Every success story features moments of crippling doubt. Times where everything teetered on the brink of collapse. Peep Show is no different. What ultimately became Channel 4’s longest-running sitcom was in permanent danger of being discarded from the start. Nobody, not even its creators and stars, had particularly high expectations for it.
After a protracted development, beset by scepticism about its problematic shooting style, Peep Show finally reached our screens 20 years ago. It depicted the bleak lives of “the El Dude brothers” – the delusional Jeremy Usbourne, a selfish layabout half-heartedly pursuing a music career, and the uptight Mark Corrigan, an emotionally repressed loan manager – in excruciating detail. Former university friends coexisting in a Croydon flat, they drift into middle age as mutual resentment festers.
Audiences got to know Mark and Jeremy intimately through the series’s use of internal monologues, adding another layer of jokes to dense scripts. Peep Show was shunted around Channel 4’s Friday night schedule and nearly cancelled several times. Fortunately, it survived for 54 episodes – long enough to become a cultural phenomenon, launching the careers of the two talented double acts at its heart – writers Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, plus actors David Mitchell and Robert Webb.
‘A live-action Beavis and Butt-Head’ – the origins
Andrew O’Connor (executive producer) It started out as a pitch I made to Channel 4 for a live-action Beavis and Butt-Head. Two guys sitting on a couch, watching television and talking about it. I read a million scripts. I was so lucky to find Sam and Jesse, and David and Rob. Those things are like lightning in a bottle.
Robert Webb (actor, Jeremy Usbourne) We’d met Sam and Jesse during an attempt at a BBC team-written sitcom, which was going to be called Squatters. We came up with this idea about two characters, one of whom was excitable and rude and lazy, and one of whom was small and repressed and angry.
Sam Bain (writer) The first script we wrote together was the prototype Peep Show. It was a flatshare sitcom about two people who found each other very annoying. We resuscitated it because we met Andrew O’Connor.
David Mitchell (actor, Mark Corrigan) Of the various pitches we’d been involved with, this wasn’t the one that seemed destined to come off – which shows how little we knew.
Bain We’d had a couple of heartbreaking flops – Days Like These and Ed Stone is Dead. We’d had the perfect training in everything that can go wrong so we were really trying not to fuck this one up.
‘Holy shit, these two people can act’ – the stars
Mitchell We weren’t in the total wilderness, we weren’t totally broke, but no one knew who we were. We were in the world of having ideas and hoping to get a script commissioned, then expecting it to ultimately be turned down.
Bain We met [Mitchell and Webb] for the first time, in that BBC office, as writers. Then we saw them on stage and it was like, “Holy shit, these two people can also act”. We took them out on a weird date to a cafe in central London and said, “We’d quite like to work with you”. Luckily, they felt warmly towards us too.
O’Connor The fact that Sam and Jesse knew Robert and David, and their voices, was a big part of why it worked. You could see from the first readthrough that they could bend a line to make it even funnier than it is on the page.
Webb I’ve tried not to think about it too hard, but there’s something in me that leads them to write Jeremy and something in David that leads them to write Mark. The one who doesn’t worry enough, and the one who worries too much.
Mitchell We were very lucky to run into Sam and Jesse – brilliant comic writers who had no desire to perform. That was the absolute jackpot.
‘Weird, and brilliant and odd’ – the style
Bain Channel 4 wanted more than just a live-action Beavis and Butt-Head. Somehow that segued into our riposte, which was, “Well, they could be commenting over their whole lives, not just watching TV”.
Jesse Armstrong (writer) I think it was Sam’s idea after watching Being Caprice, a sort of knock-off Being John Malkovich documentary.
Bain I thought: “That’s fucking weird and brilliant and odd. It would be funny if it wasn’t Caprice but some pathetic loan manager from Croydon.” Around this time, I did my first 10-day silent meditation retreat and I was bombarded by the insanity of my own thoughts. I took a gamble that everyone had similar stupid thoughts.
O’Connor The big hook of the show is the gap between what Mark and Jeremy present to the world and what they’re really thinking. That’s the genius of it.
Bain We realised that this weird camera technique, and these voiceovers, were a great, snazzy, unique selling point.
‘A big career moment’ – the pilot
O’Connor We were given £11,000 to shoot half an episode. We happened to find a cheap flat we could rent in Croydon for a couple of days.
Iain Morris (commissioning editor) We made this little taster and it was pretty funny. Then we really pushed to get another bit written.
Mitchell The flat we were shooting in had spent the location fee redoing their kitchen, so for the second half of the pilot you could only shoot the kitchen in one direction, but we managed to put in the full pilot and they commissioned a series.
I very clearly remember Andrew ringing to give me the news. This was a big career moment. I was going to be co-starring in a sitcom on proper television. He started by saying, “Are you sitting down?”, and I missed the cue. I answered the question literally – “Well, I’m sort of standing by the sofa.”
Armstrong We knew that with David and Robert, and this format, which was good for our tone – odd and introspective, almost novelistic – we had a shot at doing something good. We were really aware that might never happen again, so we always worked hard. Too hard, possibly.
Webb Sam and Jesse would laboriously and brilliantly work out the stories and the arc across the six episodes. Then they would come to us and we would have a plot party. The four of us would chip in ideas.
‘Ew, it sounds like a sex thing’ – doubts creep in
Morris The scripts were the funniest things I’d ever read and the performances the best I’d ever seen. I remember sitting in the rehearsal room going, “The only way this is going to fuck up is if we’re shooting it weirdly”. Then I was like, “Oh my God, we’re going to shoot it weirdly”.
Bain We scripted it so you would only hear someone’s thoughts when you were in their point of view. The first cuts were like that. That didn’t work, and then we got a new editor – the brilliant Lucien Clayton – who was like, “You need to see someone’s face when they’re thinking something funny”. He helped create the grammar of the show through that one massive innovation.
Webb They were very conscious of continuity, to the point where, if I looked away from David and then back at him, they would try to replicate that with the camera. When you look at the first series, we’re acting even more weirdly than usual because we don’t break eye contact at all.
Mitchell We shot the whole first series calling it POV (point of view) but knowing it wouldn’t be called POV. Sam and Jesse thought up the title Peep Show. I didn’t like it, but it was beyond my control.
Webb My reaction was, “Ew, it sounds like a sex thing. Is it bad that we’re going to attract a load of lads whose girlfriends have gone to bed and they’re hoping for a wank?”. But maybe that didn’t do the figures any harm.
‘It felt like the wild west’ – life on set
Webb It was a real flat in Croydon. It was quite poky. By the third series we got a set. We replicated the flat on a soundstage. It was in various backend places to start with, like a carpet warehouse in Neasden (north-west London).
Mitchell It was in the middle of an open sewer.
Webb The first series really felt like the wild west. We were making up how to film this show as we went along. At one point, I was driving in Croydon with this cycle helmet on my head doing a scene and trying to film David, which is quite a lot to ask the human brain to do, particularly mine.
Apart from the first series, Peep Show was filmed by one camera operator, Nick Martin. He basically had to play all the characters. During all the sex scenes, you’ve got Nick bouncing up and down on you, so it was just as well that he’s a really nice, nonthreatening person.
Becky Martin (director) Anything embarrassing you can think of that happened to a character, the cameraman had to do it too. My favourite was probably when he gave Mark “an angry lapdance”.
‘The channel hated it’ – the response
Bain It was pretty muted at first. I think it was on at 11pm, but that worked to our advantage because people felt as if they’d stumbled across this show.
O’Connor It had a strong flavour. The fact that not everyone got it is one of the reasons people loved it so much.
Phil Clarke (producer) I think we always knew it wasn’t going to be a big mainstream hit, particularly when we decided to commit to that style of shooting. It was a barrier for people, but it felt like it was original.
Morris The channel hated it because it wasn’t rating and they didn’t really understand it. I spent a lot of time defending it, probably to the detriment of my career. I was good friends with Ricky Gervais at the time and he loved it. He kept talking about it. Because The Office was so huge, his love for Peep Show effectively got it recommissioned.
O’Connor We just kept being recommissioned by the skin of our teeth. It was an act of survival until it finally took off.
‘A ridiculous way to shoot’ – the evolution
Clarke Over the years, different directors made it more digestible. They broke the rules we’d set about how it was shot.
Mitchell Becky Martin took over from series four and became an absolute master of it.
Martin Shooting Peep Show was a massive jigsaw puzzle. I enjoyed putting all those pieces together, but it was a headache. It’s a ridiculous way to shoot but I really do think it paid off. Once you’ve bought into that construct, you ping around their heads and it doesn’t distract you or look too gimmicky.
Clarke The comedy had to be real and throwaway. Over the years, that changed. When you get to eating a dog, which everyone remembers and loves, we’ve gone up to a slightly more comic octave, but it’s still as real as possible.
‘We’d suddenly broken the fourth wall’ – the final series
Armstrong It was a really hard decision to finish something like that, which has been so good and so meaningful and so funny.
Webb You really don’t want to outstay your welcome. There’s a middle ground between walking away from The Office or Fawlty Towers after making two perfect series and going on far too long. Sam and Jesse timed it beautifully.
Mitchell We knew it would be the last series, so we were in a very fortunate position of being able to consciously enjoy the whole process. It was the last time filming a scene with Olivia Colman (Sophie Chapman), Paterson Joseph (Alan Johnson), Matt King (Super Hans) and everyone so we savoured it.
Clarke At the beginning it was about young men in their late 20s trying to find what’s going to happen in their lives. The tragedy is that we leave them in their 40s still coming to terms with that. If we’re really honest, what we all think is very different from how we act. We edit ourselves and rightly so, but the human mind is a cesspit. In that sense, I think Peep Show is eternal.
Martin The very last shot was a two-shot of them with no one else in the room and it was like we’d suddenly broken the fourth wall – “What’s happened to Peep Show?”
‘It was totally transformative’ – the legacy
Webb Everybody thinks they’re stuck in their weird puddle. That’s central to the appeal of the show. It’s that self-consciousness.
Martin Even though it’s hilariously funny, you have to buy into the bleakness of it. We’re with people who are struggling to be normal humans.
Mitchell In career terms, it was totally transformative. It was the first thing we did that really came off. It took longer to realise that we’d made a show lots of people really love. Now, as a middle-aged man, I realise how important that is to me.
Armstrong It’s by far the most significant thing in my career. We were fumbling along trying to make it and we were really lucky to find a tone in which we could write probably the best that Sam and I could together. We found two people able to deliver the stuff we wrote perfectly. I don’t like to think what would have happened if we hadn’t done it.