David Mitchell: I find I think more about death as I get older
It’s been a bumpy road getting series two of Back made. The sitcom was a success when it first aired on Channel 4 in 2017. But, when everyone finally got back together to film new episodes in 2019, a routine medical for insurance saw star Robert Webb discover he was suffering from a heart murmur caused by a mitral valve prolapse. He was told he needed urgent surgery to save his life.
In February 2020, everyone returned to set – but filming stopped again because of Covid-19 three weeks later. They were finally able to wrap in September.
It’s worth the wait; Back is a brilliantly clever black comedy, starring dynamic duo David Mitchell, 46, and Webb, 48, as feuding foster brothers, Stephen and Andrew. The much-loved Mitchell and Webb – who first worked together doing two-man shows at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival – are arguably most famous for Channel 4 hit Peep Show, which ran for 12 years (one of the show’s writers, Simon Blackwell, created Back).
Here, the double act discusses health scares, being reunited on screen, and their complex characters…
Robert, did you have any indication anything was wrong before you were told you needed heart surgery?
Robert: I knew something was up, definitely. But I just thought that’s what it feels like to be 47. And I was still drinking quite a lot and I was quite a heavy smoker and I just thought, ‘Well this is this is what you get if you’re into your middle age and you’re treating your body badly – what do I expect?’
I didn’t know there was something very seriously wrong with my heart until the GP put his stethoscope there and pulled a face. And then I had various other tests and it turned out my mitral valve had completely prolapsed which isn’t a lifestyle thing, it’s a birth defect, but at some point, it went ‘twang’. Then, when I came out of hospital, I made various changes.
Has seeing what Robert went through made you think differently about the way you live your life too, David?
David: It’s made me think more about death, I suppose. I find I think more about death as I get older.
The other thing that’s really made me think more about death is having a child [he has a five-year-old daughter, Barbara]. And I’m disappointed in myself; death wasn’t news to me, I was aware of it. But I think you think more about human vulnerability, and mortality, and all that sort of thing.
What can you tell us about Stephen and Andrew in this new series of Back?
Robert: The dynamic between them is largely the same really. The good thing about sitcoms, if you do them right – and Simon [Blackwell] generally does – is that once you’ve got characters that work, you don’t muck about with them.
But the situation has changed in that Andrew is now in charge of the John Barleycorn [the pub which is the family business]. He’s got what he wanted, he’s basically pushed Stephen all the way out – and now he’s bored and looking around for someone else to pick on.
David: The key to a good sitcom is that the people are stuck together, in some way – but that way is not harmonious. Essentially, Andrew is rooted in Stephen’s world – a world he [Stephen] wasn’t aware he drew any self-esteem from at all. But he notices it now that it’s gone. And he’s trying to reinsert himself and find some sense of worth.
It must be fun doing the scenes where your characters are out and out vitriolic to each other…
David: Oh yeah, playing a scene of loathing, that’s great fun. It so seldom happens in real life, certainly in my life; I just relentlessly say what people want to hear. So, getting to have scenes of straightforward animosity, goodness knows that’s probably doing me all sorts of good. It should be on the NHS.
And how about Andrew – how do you find playing someone like him?
Robert: I think it’s important that I didn’t decide whether Andrew really is motivated by malice or just this very needy guy who had a challenging childhood, and whose need for attention comes out in various harmful ways. It’s a question of me finding a way through that – hopefully the funniest way.
Back explores the impact of our childhoods. Can you imagine what you’d be doing now if you’d stayed where you grew up?
David: Well, I grew up in Oxford, and my brother lives a two-minute walk from my parents. That works quite well, they get a lot of free babysitting – well, they did pre-lockdown. So, I actually could totally imagine living there. I could literally live there because it’s quite close to London.
Robert: I’m from a couple of little villages in Lincolnshire where I’m not sure I could have stayed and been a comedy actor and writer, because it is a bit out of the way.
It’s swings and roundabouts because I would have got to hang around with my family, which would have been great. As I get older, I feel that loss actually, that we’re not together. And that’s partly what Back is about. But then again, it was impossible from a creative point of view and becoming a funny actor on the telly was just so unbelievably important to me when I was 17/18 that there was no chance of me staying.
There’s a moment where Andrew and Stephen get ultra-competitive in a quiz. Are you two competitive in real life?
Robert: Not about pub quizzes. David’s general knowledge is better than mine. And also, whenever I think I’m about to win something, that’s when something implodes in my head. I was quite good at 10 pin bowling, then I realised I was in the lead and I ended up coming last.
As a double act, I think we were competitive with everyone else. The joint Mitchell and Webb ego was greater than the competing egos. So, as long as we thought we were doing a funnier sketch, show, than ‘name another double act’ – which I won’t – then we were happy.
Back returns to Channel 4 on Thursday, January 21
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