Listening to David Mitchell, star of Channel 4’s cult TV show Peep Show, talk in St Peter’s College Chapel about the “Ten things that annoy or depress me” in the same tone of the fictional character for which he’s most famous, I find myself considering the hardest essay question of them all: “To what extent is Mitchell actually Mark Corrigan?” (Answer with reference to examples).
Mitchell’s “diatribe of subjectivity” begins with an announcement that he has a subject of the utmost importance, that grates on him: “Dogs”.
Example: “Mark if I can just get rid of the dog corpse, there’s a chance I still might get laid here.” (Jez)
Mitchell says that he doesn’t blame people for having them, that in fact he can see their usefulness (for “warmth in icy conditions, or to aid farming”), but notes that what he can’t understand is why their numbers haven’t decreased in the same way as horses: “Why can’t it be the same for dogs?!”.
At this point, I wonder if his dislike has its rooting in something more personal, and it did: “The thing is, just because I know for a fact that it can’t kill me doesn’t mean it can’t hurt me”. Mitchell goes on to describe park encounters in which he has given dogs an absurdly wide berth, resenting the fact that dogs made him “look like a feeble person”.
Example: “Those kids have no idea whatsoever of what went on at Stalingrad. Although I can in no way compare my struggle reading it with that of the Red Army, it has been a very big read.” (Mark)
Boredom, he continues, is not something he experiences left to his own devices. However, after attending events of “medium to high culture”, be they art galleries or plays, he has developed the suspicion that in fact “you’re supposed to be bored, that’s how you know it’s doing you good.”
Watching a rendition of La Boheme above a pub (the novelty of the location quickly wore off) in Kilburn, he recounts thinking that it was now obvious to him why they do bag checks in theatres: “they want to make sure they don’t have the wherewithal to kill themselves.”
Example: “She is attractive, but brown rice and pop tarts, chamomile tea and economy vodka? THat’s a car crash of a shopping basket.” (Mark)
Why was it, he asks the audience spilling out of the chapel doorways and straining to hear, that people “defined themselves by their tastes, as if by liking something they’ve done something good” and vice versa?
“You never lose credibility by sneering at whatever cup of coffee other people have bought”. This is linked to the absurdity of the term “guilty pleasure”: the one thing that could allow you to like something that contrasted with your identity, without being embarrassed.
“Here is your opportunity to scream at the world, please like me!…If you like Abba and a bit of dairy milk, why do you have to feel guilty?”.
Example: “If text kisses were real kisses, the world would be an orgy.” (Mark)
Moving swiftly on from virtue signalling and past a dislike of the internet “a massive mistake that might be destroying our society”, our attention is drawn to remakes. Specifically, to the effects of money controlling innovation and film.
Lamenting their popularity, Mitchell admits that financially, the remake is a “no-brainer” but “culturally, we haven’t got a future if we’re rebooting Spiderman more often than I descale my kettle.”
When later asked by an audience member what he thinks the solution to the problem is, he comments that he doesn’t necessarily see a way out, but pointing out the problem has got to be a start: “at the moment I’m taking a lot of solace in pendulum metaphors”.
Example: “It’s fine. Luckily we’re all English so no-one’s going to ask any questions. Thank you, centuries of emotional repression!” (Mark)
Mitchell, a weekly columnist for The Observer, is no stranger to commenting on political issues, particularly Brexit. So it comes as no surprise then when he says that he does not, in fact, support Brexit.
Britain will be a “worse place to live”, and the idea that we can just assume that whatever is going badly is a “blip” is actually “complacency”. It is clinging on to the “inexorable attraction of progress and improvement”. While both Brexit and dogs make the list, he clarifies that his feelings towards dogs don’t compare to the current political situation. Specifying that while he isn’t saying there will be a global collapse, he thinks that “it’s less likely to happen if we worry that it might”.
Example: “Looking at porn is like lying to Parliament. It used to be wrong, but now it’s all a big laugh.” (Mark)
Continuing in the same tone, it becomes clear that his frustration encompasses the structure of the British political system itself, namely the way that taxation is treated and the way in which the structure makes MPs “vulnerable to the influence of lobbyists”.
Starting with taxation, Mitchell poses the question as to why on earth there is this “grey area” that enables corporations and people to legally avoid tax? This, he argues, reduces tax to a choice, an optional civic duty.
“Nastier people get to keep more money” and that was fundamentally “detrimental to the national good”.
His “top irritation” however, is the influence of lobbyists through financial means, arguing that we should protect politicians from the temptations of “directorships” by simply paying them more and then the “standard of government would shoot up.”
While Mitchell is clearly passionate about the failings of the present system, he informs the audience member who later asked him if he was tempted to set up a political party, that he absolutely was not.
Later on the topic of self-censoring comedy, he jokes: “ultimately comedians aren’t warriors for social justice, they’re empty people who want to be liked”,
Example: “Urgh, more data entry tonight. I guess the only good thing is that my life is so boring it feels like it might go on forever.” (Mark)
Mitchell’s lack of temptation to start a political party makes sense in isolation, but more so still when he adds that he couldn’t love his job more and praises the comedians he has worked with in the past as “weirdly much more supportive and up for a laugh than you’d expect from a group of people that are acerbic and sarcastic”.
Later, over a glass of wine in the college’s canal house, I find him to be the opposite of acerbic. Warm, interested and witty, he explains that he first met his Peep Show co-star and long-term writing partner Robert Webb at an audition for a Cambridge Footlights show in 1993.
The play was Cinderella. Mitchell was a first year, while Webb was a second year. “He was in the crowd and pretty much guaranteed a part, which I didn’t realise, I was a newbie.”
“I remember he was very funny and he didn’t look like he was going to be, he had long hair, an earring and distressed jeans. He looked like a serious, troubled student – and in some ways that’s what he was – but he would pick up a script and be very funny”.
Later that year, both were in the show with Webb playing Cinderella and Mitchell a Palace Servant. Afterwards, Webb asked Mitchell if he would do a show with him. “I thought I had made it. We did a show the year after, which we completely failed to rehearse, and the first night was an absolute shambles but the audience enjoyed it- a terribly bad lesson!”
I ask Mitchell what the name of the play was: “Oh it was called ‘Innocent millions dead or dying, a wry look at the post apocalyptic age (with songs)’ mainly because we just thought it would be funny to call it that”.
The play would be the start of a long partnership between the two comedians, including That Mitchell and Webb Look and Magicians. Most recently, the duo starred in Channel 4’s Back, with Webb playing Mitchell’s adopted brother.
Discussing who he looked up to in comedy, Mitchell says the Pythons, Peter Cook and Rowan Atkinson to name a few, but emphasises that one of the things working in TV has made him realise was the “professionalism and organisation” of the “real meat of the industry” behind it all, the highly skilled technicians that bring it all together.
Referencing a Peep Show Christmas episode involving a Christmas dinner being shot from different angles (and an inordinate amount of turkeys used), he recounts that it was “amazing” to see the logistics behind it all.
It does make him watch other TV shows differently. “It suspends the wire of disbelief…that’s a mixed metaphor” he laughs, “snaps the wire of disbelief”. Being involved in television means that you “soon notice if a corner has been cut” with lighting or continuity errors. That’s precisely why, Mitchell says, that it is vital to keep making British TV shows or the technicians won’t be there.
Coming to the end of the interview, I had to know: “How much do you personally relate to Mark Corrigan?”
“I personally relate to him quite a lot” Mitchell says, but only in part.
“There’s an element to Mark that is “fundamentally a bit nasty, and I hope I’m not.”
While they share a “sarcastic look at the world” and a frustration with cool “probably because I’ve never been cool”, they are different.
There’s a “deep selfish core to Mark that is the sort of thing that a sitcom character sort of needs”.
Clearly, a large part of Mitchell’s life is his family, who he talks of warmly, explaining that while being cynical is his “knee jerk reaction”, his wife (writer, presenter and professional poker player Victoria Coren Mitchell) has taught him “that not everything that ostensibly seems nice isn’t nice. You don’t necessarily have to take a sneery angle, you can just say ‘that’s nice'”.
Concluding my original question, it seems obvious (and unsurprising) that while David Mitchell and Mark Corrigan are inextricably linked, they are fundamentally different in nature. As well as Mitchell’s affability and comic timing, what stands out most is his ability to sharply draw attention to the absurdities of day-to-day life with the same dry wit and cynicism with which he made his name.