Even before it started, Channel 4’s new six-part sitcom Back had so much going for it. I was very excited to see David Mitchell and Robert Webb back together again and on Channel 4, working with writer Simon Blackwell who is fresh from Veep, The Thick Of It and even penned some episodes of Mitchell and Webb’s star vehicle Peep Show.
And yet, a pause. Let’s not get carried away people, because real comedy fans know sitcoms need time and patience to develop and grow. This is even more important in this hyper-connected, hyper-critical era where everyone has an opinion and expresses it loudly on social media. Not all great comedy is instantly great straight out of the blocks. For example Series 1 of Blackadder is no one’s favourite and the first episodes of classics like Only Fools and Horses and even Peep Show don’t hold up greatly. Given time, fresh focus andanother chance it became a comedy classic. It’s so sad that those days are over, and it’s sink or swim based solely on the first episode.
Mitchell and Webb themselves are only too aware of theconstraints of the environmentthey find themselves in. “The reason we gun for comedy in the press and on social media is because fundamentally we care about it more than other genres,” says Mitchell. “But we mustn’t let the fact that as a culture we love comedy so much make us destroy all of our comedy”. And Webb says “It’s this weird rapid response thing… at least get to the end of the first half an hour before you have a hot take.” Well, this is my hot take so come on in and get warmed up.
In Back Mitchell plays Stephen, whose father has just died. He was a man’s man, a pub landlord and Stephen is only too aware he has big shoes to fill. He suffers trite comments and self-help nonsense from well-meaning friends about closure and grief. He’s forced to confront his feelings whether he wants to or not. His tone is one of bafflement – he’s awkward, sad and confused which suits David Mitchell perfectly. Of course there are slight flashes of Mark Corrigan but that’s an unavoidable thing. Webb is the mysterious imposter, Andrew, who rocks up unannounced at the funeral and says he is one of the family’s former foster children from a few months in 1987. Stephen can’t actually remember ever meeting Andrew, admitting: “There were so many of the f***ers, I lost track. Like the Sugababes.”
Andrew presents himself as a wise well-travelled guru, exactly the sort of person who would pedantically correct your pronunciation of a place name he’d backpacked through. He just wants to make the world a better place, or so he says. He’s smugly confident in his own lack of abilities – he can’t speak Basque or do CPR but that doesn’t stop him from proclaiming himself a huge success at both, and many other things. Webb plays Andrew very neatly – he could be a warm and genuine man or he could be devilish. Andrew is the kind of guy who says whatever he thinks the listener wants to hear. He could be an adept politician.
The use of flashbacks to flesh out the boy’s childhood is cleverly done, in what could have been quite hackneyed given everyone does flashbacks these days. Mitchell is in school uniform one moment or a boy in an oversized coat the next. His fear that Andrew is actually the better son is shown by Andrew’s vivid fun memories of Dad “Let’s go to Chessington World of Adventures!” compared to Stephen’s grey recollections of the same events “Don’t eat chocolate in your room!”. Stephen’s struggle with inadequacy is a very real fear as his Mum reminds him of past failures. It seems Dad thought that way too and Andrew has been asked to come in and help Stephen run the pub.
It’s a show based on a winning partnership, and Mitchell and Webb bounce off each other as freshly as they ever have before. It’s not all about our double act though. Uncle Geoff (Geoff McGivern) and the rest of the stellar supporting cast do very well too, with some real laugh-out-loud and completely unrepeatable lines. I can’t wait to find out more about these characters as the storylines develop. Stephen’s hippie mum (Penny Downie) and scatty sister (Louise Brealey) are both throwing themselves at Andrew immediately, but Stephen’s question is “What’s your game?”. Is Andrew sinister or well-meaning? What does he want from his former family? It could go either way.
So I’m happy to report that Back bucks Blackadder. This is a confident, charismatic opener of what promises to be a great little series. Here’s to British comedy in rude health.
Contributed by Sarah Kennedy
Back Continues Wednesday at 10.00pm on Channel 4