Did you know Clark Gable didn’t clean his teeth for a month during Gone with the Wind? Stephen Mangan says brightly. “He hated Vivien Leigh and she hated cigars so he’d puff one just before each take.” Whereas you deliberately have Smarties before we kiss,” Tamsin Greig cuts in. “Torturing me with chocolate.” “All I’m saying is there was one person I used to eat a big box of crackers before kissing on set,” says Matt LeBlanc. “Wait. Maybe that was my dentist. I hated that guy,” and they giggle like children. “I’m sorry,” Mangan says between gasps. “We just don’t see each other enough.”
This is what it’s like interviewing the stars of Episodes – BBC2’s sitcom about two British writers whose intellectual comedy, originally starring Richard Griffiths, gets remade in Hollywood as Pucks! with Matt LeBlanc. Having dealt with the destruction of their dream in series one, Beverly (Greig) and Sean (Mangan) spent series two wrestling with temptation, which resulted in Beverly sleeping with Matt.
In season three, the couple are in therapy, where the therapist asks Beverly what her vagina would say if it could talk. Even now – nine months since filming – LeBlanc is laughing so much he can’t get his answers out, until Greig scolds him gently – “We’ve got company…”
It’s clear that the three of them get on very well – riffing like a classic comedy trio. It’s almost like interviewing the Marx Brothers – had Groucho been a woman. When RT comments on Episodes busting the old trope that viewers don’t like watching TV shows about people making TV shows, LeBlanc explains: “This isn’t necessarily a show that’s just about making a show. These characters are dealing with things like a horrible boss, infidelity, friendships gone bad, trust issues. Everybody can relate to having an awful boss or a cheating wife or…”
“Or having a stalker,” Mangan cuts in.
LeBlanc doesn’t flicker. “Right. Because everyone deals with having sex with their stalker… It’s very common. Like orange juice.”
“Absolutely,” Greig nods. “Like orange juice it’s everywhere, and it’s a little bit sticky.”
Series one had a mixed reception from the critics, who seemed unsure about the welding of the BBC’s very British classic sitcom structure to the brash American Showtime channel sensibility. You could almost hear the sharp intake of breath when US success helped the team secure a second series. And then, a little like Blackadder, something clicked and everything got a whole lot zippier. Now season three is heading for the screen and a fourth is about to start filming.
“It’s always like that in the first season of a show,” shrugs Friends veteran LeBlanc. “You have a lot of exposition. These are all new characters; you don’t know how they relate to one another. You have a lot of work to do as a viewer. Second season – if you get there – you can have more fun, but you still can’t have standalone episodes. You still need that ‘this is what it is’ signage, if you will. The third season you’re off to the races. You can really let the dog off the leash…” he trails off.
Since the show’s 2011 debut, life has increasingly imitated fiction, with British and American TV industries intertwining – US stars like Gillian Anderson show up in UK prime time as often as limeys like Damian Lewis and Andrew Lincoln do over there. With The Office and Veep, you’ve now got Brits re-creating UK comedy shows for the Yanks. Does that mean people view Episodes differently across the pond or are we all just one great big English-speaking TV audience?
“I think the Brits like to watch through Beverly and Sean’s eyes, thinking, ‘Those crazy Americans in Hollywood!’ ” Mangan begins.
“Most of the States probably look at it in that way as well,” says LeBlanc. “This fish-out-of- water-in-Hollywood device means we can state the obvious about Hollywood then rip it up.”
“Actually, we find the thing most people in this country are interested to know is what Matt LeBlanc is really like,” Greig says.
The recommission worked out pretty well for Greig and Mangan – series one was shot entirely in the UK for cost reasons. “The scenes Matt and I did on the deck of his Malibu beach house looking out to sea – we were actually looking out over Mill Hill power station,” Greig smiles wrily. “That’s some of the best acting I’ve ever done.”
With series two needing to be shot quickly, the gloomy British winter drove the shoot to LA. “It changed the performance,” Mangan almost sighs at the memory. “You’re driving yourself in to work on a freeway in the sun every day, and you do feel that excitement that certainly my character feels… in my convertible with my big hair flapping in the breeze. Mind you, I was listening to the Desert Island Discs archive on my iPod and Roy Plomley was a bit incongruous.”
For season three they were back in the UK – which, oddly, LeBlanc prefers: “If you’re at home and you’re working on something, you still try to do as many of your normal chores as you can. When you’re out of town working you can devote yourself 100 per cent to the project and to drinking… I mean, just to the project. No drinking. None.”
Which leads to the obvious question: how realistic is the show? “David [Crane – one of the original creators of Friends] and Jeffrey [Klarik – Crane’s writing as well as life partner] say that a lot of it is written down exactly as it happened,” says LeBlanc carefully. “I would imagine a fair bit of it is exaggerated so that we can all still go and get a job afterwards – but the people in the industry I’ve run into absolutely love it.”
“Funnily enough, since we did Green Wing loads of people who work in the NHS have come up to me and said, ‘It is absolutely like that,’ and I’m horrified,” Greig adds. “They say it’s the most realistic hospital programme there’s ever been,” Mangan agrees. “It’s worrying. Don’t get ill, would be my advice.”
All this transatlantic hopping about could be seen as an arch meta-narrative for the TV industry itself, Mangan points out. “When you make television these days, you can’t just make it for the country you’re in – money is tight. You have to look at overseas sales and production money – from a financial point of view, but also because both countries are increasingly literate in the other’s television. Like you have Jeremy whatsisface in Mr Selfridge…” “Jeremy Piven,” Greig nods helpfully. “Not Jeremy Paxman. Although I think Paxman has a cameo.”
“Plus a lot of great writers are gravitating toward television,” LeBlanc agrees. “It’s so hard to get a film made these days. Nobody wants to risk all of the money. So the writing in television has gotten better and better. Like True Detective – it’s very enticing for a writer and for an actor to explore a character over 13 hours, rather than 90 minutes. And TV builds – it’s not all about the first weekend’s take. So actors and scripts are going to be crossing over the pond all the time.”
“I always said there’s no way I’d work in America because I’m too weird and I’m too old, but somehow it’s happened,” Greig states, pleasantly surprised.
“I love the uncertainty of that,” Mangan butts in. “I really relish the idea I have no idea what I’ll be doing in a year’s time. I could be a Bollywood star this time next year, and I love that thought.”
“He is really good at the dancing,” nods Greig like a proud mum.
They’re called for the photoshoot in a big red Cadillac convertible, but one more question… LeBlanc’s former co-star Matthew Perry recently told Radio Times that Steve Coogan is his comedy idol and he’d drop anything to be in something he’d written. Do these guys have any similar dreams?
“I want to play Matt LeBlanc,” Mangan deadpans. “I would like to do that one day.”
“Well, I’m sick of playing me but it’s the only part I get,” LeBlanc shrugs.
“My dream role is just to be near Stephen Mangan in every job that I ever do,” Greig says wistfully. “I want to be your jester’s bladder all the time. We work really well together, because we have the same size face.”
“That’s completely true,” LeBlanc points out. RT looks hard and, well, yes, we have to agree. “And here’s the thing,” LeBlanc continues. “I have a big, fat head – it’s not just my face that’s big, it’s my whole head.”
“It’s true,” they all chorus.
“You couldn’t have a small-faced person acting with us,” says Mangan.
“Not next to this,” Greig grabs her and Mangan’s chins. “No, you can’t have small-faced men – which is why Matt’s face in between us looks so funny.”
“There you go, dude,” says LeBlanc as they get up to leave. “All that transatlantic comedy stuff we’ve been telling you? It’s BS. You’ve just got to cast the right sized head…”
And they’re off.
Episodes starts tonight at 10:00pm on BBC2.