts of self-justification.

In the new series, Mark and Jeremy are both desperately hoping that the other has got their joint ex, Sophie (Olivia Colman), pregnant. They indulge in all sorts of risible displacement activities in an attempt to forget about their impending paternal responsibilities. Things are so dire that Jeremy even – shock, horror – contemplates getting a job.

On the surface, Mark and Jeremy are really quite reprehensible, self-serving people. So why do we warm to them? "Mark and Jeremy are not the most likable characters," concedes Webb, who first met Mitchell on a Cambridge Footlights production of Cinderella in 1993. "But we still like them because they give us all permission to be losers ourselves. They share this sense that there is this cosmic party going on somewhere else to which they're not invited. We all feel like that."

Mitchell, 35, is making quite a name for himself as the prince of the panel-game and recently received the BBC accolade of his very own Who Do You Think You Are? episode researching his family tree. While his own parents were in the hotel business, he discovered that his father's family were sheep farmers in the Highlands and his great-great grandfather was a Gaelic scholar and minister. "I come from a long line of people who looked down on the peasantry and resented the aristocracy – and I hope to continue that mixed up, hypocritical attitude in my own life because without the middle classes there is no comedy."

Mark and Jeremy strike a chord, says Mitchell, because, "we identify with losers in this country. We don't style ourselves as winners. The standard projection of a British person is, 'I'm a bit shit, me. Oh look, a bird has just crapped on my head.'

"British social convention demands self-deprecation. It's a civilised approach that leads to a lot of communication problems with Americans, who think we really have low self-esteem and really believe we're rubbish. In British sitcoms, figures who aren't hapless are ridiculed. We're suspicious of people like Paul, Peter Egan's character in Ever Decreasing Circles, because nothing ever seems to go wrong for them. We don't trust people whose toast falls buttered side up."

Peep Show certainly reinforces the first law of British sitcom: failure is funny. Webb, who made a splash replicating Jennifer Beals' leotard-clad routine from Flashdance on Comic Relief earlier this year, reflects that, "Mark and Jeremy are massively ill-equipped for life, and we relish that. Losers are more interesting – they give viewers a sense of consolation.

"Nothing is funny about winners. Comedy has to be about conflict – crying, for instance, can be incredibly funny. J R Ewing winning in Dallas is no fun unless we can also see Cliff Barnes suffering. Everyone has flaws, and everyone is funny when put under the microscope. Gordon Brown is the most successful person in the country, and yet he's hilarious when he tries to talk and smile at the same time. Have you seen him on YouTube?"

The added frisson of Peep Show derives from the fact that it gives us privileged access to Mark and Jeremy's darkest thoughts. The show has provided women with many scary peeps into what is really going through men's minds. Be afraid, female viewers, be very afraid.

Mitchell says that listening in to their unvoiced ideas is a great release for us. "Mark and Jeremy think the things that most of us would like to think but would never have the nerve or the towering selfishness to think.

"There's a lot of Mark and Jeremy in all of us, and we all feel better about ourselves because we see our traits represented in them. People come up to me all the time and say, 'I'm just like Mark'." At which point, presumably, Mitchell runs away from them, screaming.

Above all, the stars argue, Peep Show is a love story. It's the ultimate exemplar of "can't live with you, can't live without you". "Could Mark and Jeremy ever live apart?" Webb asks. "Never! They need each other to confirm their world view. Mark knows there are lots of things wrong with him, but at least he's not Jeremy. And Jeremy thinks, 'no matter what's going wrong in my life, I'm not that guy'. They are a massive solace to each other – 'I may be in my hole, but look at your hole!' In fact, of course, they're both in the same hole!"

Mitchell reflects that, "it's a love story. Mark and Jeremy are effectively married to each other. A woman ought to come between them, but she would never succeed."

Even though the sixth series is about to begin, the actors do not think Peep Show is running out of steam – in fact, quite the contrary. "The older Mark and Jeremy get, the funnier it becomes," says Webb. "You're not allowed to share a flat with another man when you're edging towards your late 30s. When 40 is on the horizon, society says, 'no!' That puts more pressure on them, and pressure equals comedy."

Mitchell concurs that, "there will always be some looming crisis for Mark and Jeremy. When Niles finally got together with Daphne in Frasier, what was there to bother him? There was nothing left to drive him to distraction."

So what's next for Mitchell and Webb, who have been called "the new Fry and Laurie"? "You hit your late thirties, and all of a sudden people decide you should be in a comedy drama," Webb observes. "'Now you're nearly 37, it's off to Norfolk for you, my boy. We want lots of sweeping shots of the English countryside. Let's get rid of the laughter track, calm it down and mawkish it up. Let's go a bit Sunday night'."

In fact, what Mitchell and Webb have in the pipeline is more of the same – if it ain't broke, why fix it? They are already planning further series of both Peep Show and That Mitchell and Webb Look. They have also just brought out This Mitchell and Webb Book. How do they fit it all in?

"We're both bone idle, so we love deadlines," Webb smiles. "We never miss them – that would be the thin end of the wedge. Miss one deadline and we'd soon be sitting around in our pants flinging rubbish at each other. We'd be just like Mark and Jeremy."

'Peep Show' starts at 10pm on Channel 4 on Friday 18 September.

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee