Thanks to Veep, its even-swearier Brit predecessor The Thick of It and the foul-mouthed feature-length spinoff In The Loop, Simon Blackwell’s comedic pen has been behind arguably the past decade’s most celebrated (and award-amassing) political satire on screen.
Alongside his collaborations with Armando Iannucci (the two are currently working together on a David Copperfield adaptation), the Oscar-nominated writer has also found the time to team with Chris Morris for Four Lions in 2010 and script several episodes of Peep Show, one of Britain’s most adored sitcoms that ran for nine seasons.
Now back in the U.K. (he left Veep in 2015 after winning two Emmys for his work on the show), Blackwell has crafted a whole new show, and one that reunites him with Peep Show co-stars David Mitchell and Robert Webb.
An eight-part comedy that has already been very well received on its home shores (where Channel 4 has commissioned a second season), Back revolves around Stephen (Mitchell), a neurotic only son who is set to take over a rural pub his just-deceased father used to run. Interrupting plans to make something of his as-yet-unimpressive adult life comes Andrew, a charming individual who lands out of the blue claiming to be one of the many foster children Stephen’s parents took in over the years.
Naturally, Stephen – who struggles to recall Andrew and has rather miserable memories of his entire childhood – is unconvinced, and his growing suspicions over this charismatic intruder’s real intentions help drive Back’s darkly comic undercurrent.
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter as Back launches on Sundance Now, Blackwell talks about the pitfalls of U.S. remakes of hit U.K. shows (hint: don’t remove the things they’re most known for), Veep coming to a close and why a The Thick of It: Brexit Special is a very bad idea.
Back has had a great reception in the U.K. so far. You must be very pleased.
It’s great. You’re always nervous with a new thing, because stuff takes time to bed in; people need to get to know it. So I was really happy with the critical reaction and the online reaction and all of that was very pleasing.
It’s quite an unusual setting for a comedy show. Where did the idea come from?
Basically, Channel 4 came and asked me if I could come up with some narrative ideas for something that would star David (Mitchell) and Rob (Webb), because they wanted to keep the double act going in sitcoms post Peep Show. I was doing Veep at the time, so it took a while to come up with stuff. But I was just thinking it out… why would they be together? And I hadn’t seen the foster brother idea, at least not in a narrative comedy sense. It just seemed to give us a lot of juice. If someone comes back into your life after 30 years and says, ‘I’m your brother,’ and remembers things you’ve forgotten or things that might not have happened, then that’s a good little nub to be working stories around.
Mitchell and Webb seem to be playing similar characters to theirs in Peep Show, with Andrew being neurotic and constantly paranoid and Stephen a confident bullshitter. Would you agree?
I think Robert’s character is very different to [his character in Peep Show] Jeremy. Jeremy is much more of a needy child, while Andrew has a kind of confidence in the world and a sense of who he is. Your first thought when writing something new for David and Robert is to cast absolutely against type and have them playing complete opposites from everything you’ve ever seen them do. And of course, like most firsts, that’s a rubbish thought. Because for more than 10 years they’ve had various iterations of their double act, wherever they’ve been, and they’ve got this dynamic between them that works comedically. So it’s about finding a version of that which is new enough and fresh enough but still keeps that element of how they operate together as comic performers. That’s what I was after. But it’s always going to be under the shadow of Peep Show. It’s one of the most beloved sitcoms of all time.
It’s quite British, set in the countryside and based around a rural pub. How do you think it’ll go down in the U.S.?
At its base, it deals with absolute emotional fundamentals: status, death, sex, jealousy. And whether you’re in America, or wherever you are, these are themes that will grab you. So I think everything else is a little bit of window dressing. I want to tell stories that are hitting those fundamental things and making people hopefully recognize themselves or their family or whatever. So the rural setting I think add nice textures to it, but they’re just there to serve this idea of people under pressure and how they react. That’s what we’ve been doing for years – what we did with all the political stuff. In a way you could strip away the setting of the political stuff and just say, ‘Here are human beings under pressure and scrutiny, constantly, and this is how they are reacting.’ And that’s where the interest is, I think. Hopefully it’ll strike a chord with American viewers. I hope so.
There have been a couple of attempts to remake Peep Show in the U.S. I was just watching a particularly awful pilot episode…
Was that the one where they took away the point-of-view shots?
Yeah! You know, just one of the major unique elements of Peep Show…
Ha! There was an attempt to remake The Thick of It where they removed all the camera movement and the swearing as well! I never worked out why they wanted to do that. But there exists an American pilot – it was a network version, I think NBC – so there was no swearing and lots of static shots. All of the things where you think, ‘That’s what The Thick of It is,’ they took away.
Do you think we’re beyond the days of U.S. remakes of U.K. shows now?
I don’t know. I don’t think so, because when they hit, they hit big, like The Office. People are still going to have a go, because suddenly you might find yourself with this juggernaut of a show. But I can’t think of when the last one that really worked. I think people will always keep trying, because it could really pay off. Like all things, it’s just about getting the right people and putting them in the right place all together. There are so many things that can go wrong. You’ve just got to trust the gods.
Are you sad to see Veep come to an end or do think it’s the perfect time?
I think it will always depend on whether the performers want it to go on, because it’s such an extraordinary cast. They could keep things going for as long as it interested them, I think. They’re a phenomenal bunch of people, led by Julia who is the best comic performer in the world. I think if they feel it’s time to stop, then I would trust their instincts. And I only stopped working on it because I wanted to be back home with my family and didn’t want to be away. If we were making it here I would have happily carried on it doing it.
Is it harder now to make political satire in the age of Trump?
I’m very pleased I’m not having to write political satire anymore! The combination of Trump and Brexit… I remember everyone said when Brexit happened that we should should do a The Thick of It special. And I said, ‘No we shouldn’t.’ The point of The Thick of It was that there’s this facade of competence, but behind it there’s chaos and in between those two things is where you can find the comedy. But after the referendum, the facade fell off and we all saw the chaos. And I don’t know where you can find the comedy there. And with Veep, our mantra was: that wouldn’t happen, she’s the president or vice president and is surrounded by the best minds in the country. We were always saying that – that couldn’t happen, she wouldn’t say that, how could she say that. And then here comes Donald Trump, mocking someone with cerebral palsy on live television and all bets are off. That mantra applied from 1776 up until earlier this year. It’s now meaningless, because he will say the most extraordinary things. So I’m glad I don’t have to be more ludicrous than Trump, because I would fail.
Finally, I know Chris Morris (Four Lions) is working on another film, but can’t for the life of me find out what it is. Can you give me any clue what he’s cooking up next?
I’m aware of what he’s cooking, but I can’t show you the menu I’m afraid. He has an elite troop of killers who will come and get you. He’s doing something marvelous, as you would expect.
Marvelous marvelous. It’s very marvelous. That’s all I can say.