David Mitchell and Robert Webb are sitting in an unfeasibly warm room at Pinewood Studios. They’re hot, bothered and, after a four-year gap, professionally together again with a new series called Back.
Mitchell, a little on edge, no longer carrying the podge of the Peep Show years, tells me TV is all they’ve ever wanted to do. “We knew from the start we both wanted to be professional comedians on British TV. That was the job we were applying for, and we got it – which is brilliant.”
Mitchell is 43, Webb 44. They met as students at a Cambridge Footlights audition in 1993. “We both thought that the way the director was doing it was a bit w**ky,” says Webb, who initially seems the slightly angrier of the two but, as we’ll see, might not be. After a long succession of small projects, The Mitchell and Webb Situation was commissioned by Play UK in 2001. That led to Radio 4’s That Mitchell and Webb Sound, which, in turn, became the Bafta-winning BBC2 sketch show That Mitchell and Webb Look. Their sitcom Peep Show, co-starring Olivia Colman, ran on Channel Four from 2003 to 2015.
“What I’ve found really annoying,” says Mitchell of their career so far, “is that the thing I really wanted to do had to be such a challenge. And it continues to feel impossible.” Has it really been that difficult for the two of them to make it? “It took f**king ages,” says Webb.
Their humour has often been engineered around Mitchell’s reaction to Webb’s failures as a human being, but Back, co-created with Peep Show writer Simon Blackwell, isn’t quite like that, says Webb: “Andrew, my character, was fostered by the parents of David’s character, Stephen, when he was younger, and it was the best five months of his life. Afterwards he made a huge success of himself. He’s super-charming and cool, and now he’s come back.” Not good news for Stephen. A resentful non-achiever, he’s aghast to find this interloper laying claim to both the family inheritance and a pub.
The last time the pair made Webb a successful personality, as a calm deputy against Mitchell’s panicked ambassador in BBC2’s Ambassadors, the show lasted three episodes. “Making it, we thought, ‘Oh, this feels good. I expect we’ll get re-commissioned,’” says Mitchell. “And we weren’t.” Which must have hurt – though Webb says it was harder when their BBC sketch show was cancelled. “We had four series, which was all Fry and Laurie had, but we could have squeezed in a fifth. It’s not like we got restless.”
Webb is a former Labour Party member and Mitchell has a column in the left-leaning Observer, which might partly explain why the duo are held up to different standards than other light entertainers. It isn’t enough that they’re funny; Mitchell and Webb are supposed to be virtuous. There was widespread criticism on social media when they appeared in an Apple ad campaign in 2007. “I’m hurt by anything negative,” says Mitchell. “Not hurt to my core, but whenever you read someone go, ‘That was s*** and you’re nasty,’ you are a bit hurt. The thing about the internet is you just have to face the negative contents if you’ve got any kind of profile. That’s just the wonderful invention it is.”
Something suddenly snaps inside and Mitchell launches into one of his scattergun outbursts that occasionally silence jolly panel shows. “What’s great about the internet is that so many amoral Americans make so much money out of it, and I wouldn’t take that money away from them. I’m happy to take it on the chin, take the little punches just so they can sun themselves in California. There are those who say that the internet has been an unmitigated disaster. I’m not among them. I think the spike in paedophilia is of great use,” he says with heavy irony.
Mitchell is one of the few public figures who can get away with making gags about paedophilia. Is that simply because they’re so good at what they do? “It’s not for us to say,” he says. “It varies according to mood, blood sugar level, tyrannical self-delusion. But you have to maintain your self-esteem. You’ve got to think you’re good at it. We can all see people who are brilliant but get nowhere, and people who are terrible and do really well and, really, you don’t want to be either of them.”
Being in a double act puts extra pressure on them to get it right. “Deciding to take a random job that we quite fancy doing on our own is less loaded with significance than the two of us going into something together,” says Mitchell. “We are offered things together that try to parachute us into something either we don’t fit or isn’t at all new, so we are careful in that way.”
That sounds as if they feel a responsibility to each other? “I don’t think I’ve ever felt, ‘Oh, I’d better take this job, otherwise David will have nothing to do,’” says Webb. “I’ve certainly never taken a job because it would be nice for David.”
What if one of them became much more famous than the other? It happened to Dudley Moore and Peter Cook, Moore becoming a Hollywood pin-up. “Move to LA?” says Webb, apparently outraged at being asked to achieve even more than he has already. “F***ing hell, I grew up in a bungalow in Lincolnshire, and I moved to London. London! One of the best cities in the world! And then I was on telly, for years and years!”
Mitchell, an ex-public schoolboy from Oxfordshire, doesn’t like the idea either: “It would make the other one uneasy. You would go, ‘Oh, that’s nice for him,’ to be a world-famous star. But I don’t think I’d feel unalloyed joy as Rob picked up his third Oscar.”
What if one of them changed in another way, had a religious conversion, say? “You just presume it won’t happen,” says Mitchell. “It’s very unusual for people to change. If Rob was the sort of person who’d have a religious conversion, he’d have done something illustrating that tendency before. Obviously, people can change, but they probably won’t.”
But they both got married, that’s a pretty big change? “Yes, that blows out of the water my previous theory about people don’t change much. I think we’ve got on better since both of us have been married. We get humanised by our wives.”
Webb is married to the actor Abigail Burdess, Mitchell to broadcaster Victoria Coren. The Coren Mitchells can feel inescapable; one of them is apparently always on TV or offering an opinion in the broadsheets. I wonder if Webb feels obliged to watch and read Mitchell’s other work. “I won’t pretend I’ve read every column or seen every episode of Would I Lie to You? but I’m always happy to. It’s not like I’m with my wife and flick over and David’s on TV, and I’m like, ‘Oh, f**k off!’ We don’t shout in anger when we see him. I think we keep an eye on each other’s work, because we expect that it will probably be quite good.”
Webb, who had a troubled childhood, writes books (How to Not to Be a Boy is out now) and pieces in the papers arguing, in part, that Englishmen should be more open about their emotions. Have he and Mitchell ever sat down and discussed what it is they really like about each other? “We can’t discuss that – we’re English for God’s sake!” says Mitchell.
Webb, conversely, considers the question carefully. “We’ve both been dumped at various stages and gone to the pub and got pissed together and tried to cheer each other up,” he says.
“But we’ve never really had the sort of friendship where we’re going to tell each other about something, that we’re grieving, say. I’d do that with my wife, but not David. It’s quite unusual for men to have those relationships. I do think it’s probably sensible if men tried to expand the number of people they do that with. But, like you say, we know each other really well and we’re never going to be like that, are we?”
Interview by Michael Hodges
Back begins on Wednesday 6th September at 10pm on Channel 4