David Mitchell talks Outsiders, Peep Show and what makes the BBC amazing
Mitchell hosts a new series for Dave that sees comedians take on fun challenges – but tells RadioTimes.com why he's no Taskmaster.
Dave's launch event for its new comedy entertainment show Outsiders presents my first face-to-face interview opportunity since before the pandemic began, but what a brilliant one to come back with. David Mitchell is one of the UK's sharpest comedians and a personal hero of mine, so it's difficult to stave off nerves as our conversation begins. For him, this is also one of the first physical press junkets he's participated in for some time but he seems grateful for the change of pace, admitting that he struggles to get invested in Zoom calls.
"I initially made the mistake of having slippers on when doing those things and then I tried to change to more sort of ‘get your s**t together’ footwear," he says. "I’m a big fan of getting out of the house in order to focus the mind."
By that he presumably means television studios and hotel function rooms rather than the great outdoors, given that Outsiders is designed to highlight the complete impracticality of life in the wilderness. The brand new show sees three pairs of comedians camping together for a week and completing a series of survival challenges to determine how they would fare in a post-apocalyptic future. Excelling at a task earns the team a scout-like badge from Mitchell, who gets full authority over judging their efforts, with the most decorated duo at the end of the series claiming an overall victory.
It's a level of untempered power that Greg Davies has grown accustomed to wielding on Dave's former flagship title Taskmaster, which made a big move to Channel 4 last year. Despite obvious conceptual differences, comparisons between the two shows are inevitable and so the Outsiders team were conscious not to bring them any "closer together". For Mitchell, that meant leaning into his own distinct style of hosting as opposed to taking notes from his co-star in The Cleaner.
"Greg Davies is a very funny man but I don’t think he was my inspiration as a judge, because I couldn't do that," he tells RadioTimes.com. "He’s very funny being the strong, fearless, arbitrary authority figure and that's just not my persona. I pretty much tried to take my role as chairman on The Unbelievable Truth on Radio 4 as my starting point; a slightly befuddled, irascible and indecisive leader rather than the guillotine slice of Greg Davies on Taskmaster."
The teams on the first series of Outsiders include Toussaint Douglass and Kerry Godliman, the latter being one of three Taskmaster champions alongside "troubled woman" Lou Sanders and "respectful young man" Ed Gamble. Rounding out the line-up is Jessica Knappett and Jamali Maddix, who Mitchell believes could chop down a tree with his bare hands after an impressive display in the first episode. But it isn't just physical tests that the comics will be put through, as they also take on more thoughtful challenges concerned with keeping spirits up after the end times – in fact, those proved to be some of Mitchell's favourites.
"I was very pleased that we had the morale side of it because I think it gives people an opportunity to be funny thinking of anthems and mottos and flags and that sort of thing," he explains. "But also, it amuses me because it's quite a dark reflection on the morale boosting symbolism that a post-apocalyptic society might grab for. There’s one point where Jess and Jamali make a flag and they put a knife and fork on it because food is important. That, for me, is darkly funny; the idea of a collapsed society that's got the symbols of a knife and fork on their flag but everyone's just eating with their hands."
For Peep Show aficionados (a title I do award myself), Outsiders may bring to mind an iconic line from the sitcom's third series, in which Mark Corrigan scolds a free-spirited raver with the remark: "It's only the miracle of consumer capitalism that means you're not lying in your own s**t, dying at 43 with rotten teeth." Reciting the quote brings a smile to Mitchell's face, who names it as one of his favourite lines from the acclaimed series, and agrees that it is consistent with the general message behind Outsiders.
"I think that was definitely a thing that Sam [Bain] and Jesse [Armstrong] took from me," he recalls. "I wouldn't say I took quite as establishmentarian a line as Mark Corrigan, but in the battle between going along with how things have been traditionally structured versus just throwing it all away and 'vibing it' – which would be the classic Mark/Jeremy dialogue – I am naturally on the former side. I think Robert Webb is too, actually. But yeah, I think there's definitely a link there [with Outsiders]. I'm all for questioning everything, but then you have to question the questions as well – and some of the answers are going to be ‘we were right the first time’."
While it's been off the air for almost six years now, Peep Show is more popular than ever before with dedicated followers congregating on social media to share memes inspired by its stellar nine series run. Meanwhile, as a popular title on several streaming services, the sitcom continues to find new fans – some of whom are seemingly unaware of its legendary reputation.
"I don't know if this is true, but somebody told me a Channel 4 executive’s teenage son had said they were watching this new Netflix show, Peep Show, and 'why doesn't Channel 4 make something like that?' It's too beautifully unfair to be true, but anyway, I heard that," says Mitchell. "I'm proud of the show and I'm proud that we made quite a lot of it. The more people that can keep discovering it, the better."
On the comedy's lasting legacy, he continues: "I think Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong are the best comedy writers of their generation and they worked so hard on it. They were just relentless and rigorous in terms of slimming down the plot and gagging up the scenes and it's just real high quality writing. It was a privilege to say it. I think that's why it stands up. Good comedy is about real and not necessarily light things. Good sitcoms are about failure and darkness and fear and loneliness and things that aren't in themselves funny."
Despite glowing reviews and two BAFTA wins, Peep Show had a relatively small audience across its run and that meant the prospect of cancellation never felt too far away. Back in 2006, the BBC's comedy blog reported that the critical darling was "facing the axe" after just three series, but fortunately it pushed through to become the longest running sitcom in Channel 4 history. Pulling the plug would have been a short-sighted move, says Mitchell, who compares sitcoms to novels in how they are discovered over many years, but nevertheless he and his Peep Show collaborators always feared the worst would happen.
"Sitcoms are expensive and not many people watch them – that's a terrible truth – and so after every series, we kind of half expected to be cancelled," he reveals. "There were a couple of times later on where Channel 4 commissioned two series so those were the only times when we weren't fully prepared for it to finish. We got lucky several times and then it was really nice that when we did finish, it was our decision. We're too old to play men at that stage of their lives now, and so by mutual consent the line was drawn underneath it, which meant we could have that last series knowing that it was going to be the last one."
Mitchell has been a regular face on Channel 4 over the past two decades, with Peep Show, 10 O'Clock Live and, most recently, Simon Blackwell's Back among his projects for the broadcaster, not to mention his guest appearances on several of its popular entertainment programmes. Controversially, the government is currently exploring plans to privatise the channel, with Oliver Dowden MP insisting that such a move would help grow its reach. However, Channel 4 itself has warned this course of action will "harm" audiences, while the likes of Sir David Attenborough and Armando Iannucci have also forcefully hit back against the idea.
Mitchell joins them in their opposition: "I don't see what the justification for privatising it is. It's a very successful publicly-owned institution. It doesn't want to be privatised. It works very well. The reason for privatising it is purely government Thatcherite ideology and it’s not to be improved by that but almost certainly worsened by that. I know exactly why they're doing it, but I don't think it makes any sense and it’s not in the public interest."
The BBC is facing similar uncertainty as it strives to find £408 million in "scope" cuts by next March, which could mean difficult decisions being made on its original content – and that is unlikely to be the end of it. Several members of the government have been critical of the licence fee model, including newly appointed culture secretary Nadine Dorries, who considers it to be "a completely outdated concept that totally fails to take into account changes in the media environment over the past 50 years," as written on her blog.
That will be a concern to those in favour of the BBC and its financing method, with Mitchell making a case for the broadcaster on Have I Got News For You earlier this year when the Martin Bashir scandal dominated headlines. Raising the matter with him again, his passion for the issue is palpable. He argues that cuts have forced the BBC to "retreat" around its news division – which he acknowledges is "very well-respected" – but adds that the institution brings much more value to viewers than just that.
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"The thing that's amazing about the BBC is the breadth of content of different kinds and different genres that it gives the nation, and it has done that better than other national public service broadcasters because of its tradition and because of its unique funding system," he asserts. "The BBC has served Britain amazingly well as the envy of the world – watch television in other countries and it's s**t – but they're just gradually weakening it and one of the ways they weaken it is they reduce it to a news organisation."
Mitchell continues: "Then, that news organisation f***s up, ironically because it's trying to ape the sort of tabloid antics of other bits of the press and doesn't keep its nose clean, because neither does a tabloid for God's sake. And then they’re just doing news and they were nasty to Princess Diana and that's all the BBC is. And you go, ‘no it isn’t: what about The Archers and The Good Life and Fawlty Towers and EastEnders and Strictly Come Dancing and all these other things?’ They're just trying to make people forget how much entertainment joy to the nation comes because the BBC exists in more or less the form it always has."
"Speaking of Strictly," I say, in one of my smoothest segues of all time, Mitchell's comedy partner Robert Webb is on the celebrity line-up this year, so predictably he's planning to tune in as well as vote for the first time. After a serious health scare during production on Back series two, his longtime friend is once again in fighting form and ready to impress the judges with professional dancer Dianne Buswell. Mitchell is confident that Webb has a "very, very good chance" of lifting that coveted Glitterball trophy, having previously found success with a Flashdance homage on 2009's Let's Dance for Comic Relief.
Mitchell revealed that he would "love" to team up with Webb for another sketch show, following on from their acclaimed BBC Two project which still has a following, but conceded that the format has "gone out of fashion at the moment". In its place, panel shows continue to take a prime spot on the weekly schedules with Would I Lie to You among the most popular currently on the air. After serving as panellist opposite Lee Mack for the last 14 years, there are very few revelations left to uncover, but the producers have found a way to keep things interesting.
"They’ve been very clever in that now they have sport with Lee, where they give him lies that no one could possibly sell and no one's going to believe for a second, but the joke is watching him struggle and try to keep it together for the three minutes," says Mitchell, before explaining how the well ran dry. "When I look at the early series, they over-recorded every episode as they always do, but we were just squandering truths then. There would be truths that would now be the key thing in a series that were on the cutting room floor in the first series because we didn't know how long it was going to go."
He adds that he would "love" to see his Would I Lie to You collaborators – Lee Mack and Rob Brydon – take on the challenge of Outsiders in a future series, although he's sceptical that the latter would be willing to give up his home comforts. Mitchell himself admits that he enjoyed being the only one who could actually go home at the end of a long filming day, rather than settle in for a night of camping in the woods with his contestants. When I ask what luxury he would welcome living without, his answer comes without any hesitation.
"The internet. I think the internet has been a bad mistake," he states firmly. "Obviously, there's nothing to be done, it's all happening now and we’ve got to live with it, like we have to live with nuclear weapons. But as with nuclear weapons, it'd be better off if we'd never come up with it... I think it's grim and I really hope that we're going to, with the next generation, get a handle on it and essentially interact on it less because I think it's poisonous."
"Which isn't to say that there aren't some excellent websites," adds Mitchell, when he remembers which publication he's talking to, but adds that RadioTimes.com "could have been on lovely old Ceefax".