Steve Clarke can’t get enough of this missing link between Men Behaving Badly and Fleabag.
To create a successful sitcom is one of the most difficult tasks in the TV firmament. To create a successful British sitcom that survives for 12 years, nine series and 54 episodes is staggering.
Unlike in the US, producers rarely have writers rooms on this side of the Atlantic, where teams of wordsmiths endlessly hone scripts to keep a show up and running. Remember, Fawlty Towers closed its doors after just two six-part series.
That remarkable longevity is one of the achievements of Peep Show, unquestionably a defining show for Channel 4. The programme ran from 2003 to 2015, and has the broadcaster’s original DNA running through it – an edgy, sweary adult comedy that puts sex and recreational drugs stage centre.
When Peep Show first stepped out, it would have been impossible to imagine another UK network taking such a risk on a programme that smashed so many taboos and which was filmed in such a startlingly original way.
Not that Channel 4 didn’t occasionally get cold feet and consider axing it. Peep Show never struck ratings gold, and audiences hovered around the 1 million mark. But its status as a comedy classic now makes it perfect for binge viewing.
From the start, awards juries loved Peep Show: it won the Rose d’Or at the Lucerne Television Festival 2004 in the Sitcom category; Best TV Comedy at both the 2006 and 2007 British Comedy Awards; and the 2008 Bafta for TV Sitcom. In 2019, Radio Times voted it the 13th best sitcom of all time.
At its heart, Peep Show is a buddy show: Mark (played by David Mitchell) and Jez (played by Robert Webb) have a love-hate relationship that skews more towards hate.
These pairings are part of a TV comedy tradition that goes back at least to the ever-bickering Steptoe and Son. Mark and Jez are the proverbial chalk and cheese, but they are utterly dependent on one another.
Mark is Captain Sensible, a man who wears brogues with his pyjamas, is sexually gauche and socially repressed. His slightly dodgy obsession with the Second World War and wage-slave values are about as far as you can get from his bong-smoking, laid-back flatmate.
Jez is an uncompromising waster, self-deluded into thinking he’s a great musician, sexually supercharged and overconfident – superficially, at least.
Like so many of their comedy forebears, Mitchell and Webb first acted together at the Cambridge Footlights. Their double act performance is a joy to watch. The writing, too, by Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain, is usually pitch-perfect.
The use of Mark and Jez’s interior monologues, inspired by a scene in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, coupled with the close-up-and-personal camerawork enable us to see the odd couple from their own perspectives; for series 1 and part of series 2 the actors wore head cameras. These insights are often painful. Make no mistake, this is black comedy at its most unhinged.
Peep Show’s supporting cast are inspired. Olivia Colman, then virtually unknown, as Mark’s original love interest, and his prosaic and knowing work colleague, Sophie, sometimes steals the scenes.
Matt King as Jez’s bandmate, the hapless, hedonistic and unreliable Super Hans, is priceless. As the years take their toll, and his drug use escalates, his eyes appear to sink further back into their sockets. It is not until series 6 that we learn that Hans, a one-time crack addict, is father to seven-year-old twins.
Does Peep Show ever go too far? Are the endless excruciating situations too cringeworthy? Perhaps, but many of them are laugh-out-loud if you can stomach the embarrassment and heightened reality. There’s the time Mark pees in a desk drawer at his office to get his own back on a colleague – or when Jez wets himself in church at Mark’s wedding. Or when Jez sleeps with Sophie’s mum.
There is, of course, pathos aplenty in Peep Show. Ultimately, this no-holds-barred gem is mined from similar material to Men Behaving Badly. It took male relationship comedy to a blistering new place.
Without Peep Show, it’s hard to imagine Phoebe Waller-Bridge creating the far slicker Fleabag – perhaps as a contemporary riposte to Mark and Jez’s macho excesses.
Peep Show is available on All 4 and Netflix.