In a milestone celebration of two decades since its debut, “Peep Show” continues to shine as a beloved cult classic. The British sitcom, known for its unique point-of-view filming technique, follows the misadventures of Mark Corrigan (David Mitchell) and Jeremy Usbourne (Robert Webb) in a drab Croydon flat. Creators and stars of the show, along with other key figures, sat down to reflect on the series’ remarkable journey, from its humble beginnings to its enduring legacy.
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Sam Bain, one of the show’s co-creators, shared a remarkable insight into the creative process behind “Peep Show,” describing it as a platform to inject “humiliating, weird, embarrassing moments” into a comedy watched by thousands. The series often drew in over a million viewers, and it was not uncommon for Bain to incorporate his own surreal experiences into the show. One memorable incident involved sitting on a burglar, a real-life escapade that found its way into the series in the form of the season five episode, “Burgling.”
It was exactly two decades ago when “Peep Show” made its late-night debut on Channel 4, inviting viewers into the mundane yet captivating world of Mark and Jeremy. Over nine series, the show offered a blend of ludicrous predicaments, existential introspection, and a raw glimpse into the male psyche, all set against the backdrop of the Blair era and the financial crisis.
While “Peep Show” may not have commanded massive viewership during its run, it was a critical darling from the start. Comedian Ricky Gervais hailed it as “the best show on television” in 2005, catapulting its relatively unknown leads, Mitchell and Webb, to stardom. The show also served as a launching pad for the careers of its creators, Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, who later collaborated on projects like “Fresh Meat” and “Four Lions,” with Armstrong going on to create the acclaimed series “Succession.” Additionally, the show introduced audiences to a young Olivia Colman and showcased Matt King’s unforgettable character, Super Hans.
Bain and Armstrong’s journey to creating “Peep Show” began in the early 2000s when they met Mitchell and Webb while working on an ill-fated BBC comedy about squatters. The foursome bonded while Mitchell and Webb performed two-man shows in Edinburgh pubs. This partnership proved pivotal, as they embarked on developing the concept that would ultimately become “Peep Show.” Mitchell emphasized their commitment to the project, noting that they aimed to create a “proper Channel 4 sitcom commission” that would run for multiple series, recognizing the value of a successful sitcom premise.
Jim Howick, who joined the show in its fourth season as Mark’s colleague and love rival Gerard, shared his excitement about being cast in his favorite show. He marveled at how the set remained virtually unchanged, turning props into iconic elements of the show’s aesthetic. The point-of-view filming technique, inspired by a documentary featuring a camera attached to a model’s sunglasses, contributed to the show’s distinct style. Initially, actors wore head-mounted cameras, capturing their co-stars in front of them. However, this approach was later replaced by cameraman Nick Martin filming directly in front of the actors, a transition that provided more flexibility.
The unique filming style enabled the show’s greatest comedic asset: internal monologues. These inner thoughts, often vastly different from the characters’ spoken words, created a “circus of anxiety,” as Howick described it. Sam Bain noted that the show tapped into the universally relatable experience of having bizarre, silly thoughts. Mark’s internal monologue, known for its repressed and neurotic nature, became a key component of the show’s humor. Jeremy’s internal monologue, on the other hand, was typically brief, reflecting his impulsive and unfiltered personality. This access to characters’ innermost thoughts added an element of “weird honesty” and “massive rudeness” that resonated with viewers.
“Peep Show” struck a chord with young adults navigating the uncertainties of their twenties. The characters of Mark and Jeremy embodied the struggle to define their paths, a relatable theme for many in that age group. Bain suggested that viewers often pondered whether they would follow a conventional office job like Mark or embrace a more creative, carefree lifestyle like Jeremy. The show captured the anxiety and fear of that period in life, made even more palpable in today’s world, where property ownership often seems out of reach.
Webb pinpointed a pivotal moment in the show that encapsulates its essence: Jeremy contemplating whether he should join mainstream society to escape his peculiar life with Mark. This feeling of being trapped in an unconventional, unfulfilling existence while everyone else seems to have it figured out resonates with many.
The quintessential Britishness of “Peep Show” was a recurring theme in the discussion. The shabbiness of the Croydon flat and the show’s nihilistic undertones set it apart from American counterparts, which often feature glamorous settings even when depicting downbeat scenarios. The lack of action and the characters’ endless cycle of mistakes contributed to the show’s unique appeal, a reflection of the “Beckett world” where individuals persistently repeat their errors.
Reflecting on the show’s aesthetics, Mitchell pointed out that “Peep Show” intentionally aimed for a grim, bleak, corner-shop ambiance. This stark contrast led to some humorous observations as Armstrong went on to create “Succession,” a series centered around billionaires living extravagant lives. Mitchell jokingly noted the transformation, highlighting the budget constraints that once forced scenes to be shot in parked cars. He pondered how Mark and Jeremy would handle wealth, particularly envisioning the kind of house Jeremy would buy, a scenario that might make for a challenging yet intriguing watch.
“Peep Show” has not only left a lasting impression but also served as an influence. Executive producer Frank Rich suggested that Mark and Jeremy, affectionately referred to as the “El Dude brothers,” laid the groundwork for “Succession’s” equally morally questionable characters, Tom and Greg. The two shows share similarities, such as the ambivalence of the audience toward the characters and their amoral behavior.
The essence of “Peep Show” can be distilled into its moments of panicked decisions, which often result in deranged yet brilliantly executed scenes. The absurdity of these situations is grounded in the meticulous, mundane steps taken to reach them. Howick emphasized the importance of knowing the characters’ vulnerabilities, allowing viewers to embrace the absurdity within the logical framework of the narrative.
The show also excelled in cringe comedy, with scenes that left audiences squirming in discomfort. Howick’s first day on set, in particular, proved memorable, as he found himself sitting in a strip club with a tube up his nose to monitor stomach acid levels. This episode symbolized the unique blend of humor and discomfort that defined “Peep Show.”
One scene that still stands out as one of the most painful moments in the series is the one set in a stationary cupboard, where Dobby (Isy Suttie) rubs her body against Mark’s crotch while staring into his eyes in a mirror. The actors recalled the awkwardness of the scene, with Mitchell expressing his discomfort at having to convey arousal with his facial expressions.
The cast members also shared anecdotes about their interactions with fans, some of whom had unusual and unexpected responses. Paterson Joseph, who played Johnson, a character described as a slick, enigmatic businessman, recalled fans expressing their love for his character, despite his character’s unpleasant demeanor. Jim Howick, who portrayed the pathetic Gerard, also noted that fans’ interactions were quite distinct, often playfully teasing him about his character’s shortcomings.
As the series continues to find new audiences, the cast members face a mix of reactions. Shepherd, who portrayed April, receives comments from fans about her character’s romantic choices, while Suttie, who played Dobby, has observed a debate online about whether her character is the only genuinely good person in the show. However, the cast acknowledges that online discussions can take a harsh turn, with some fans feeling a strong sense of ownership over the characters.
The conversation inevitably turns to whether “Peep Show” would be made in the same way today. Angus Wright points out that the show did not address diversity when it originally aired in 2003, suggesting that a modern production would likely feature more inclusivity. Isy Suttie also believes that the show’s humor did not target specific groups, making it less likely to face criticism in a contemporary context.
Interestingly, there have been attempts to recreate the magic of “Peep Show.” The fifth attempt, a gender-flipped version set in the US with Minnie Driver and Amandla Jahava as the leads, is currently in development. Previous efforts, including one featuring Johnny Galecki and another scripted by Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, did not come to fruition. While the creators have other projects in the works, they have not ruled out the possibility of returning to the world of Mark and Jeremy for a tenth series, envisioning the characters in their sixties, still residing in their iconic Croydon flat.
In conclusion, “Peep Show” remains a beloved and enduring classic that has left an indelible mark on British comedy. Its unique style, relatable characters, and exploration of the human condition continue to captivate audiences, making it a timeless gem in the world of television.
“Peep Show” is available for streaming on Channel 4 and Netflix, allowing both longtime fans and new viewers to immerse themselves in the world of Mark and Jeremy.