David Mitchell, Robert Webb and Simon Blackwell tell the RTS how they dealt with emergency surgery and the pandemic to deliver the second series of Back.
Viewers have been kept waiting for a second outing of Back, David Mitchell and Robert Webb’s bitingly funny Channel 4 sitcom, which returned to our screens at the end of last month.
The delay had nothing to do with a lack of commissioning courage – how could anyone find fault with the filth and comic fury of Simon Blackwell’s scripts, the ever-watchable Mitchell and Webb or the fantastic ensemble cast?
Webb took up the story at a recent RTS event, beginning with a routine insurance medical in autumn 2019, as filming was due to start on series two: “Normally, it’s very perfunctory and the doctor just makes you cough. This time, he put a stethoscope on my heart and pulled a face and said, ‘Oh dear, what have you been doing about the heart murmur?’ And I said, ‘What heart murmur?’
“A couple of days later, I had a cardiologist tell me I had a mitral valve prolapse, that it wasn’t something that could be fixed with drugs and that I needed surgery – otherwise, the heart was going to fail in the next two to six months. That was a bit of a shocker.”
Filming resumed when Webb had recuperated, but then the pandemic brought the production to a shuddering halt. Finally, the show wrapped in autumn 2020.
It has been worth the wait.
Mitchell is Stephen, a man who has failed as a husband, a lawyer and at running his late father’s pub. Worse, the charismatic Andrew (Webb), supposedly a foster child of Stephen’s parents, has usurped him in his family’s affections.
Series one ended in October 2017 with Stephen strung out on booze, and Andrew in charge of the pub and loved by all. “It seemed to be a nice way to finish, with Stephen catatonic in a chair… driven to the edge of his sanity,” said Blackwell, whose credits include Armando Iannucci’s political satire The Thick of It and parental comedy Breeders.
In series two, Andrew’s true character remains uncertain, said Blackwell: “Once you know for sure whether he’s this guy coming back to a family where he was very happy or he’s Satan… you let the air out of the set-up.” There was, though, a handbrake turn, he added: “In series two, the roles are reversed – [Stephen] comes back and Andrew is the boring, mundane one [working] in the pub. Suddenly, Stephen feels that he’s the exotic one, having spent some time away in therapy. We thought that was a nice mirror to the first series.”
The supporting cast returns, including Penny Downie’s hippy mum, her vicar lover, John MacMillan, and Geoffrey McGivern as potty-mouthed uncle Geoff.
Mitchell was happy playing Stephen, whom he described as “disappointed and self-loathing and endlessly self-doubting, also intelligent and a little bit angry. I like to play the comic mattress on which people jump up and down – there’s a lot of comedy and fun acting to be had from the character who things are happening to.”
The character, Mitchell maintained, was based on no one other than himself: “What he looked and sounded like was inspired by me.… They gave me other clothes to wear that some people have been good enough to say are sometimes distinguishable from the sort of things I wear anyway.
“I’m not going to claim for a moment that I got the walk from my old geography teacher and the look of despair from a homeless man in a doorway. No, I said the words like I thought people might say them if it was really happening, which it wasn’t.”
Mitchell was comically dismissive of his acting, comparing his philosophy to two of the greats: “Dustin Hoffman – transformative, method; Laurence Olivier – ‘Why don’t you just act?’; David Mitchell – ‘Why don’t you just read it out.’”
“David and I try not to look too deeply into what it is about our personalities that makes writers come up with people like this for us to play,” added Webb.
There are marked similarities to both actors’ dysfunctional characters in Peep Show, the RTS-award-winning sitcom created by Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, for which Blackwell also wrote.
“Andrew is a liar. So is [Peep Show’s] Jeremy, but Jeremy was an idiot, whereas Andrew is a better liar.… He goes around telling these whoppers,” said Webb. “So Andrew is either this very needy person who’s so desperate for approval that he will say potentially quite dangerous things, or he’s an absolute maniac.
“I never really decided during series one or two. I’m not sure if Simon [Blackwell] has decided. Certainly, the character doesn’t know what he’s doing. He’s like [Tony] Blair, he believes it while he’s saying it.”
Mitchell and Webb met almost 30 years ago at an audition for a Footlights panto at Cambridge University and immediately began writing together. Their first attempt, recalled Webb, was “a terrible sketch called War Farce.… When we read it out to the rest of the group, it completely died, but we had a brilliant time writing it and really made each other laugh. The same things amuse us and we amuse each other. That’s been a very strong part of what’s kept us going.”
Mitchell added: “We’ve always been on – it’s a sort of clichéd phrase – the same comic wavelength, and yet we don’t come across like we’re necessarily going to be…
“We have always found the same things funny but we have contrasting personas.”
The duo wrote for other people’s shows, before landing roles in the BBC Two sketch show Bruiser, and then getting their own vehicle, The Mitchell and Webb Situation. The wonderful Peep Show followed.
Back is a worthy successor. On the eve of series two, Webb was able to laugh at his ill-health, which he said was all too evident on screen: “The continuity is pretty funny on my face.… You’ve got someone who is clearly very, very ill… and then you’ve got someone who is not ill any more but pretty knackered, and then, finally, someone who is [pointing at his face] whatever you think of this face. It tickles me to watch that.”
Report by Matthew Bell. ‘Back preview and Q&A’ was held on 20 January, chaired by journalist Caroline Frost and produced by the RTS and IJPR.