The history of British comedy is a history of ever-increasing male humiliation. Let’s start in the Seventies, the decade of declinism and brown suits. Forced to bear witness to both is Basil Fawlty, the supreme specimen of self-righteous control-freakery who, shorn of Empire and role, is doomed to patrol a seaside town far from any front or position. Advance through his successors, and see the punishing realism cranked up each time. Discarded pensioner and domestic authoritarian Victor Meldrew. Showbiz’s great charisma-bypass Alan Partridge. And David Brent, the most vibrantly hideous character introduced to a British audience since David Copperfield first noticed Uriah Heep at Mr Wickfield’s window.
All have lofty ideas of station and status and all have these ideas disappointed. All are repulsed by a hostile, progressive world. And all are shown in the process to be (to varying degrees) trapped, spiteful, grasping, status-obsessed and self-deluding. It’s a comic instinct that speaks to something masochistic in the British spirit. Some sense that human dignity really is only as thick as a sticking plaster, but that tearing it back to expose our wounds and prejudices is in fact cathartic — cringe-making yet somehow soothing. It is through these embarrassments of men that we strangely choose to represent and interpret our culture.
Much psycho-historical ink has been spilt on the roots of this national quirk. Is it the bad British weather? Perhaps it’s a sublimation of glories lost, of needing to find a personification for superpower contraction. It’s a seductive theory — while other countries (France) tried to physically cling on to empire, we channelled the loss of ours into making people laugh. Whatever the cause, it has generated a streak of vicious, self-lacerating humour, which always works best when targeted at flawed cases of masculine psychology. It’s a tradition that has a culminating triumph in Peep Show, which marks its 20th birthday tomorrow, and despite its age, is increasingly emerging as the defining British sitcom of the early 21st century.
At first glance, Peep Show doesn’t represent any great advance in subject matter. Mark and Jez, played by David Mitchell and Robert Webb, are two mid-ult everymen fated by their creators to have a difficult time in work, play, and everything in between — middle-class men behaving slightly badly. Instead, its innovation is chiefly formal. Peep Show is filmed entirely from the perspective of its characters — quite literally in the cheap and crude first series, the actors wearing bicycle helmets with camera-antennae. The viewer is trapped deep in the cockpit of the characters’ minds, following them everywhere, from bedroom to bathroom.
This is accompanied by a script of wonderful linguistic aggression — but only around half of which is dialogue. The other half is delivered as voiceover, the thoughts and thoughtcrimes of Mark and Jez fed straight into your ear. At times, it is like a neurotic ghost train: the show has been described as “an intrusive thought in physical form”. Watching it is to experience consciousness with clunky but near-novelistic intensity. For some it’s unwatchable. For the rest of us it’s addictive.
Peep Show originally ran from 2003 to 2015, inadvertently forming a Balzacian chronicle of that charmless, formless, nameless era of British life after Blair and before Brexit. It is full of the stuff of that age: iPods, chavs and coffee chains; Bez, Bush and oil wars on TV. It runs the full alphabet of chronological references from Ali G to Zoella, capturing all the anesthetising affluence of the Noughties just before the snap of tumult and hyper-politicisation that followed. A low, dishonest time if ever there was one, characterised by little more culturally than a tabloid-carnival of endless frivolity. And all the while, society’s atoms continued to drift ever further apart and a low of hum of bitterness set in.
Mark and Jez are two such atoms who have collided and glued together, though bound not by attraction but necessity, two university friends who have wound up living together in Croydon. Their friendship is formed of mutual love and loathing, each regarding the other as the worst-case scenario, a motivating example of how bad things could get. But they’re both outcasts and they know it. In a line that Robert Webb regards as the show’s thesis statement, Jez imagines a more “normal” existence, thinking he could abandon Mark and “be in the mainstream of the culture instead of lying like a freak in our weird puddle”. Of course, he doesn’t leave, and neither of them get anywhere, trying and failing to scale the ladders of success they’ve misguidedly selected.
For Mark, this looks like a Blairite update of the dad-on-the-Meccano-box family man. He wants a house in Surrey (and ultimately a “cottage in the Ardennes”), children who learn the viola and ancient Greek, a mid-level executive job, a Mensa membership and a Sunday Times subscription. He is too anxious and self-sabotaging to achieve nearly any of these things. And for much of the series, he projects these expectations onto Sophie (Olivia Colman), a colleague he imagines holds the key to this lifestyle, even though, as he admits, they have “very little basic compatibility”.
This creates the show’s greatest and most agonising plotline: Sophie and Mark’s relationship, accidental engagement (a twin product of “embarrassment” and “fear”), and Mark’s attempts to extricate himself (respectably) from the arrangement, up to and including on their wedding day. This leaves him at the altar saying “I do”, even his attempted jilting a failure, with his bride-to-be weeping beside him. He thinks to himself (and to us): “That’s it. I’ve ruined it. I’ve ruined my life. You only get one life, and I’ve ruined mine.” It’s a disastrous tilt at 21st-century bourgeois-dom, later to be further disappointed by menial, manual jobs, further failed (though initially more promising) relationships, and a child born out of wedlock.
Whereas Jez is an altogether more contemporary creature. He’s desperate above all to be celebrity-famous, even, if necessary, just for being famous. Craig Phillips or The Chemical Brothers will do fine (an outtake from the first series even shows Jez’s audition tape for Big Brother). This initially takes the form of trying to make it as a talentless DJ-musician alongside “Super Hans”, his erratic and “crack-addled maniac” bandmate, just one of the pack of eccentrics and one-offs that orbit Jez and Mark’s lives, there to perplex and bedevil them further. When music and the dole give out, he pursues the even more fashionable, undemanding and unpromising career of a “life coach”, delivering catastrophic and unethical advice to his clients, who are marginally more damaged than him.
If Mark is buttoned-up and emotionally barren, a superhuman super-ego of English repression, Jez is his exact double, the “work-shy freeloader” to Mark’s “tight-fisted cockmuncher”. He’s a bohemian with none of the art and all of the mess. At one point, he’s living in a bathtub; at another, he agrees to pimp out his girlfriend to Mark’s boss (after haggling to the exact price of £530). He’s feckless and thoughtless, driven by a pathological adolescence summed-up by his motto of “sucky-fucky” and his “higher law” of “if it feels good, do it”. To which Mark responds, with full David Mitchell panel-show condescension, “Oh, that’s a great law, isn’t it? What’s that, Gaddafi’s law?” At Peep Show’s best, entire episodes can pass like this, the minutiae of life chewed up in perfectly weighted and acted exchanges between its leads. And the quality of the comedy is what sustains such a bleak format, the viewer caught in the bitter-sweet spot of laugh or cry, wince or snort, smile or groan.
It’s not a classic recipe for a large audience, and while it was on TV, Peep Show only ever enjoyed the dubious honour of “cult” status. Beloved by a few, heralded by critics, and commercially unfortunate. It was threatened with cancellation annually. Remarkable, then, that, in the past half-decade, it has achieved a cultural significance and pop-cultural ubiquity that is rare for any modern sitcom, celebrated at the very top of “best-of” lists. These days there are only two sitcoms one can, in need of auxiliary humour at a forbidding social gathering, quote to some agreeable recognition: The Inbetweeners and Peep Show. The “four naan?” exchange in particular has become so commonplace as to have slipped from reference to irritating catchphrase.
And that’s because the mood of Peep Show has moved from cult to collective. Its cackling cynicism, its unchanging protagonists and its anxious interiority were all original at the time of release, improvements and innovations on the cringe comedy trend. The Office may be the more singular, sculpted achievement, and The Thick of It a greater satire, while Fleabag achieves a level of genuine artistic beauty neither can compete with. But — sprawling, baggy, inconsistent but never far from brilliant — in its totality, Peep Show offers some of the pleasures previously reserved for the English comic novel.
The final frame of Peep Show sees our protagonists slumped at angles to the TV in their flat, both rejected by respective love interests, discussing exactly how they’d murder each other (if the situation arose). For all of its comedy, there’s something existential, something of an English Godot about the scene. And, for better or worse, they sit as our representatives: their schemes for improvement defeated and humiliated. Even if Britain has always found solace in abjection, it’s quite a terminal pair for us to have taken up. Ricky Gervais found the heart to relent on David Brent at the end, granting him that laugh from his colleagues that he always wanted. But, in a world that feels ever more joyless and farcical, manic and dejected, perhaps laughter in the dark is only the natural accompaniment.