For Love Island fans, last week gave us some of the most dramatic episodes in the ITV2 show’s history.
With the boys returning from Casa Amor – a separate villa filled with brand new contestants which becomes the ultimate test for committed couples – viewers had been waiting all week to see who would choose to stay coupled up with their girl in the main villa, and who would bring someone new back with them. Of course, in classic Love Island fashion, the Thursday episode ended on a huge cliffhanger, forcing viewers to wait another 24 hours until they’d learn whether Jake, Liam, Teddy and Tyler would stick with Liberty, Millie, Faye and Kaz respectively, or stray.
It’s the Friday morning when I chat to Iain Stirling, the dating show’s long-time narrator, however he’s yet to find out the outcome of the recoupling. “Obviously, Laura [Whitmore – his wife and host of Love Island] has been out there and I’ve deliberately said to her, ‘Do not tell me what happens,'” he says in a toned-down version of the spiky Edinburgh accent we’re used to hearing every night. “When I go into work today, I’ll be finding out for the first time what’s actually gone down.”
While we’re due to chat at 11:15, a last-minute Love Island recording job delays him by half an hour and when he does call, it’s from the back of a taxi on the way to an interview with BBC Radio 4. It’s safe to say this summer is proving to be an incredibly busy one for the comedian and presenter – especially considering he’s balancing his Love Island duties with the promotion of his upcoming ITV2 sitcom Buffering.
The six-part series, created by Stirling alongside comedian Steve Bugeja, follows kids’ TV presenter Iain (Stirling) in the aftermath of a break-up as he navigates millennial life alongside his four similarly hopeless housemates. Think Fresh Meat, but with characters in their late twenties and a puppet called Larry the Lizard (based on Stirling’s former CBBC sidekick Hacker the Dog).
As you can tell, Stirling drew a lot on his own career and experiences when writing the sitcom, although it’s not completely made up of his own anecdotes. “I wrote it with my friend Steve so we’re sort of 50-50 involved. It’s like an amalgamation of his life and my life, and then we drew it all together. There’s a bit of everyone in there and I actually quite like that I get to talk about my own life and it gets sort of muddied up in this fantasy world as well so it’s hard for anyone to really identify which bits are me and which bits aren’t.”
That being said, the character Iain is, unsurprisingly, “based strongly” on Stirling, while his nerdy, socially-awkward housemate Greg (played by Starstruck’s Paul G Raymond) is “based strongly on Steve but not entirely”.
“The other main characters are pretty fictional,” he adds, referring to the ditsy artist Rosie (Harry Potter’s Jessie Cave), cynical listicle writer Ashley (Inside No. 9’s Rosa Robson) and charismatic American free-spirit Thalia (Patrick Melrose’s Janine Herouni). “The original idea is that every one of the characters experience a flaw in the millennial generation so they’re meant to be an embodiment of each one of those things.”
When I ask Stirling whether he’d always wanted to write a sitcom however, the answer is, well, not particularly. “I sort of grew up on live telly and doing live stand-up so I’ve always like the immediacy of live, and then I’ve never done any sort of filming of this ilk, it just seemed quite laborious and long and takes ages to come out. But then I started working on this.”
Stirling began developing his stand-up routines about his time on children’s TV into a scripted comedy with the help of Bugeja, who “has wanted to write a sitcom his whole life”, with the process starting back in 2017. “It’s sort of morphed into this mad passion project when at the start, I was a bit dubious of the whole thing really.”
The series follows Iain as he attempts to move from hosting a children’s TV show alongside the more popular puppet Larry the Lizard, to finding success on primetime TV – a storyline Stirling based on Stirling’s early career as a CBBC presenter from 2009 until 2013.
“For me, it was always about getting from kids’ TV back to doing stand-up for a living. My thing was I wanted to be a stand-up comedian, I wasn’t too fussed about the telly element of things – and then when I first moved to London, I was like 21, and I thought I was the next Sarah Silverman or Bill Hicks but I ended up talking to a puppet dog dressed like Shakespeare’s wife.
“But then actually it’s one of those things after a couple of years doing kids’ TV, especially the Iain and Hacker stuff, it was so much fun. I actually really enjoyed it by the end and was a bit sad to go really, but it just got to that stage where you’re presenting like an 18-year-old and you’re like, ‘I probably need to move on now.'”
While his character on Buffering can’t stand his puppet co-star or the puppeteer controlling him, the situation couldn’t be more different in real life. “In real life, me and Phil [Fletcher], who played Hacker the Dog and Larry the Lizard, we lived together for years when we moved to London. We lived together, worked together, would go to the BBC bar – the old one before it got all White City-ed – have a few drinks, have fun and then go home so the only time we weren’t together is when we slept really.”
Is the comedian moving from the recording booth and onto the small screen with the goal of showing his face a bit more? “No, I’ve no interest in that at all really,” he says. “If I could have done the sitcom without my face being in it, that would have been the ideal situation. I quite like being able to kick about town.”
And with that, we move onto Love Island 2021, which has been a series unlike any other for Stirling for a number of reasons – mainly as he’s unable to record his voiceovers in Majorca due to the coronavirus. “My evenings are slightly different and more domesticated, in my actual home which is lovely – but the actual process itself is very similar.
“[In Majorca], although I’m in a sunny place, I joke about it but I am just popped in a portacabin and this year, I’m in a basement. Either way, I’m in a small space for a lot of time. There’s just not as much need for the air-con this time. It’s just instead of going back to the hotel in the sun, which some days is brilliant and other days is obviously a bit lonely or whatever, this time I’m just going back to my house.
“I’ve never spent a full summer in London in my entire life,” he says, after clarifying that last year’s lockdown summer doesn’t count. “I’ve been here for 15 years but I’ll either go to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August or with Love Island I’ll be away. [This year] I get to go home, if I’m home early enough, make dinner, little glass of wine, watch a bit of Love Island. Perfect!”
As for the actual series of Love Island, Stirling claims that it’s been one of his favourite series ever. “I just think the cast are brilliant. The first couple of weeks it’s the same every single year. ‘Ah they’re boring, ah they’re not as good as last year, ah the show is not what it used to be,’ and then we get to this time and it’s like, ‘ah it’s absolutely fantastic’ and I’m like, ‘yep, it always does it, it’s amazing.'”
“I think there’s a really interesting dynamic this year with all the girls sleeping outside and the boys sort of having this lads holiday mentality. I thought it was a really interesting dynamic that we’ve not really had to the same extent before, it’s just brilliant telly.”
When it comes to predicting a winner, Stirling says it’s too early to tell at the moment. “In the next week you see who the strong couples are coming out of Casa Amor. This is the make or break moment.
“In the immediate short term, regardless of if they go in with or without girls, I think the boys will realise that they’ve got great girls at home that care about them deeply and they’ve had to learn that lesson by going to another villa and kissing a load of people. That will be an interesting dynamic to unbox.
“I think that might be the narrative for a couple of days at least. The guys’ whole lads holiday argument really falls by when you’re saying it to someone you’ve slept in a bed with for two and half weeks. So we’ll see what happens. It will absolutely kick off.”
Stirling began narrating the ITV2 reality show in 2015, alongside the late Caroline Flack, and never imagined it would become the phenomenon it is today. “I think it was series two that it got popular but we sort of thought it was at the top end of a digital programme for popular. It was a success. But in series three, it was madness. I still remember being a guest on After Sun and I went to bed with 4,000 followers on Instagram – and back then I never even went on Instagram really, I’d just posted on that because it was my fifth time on grown-up telly – and I just woke up the next day with 100,000 followers.
“I just turned on my phone and was like, ‘What? What is going on?’ So yeah, it was sort of mad for everyone really.”
As for whether Stirling would ever want to host the show alongside his wife Laura Whitmore, who took over as the face of the show in 2020, it’s a definite no. “I think she’s just brilliant at it and she looks brilliant and she just conducts herself so amazingly and has such experience of live TV and stuff. If you saw me walking in slow motion it would be disgusting.
“It would be sort of all flabby and off-putting and I’d have sweat patches at the top of my stomach. It would be minging. The only reason it would be funny for me to do it is for the look on people’s faces when this out of shape, 30-something dad just walks into the villa. They’d be like, ‘who the f**k is this guy?'”
When I comment on how effortless Whitmore looks when she’s walking in slow-mo, Stirling gushes: “It’s so hard honestly! Obviously, I know Laura Whitmore quite well as you can imagine and even when I’m watching it, it’s like watching someone else. Who is this person? This goddess? It’s so mad.”
Stirling plans on bringing Buffering back for a second series and hopes to dive deeper into the world of TV. “I definitely found it’s mad how many people are nostalgic for Iain and Hacker. I wouldn’t mind exploring deeper into the inner workings of kids’ TV – I think it’s just innately funny.”
When I ask whether the fictional Iain will go on to narrate a reality dating show in series two, Stirling replies: “A sort of Flirty City or something like that? You never know. Obviously, it seems like a logical step.
“The funny thing about it is Love Island is such an interesting journey in of itself. It was a dating show on a digital television channel, it was never meant to be the sort of cultural cornerstone. How did that happen?”
Buffering premieres with a double episode on ITV2 at 10pm on Thursday 5th August, with the entire boxset landing on ITV Hub immediately after. While you’re waiting, check out more of our Entertainment coverage or visit our TV Guide to see what’s on tonight.
And if you loved this chat, head over to our Big RT Interview hub to read more fantastic exclusives.