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Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain: A peep behind the writing

In Peep Show, University of Manchester alumni Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain created an instant cult classic. Based around the seemingly tedious lives of Mark and Jeremy, two post-university but pre-maturity flatmates, the show resounded with audiences becoming a BAFTA award winning hit. Now, twelve years since the first series aired, and with the show a seminal cornerstone of British comedy, the writing pair has just completed their ninth and final series.

Asked about its phenomenal success, Sam Bain is keener to reflect on the beginning of the show than the current series. He professes that, “getting the first series of Peep Show made and then getting re-commissioned for the second series were probably the most life-changing moments.”

He is quick to stress that the success of Peep Show didn’t come to them instantly: “We had been full time for about five years before the show got commissioned; at that point we hadn’t had anything made of our own.”

The risks involved in Peep Show are revealed in his description of that period. “After series three, four, and five you get a little more blasé but back in those days, 12 years ago, there was a real sense that this could be a triumph or a disaster.”

Despite any risks, the show would go on to explode and to become one of the Channel 4’s flagship shows, and has since become the channel’s longest running sitcom. Like Bain, Armstrong is quick to point out that this success was the product of the duo sweating over scripts and working at their craft, saying: “The stuff that Sam and I have had produced on TV is the tip of the iceberg. We have written so many scripts that didn’t get made, so many scripts that got changed. That is the secret of our success really: that we just kept plugging away.”

Both Armstrong and Bain seem uninterested in appearing aloof to their success. They make multiple references to the need to sweat over your craft, admitting to previous failings rather than promoting any sense of egotism regarding their obvious successes.

An overriding sense of humility emanates from the pair, and is evident in recollections about their first meeting, whilst undergraduates here at the University of Manchester. Armstrong, laughing, remembers, “I’m not sure if it was love at first sight,” before hastily adding: “But it was creative love. Either we envied each other’s work or liked it. I can’t remember which.”

Likewise, Bain is romantic in his remembrance of the meeting: “Yeah, my fondest memory [of university] is meeting Jesse. It was on a creative writing course that was part of our degree and that was a life-changing meeting.”

Both Bain and Armstrong, when asked to reflect on their time in Manchester, give similar answers. There is a sense from both that their creativity was very much cultivated by their environment, with the university and the city facilitating their growth as writers.

Bain says: “Taking advantage of the creative writing and the magazine [Square One, a creative writing magazine started by Bain, and Armstrong’s now-wife, whilst at university] as opposed to the more mainstream parts of the course that I did was the kind of thing that changed my life most dramatically.”

It’s a sentiment closely mirrored by Armstrong who attributes much of his “growing up” to his five years here. “Having people to do things with is one of the things that university gives you that you can’t get anywhere else.”

Where the time spent in Manchester most clearly maps onto the pair’s work is in the Manchester-based sitcom Fresh Meat. The show, which takes place across the university lives of a number of students, is shot in Manchester and has used university accommodation buildings for sets.

Asked whether they directly took inspiration from their period at university, both distance their personal experiences from the show’s storylines, and instead prefer to speak about that time as the stimulus for their characters.

Bain, talking about the drawing of Fresh Meat’s characters, says: “I don’t think we knew anyone that was specifically like any of the characters, it was more just types we knew.”

Likewise, Armstrong refers to the characters as “imagined versions of the type of people we’d known.” He also unwittingly reveals the type of work ethic to which they both attribute their success, saying: “It was a show that we wrote not that long after we had left [university] but was rejected in its first incarnation, but then came back much later.” Once again, Armstrong is unguarded when admitting that the show was rejected at first, evidence of the long, tiring redrafting process behind even the most seemingly well-formed shows.

Manchester’s diverse population also served as inspiration for Bain with him speaking about how he “went to public school and Jesse went to a comprehensive so we had a nice mix of backgrounds to put into the show.” He draws on the diversity of the city, saying, “I liked that about Manchester when I was there, that you did have a mix like that.”

Unlike the perceptions of large cities like London, Manchester’s wide-spanning demographic is suggested to have played a part in the writing of Fresh Meat. By association, the university’s wide appeal also comes out in Bain’s reply. He states: “That was one of the things that appealed to us about Manchester as a setting for that show was that you can throw a diverse group of people in a house together.”

Bain reflects a sense of a diversity in Manchester that we perhaps take for granted, but that served as fertile ground for Fresh Meat’s setting.

Shifting the topic away from Manchester I ask Armstrong, who has written on BBC’s The Thick of It and In the Loop, the feature film that followed, for his view on contemporary satire.

“I think if you go into thinking you can change anything you are crazy. I think it’s artistic fuel. So when you see something ridiculous, annoying, or anger-inducing, you can use that fuel to make material, art, comedy.”

Pushed on the state of the current political climate in terms of writing satire, he laughs, saying: “I think you can always do it. Sometimes people think that this is beyond satire. A famous American satirist Tom Lehrer said: ‘Satire died when they gave Kissinger the Nobel Peace Prize.’ I think people are always confidently saying ‘Oh my God, this is beyond satire.’”

He draws directly on an example, saying, “often people say things like: ‘Once you’ve seen Nigel Farage you can’t do any jokes, it’s all gone too crazy.’ I think it’s always been like that, there have always been people who are utterly ridiculous who you can’t believe are around but then it’s a lovely feeling when you feel something ridiculous, pompous, stupid in the world, and a particular joke or show skewers that.”

His love for satire, he says, comes from the satisfying feeling as “an individual to feel like there is somebody else out there who understands how annoying or stupid the world is.”

I ask them both about their advice for writers looking to break through into comedy, first presenting them with the notion of whether people can be taught to write. Armstrong is quick to reply: “We all know people who are just not funny. You have to have talent, there has to be something there. Beyond that I think there is a huge amount you can do to take what talent you have in the right direction. You have to try and find your form and what suits you well but then you have to work on it.”

Bain, likewise, is quizzical about the suggestion of teaching somebody to be funny: “It’s instinctive,” he says, confirming Armstrong’s belief. “Comedy is brutal in that respect, but then that is probably a really good way to work out if you can do it. Try, and if nobody laughs, then maybe move on.”

Both are keen to stress the importance of doing it: “The most common thing is talking about it and not doing it, and I’ve done that, I’ve procrastinated,” says Armstrong, following on from Bain’s advice. “I wouldn’t too be worried about making mistakes—I’d be more worried about never making the errors and never giving it a go.”

I ask the pair how they go about just sitting down and writing. “Me and Sam always write separately, by which I mean we write dialogue separately,” replies Armstrong.

“When I find it incredibly useful to be in a group is when you are trying to work out plot because it is a logical problem. It’s quite a hard intellectual exercise to get a plot that works.”

Bain picks up on this line: “From that point of view television writing is a lot more collaborative than, say, writing novels because even if you haven’t got a partner you’re on the team and that adds another whole angle.”

The team aspect of their work is something they do not shy away from. Regarding working with people you trust, Bain affirms, “ultimately you can’t do it all on your own, and when you meet the right people you tend to want to work with them again and again.”

Armstrong too, when asked about the importance of casting, says, “it’s a joy to hand your characters over rather than a pain because that’s when they come alive. They’re there on the page and can be a little bit archetypal or stereotypical but when you see an actor doing it that can change.”

When I ask for a specific character with whom this happened Armstrong needs no time to think: “I remember seeing Matt King do Super Hans.” Asked what it was that made that moment so special, he says, “when you get somebody in like that you think Wow! because this person—who’s a variation on a type on the page—is suddenly brought alive.”

Both Armstrong and Bain present their jobs as ones that cannot exist without the influence of those they work with. Again, they seem keen to distance themselves from any notion that Peep Show, Fresh Meat or any of their projects are two-man vanity projects and spend huge portions of the interview praising those they surround themselves with. Unsurprisingly “David and Rob,” perhaps their most obvious collaborators, come in for specific praise, but the duo’s praise extends beyond that to the people who made their ideas happen on television screens nationwide.

With time running out, I pose the question of whether comedy is a cathartic pursuit. Both agree that it is, with Armstrong suggesting that: “It’s cathartic for Sam and me when we’re writing Peep Show and we can sometimes write about painful events and varieties of relationships.”

This is a sentiment closely mirrored by his partner who, laughing, concurs: “In Peep Show we have managed to put at least a dozen of my most embarrassing experiences onto television and that is quite cathartic.”

Perhaps this is the secret to their success. Away from the brilliant actors and television backing, perhaps their success boils down to doing what they know; presenting a version of humanity on screen with which it is impossible not to empathise and relate, because their characters are never extraordinary, and certainly never perfect.

With Peep Show coming to an end, Bain says that he would like to work on writing something longer, feature-length next, something he says he is yet to crack. Armstrong is currently writing too, having just released a book—again featuring a main character from his adopted home of Manchester.

While they aren’t clear about their future plans, it does feel that the presentation of imperfect but relatable people is their niche. What is also clear, with Peep Show drawing to a conclusion, is that their niche of television comedy is going to become less tragic, less intelligent, and far less funny.

You can see the second episode of Peep Show’s final season on Wednesday, 10pm on Channel 4. Jesse Armstrong will also be appearing alongside Tim Key at Manchester Literature Festival. He will be speaking at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation on Saturday 21st November at 7:30pm. Tickets are available online at http://bit.ly/1OCGjtq

Tags: Channel 4, comedy, David Mitchell, Fresh Meat, Jack Whitehall, Jesse Armstrong, Manchester, Peep Show, Robert Webb, Sam Bain, university, Writers, writing

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