The sixth series of the comedy hit Peep Show is about to go into production. And with it comes the news that Channel 4 has just commissioned a seventh. There is a clear reason for this. The offbeat cult comedy is, artistically at least, the saviour of Channel 4. And the channel's most senior executives know it.
By the admission of Channel 4's head of entertainment and comedy, Andrew Newman, the show is not exactly a cash cow. "In terms of being a ratings blockbuster it's not particularly successful, with 1.5 million viewers or so. It certainly doesn't make money for Channel 4," he said. "However, we're not a private company, at least not at the moment, and we think it is a great thing to have a show that for the majority of those who watch is one of their favourites. The depth of feeling for it is immense and it is great that the British broadcasting system allows for a show adored by 1.5 million people as well as shows that get three million, four million, five million viewers but for which the viewers don't have the same level of feeling." In other words, flagship shows don't need millions of viewers for them to make waves in the public consciousness.
The secret of the devotion to this cult hit is as layered as the love for it. Peep Show is a project that sees the writing and duo of Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong and the comedy acting duo of David Mitchell and Robert Webb (likeable performers playing initially unlikeable characters) at the top of their game, a show that casts a shadow over their other projects but then it arguably towers above most comedy shows of the past decade except perhaps for The Office.
For the stars, the secret of the show's longevity has been not to anticipate it. "We always assume it's the last one," says Webb, "but I think all four of us want to carry on as long as people will let us. I think the older our characters get, the more desperate they get and the higher the stakes, really. As for what difference has Peep Show made to our profile..."
"It's given us one," chips in his double-act partner, Mitchell. Webb adds: "Yes, we're officially 'those blokes off Peep Show'. And now we get paid. Usually."
For Bain and Armstrong, the take-each-series-as-it-comes mantra is the only way to think. "We still love writing for Dave and Rob and they haven't got bored of doing it, and we haven't got that impulse to stop that other writers have. We don't assume that we will go on for ever, and it's healthy for us to keep raising our game. Equally we still have stories to tell past series seven, so you're in that kind of hinterland of not thinking it will go on for ever but not planning on it to end."
But, as is customary in awards ceremonies, you also have to look to the whole team, honouring deft production values and excellent cameos. Peep Show without the "headshot" camera angles? Without Super Hans, Big Suze or Johnson? Unthinkable. Of course, the award for best supporting character in Peep Show has to go to inner monologue. The extra dimension of the show allowing the viewers to hear what the character is really thinking provides another layer of contrast from which more jokes can inevitably flow and makes up the show's admirably high gag-per-minute-rate. Of stand-up, they say he/she is saying what we are all thinking. Of Peep Show they are thinking what we are all thinking but often saying something completely different. Unleashing a stream of consciousness allows for some sublime lines and another level for the language of desperation; for example when, in series five, Mark (Mitchell) observes Australian good-time girl Saz (Natasha Beaumont) at the bar after an unsuccessful speed-dating event, where he has received no matches, he internally observes: "Maybe the data wasn't collated correctly. Maybe she's my hanging chad."
While no one would elect to be Mark or Jeremy they have proved easier to watch even than the popular but nauseating David Brent or Alan Partridge. And while we may not empathise with their sitcom plight (to have a need for each other against their better judgement – Steptoe and Son without the age gap perhaps?) we can eventually sympathise with them in the face of what the television historian Dick Fiddy describes as the "anarchy" of the characters around them, such as the erratic Super Hans and the eccentric Big Suze.
Happily while some episodes may fare better than others, the standards from one series to the next have remained high. In the popular phraseology used to discuss the credibility of TV shows, Peep Show has not yet jumped the shark or nuked the fridge. In fact, so much the opposite that Sophie Winkleman (Big Suze) marrying Freddie Windsor later this year is not the only way Peep Show will be associated with the notion of royalty. As Newman remarks, Bain and Armstrong have "remained true to their original version of the programme" and this has reaped just reward.
The unusually early announcement that there will be a series seven before series six goes into production should only help the series, according to Newman, and is a "great luxury", say Bain and Armstrong. "We wanted to plan it so that we get them when we want them and when the audience wants them, a commitment that allows for a free and creative environment for writing and ambitious storylines."
Fiddy adds: "In recent times usually what happens is that one of the team decides they have had enough and they want to move on. Spaced and The Office could have gone on longer, the US Office is a testimony to that. With Peep Show, as long as the writers and performers are happy to continue, then there is more to be had from the format. Look at Last of the Summer Wine. That's on season 32."