Posts Tagged ‘Sam Bain’

Sam Bain passed me on to Simone Lia. Bain had picked up one of the early editions of ‘Fluffy’ and got in touch with her by email. They’ve stayed in touch and Lia describes him as “a really friendly and supportive guy, very down to earth and he just helps people a lot with their work.”simone-800x500

The first thing that you need to know about the comic book artist Simone Lia is that she’s a very patient interviewee. On the week I was due to meet her, I got invited to the opening of a new restaurant so I emailed her and  asked her if she fancied it. ‘That sounds like brilliant fun, what time?’ she replied. When we turned up, it wasn’t brilliant fun. On a warm summer Tuesday, loads of assorted other freeloaders had turned up to fill their boots with champers and shellfish. We couldn’t get anywhere near the grub and could barely hear each other, sort of hovering in a spot where we thought it was least likely we’d get knocked against in the melee. Weird sort of thing to do with someone you’ve just met. We lasted about ten minutes before we left for somewhere civilised where we could sit down and actually hear each other.

I don’t read comic books; not because I don’t like them, I just don’t know where to start. Two of her characters, the incredibly sweet Chip & Bean, had entered my consciousness somehow though. You might know her because of a small, challenging rabbit called Fluffy or for the courageous, soul-baring ‘Please God Find Me a Husband!’. She also draws a regular strip for The Observer. Fluffy is owned by Michael (although it’s unclear how this happened) and apart from the fact he doesn’t think he’s a rabbit, he’s essentially a surrogate child, innocently misbehaving by painting on the walls of Michael’s kitchen, blurting out inappropriate truths that cause Michael to blush and constantly wanting to go to McDonalds. There’s a decent history of rabbits and men having relationships in culture, what with James Stewart’s best mate Harvey and Donnie Darko telling Jake Gyllenhaal the world is going to end. Why a rabbit? To anyone who has read ‘Fluffy’, it’s perhaps no surprise that he started off as a child.

“I was interested in a father child relationship. And then when I drew it, it wasn’t sweet enough so I started drawing a rabbit instead as it had the qualities I was looking for, which was being very vulnerable and sweet and tiny. A character that you wanted to pick up and hug. And in a comic you can do that, you can have these characters that are completely unreal and you believe it. I drew a rabbit and it just resonated. It was a picture of a man and a rabbit sitting on a bench and the rabbit says ‘You smell like my Daddy’. And thats when I started investigating the characters a bit more.”

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Comic books, or graphic novels, started being taken seriously around the time of Alan Moore’s ‘Watchmen’ back in 1987. Instead of being just for kids, comics became things with violence and characters that had anxieties, rather than the superheroes of yore. I think you know a comic book is good when you forget you’re reading drawings and you’re invested in the characters. ‘Fluffy’ will certainly make you smile, but there are also parts of it that might have you anxiously biting your lip, hoping that the uncomfortable emotional situation you’re witnessing will turn out alright. Be warned – you might also find yourself forming your own relationship with Fluffy. His Instagram account is a thing of wonder.

Having first appeared in 2007, Lia is now working on another instalment. Michael and Fluffy will both be ten years older and Lia says that “It’s really interesting to get into the mind of a man in his 40s. How has he changed? How has he developed? His relationships, what’s going on in his life? How is he relating to Fluffy? It’s a different dynamic.” She’s got the story arc worked out and about 40 pages drawn – the deadline is next summer. Seems it takes quite a lot of time to get a comic book together and a lot of that time consists of thinking. “The more I play out scenes in my head, I imagine who they are. For me they’re really real. Sometimes I think ‘I’ll go round to Mike’s house’ or ‘Fluffy would like that’. Before I started writing the storyline, I had to think for weeks. It’s like watching films in my head. And then me drawing the characters because that helps with the thinking process.”

It’s the opposite of my own working life – I wish I had more time to think before I have to ‘do’. Given that she spends so much time thinking and then creating, is it difficult for Lia to relate to people who have regular nine to five jobs? “I don’t find it hard to relate to people. Sometimes I get jealous of people in normal jobs because they’re working with other people! I used to teach at the University of Westminster. I had to go to a meeting and I remember the thrill of thinking ‘I’M IN A MEETING’, it was really exciting. And then I thought, I hope they don’t ask me what I think because I don’t know what they are talking about.’ I was just really excited about pretending to be at work.”

This is told in a great south London accent and ends with a very endearing giggle. Lia has the kind of shiny, raven hair that looks like it would be at home in one of those L’Oreal ads that Cheryl Cole does. Very dark eyes too, that contain plenty of the mischief you’ll find in her work and also something of the mystical – we’ll come to that soon enough. She’s a lot more attractive than the version of herself you’ll find in the opening pages of ‘Please God, find me a husband!’ where she appears as a kind of frumpy, bespectacled librarian who’s miserable, having just been dumped. Mulling this as she walks through Leicester Square, the character decides to ask God what will become of her. “Well, to cut to the chase, God – I’m going to be thirty-four in two weeks time and if you want me to marry someone you’re going to need to get a bit of a move on.” The scene ends with God cheering her up by dancing with her to an INXS song. Which is just how you thought that was going to pan out, right? Pleasegod

What follows is a story familiar to many people in their late twenties or early thirties: the search for a soulmate. This journey involves going on retreat, travelling to Australia and revisiting her past. The twist is that God is along for the ride as Lia is a devout Catholic. Rather than the title of the book being an exasperated common expression, it’s a prayer to her maker to help her out. Obviously I can’t tell you if she finds her man – you’ll have to read the book. But what an incredibly brave thing, to put your life out there like that. It’s fair to say it wasn’t all plain sailing.

“When I was doing it I kept stopping and thinking ‘I don’t want to say all this; it’s really personal and embarrassing’. At the beginning when I had the idea I thought I was going to be this holy lady and then when I was writing it I realised I’m not like that at all. I had to put in the stuff that was quite embarrassing because I thought ‘I’ve got to keep it real, I can’t just stay stuff that’s going to make me look good because then it’s not going to be authentic.’

One notably courageous part of the book is when Lia revisits her childhood self, which seems particularly painful. “When I was praying I saw all that. I do think that I needed some healing and I couldn’t quite handle it – I didn’t want God in there. I’ve got all this brokeness but sometimes you can’t even accept the healing that goes with it, it’s just too painful. I wasn’t ready to receive it even then. I was a bit worried about my parents seeing that as well, I didn’t want to upset them. You’ve got to be a bit delicate.” Later in our conversation she will tell me about violent situations between her parents. “There have been some situations that have not been good.”

As she carries on talking about the kind of soul baring necessary to finish the book, she describes a compulsion to keep going and alludes to a higher power at work, “Every time I stopped I would have some weird intervention, usually by a stranger on a bus talking me back into it and I would think ‘how did that just happen?’” Along the way she realised the book wasn’t really for her and now she has the letters to prove it, from people who’ve read it and written to tell her how it has helped them. As you might have guessed from the opening scene where she dances with God to INXS, it’s not all soul searching. There’s plenty of laughs to be had to, not least when Lia morphs into Penelope Cruz when confronted by a Crocodile Dundee type.

Perhaps because of the lack of a spiritual dimension in my own life, people who have faith fascinate me. Where does it come from? “I think there is a lot of different ways that God can speak to people but in my experience that audible voice has happened and you know that it’s not your voice. It’s outside of you but also inside of you. That was my experience. But I’ve also had experience of just having felt God there and it’s as if someone was actually standing there”. For a long time she says she had some sense of an inner voice or some higher wisdom but just ignored it. That the answer to what that was ended up being in the Catholic church was as much a surprise to her as anyone else.

To her credit she’s aware of the frustrations of language to articulate spirituality. Does she think you can explain what it’s like to have faith to somebody who doesn’t have any? “You can give it a go but I’m also aware that it can sound like a load of mumbo jumbo. I have to remember that before I had my experience that I was in the same boat. I didn’t believe in anything particularly. I can say that I have a relationship with God but I’m aware that can just sound like nothing really. I could just be talking about myself – I’ve got a relationship with myself.”

Before we go our separate ways, she tells me that her favourite artist (currently anyway) is a vlogger called Casey Neistat who she has discovered researching material for the next book ‘because Fluffy likes Youtube.’ As we come up into a warm summer London night she tells me that she’s going to walk to Elephant and Castle and we say our goodbyes. A day later she emails to say she kept walking beyond there, arriving two hours later back in Brockley. I can’t help wondering if it was God or a small, cute rabbit that she had for company in her head along the way.

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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.”