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
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker