Sam Bain &
Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong are the BAFTA award-winning writers of Peep Show, Fresh Meat, The Old Guys and Babylon. We caught up with them in a cafe near Sam's house.
~ 9,650 words ~
Originally published in Mustard #03
Part I: Getting started and Peep Show's first five series
Part II: Questions from Graham Linehan and Fred Armisen
Part III: Creating Peep Show's characters
Part IV-VI: Babylon, Fresh Meat, Rev
Part VII: The final series of Peep Show
We first interviewed Sam & Jesse soon after the fifth series of Peep Show aired.
So, you met at Manchester University?
Sam: Yeah, we met on a creative writing course, under strange circumstances. I knew that someone in the class was going out with my ex-girlfriend, but I didn't know who – I'd narrowed it down to either Jesse or this other guy. So I was eyeing Jesse up as a kind of weird potential love rival: “is he doing my ex-girlfriend? If he is, is that a good thing or not?”
Sam: Anyway, it turned out to be the other guy, but that was our exciting first encounter.
Did you start writing with each other during university?
Sam: Well, I did a magazine – a bit like yourself – called Square One, with Milly, who's now Jesse's wife. Jesse and I both wrote stuff for that, and then we shared a house in our fourth year.
Jesse: But we didn't do any writing together until we moved to London.
Sam: We were doing separate stuff. I wrote bunch of short stories and a novel – that didn't get anywhere.
Jesse: So we started writing together.
For us, the most important day is the first read-through. That's when we really see what we've got.
How did you two end up devising Peep Show with producer Andrew O'Connor?
Jesse: Andrew is a very creative guy with lots of ideas; he often has format ideas for shows that become long running programmes – he created The Alphabet Game, which is all over Europe now. Anyway, years after we left university, he came up with this comedy idea, which was two guys watching TV and talking about it, like Beavis and Butthead, but live action.
Jesse and I had been developing a few things and he said, “What do you think about this idea?”. Kevin Lygo, I think, at Channel 4 said it might be good for Mitchell and Webb to be the actors. We'd already been working with David and Robert, writing with them on another abortive project, a studio sitcom we wrote for the BBC, so we were a good fit to do it.
It needed another element to make it into a full half-hour show, rather than just these weird bite-sized clips of people talking crap over TV in a kind of ironic, post-pub way. So we came up with a bunch of ideas. Some were rubbish, like re-voicing a nature documentary, but a couple were good ideas – the point-of-view camera and the internal monologues, and those seemed to fit together.
So we pitched it to Channel 4 and did two 15-minute pilots, the first with quite a bit of watching TV and talking about it, and another which completed that half-hour story with much less of the TV watching.
Sam: They're ‘non-broadcast pilots'. A great process, because you can make loads of mistakes and nobody ever sees them. Like having a rough draft. So when people finally saw it, we'd already developed it quite a lot.
Mitchell and Webb contribute material, is that as improv during rehearsals?
Sam: No, it's during the writing stage. In the first series, they added a lot of value, brainstorming lines of dialogue. Since then, they've got busier so we haven't done it as much. But we talk to them about plot ideas for each series; we go and have a meeting with them.
Jesse: That's usually at the beginning or the end of our plotting sessions. Sometimes we pitch all our storyline ideas when they're starting to form, to see what they feel about them and the general shape of the series and their characters. They often have good input then about what could happen in episodes.
The idea is, when we've got the scripts we send them to them for punching up little lines here and there. As Sam says, they've been busier lately, but they still do that, they have a look at lines and come up with jokes.
But they don't tend to improvise with Peep Show. It's not their way of working. They're writers themselves, and they're very sweet and respectful about our stuff, and tend to do it pretty much as written.
How did you come up with the first-person camera point of view?
Sam: We nicked it from Being Caprice, a little show on Channel 4 back in 2001, where she went around with a camera in her sunglasses. Obviously, they nicked that from Being John Malkovich. It was a visual style that happened to be around and we thought it would be a good way to do comedy, to get a new perspective, to get inside someone's head.
It's a first-person sitcom and you don't get that much on TV. Even in film, I can only think of a couple of examples. There's a Raymond Chandler film called Lady in the Lake, with Alan Ladd. I've never seen it, but I've heard about it. And there are famous sequences, like the openings of Halloween and Strange Days.
Jesse: And the Smack My Bitch Up video, of which you're a massive fan.
Sam: (laughs) Yeah... it does have a power, a certain potency. Video games are the most common way to see the first-person view. Anyway, It felt like a nice technique. I don't know which idea came first, but the voiceovers key into that very much.
We thought it would be a good way to do comedy, to get a new perspective, to get inside someone's head.
When did you get interested in comedy?
Sam: Growing up, comedy and jokes are a big part of every kid's life. But also, in my case, my Mum was an actress in Terry and June, my Grandma was Miss Gatsby in Fawlty Towers and my Grandad was a music hall comedian, so I guess it's the family business. I don't know if that affected me consciously, but it was part of the atmosphere growing up.
Then, at university, in the creative writing course where I met Jesse, I wrote comedy because it was what I liked, it felt natural. I realised I had a talent for it and I liked the idea of making people laugh. It wasn't a conscious choice.
Did you ever want to perform?
Sam: No! There's so many good actors around, it would be churlish to impose my lack of talent on the acting profession.
What do your roles as Associate Producers involve?
Jesse: The main point of being Associate Producers was to get enough power to demand to be Executive Producers, which is what we are now! I don't know where we go next...
Sam: Über Producer?
Jesse: It's a step-ladder of increasingly impressive-sounding job titles! But, from doing a few TV shows early in our careers, we knew that writers can sometimes fall down a bit of a hole. There's so many people involved in the mechanics of making a TV show, that for the writers... there's nowhere to sit on set, no place for your input, there's not really a role.
I think people seeing you there as a producer suddenly changes things. Being a part of that process is really important. When you're an Executive Producer, they can't do things like casting without, at least, running things by you. I mean, none of this works if you're not collaborative. We've always been lucky enough to work with people who haven't been crazy or tried to do things we didn't want to do.
Sam: Being a producer is also a way of not getting killed. Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews told us a story once of how, because they weren't listed on the call sheet for a production of Father Ted, nobody warned them about some black ice on the road on the way to the location, and they almost had a car crash and died.
So, it just means your name's on a piece of paper, people know who you are, you get told about black ice and people know you're not a total shithead who can be ignored. It tends to work in that way.
Can you give us an insight into the process of planning and writing a show?
Sam: We have quite a structured process. We spend six weeks coming up with every idea we can: funny ideas, set pieces, arcs for characters to travel on, and characters to come into the show. We'll be very loose with ourselves as to what's allowed in the room, in terms of what's a valid comment or idea.
Towards the end of that process, we start narrowing it down to what ideas can fit into each episode. Then we spend about two weeks per episode plotting out what will happen exactly, in terms of scenes. Then maybe a week for each episode's first draft and a week rewriting that draft.
We don't go sequentially through the six episodes; we get all six to the scene-by-scene stage, then write first drafts for all of them and then go back and rewrite all of them. We do all the brainstorming together but the writing separately.
Jesse: We do the hard work together, basically. Plotting is the bit that really saps your brain... trying to be experimental, trying to make it work, it's difficult.
Sam: I find it easy, he finds it hard.
Jesse: Dialogue is almost the fun bit, really, and being on your own for that makes sense; you can get your flow on – it's more efficient.
What we do now is write an episode of Peep Show each. Then we send it to the other person and they'll rewrite somewhere between some and all of it. There may be scenes which remain 80–90% intact, but there's usually a lot of changes in that first draft, so you have to be able to be fairly ego-less about the other person rewriting your scene, otherwise the process won't work.
Then there's the rehearsal?
Sam: No, the next step is the read-through, which is a long time before the two week rehearsal period.
Is there much rewriting at this stage?
Jesse: Yeah, a lot. In a way, for us, the most important day is not the first day of filming but the first read-through. Then you can really see what you've got and whether it works or not. For some reason, until you hear it out loud, it's not really real. So many times episodes rise or fall at read-through level, “This one's great, but we had no idea how bad this one was”. We do a lot of rewriting after that. And some during rehearsal, but hopefully we've got all the heavy lifting done by then.
So how long from starting the initial planning sessions to beginning filming?
Sam: About six months. And we're working pretty much exclusively on Peep Show during that time. So it takes about a month per episode. I don't know how that compares to other writers – I'd be fascinated to know! It's probably a bit slow...
And then the filming?
Jesse: Yes, seven weeks in total.
Are you guys involved in the editing?
Jesse: Yeah, it's endless!
Sam: We write a lot of the voiceovers during the edit. They're recorded in the studio, so you can cue them as much as you like. If you realise there's something missing from a scene you can use a voiceover to cover that. Or just to add new jokes. We end up writing quite a lot of new stuff at this point, actually, making changes as well.
Does filming take longer because you shoot from each character's perspective?
Jesse: Not really... in any show, if you've got a scene with a lot of people in it, you'd need to do over the shoulder shots, two different sizes and a master shot – so it's not that dissimilar. And we never do master shots on Peep Show, so we save time there.
What we can't do, with our filming style, is shorten the length of a scene. In a conventional show, you can say “right, for this scene, I just need a master and these two close ups, and that will do”. But we have to shoot everything from the two main people's point of views, otherwise you're not going to get what you need to edit the scene. So some of the normal cheats aren't available.
Sam: The lighting takes ages, it's very hard to light this show because the camera might move round 360° when someone's turning their head. Normally you'd light one way, then turn the camera the other way. So the real test is for the lighting department.
You've regularly worked for Channel 4 rather than BBC...
Jesse: Well, we do Peep Show with them and it takes a lot of time, so we don't do a huge amount of other stuff. Though we are doing a new show for BBC Scotland right now, and I also do The Thick of It. We've got no particular bias towards Channel 4, but, having said that, we know all the people there, we like them all, it's a place we go with ideas. But it's not like we picked our 'favourite channel'; in that case we'd be working for QVC.
Sam: I love that channel.
Peep Show is very dialogue-heavy, so do you think it would have worked in other mediums, such as radio?
Jesse: That's an interesting question. It ties in with what Sam was saying about how much we love the read-throughs. When you hear them, it's very compelling, which may be, as you say, because it's dialogue heavy and also duologue heavy. You get a good sense of it, but there is an important difference between hearing something and seeing something.
How would you classify Peep Show, is it heightened-reality, farce..?
Jesse: Luckily, we don't have to choose a genre to be under at HMV. For me it's a post-The Office sitcom. It's got that realism I'd associate with The Office and the Royle Family. That idea, that the show would be funnier if it feels quite real, is at the heart of it.
Sam: It's also a post-Spaced sitcom. Spaced opened up the way you can shoot sitcoms. We've got a different style, but the show has that influence.
Peep Show has definite story arcs; things change and the narrative moves on, so in this sense would you say it's not a traditional sitcom?
Sam: We can't take credit for that idea; it's been done in a quite a few shows. I mean, Friends had long running romantic arcs.
Jesse: I don't know if there's any long-running sitcoms these days where things don't change.
Sam: I guess in Seinfeld, there's definitely strong story arcs, but they're all in the same place by the end of the series as when they started out. Their story arcs have a reset button. Jerry's never going to get married and have a baby. So we're more arc-y than that.
Jesse: Friends is the most arc-y sitcom I can think of.
What are your comedy influences?
Sam: In terms of British sitcoms, it would be things like Alan Partridge and Fawlty Towers. But the biggest influence has to be Seinfeld. It managed to take the genre apart whilst remaining very authentic, and it's so complex; it revolutionised sitcom plotting. The tone, the way the characters interact, the fact you've got these four characters who are so different – if you want to learn how to write a sitcom, it's a masterclass. It's my favourite sitcom, it just has everything. It's something we aspire to and try and learn from.
And Jesse and I bonded over a love of Woody Allen. He's our ultimate hero as a comedy writer, director and performer. There's definitely a through-line from Woody Allen, to George Costanza, to Mark Corrigan.
I laughed the most, and was most horrified by, the wedding episode. People's lives being pulled apart seems much worse than having them eat a dog.
Jesse: The wedding episode is probably my favourite, off the top of my head. It's got a massive conceit, which could be seen as being from a different sort of show, but if you get that realism going as well then that's the best stuff that we can do.
Do you think we used to have shows for the whole family, whilst modern shows are for more segmented audiences?
Sam: Well, I think that some shows have a natural audience – The Young Ones, obviously, is probably not a family show.
Jesse: We didn't have any audience in mind, we just wrote the funniest thing we could write for David and Robert. We knew it was for Channel 4, so maybe that gave it a sensibility. I think you can have the general aspiration to write a show for the whole family, but the show you end up writing is whatever it is. If you start out with a particular audience in mind, that's a certain route to unhappiness for everyone involved.
I'd love to write a show like Father Ted which can appeal to everyone, I think that's really very hard and if you can do that it's extraordinary, amazing. But as a writer you have to follow where your characters take you, where your nose leads you in terms of the comedy. Sure, you might take out some swear words, or think that maybe you've made a character so unremittingly horrible that people would find it unpleasant – then you can nudge it and tweak it and push it.
But, in the end, the show's still there, lying at your feet, crying, saying “why have you made me, Dad? I didn't want to be this way!”
Sam: (laughing) I think you should stop channelling your family life quite so relentlessly.
Peep Show does very well critically and has a loyal, but fairly small audience.
Jesse: I'm leaving!
You're The Wire of sitcoms
Sam: Ah, nice!
Jesse: What, 'overrated'? (laughs)
Why do you think this is, will it change, and what are the advantages and disadvantages?
Jesse: Well, the critical thing will definitely change, eventually! People will get bored, move on. Sad thing is, we won't be able to distinguish whether it's us who've changed or if it's...
Sam: The backlash!
Jesse: But the audience will never dramatically change now.
Sam: Oh, come on – Series Six!
Jesse: Sam still believes. That's why you see him out on the street with his leaflets.
Sam: It doesn't really bother us anymore because the show keeps getting recommissioned.
Jesse: A lot of the sort of people who are really into comedy like it. And, to be respected by people you respect, that's the most incredibly pleasing thing about what's happened.
Didn't Ricky Gervais, whilst accepting an award, berate the judges for not nominating Peep Show?
Jesse: He... yeah, he took his clothes off and... attacked a guy.
Sam: Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen. Don't know why he attacked him – he wasn't even a judge.
Jesse: He felt he was the media spokesperson...
Sam: (laughing) It got really ugly and inappropriate.
Jesse: Ricky Gervais was an early and vocal supporter. That was at a crucial time for us, when it could have gone either way. We always felt supported by people at Channel 4 who liked it, but probably, hovering in the background were people with pieces of paper thinking they could do something that would get more viewers and which might be cheaper. So it was really useful to have someone with a big public profile like Ricky, and other supportive folk who were around at the time, saying we were a good show. That's crucial.
Am I right in saying that you've been commissioned for several more series?
Sam: No, you're wrong! It would be nice if we were, but no, we've got one more series commissioned. It's a one-series commission thing, on a series-by-series basis.
Jesse: It keeps us on our toes.
Sam: If we got a whole bumper pack of commissions we might just bloat up, go off to the south of France and write some old shit, and say: “it's just a lame duck series, who cares?” So it's probably a good thing. Keeps us hungry.
What advice would you give to aspiring comedy writers?
Sam: Get any experience you can. Jesse and I started writing links on The Big Breakfast and voiceovers for Robot Wars – it helps you learn language for TV and you get paid. So take any job that's coming.
Stay in production, stay working near or in production as much as possible. What helped us a lot was writing for kids TV, because it's so tight and the medium is so demanding. There aren't that many long-running sitcoms for adults in the UK, so it's a really good way of learning on the job.
To be respected by people who you respect,
that's the most incredibly pleasing thing.
Are you working on Old Guys now?
Jesse: Yeah, it's a BBC Scotland sitcom with Roger Lloyd Pack, Clive Swift, Katherine Parkinson and Jane Asher. It's currently called Old Guys, though we might call it All Day Breakfast, re-using the title of that unaired pre-Peep Show project. It's six episodes for BBC1 and we're going out in front of a live studio audience. Well, we're not; the actors are.
Sam: No, didn't I tell you? You're playing the lead.
Jesse: This is really bad news! But, yeah, we're terrified.
Sam: I'm not terrified.
Jesse: Sam's complacent, but I'm terrified.
Sam: Not complacent, confident.
Jesse: Unfortunately, I don't distinguish between those two states of mind, which is problematic.
We're writing now. Joking apart, I am terrified because you're going in front of a studio audience with your stuff. The most terrifying possibility... no, the second most terrifying, would be that they all laugh a lot and the most terrifying possibility is that they laugh a lot, but when you put it on TV the audience at home say: “why the hell are they laughing?”
The danger is doing it just for the studio audience, with weird sitcom performances and everything over-lit. It's like: “we had a great time on the night, but I'm not sure why the people at home aren't enjoying it”.
Hmm. Maybe it would be even worse if they didn't laugh on the night.
Sam: (laughing) You're not really thinking very positively! You've got to focus on... you keep changing your visualisation.
Jesse: I always visualise heavily on failure. And it's worked.
Sam: Except you're a very depressed and unhappy man.
Jesse: I'm not.
Sam: (laughing) ...who loathes success.
Jesse: I'm not. I'm happy. I do visualisation exercises.
Since Peep Show isn't in front of a live audience, how do you gauge reaction?
Jesse: For each series we host a screening party with David and Robert, and invite all our friends. Partly because it's so nice for us to hear people laughing at the show.
Sam: They all have instructions where to laugh.
Jesse: It's lovely to hear people laughing, live and direct. For this series we've done a couple of screenings.
Sam: We did one BAFTA screening of the first episode which was really helpful. Although, we rewrote it, quite a lot.
Jesse: Did we? The voiceovers?
Sam: Yeah, do you not remember all that work we did, four months ago?
Jesse: No, luckily.
Sam: Yeah, there was a slightly chilly response to some bits. We did a lot of rewrites in the edit.
Jesse: Oh yeah! The burgling episode. That was really useful. Sam even said afterwards we should screen all our episodes. Even though there were four weeks of hard work afterwards trying to put it right. But you can see why people screen things.
Sam: It's quite hard medicine, but it is helpful.
Jesse: Is that a phrase? 'Hard medicine'?
Sam: Yes. Yes it is.
As is Mustard tradition, we have a few questions from our other interviewees:
Sam: I knew he'd ask that!
Jesse: No, I don't think there's pressure to be more extreme, not at all. On the whole, we follow our noses. You shift your own boundaries in terms of acceptability and taste.
The first series had fairly extreme things happening. I mean, it ends with Jeremy being masturbated by a woman who thinks he's got a terminal disease! And to me, after that, eating a dog is like going to the Dolly Mixtures.
Sam: Yeah, I agree. I think Graham said he wasn't sure about the second episode of Series Five, where there's a lot of reference to sucking off a teenage boy in a band, and I think we felt a bit unsure about that ourselves.
Jesse: In retrospect. And mainly because we did a casting change at the last minute for that character.
Sam: He was a lot younger than he was meant to be. It was originally going to be the actor who played Sophie's brother in the previous series.
Jesse: I mean, he was a brilliant actor, but in retrospect might have been too young. That's an example of where I've felt like we've maybe gone over the edge, but I don't feel we feel pressure to go there. Back when we were planning this episode, we thought it would be funny if Super Hans says 'would you suck us off?'. And then later on we thought that it would be funny if it actually happened.
I guess, having someone eat a dog, it's not exactly darker or edgier, but in comic terms it's more cartoony, bigger, and that is a dial that, arguably, has got turned up a little bit in later series.
Sam: We like some of that stuff a lot.
Jesse: Yeah, when all the comic tools are there to play with. But we're eager to make sure it always feels within the bounds of possibility.
Sam: There's nothing worse than forced farce, when it's illogical. We try and have a moratorium on that. We always try and make at least some logical steps in that direction. You've got to earn it, really, those moments.
Jesse: The only one when we've not got that was when we did the Indecent Proposal episode with Johnson. I remember us laughing so much about the idea and thought that 'indecent proposal' was a funny phrase, and the film is quite risible, and we thought, yeah, we can do that.
Sam: That's is a good example of where, with the first beat of the story, you begin in heightened reality. Whereas the dog-eating is the very last beat of that story, so you work your way up from ordinary reality. You could run over a dog, you could put it in the bin, you might burn it, yeah, you might possibly do that, maybe you would. You go through the steps, the moments. You need to do that.
Sam: Thanks Fred! I love Portlandia. I hear you're making a film with Terry Zwigoff – I met him last year, what a total dude, hope you have a blast.
Four Lions was Chris Morris' idea. He came to us to help develop the characters and story and we ended up writing the first draft of the screenplay. I don't think I would have ever dared go into such treacherous territory without a Field Marshal like Chris leading from the front. In retrospect, my only regret about the film is that we didn't put a bird on it.
JESSE: Jeremy was sort of the first character. He came out of All Day Breakfast, the aborted BBC show we'd written with David and Rob, also about a flatshare, and with vaguely similar characters. Robert played an insufferably posh idiot. We took that character's DNA, removed his poshness and a certain heightened sense about him. We knew this was a good character, this arrogant, overconfident/underconfident guy who's overly concerned with what people think of him, thinks he's incredibly talented but isn't, but also has a thick skin about that. We knew that Rob was brilliant at playing that.
SAM: Jeremy's voiceovers are different to Mark's. I don't think they're anywhere near as realistic, they're a joke on someone who thinks he's great. A lot of the time his voiceovers are thoughts like, "I'm so amazing".
JESSE: Jeremy's the opposite of Mark, in that he's much less self-conscious.
SAM: With Mark, we were basically trying to find a voice that would play off well with Jeremy. We'd written a character for another show who was very anxious and neurotic, and we thought 'this is a good voice that we haven't done much with', and it seems very appropriate to have a neurotic guy bouncing off an arrogant guy – a good match. He's kind of an old man, also. And in that previous show we worked on with David and Robert, David's character was quite a worker bee, a guy who aspired to being a suited member of the business community, so we fitted that into it too.
JESSE: Mark emerged out of the first bits of internal monologue we'd written for a character, a guy observing the minutiae of life, this hyper-observant, self-dissecting person. All those characteristics of Mark that we've come to love were built around that central consciousness. Which is why Mark's always been very good to write internal monologues for; because that's how he started out. Mark's a more self-conscious character, and there's not a lot of characters in comedy who are as self-conscious as he is. There's David Brent, perhaps. He realises, too late, what he's saying and tries to self correct. I don't know whether that's self-consciousness or self-awareness. But normally it's hard to do, because you can't just have people speaking their brains. Unless you have a performance that nails it, self-awareness is death to comedy. Self-conscious people don't tend to... blurt things out. That's why writing voiceovers has been key to getting Mark's character.
SAM: Our internal-monologue technique has given us a whole other way of doing it
SAM: We were given a lovely gift, the gift of Olivia Colman. We said to Dave and Rob, we need a woman for this pilot, do you know any women? Who are brilliant actresses? They said yes, we do, and introduced us to Olivia. We were so lucky to have our three core cast in place before anything had been filmed, because we could write for them and around them.
JESSE: The character's been built up around Collie. If you look at the first scripts, she was mainly a foil for Mark. It was only through her good acting that there's much more there going on. Subsequently, we've found different angles to the character. She's got a malicious side, she's not entirely un-self-serving, she's a bit of a hippy, a hedonist. It's really quite fun thing to find your characters and think yeah, she might go and work in a juice bar, she might have a bit of breakdown, she probably does just want a baby now, and who's around? So we made her up as we went along.
SAM: It's fair to say, in the first series she was definitely just a foil for Mark's desires. As we carried on we had to develop her, think about her point of view.
JESSE: We asked: "what's it like to fancy someone who you don't know much about?" You idealise them, and that's all great stuff for comedy. Then you have to go past that stage – that's also great for comedy, when reality crunches in.
SAM: This was another casting triumph. Originally, he was going to be Dutch. It was a completely different character; this well meaning, stupid, enthusiastic Dutch lodger called Super Hans. But then we completely changed the character.
JESSE: But I'm so glad we kept the name, as it's difficult to get a good name. The character now isn't meant to be Dutch or German so it's unexplained, it's a nice mystery why it's his nickname. We did think about Super Hans in a slightly more mechanistic way – or maybe we always do this – we thought it would be great if Jeremy had someone to look up to, who was more than him at everything. More ridiculous, more stupid, more clever, more talented, less talented... super-ego, super Jeremy.
SAM: He's a foil really, for Jeremy – like Johnson is to Mark.
JESSE: Yeah, but not just a foil, a very funny character in his own right and really enhanced by the performance. Also, I remember, when we were coming up with the character, thinking that it would be good for Mark and Jeremy to have someone who, literally, has a different voice. A different sounding character, who comes from a different background, a different angle and I think it's really great to see him rub off on Mark and Jeremy and see the friction there.
JESSE: He was a one-episode character in the first series, and we liked the way he impacted on Mark. I remember talking about using him for the second series.
SAM: We weren't that happy with the manager character from the first series, Barbara.
JESSE: She just didn't have that many jokes.
SAM: And I remember Jesse saying: "why don't we just have Johnson?" That was when 10 years of working with Jesse made good – I finally saw why I had him around!
JESSE: But Johnson was meant to be a management consultant, so how could we bring him back? It's funny, it shows how obsessive writers can be: "He's a consultant, why would he work in a loan company? He'd never get the job!" But, at a certain point, when you have a character who fits and the dynamic works... well, I'm sure he could get that job.
SAM: (laughing) I don't... I'm still against it!
JESSE: We liked that character, that bullshitting businessman – it's not an unusual voice for comedy, but it's an amazing performance, and that makes it feel different. So that's it. He came into an episode and we thought: "you're great, please stick around".
SAM: Toni was the main love interest in Series One and we really liked that voice – that very overconfident woman, kind of brisk and predatory. But the first series was her best series because we never felt we could sustain her as a love interest. The character wasn't particularly likeable and we really wanted Jeremy to have a love interest to make him more sympathetic. We never could quite believe he'd be in love with her, so we brought Nancy in who was more convincing. So Toni sort of dropped out of the series a bit. And also, in Series Three there were issues with the availability of the actress, Elizabeth, so that was the end of that character.
SAM: Jeff was one of the rare times where we cast the actor, Neil Fitzmaurice, without having auditioned them. Channel 4 thought he was perfect, but we hadn't seen him so were a bit unsure. But when he came in we were so pleased, because he brings something really brilliant to the character. And he was so good in Series Two, where he had a lot more to do, as Sophie's boyfriend - he has an edge to him, an aggression, but he's also such a good actor, he can give you extra dimensions, extra emotion. We got so much more than we ever expected from him.
SAM: Originally, Nancy was only in one episode. We had this hippy dance class idea and she fitted it well for that. She wasn't American or anything, she wasn't technically a character at that point. But then we got a message from Channel 4 saying, in a slightly embarrassed way, that it would be nice to have a really good-looking girl in the series as a regular character. We thought, okay, we could resent that and be cynical and annoyed at the channel about that, or we could embrace it. And we already had this dancing hippy-chick character, and we liked the Christian angle, we thought that was quite edgy and interesting, so we created Nancy.
It wasn't until we got to planning Episode Six that we realised she should be foreign, because we really loved the visa-wedding storyline. American seemed right, for the sort of hippy, Californian stuff. We auditioned some really good female actors who were either American or could do the accent and we got very close to casting one, but Iain Morris from C4 was very insistent we go to America to cast, to get someone authentic. We got Rachel that way, she's Canadian and has an English dad. It was an odd thing having this stunningly beautiful American in this grubby flat in Croydon. I think it worked. She was not of their world and I think that was a good thing, not a bad thing.
SAM: Big Suze was created to replace Nancy in Series Three. We had already written six episodes with Nancy, but then Rachel Blanchard wasn't available. So we had to figure that one out, and our best idea was to create a new character who could effectively replace Nancy in the existing storyline, so we didn't have to start from scratch.
We already had this name, 'Big Suze', that we'd mentioned in a previous episode, just a throwaway joke about an ex-girlfriend of Jeremy's. So we thought she's the obvious candidate, and we auditioned actors using the Nancy dialogue that we'd already written for Rachel Blanchard, to see who would present themselves as someone we could write for – we always like to write for actors rather than writing characters blind. Anyway, Sophie Winkleman turned up and she had a totally different thing going on. She was very beautiful, which helps as that's one of the key things about the character; Jeremy's in love with her and obsessed by her. But she had this unique persona and we liked the very posh thing and her whole manner seemed very funny and very original to us.
SAM: The character's death was a bit of a shock for Jim Howick. The producer, Phil Clarke, had asked him if he was up for doing that series and he'd literally said “yeah, as long as you don't kill me off the first episode”, which is exactly what we'd done. I felt bad for him, because he's such a sweet, loyal guy. He's one of the second generation cast who'd been a fan of the show before being in it, so it was quite emotional. We'd always really liked the character, and Jim's performance, but we felt that one of the funniest things about him was his constant illness, so where do we go with that? And we thought the wildest place we could go was to the grave.
SAM: Dobby was obviously an attempt to create a new love interest for Mark and we definitely didn't want to go back to him and Sophie, we felt that we'd gone down that road, finished that route. We wanted a character who had a very particular strong voice and we liked the idea of writing a female geek. I think it's true that, if you're a man, writing female characters isn't as easy as writing male. We thought that a female geek could be very appealing for Mark, and a very good voice for a female character. We felt we could write that character pretty well, and since we're going to write more Dobby in Series Six we wanted someone who could be a continuing love interest, who might be a good match for Mark - we had ideas like them playing online fantasy games and stuff like that. Then Isy Suttie came in and she blew us away by being perfect. It really helped having her there, so we could write for her.
Dobby pt 2: Isy Suttie Interview
How was it acting to POV cameras?
ISY: At first it was very weird. To kiss, you have to put your mouth on a bit of gaffa tape on the bottom of the camera, where the camera's "mouth" is, then sort of smack your lips together as you finish. I got used to it eventually...
How did they do that effect of you two looking into a mirror?
ISY: It was quite technical, really. I had to look at my own reflection and flick my eyes onto David's eyes (in the mirror) a bit – I think he had to do something similar. We didn't look down the camera at all. It was terrifying looking into my own eyes and doing a sex face, and it seemed like a really long time because Dobby doesn't say much in that scene; it's mostly Mark's voiceover.
How defined was Dobby in the script?
ISY: Pretty defined. When I went for the auditions they were specific that they wanted her to be geeky but a bit quirkily cool – I hope I pulled that off! I did make up the tune and dance for the 'Jeff's doing a joke' song, though - it just said in the script "sings and does a naval style jig".
What impact has the role had?
ISY: Well, I've had a few marriage proposals. And an entire rugby team asked me to sing 'Jeff's doing a joke' for their ringtone. Peep Show fans are often real die hard fans, who genuinely love the show, so when they talk to you it's done with passion, which is great. A few people have advised me, very seriously, that Dobby and Mark should have a wizard-themed wedding in a forest.
We caught up with Sam Bain again in Sept 2014, to discuss more Peep Show,
Fresh Meat, Babylon, Rev and other things:
You used a lot of sitcom actors on Babylon. How different was it writing drama to sitcom?
Well, it's on the tonal spectrum, so although there are jokes in it, as you rightly say it's much nearer drama. I love actors like Paterson Joseph, Jonny Sweet, Jimmy Nesbitt and Jim Howick, who are clearly very funny actors, but can also do drama. Those are my favourite to write for, because you've got a bigger palette to paint from. You can have a character be funny one minute, and deadly serious the next, and they will make it work.
Is it open-ended? Or will it have a definite beginning, middle and end?
We haven't got any plans to finish the series or anything like that, so yeah, it's open ended.
Can you tell me anything about what's planned for this series?
Not a huge amount, because I haven't got my orders from the Channel 4 marketing department yet. But all the characters from the pilot are back, without exception. It's got a bigger scope, because we had time to develop a longer story with all the characters. It really feels like the biggest series I've ever been involved with. It's a four month shoot. Hopefully it's improved on the pilot, but I'm a bit too close to it to judge right now.
Did the success of Peep Show give you power to get these other shows made?
Sam: Absolutely. Fresh Meat is a classic example, in that we wrote the first draft about 15 years ago. It was for the BBC, under Geoffrey Perkins, as a half hour sitcom. And it was grandly rejected. They disliked it so much that they didn't even pay us the second half of our script fee.
Yeah, so we put it on ice. And then, post Peep Show, people were asking if we had anything in the bottom drawer, so to speak.
So we said, “Oh, yeah, we've got this kind of soapy sitcom about students”. So we dusted it off, gave it a fairly vigorous rewrite, including making it longer, but keeping the same student comedy drama with the same six characters. And Channel 4 couldn't wait to do it, thankfully, which shows that having a name makes all the difference.
What are the pros and cons of being a show runner rather than the main writers?
Yeah, great question. The pros are that you get to meet and work with a lot of brilliant people. A writer's room should be a really fun place to be, and that's certainly true on Fresh Meat. There's a lot of really smart, funny people being smart and funny. And you get to see writers grow, which is fantastic. Like Penny Skinner, who'd never written anything for TV before, but is now an extremely sought-after TV and film writer. I feel really proud that we helped her along the way a bit. You get to enjoy their writing and hopefully take a bit of credit for it.
What is the mentoring and script-editing process?
Well, it's pretty intensive. And it can be quite brutal. You know, not every writer has got the make-up for it, because it can be a bit like boot camp. Every draft is heavily noted by us and by the channel, which takes some getting used to as a writer, especially if you haven't done much TV before. Sometimes you're going over every draft and detail, hopefully in the most good natured, creative way possible, but writing for TV at this level is quite demanding, you have to get it right, and that usually means a lot of re-writing.
Your episode of Rev was one of the few scripts that you've written entirely by yourself...
Sam: Yeah, that's my first solo British TV credit, although I also did a solo script for the American show Children's Hospital.
How does it compare to working with a co-writer?
It didn't actually feel that much different, because I was working so closely with James Wood and Tom Hollander. I was a script editor on the whole series, and right at the beginning of the process we went away for a weekend to brainstorm all the episodes. But that particular episode was quite dramatic, so it actually helped to be a solo writer, because you can perhaps go a bit deeper, and it doesn't have the same need to punch things up all the time, which is what a writing partner is so great for.
And now, on Babylon, me and Jesse are doing solo episodes; he's written two, I've written two and Jon Brown's written two, and because it's a drama, I think it helps.
On Rev you were writing for Olivia again, and once more with relationship problems.
I love writing for Olivia, I would have that on my passport – job description: “Olivia Colman's bitch”. I'd write for her anytime, anywhere. She's one of those actors who always delivers. You can throw anything at her and she'll do it brilliantly. It's been wonderful watching her ascend the heights that she's now reached, it's really been thrilling.
Was it a challenge writing for characters that someone else had created?
Actually the reason that I wanted to get involved was because I saw the first series and I had a gut feeling of “I could do this, I get all these characters, I like them all”. It was one of those nice things when you can sort of reach into the TV and play around with it, because I was able to get in contact through the producer, Kens Allen, who I know from years ago. And it was a joy because I'm a fan of the show, it's beautifully constructed, cast and written, so it was pretty easy to get into because it's all there, really.
With Peep Show now at series 8, what's harder to write, new jokes or new plots?
Sam: Definitely the plots. Our big fear is repeating ourselves. We're like old men, saying “didn't we do that in Series Two?” “Did he ever go out with her?” There've been 48 episodes over eleven years and it's like trying to remember your childhood. I think at one point we realised we'd given Jeremy chlamydia twice. We really need a dedicated Peep Show fan to sit there reminding us what happened. We've put the characters through so much hell. Fresh hell, that's the challenge!
Mark's baby hasn't featured much, is that because kids don't really fit into the Peep Show universe?
That's true to a degree. It is essentially the Mark and Jeremy show and we were nervous about introducing a kid because it would change that dynamic. The other factor is that Olivia Colman has become a superstar, quite deservedly, which makes it harder to get her back on Peep Show.
Are we likely to see any more collaborations with Chris Morris?
Me and Jesse have been talking to Chris, nothing to announce yet, but I wouldn't rule it out.
Although they're all sitcoms, Peep Show, Old Guys, Bad Sugar and Fresh Meat all have very different tones. How do you get in that headspace when you're writing, and how do you get the audience in that headspace?
Yeah, that's a good question. Tone is really key, I think. Shows that work have a really consistent, clear, individual tone. But it's a really hard thing to pin down.
With Fresh Meat, until we saw it on the screen, we didn't realise how different it was going to be to Peep Show. Partly it was that it's a comic drama, so you can have scenes with fewer jokes, but also it was because of the casting. Because with younger actors, if they behave really badly, you sort of forgive them more easily, whereas Jeremy and Mark should know a lot better.
Babylon is a whole other ballgame, as it's much more of a drama. I was watching episodes this morning for the edit, and we're well into drama territory, a lot of scenes with no jokes, which is a whole other challenge. It was out of our comfort zone to a degree. Hopefully it works, but you can judge that better than me probably!
Then Bad Sugar was sort of our Father Ted, it was a really fun tonal journey for us, because it's very big and silly, and most of our stuff is sort of realistic.
When you wrote The Old Guys in the more trad style, was that purposely to give yourself a change of pace?
Yeah, we talked about whether we should do single camera or multi camera, and we thought we've never done multi camera, so let's give it a go.
I was pleased that it got two series, because it meant that we got a chance to do everything that we wanted. It was a real delight to work with everyone on that show, particularly Roger, who has sadly passed away now, of course.
Bad Sugar was commissioned for a full series but is that still in the offing?
No, it's not going to happen. We all got too busy. With all the cast, Julia Davis, Olivia Colman, Sharon Horgan, as you can imagine it was just impossible to schedule, sadly.
What's on your bucket list now? Do you want to move to American TV, or do more films?
Me and Jesse are doing a lot of solo stuff, he's got stuff in America, I've written an American film that I'm trying to get made...
Well, a film set in America. It's not an American film yet because it's still just a piece of paper. (laughs) I can't really, say more yet, because we're trying to get it together, but I've got a director and a producer attached so that's good.
Also I'm starting to write a British script for Film 4, and then a play, which I'm trying to get started on, so I'm doing various bits and pieces.
Peep Show is the longest running Channel 4 sitcom, and it's spanned a huge growth in everyone's careers. Was there a specific point at which you thought, 'this is it, we've made it'?
There were several points that stand out for me. First was getting a series commission, then getting a series re-commission. Getting a second series is the main hurdle, it means the show's not been a total flop. The worry is doing one series and you're out. Then I think there was a bit of wobbling around re-commissioning the show after series three, I forget all the details now. But once that was re-commissioned, we felt like we'd generated enough stuff, we'd been around long enough that people had seen the show, and there was a following for it, which had taken a while. And then winning the BAFTA for series four, that seal of approval gives you confidence and a sense of security that it's going to be a lot harder for anyone to cancel the show. That was a very big moment for us.
You've decided that this will be the final series: is that because you feel that it's reaching a natural end, or because you guys are all so busy on your other projects?
I think it's a bit of both, to be honest. Yeah, we do have Fresh Meat, we have Babylon. Three series up and running is a lot. We're doing both Fresh Meat and Peep Show next year, which is hard, and we don't want to enter nervous breakdown territory.
Also, we're all scared about doing a rubbish series. We don't want the standards to drop, we want to keep the stories fresh, and there are only a finite amount of stories you can tell about any character; it's not ever going to go on forever. With the shows that do go on forever, often you see a drop of quality, which is sad for the big fans of the show, right?
So, like Tony Blair, and like Mark in the wedding episode, we're keen to focus on legacy (laughs). We don't want to be remembered as the guys who let it drift into mediocrity. We'd rather go out on a high, and we want to put as much effort into this one as any previous series.
I think it also energises us as writers to know it's the final series, because you can say, well, what have we never done? What else do we need to do? This is our last chance.
Are you planning on a definite ending, like them finally moving out, or a flash forward to twenty years later where they're still living together?
No flash forwards! No Six Feet Under ending. Yeah they're not gonna die, you can put that as a spoiler alert right now. The truth is that we haven't decided yet, but I think we'll probably leave ourselves some wriggle room.
So you're writing the episodes at the moment?
Yes, we're in the early stages, we're doing series storylining.
Might we be seeing the return of any old favourites like Johnson or Sophie?
I don't know if they're available, but we certainly have ideas for those characters, for pretty much all the main characters as well as a few old favourites.
Are you able to say whether Dobby will be appearing?
Yeah, I think we can say that she'll be back.
Post-Peep Show, will we still see you working with Mitchell and Webb in some form or other?
I think so, yeah. It's such a treat working with them. Not just because they're the funniest actors I've ever worked with, but also because they're incredibly supportive and respectful of the scripts, and crucially they keep wanting to do the show. If it was up to them we would never stop. And you can't really put a price on that, because with most series, actors get a bit restless; they want to go to Hollywood or do a play, or a drama. David and Rob, to their great credit, realise how special the show is, how good it is I think, and they really appreciate it. And that's great for us, it makes our life a lot easier. So whatever the project, I'd love to work with them.
You've now created sitcoms covering youth, middle age and old age, so what's left; toddlers or the afterlife?
Oh, the afterlife, definitely. It could be a flat share with heaven upstairs, hell downstairs – it's gonna be crazy! What if Angel Gabriel wanders through the wrong door and gets torched by demons? It writes itself.
Coming to ITV 2 this autumn.
Sam and Jesse interviewed by Alex Musson
in 2014 and 2008
Sam Bain & Jesse Armstrong