Worth more than a Peep

You know that Peepshow is cutting-edge comedy when it gets ignored by the boring conformists of the British Comedy Awards.

Neil Davenport

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To be a British Comedy Awards judge, it’s surely mandatory to posses a sense of humour? Judging by the gongs given out to the truly wretched Little Britain, it seems not. What compounds this suspicion further is that Channel 4’s Peepshow – its third series came to an end last week – wasn’t even nominated, let alone won anything. Given that Peepshow is so spectacularly funny – ‘The best British Comedy on TV’, according to Ricky Gervais – you wonder whether the judges should be mainlined industrial strength Prozac.

Peepshow stars David Mitchell as Mark Corrigan and Robert Webb as Jeremy Osbourne, two aimless twentysomethings sharing a poky flat in Croydon. While the naive Jeremy fancies himself as a ‘cutting edge’ hipster, Mark is essentially the bastard offspring of David Cameron and Jeremy Clarkson, a 50-year-old in the body of a twentysomething. Together they compensate for what the other sometimes lacks, though neither can quite calm each other’s neurotic and reckless impulses – especially over women.

In many ways, Peepshow successfully revisits the male bonding terrain explored by Dick Clements and Ian La Frenais. But whereas in The Likely Lads and Porridge the main characters were aware and preoccupied by social class, in Peepshow Mark and Jeremy are only aware and preoccupied by themselves. This is why we hear their inner thoughts – the rampant id if you will – alongside their public chatter. Mark will say, ‘Yes of course I like dancing’, only to think ‘so long as it doesn’t make me look like a coma victim being zapped by a cattle prod’. The contradictions between social etiquette, and what we really think, provide endless scope for comedy that’s both rich and strange. And given that we live in a society that really does believe that what we think is as important as what we do or say, Peepshow is a truly twenty-first century comedy.

What also amplifies that slightly woozy and disorientating feel is the way it is filmed. For the most part, it is shot through the eyes of Mark and Jeremy (hence the title). The ambience is akin to wandering home after a day-time drinking session in mid-winter, wherein everything suddenly appears weirdly overcast and over-bright at the same time. When the third series began, there was a worry that it wouldn’t scale the giddy heights of series one and two. Within five minutes it clearly had. Peepshow has such potent atmospherics the viewer is immediately pulled into Mark and Jeremy’s wonky universe.

Lesser comedies would have relied solely on such production devices. But writers Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain are as fascinated with the power of words as they are images. Whereas traditional sitcoms are all pregnant pauses and one-liners, Peepshow is a full-on torrent of scathing wordplay. At times it can be course and crude, but it’s always clever and considered too. For the most part, it captures the triumphs and absurdities, the elation and despair of chasing, and sometimes winning, glamorously elusive women.

If all this sounds worryingly close to Men Behaving Badly, it’s not. While sloth and sex do play a part in Peepshow, it neither celebrates the former nor fixates on the latter. Instead Armstrong and Bain set up a raft of modern-day targets and machine-gun them down. Top of the list is undoubtedly the hollow conceit of style-mag-reading, Hoxton twats. In Jeremy’s idiotic but manipulative friend Super Hans, Peepshow rips to shreds the grand self-delusions of unemployed ‘creatives’. The scenes with Super Hans and the easily led Jeremy single-handedly made Charlie Brooker and Chris Morris’ Nathan Barley appear slightly redundant. Whereas Brooker and Morris concentrate on the fripperies of EC1, Peepshow dwells on the recognisably human side of inflated talk, empty heads and empty lives.

In a twist of expected narrative, it’s nerdy loan manager Mark who always wins our sympathies. Whether its dismissing irritating street slang, New Age practitioners, old-time religion or its new equivalent, therapy, Marks’s withering putdowns are reliably and hilariously accurate.

Yet for all their differences in character and interests, Mark and Jeremy are united by nervous uncertainty. These are rudderless individuals unsure of their place in the world, what’s expected of them or how to relate to it. Whereas Dick Clements and Ian La Frenais’ heroes were grounded and directed by social class and class politics, there are no such frameworks for Mark and Jeremy. Instead both seek anchorage in relationships at a time when they’re fraught with uncertainty as well.

At the end of series two, Jeremy marries visa-seeking American Nancy in a bid for deluded security and purpose. At the end of series three, Mark proposes to frumpish Sophie and, as the brighter of the two, quickly wonders whether it’s a mistake. He’s been so caught up with the idea of love equalling fulfilment he’s not sure whether he really loves Sophie. Nevertheless, his desire for anchorage overrides such considerations and he goes ahead anyway. Forget Bridget Jones, Peepshow realises that these days men are as likely to be as nervy, needy and neurotic about the opposite sex as women are supposed to be.

With so much going for it, Peepshow needs all the superlatives we can muster. Three series of unstoppable brilliance and it’s still barely seen or written or talked about. But should the creative talents behind Peepshow really worry? In one respect, being ignored by the British Comedy Awards is a sign of maverick quality. In the past, the judges ignored such high watermarks of comedy as The Day Today and The League of Gentlemen. For such an outwardly conformist institution, perhaps it is fitting that Little Britain won everything after all.

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