Iain Stirling on acting with Laura Whitmore and winter Love Island drama
The voice of Love Island discusses the return of Buffering, acting alongside Laura Whitmore in season 2, and what he makes of the Zara-Olivia drama.
Every time Love Island returns to our screens, reality TV fans begin the same biannual ritual. We momentarily question whether we can commit to another eight weeks of nightly viewing before diving into the show anyway, half-watching while scrolling through an endless stream of Twitter memes.
After slowly getting to know the latest batch of singles, we're hooked on the formulaic theatrics, the emerging love triangles and the latest buzzword to come from the bombshells (this year it's "unreal"), before sitting down to discuss all the dating drama over a coffee. However, it's not often that I get to do the latter with the voice of Love Island himself, Iain Stirling.
"It does feel a bit unnecessary, I feel like maybe Zara is getting more upset, a bit more aggy than Olivia," he says as we're discussing Monday's big storyline – the spat between ring girl Olivia Hawkins and model Zara Deniz Lackenby-Brown, who're both after the same indecisive, semi-pro footballer.
While it can't be helped when the fire pit fights are this addictive, Love Island isn't the reason we've met at The Riding House Cafe on a Monday morning. When I arrive at the Fitzrovia restaurant, the comedian is waiting at a table, several coffees down and ready to chat about the return of Buffering – his sitcom in which he plays a younger, fictionalised version of himself struggling to adjust to his late 20s.
"This year, we're a lot more structured in the sense that every episode is about that thing about turning 30 – so episode 1 is basically how hard it is to get your friends on a night out." A feeling that at 26, I'm starting to become familiar with.
"You are on the absolute borderline. When you get to 28, man, it's going to start drying up big time," he warns. "Episode 2 is about dating and stuff, so they're all themed."
Co-created with comedian Steve Bugeja, the ITV2 sitcom follows Iain – a kids' TV presenter trying to break out into mainstream TV – and his housemates as they try to figure out how to feel like adults while floundering throughout life. In reality, Stirling is a proper grown up at 34, married to broadcaster Laura Whitmore with whom he shares a child. Was it a struggle to write for a younger Iain?
"I feel like you've got to write about what you know and you've got to have enough time to look at that period of your life objectively. If you're writing about being 29 and for me anyway, that age where you're like, 'I'm becoming 30, that's when I'm a grown-up, this is an actual metre of where I am in my life,' that's a genuine thing that you feel so it's scary.
More like this
"Then when you get to 33, you realise that's b*****ks and that stage of life has not come, then you can look at it and it's funny. So I think you've got to write about stuff that you've experienced and got over because then you can be funny about it."
While primarily a comedy featuring comic talents Jessie Cave, Janine Harouni, Paul G Raymond and Rosa Robson, season 1 wasn't afraid to tackle sombre themes, with the miscarriage of Iain's on-again off-again girlfriend and colleague Olivia (Elena Saurel) becoming an over-arching storyline. Stirling says that season 2 offers a "lighter touch", although he often finds that the more serious scenes are easier than the humorous ones.
"Proper actors are really funny because they stay true to the character or whatever, whereas for me, the temptation to try and be funny in a stand-up way detracts from the performance. When I'm doing serious acting, I find it quite easy – not easy, but easier to get into that headspace and losing the shackles of 'this has to be funny' really frees me up to do it."
In season 2, we meet fictional Iain's dad and while it's "done on a light note", it still covers heavy ground. "That is a universal thing, particularly for me: a Scottish dad, a working class dad, that whole idea of, I always call it the 'proud and private dad'. Where they are really proud of you, but they struggle to convey it sometimes."
He adds: "I'm quite lucky my dad's not necessarily like that but yeah, there is deeper stuff and bigger messages of friendship and the struggles of growing older. But we've put the comedy more front and centre this season. I think we just wanted to have a laugh."
The sitcom, which airs just after Love Island ("I mean, come on. We're not silly"), doesn't feature Stirling's real-life dad - but we do get a cameo from his real-life wife Laura Whitmore, who guest stars as the foul-mouthed television boss Vic in charge of Iain's show, as well as a host of other celebs, from Emily Atack to It's a Sin's David Carlyle.
"When you write a sitcom, the general vibe is, 'What's the worst thing that can happen to our character here?' And the worst thing in kids TV would be, 'Oh the boss hates him.' And I think it was (co-creator) Steve who was like, 'It would be very funny if it was Laura.'"
At the time of filming, the presenter was making her theatre debut in 2:22 A Ghost Story and so securing her for the role of Vic wasn't as straightforward as you'd think.
"Thank god she said yes. Even if you take that she's my wife out of the equation, she's a very popular TV face who at the time was in a West End play with a really popular pull. We were so lucky that she did it."
While the couple, who married in 2020, were the faces of Love Island until Whitmore left the show last year, they didn't get to work together much on the ITV2 programme. "When we both did Love Island, we barely saw each other because of the nature of what we did on the show. We've done little bits like Gogglebox but you sit on a sofa for a few hours and watch telly, it's no different to what we have done. The most stressful thing is tidying the house so it’s not a mess when the camera guys come around."
Stirling continued: "So it's really nice and with me being new to the acting thing, it was quite exciting. We were acting together. We've got a little one so we had to work out childcare to just drive to work together, we had to work all that out. It was great.
"She was just so on it because she was on every night in this play," he gushes. "It was mad to watch her pick up a script, learn it, do every take, take advice from the director and just smash it. It was amazing to watch, actually."
As for how Love Island has been since her exit in August last year, the comedian says it hasn't made a huge different for him work-wise. "It's business as usual sort of thing. I've not noticed any real changes."
He hasn't properly spoken to Maya Jama, Whitmore's replacement who made her present debut on the show last week. "Laura was absolutely brilliant and Maya's come in and she's absolutely brilliant. Love Island is a huge gig. You don't get it by mistake. It's years in the making of being good at your job to get that job."
By now, Love Island fans know the show isn't about the presenter but the singles who're looking for romance (or perhaps a contract with boohoo.com) – so what does Stirling make of this year's bunch? "I felt like they were really good characters when they first went in and I was generally really quite excited about it. None of them have really settled into couples yet but that seems like quite a good thing. The girls I really like this year."
When I asked whether he's heard the rumours that Zara and Olivia knew each other before entering the villa, having commented on one another's Instagram posts, he excitedly tells me to get him up to speed. "The two things I find out when I do an interview about Love Island is little really interesting tidbits like that – and the sad thing is people always go, 'What do you think about blah-dy blah and blah-dy blah break up?' and I'm like, 'Ah! I didn't know that!"
While we've since learnt that Zara and Olivia starred in the same music video together, by the time of our chat, we had just witnessed the rivals' explosive row over Tom Clare the previous day.
"It's a tricky one isn't it, because how many people just write under [photos]? Especially, I hate to do this generalisation, but especially girls on photos of other girls would be like, 'You look beautiful babe!'" he says. "Full disclosure, I've definitely written underneath Andy Robertson's Instagram being like, 'Well played today.' That guy has no idea who I am."
He adds that if they do really know each other, the show is bound to address it at some point. "We've had contestants before where they're like, 'We know each other from this thing,' so it's not like a cover up or anything. That wouldn't ruin the game if they knew each other.
"If it rumbles on, they'll probably have to clarify it and they'll end up having a chat about how they knew each other."
When it comes to his favourite islanders, Stirling is a fan of Olivia and Will – although he's not sure what they'll do with him if he remains single. "I'd like him to do something that isn't the whole 'guy that's terrible with women', who bundles through a season. [He's the funniest] by a mile! But what do you do with him? He can't be single forever. You can't be. I've tried."
With the show now in its ninth season, Stirling feels as though he's at the top of his game commentary-wise – but that wasn't always the case. "There was a weird two or three week period when in season 3, it just got absolutely [popular] out of nowhere. I'd be added into a Love Island WhatsApp group with my mates who I play football with and I'm like, 'What is going on?'
"It felt like everyone was watching it and for a few weeks I was like, 'Oh God, I hope it's funny enough.' I got stressed for a little bit and now it's back to, 'We know what we're doing.' I actually weirdly think, and I never normally say this either, but voiceover wise, I think I've been the funniest I've been in a long time. We did a Wagatha Christie joke the other day, I was like, 'This is really funny.'"
Now he's voicing the American version of the show as well, and while that used to be wilder, it's more or less on the same level as the UK one, he says. "The hardest thing with the American one is that I don't really get the accents and where they're from and their socio-economic background and what they grew up doing. It's harder to do all that - they all sound the same to me really. I love doing the UK one but the American one is fun; it feels not real."
As for Love Island UK's most shocking scenes, the ongoing season is yet to surpass 2019's, when Maura Higgins verbally destroyed Tom Walker after overhearing him speculate over whether "she's all mouth" before their date in the Hideaway.
"I genuinely remember when I watched that and I don't do this a lot – I actually physically got behind my chair because I was like, 'This is the most cringe thing I've ever seen in my entire life.'
"I felt so bad for her, so embarrassed for him. He'd bagged this unbelievable girl and watching him actually screw it up in five seconds in the most rude, pathetic male bravado kind of way. I also know that as a man, I know he didn't mean that. He was showing off to his mates but the whole thing was so good."
With all its controversies and growing sense of viewer fatigue, could there ever be an end in sight for ITV2's marriage to Love Island? "I always look at I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here! and think, 'Well, if I'm a Celeb is going then why can't [Love Island]? Fundamentally, what is being offered up that's not on that show? I do feel like it could be ITV2 or ITVX in the future, it could be their I'm a Celeb.
"It'll probably do what I'm a Celeb and shows like that do, even Strictly, go down a little bit when there's not the demand there and then it'll peak and something crazy will happen. I think it's definitely reached a sort of crescendo of nationwide fanatics, but now it's in a really nice piece of the furniture place. I can't see it ending anytime soon."
Let's hope it doesn't – particularly as Stirling plans to incorporate his Love Island experience into a future season of Buffering. "If Buffering ran long enough, I'd love my character to get into voicing a reality TV show. I think that it's the same with kids TV, it's inherently funny.
"It's hard to talk to your mates about your work when your work has Dick and Dom in it, in the same way it's hard to talk about your work seriously when you're in a booth looking at people in bikinis. I think there is naturally something very funny about it as a job."
Where season 3 guest stars are concerned, Stirling is hoping to get Slow Horses star Kadiff Kirwan on board ("We were in a pilot for a TV show years ago, which he still tells me is the only pilot he's been in that's not been commissioned") and wants Whitmore to return as Vic. "I would love it. I think she has to come back." I have a feeling she'll say yes.
Buffering season 2 airs on Monday 30th January at 10:05pm on ITV2 and ITVX.
Check out more of our Comedy coverage or visit our TV Guide and Streaming Guide to see what's on tonight.
Try Radio Times magazine today and get 12 issues for only £1 with delivery to your home – subscribe now. For more from the biggest stars in TV, listen to the Radio Times View From My Sofa podcast.