Many know Iain Stirling as the witty voiceover of Love Island, but for a whole generation of Gen-Zers, the Scottish comedian is first and foremost the face of their childhood.
When his career first kick-started back in 2009, Stirling found himself living a double life: by day a CBBC presenter chatting to a puppet dog, by night a gigging stand-up comedian with a Twitter page brimming with brazen jokes.
Sharing a screen with Hacker T Dog, a puppet voiced by Phil Fletcher, who was hidden below the desk, Stirling’s tales of his time at CBBC sound like TV’s lawless Wild West. “If you look back on YouTube, it’s just us cracking up,” Stirling admits. “We got away with so much stuff on that show that you wouldn’t now.”
But as much fun as it was, the comedian soon realised he couldn’t juggle two disparate lifestyles. “I wanted to be like Bill Hicks. Instead, I was dressed as Mary Queen of Scots dancing about with Jedward,” he recalls. “I remember thinking, this isn’t tenable for the foreseeable future.”
Stirling channelled these hilariously surreal experiences into his new series Buffering, a semi-autobiographical sitcom for ITV2. Stirling plays Iain, a children’s TV presenter living in a house-share with five other adults in Peckham.
Co-written with his friend and frequent collaborator Steve Bugeja, Stirling wanted to create a show about the ‘weird floating about stage’ millennials go through in their late 20s, defined by the realisation that the dream they were sold growing up was a sham.
“When we were younger, we were told, ‘you can be whatever you want to be, you’re special,’” he explains. “And then when we were at university there was a massive credit crunch and you got told, ‘well, you might not get work now, and by the way, a university degree is basically worth nothing’. So, we learned the lesson: you're not that fucking important."
The ensemble comedy, starring the likes of Jessie Cave (Harry Potter) and stand-up comic Janine Harouni, sees each character struggle with a different characteristically ‘millennial’ problem, such as being unable to afford a home, rekindling desire in long-distance relationships or trying to retain artistic integrity amid capitalism.
“Comedy by its very definition is incredibly honest [...] You can smell it off someone if they’re not being sincere.”
Inspired by pacey American comedies like Modern Family and Schitt’s Creek which “don’t have an ounce of fat on their scripts”, Stirling set out to make a series abounding with punchlines. Yet Buffering doesn’t shy away from the more difficult topics. When Iain’s misguided relationship with his boss Olivia (Elena Sorrel) is rocked by a miscarriage, the series explores the pair’s efforts to overcome the resultant trauma and grief.
Combining the melancholic moments with the sillier storylines was the natural result of Stirling and Bugeja being truthful about their own experiences. “Comedy by its very definition is incredibly honest,” Stirling says. “You can smell it off someone if they’re not being sincere.”
Since the series will air directly after Love Island on ITV2, he also wanted to create something mould-breaking for the channel that might take viewers by surprise. “There was a little goal in our heads to put something a bit meatier and more difficult in the sitcom because I wanted to give that to the audience. I think they would like it,” he explains.
If anyone knows the tastes of ITV2’s audience, it’s the voice of Love Island himself.
Subjected to a constant feedback loop via Twitter every night the programme airs ("I've been called some mad stuff on that website [...] it's pandemonium"), he knows the viewers inside out, so much so that when the seventh series of the reality show faced criticism for getting off to a sluggish start with a ‘boring cast’, Stirling saw it coming from a mile off.
“I find it hilariously predictable at this point,” the comedian says. “People say funny things [at the start] like, ‘This new lot are rubbish, they're nowhere near as good as Maura’… oh, you mean Maura [who] arrived four weeks in? Or ‘these people are nowhere near as good as Ovie’. Oh, Ovie who arrived during Casa Amor at the halfway point? People's memories are really weird.”
Stirling argues that Love Island faces the same issue as most scripted comedies in the initial challenge to win over viewers: “It's so hard to get a scripted comedy off the ground because you don't care about the characters, because you don't know them yet. What could [Love Island] do? Unless they were literally having sex on the first night and everything was crazy. You've got to invest in the characters, that's what you've got to do.”
Hosted by Stirling’s wife Laura Whitmore, the returning series of Love Island would have had to pull off nothing short of a miracle to match the huge sense of anticipation that had been building over the show’s eighteen-month hiatus and endless months of lockdown.
"There was a moment where Lucinda said, “It’s so weird getting hugs” and I thought, oh that’s nothing, you’re about to spit cocktail into his mouth,” Stirling quips.
While his wry narration may poke gentle fun at the artifice of reality TV and its contestants with a knowing wink, there’s still no bigger Love Island fan than Iain Stirling. He recalls the ‘millions’ of outrageous stand-out moments, from series four’s bust-up between Eyal and Hayley (‘I’m not your hun, hun’), to Jon phoning Hannah’s parents to ask for her hand in marriage in series one, “bearing in mind they’d never met the guy, had no idea who he was and probably didn’t watch the show at the time,” he laughs. “That was iconic."
In recent years, however, the after care of the show’s participants has been questioned following the tragic deaths of Mike Thalassitis and Sophie Gradon. In response, ITV published its new Duty of Care Protocols. The welfare plans include comprehensive psychological support, training for all islanders on the impacts of social media and handling potential negativity and a proactive aftercare package.
For Stirling, the show’s duty of care for the islanders while on the show has always been front and centre. “I remember every morning we’d get on the bus and the psychiatrist would be there, as just a normal part of working on the show,” he says. “I’ve known people who’ve worked on [Love Island] for seven or eight years, and I know they genuinely really care about the people on the show and want them to be okay and have a nice time,” he says.
“They’re fine in there. If they could just stay on Love Island forever, they'd be fine,” he adds. “But then we've got to let them go off and experience all the other stuff. That's the hard bit.”
Despite the drama, deceit and heartbreak, it’s the moments of true romance on Love Island that Stirling remembers most fondly. The comedian cites Alex Bowen’s devastation after failing the lie detector test and Olivia Buckland’s response as a rare moment of genuine vulnerability.
“It was this really amazing moment that’s so rare in telly, where it felt like a couple working something out,” he says. “It felt like a really special moment to witness in a couple's life, and then I'm at their wedding a few years later, going ‘oh, bloody hell I predicted that!’”
Buffering premieres with a double episode on ITV2 on Thursday 5th August at 10pm. All episodes with be available on ITV Hub.