The saviours of Channel 4

'Peep Show' proves that a television series doesn't have to be a ratings blockbuster

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."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there