Sam Bain

Posted: April 19, 2015 in Writer
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Sam Bain

Sophie Hannah passed me on to Sam Bain, one of the co-writers of Peep Show, Fresh Meat and Babylon. The two met each other studying English at Manchester University in 1991. Bain describes her as the ‘most impressive and most professional writer on that course. She was a hugely talented, energetic voice to have in the class.’

The first time that I saw ‘Peep Show’ was in Hong Kong. I was laid up with a bout of food poisoning. We’d done a lot of sight seeing anyway and my host had a box set. The two people that I was with laughed with familiarity at lines they’d obviously watched repeatedly before and I was attracted, in the way that you are when your mates find something funny. You want to share the humour, like the joke as much as they did. The show was a slow burn for me and started with a growing fondness for the characters. Super Hans initially, the goggle eyed maverick with a delicious hint of unpredictability but then, much more, Mark and Jez, the stars of the Croydon based sitcom.

Mark Corrigan has knowingly caved in to life’s rules. He’s got a job that is, let’s say, spiritually unfulfilling but that’s how he thought life would be anyway – he didn’t expect anything else. The spanner in the works is Jeremy his flatmate from college, the other half of the El Dude brothers. Because they’re mates and presumably because Mark wanted help with the rent, Jez moved in. The eternal cadger, it’s unclear whether Jeremy Usbourne has ever paid any rent but the two need each other.

The writers of ‘Peep Show’, Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, have explored the question of what would happen if the two characters ever split up but their co-dependency is such that being apart never really worked out. The two are opposites who, in some weird way, attract as mates. Mark, unsure if he would ever find a mate for life, married someone he didn’t really love and split up with her soon after. Jez couldn’t care less about the soul mate thing. He just wants to have lots of sex and be a pop star.

As Bain points out when we talk, writing about two losers was a conscious decision. ‘I think you’ll find in some ways, most sitcom characters are losers. Winners aren’t that funny. The successful guy who gets everything he wants doesn’t sound like a comic character to me. When you think about comedy you generally think about people who get things wrong, make mistakes, are stupid, arrogant and otherwise flawed.’

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Our heroes: Jez (Robert Webb) and Mark (David Mitchell)

If writers abide by Mark Twain’s advice that you should write what you know, then it seems inevitable that Bain and Armstrong have based some of the characters on themselves. Bain has been transparent about using his own humiliation to comic effect in the show – the sitting on the burglar for example, which happened when he worked in a video shop.  So if Mark and Jez are losers, is that how he and Jesse thought of themselves?

‘I certainly feared being a loser. Maybe that’s what comes out in the writing. The character of Jeremy is the classic example of a self deluded artist who thinks he’s talented but clearly isn’t. Anyone who tries to write or paint or make stuff like I do, your basic fear is that you’re a deluded idiot like Jeremy, that you’re pursuing an impossible dream that’s a childish fantasy. That character embodies those feelings.’

Bain and Armstrong knew each other at university but only started working together after leaving. Starting off writing links for the Big Breakfast, they moved to children’s television before eventually writing a pilot for the BBC that never progressed to a fully blown series. This was where they meet David Mitchell and Robert Webb. ‘Peep Show’ almost didn’t happen. Bain and Armstrong had been writing together for four years by this point and he tells me that he got close to giving it all up.

‘I’d done my novel which didn’t get published. I’d written a feature film which didn’t get anywhere. I wrote a short film which was a traumatic experience. Jesse and I had written some stuff but hadn’t got an agent and that was about four years into writing quite seriously. Then I thought, come on, it’s never going to happen. I’m just going to go to Brazil and teach English or something. And then we got an agent and it all started to come together but that was the last time I remember feeling like I should give up.’

Peep Show has made stars out of Robert Webb and David Mitchell and Bain is open about their involvement being integral to the show’s success. The four of them had met working on a sitcom about squatters that went nowhere. They all got on and when Bain and Armstong had the idea for what was initially called ‘P.O.V.’, they wrote it with Mitchell and Webb in mind. There is a funny section in Mitchell’s book ‘Back Story’, when he describes his worries about the subsequent name change. ‘Surely that would put off some of the right people – those who might be up for a sitcom and attract some of the wrong: those in the mood for a wank.’ he writes. When Robert Webb tells him the name change is Bain and Armstrong’s idea, he is reassured. ‘God knows, Sam and Jesse had written every other word in the scripts brilliantly – who was I to complain if I wasn’t massively keen on the first two?’

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Jesse Armstrong (rear) and Sam Bain (front)

The ninth and final series of Peep Show will be shown later this year; it’s now more than a decade since they wrote the first six episodes. Bain and Armstrong are currently writing and filming will begin in August. The show has won BAFTAs and lead to gigs writing ‘Four Lions’ with Chris Morris and for Bain, working on Rev. Together with Armstrong, he’s also created Fresh Meat and Babylon. Their career was given an early boost when Ricky Gervais named Peep Show as his favourite comedy when The Office was flavour of the month. Given the plaudits, the successive recommissions and a place cemented in the television industry, presumably Bain doesn’t feel like much of a loser anymore?

‘I guess I definitely feel like I could still become a loser. The next thing I write could be terrible and I could realise that I was actually a loser all along. Fear of failure is probably the writers best friend. If you lose that you’re in serious trouble because you lose your edge. Your perfectionism…you would lose your desire to make everything as good as it possibly can be. Jesse and I keep our fear of failure quite close in order to avoid being mediocre.’

He admits feeling the pressure of writing a decent final series of Peep Show because he’s been the viewer, not wanting final episodes of his favourite shows to be shit. ‘As a fan of other people’s stuff, it is a bit disappointing if your beloved show goes off the rails.’

This snippet is typical of our conversation. Bain seems grateful for the life he’s been afforded; humble, with no sense of displaying false modesty and seemingly still genuinely happy to hear that people really enjoy his work, even though he must have been told that about a thousand times by now. Aside from the comedy, his work has become more political in recent years. ‘Four Lions’ seems even braver now than it did at the time, lampooning the ineptitude of young British Muslims attracted to the ‘glamour’ of jihad. ‘Babylon’ followed more recently with greater fanfare, given the attachment of ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ director Danny Boyle and the involvement of Jimmy Nesbitt. It looked at the difference between the PR machine representing the police and the truth on the ground.

Given that we’re heading into the most unpredictable election in years with a public seemingly increasingly disillusioned with politics, I ask him how he’s feeling about it all. Declaring himself ‘not a Tory voter and not a UKIP supporter’ he believes in using his vote, ‘I’m not a Russell Brand character in that respect,’. He sees a lot of potential in writing about immigration concern, one of the deciding factors in this year’s vote.

‘There’s a lot of drama and comedy in that. Why not? I’m more drawn towards controversial writing, whether it’s about Islamic terrorism for ‘Four Lions’ or paedophiles for an episode of Rev. I think there is a lot of material in any subject that is very emotional, where people get angry or heated.’

Which way would Mark and Jez vote?

‘Jeremy might well pull a Brand, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d never voted. Mark would definitely vote for one of the mainstream parties, he wouldn’t go offline and go crazy and vote Green or UKIP.’ Bain was less sure about Mark, but after consulting with Armstrong, they felt he’d voted for New Labour throughout the Blair years before defecting to the Lib Dems at the last election. Like many of us, Mark’s not sure who will get his ‘x’ in a few weeks.

Post election, post last series of both Fresh Meat and Peep Show, Bain is contemplating some time off next year. Together with Armstrong he’s written two shows a year for the past four years and admits to workaholic tendencies. He tells me he still has ambitions outside television, possibly another novel, another film script or something for the theatre. Has success been as gratifying as he imagined? ‘In some ways its much more gratifying because I never expected to have shows as well appreciated as Peep Show or any of the others. It’s been beyond my wildest dreams really, what we’ve been through, what we’ve achieved.”

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