‘It has taken us so incredibly long to shoot the second series of Back, you’d think it was claymation.’
David Mitchell’s irritation at the near four-year wait for the second series of Simon Blackwell’s excellent C4 sitcom is tempered by relief that it happened at all. Yes, there was Covid, but also the small matter of his long-time comedy partner nearly dying.
‘I went for a cast medical and the GP asked what I was doing about the heart murmur,’ recalls Robert Webb, paired once again with Mitchell after Bafta-winning sitcoms (Peep Show) and sketch shows (That Mitchell And Webb Look).
‘Um, what heart murmur? A cardiologist found a congenital defect and said my heart was going to fail within the next two to six months.’
Open-heart surgery and months of recuperation followed before filming resumed with both men shaken by Webb’s brush with mortality.
‘I was aware Rob wasn’t living the healthiest of lives but it was a horrible shock,’ says Mitchell. ‘As far as I was concerned, this was a treatment that usually worked. That denial allowed me to think he was effectively having antibiotics and he’d be fine. The fact that the antibiotics was open-heart surgery I pushed from my mind.’
‘I feel better and younger than I have for years,’ Webb confirms. ‘Long-term, quitting the drinking and smoking was the main thing. I have a new-found respect for internal organs: my lungs and liver are my guys and I need to look after them!
‘The continuity with my face on Back is interesting in retrospect. In the rough edit I look bloated and pasty. Four months after the op, there’s quite a difference in pallor.’
‘What I’m more aware of,’ adds Mitchell, ‘being self-obsessed, are my own weight fluctuations.’
Death and self-obsession are at the heart of Back. The first series, in 2017, found staid publican’s son Stephen (Mitchell) grieving his father’s passing, only to be baffled by the arrival of Stephen’s former foster brother, the genial, enigmatic Andrew (Robert Webb), who roused Stephen’s suspicions as he inserted himself into the family life, his motivations opaque.
Season two begins with Stephen emerging from a stint at a wellness centre and Andrew exhausted by the daily grind of running the family pub.
Their insecurities are further challenged both by new arrivals in the family home and the opening of a hyper-trendy gastropub down the road.
‘They’re absolutely the same people caught in the same unpleasant embrace,’ says Mitchell. ‘You don’t want sitcom characters to be absolute monsters but they don’t have to be good people either.’
After decades of working together with no fallings out, both men have been relishing the brutal exchanges between Andrew and Stephen.
‘I relentlessly say what people want to hear,’ admits Mitchell. ‘I’m that kind of arsehole so doing scenes of straightforward animosity must be doing me all sorts of good.’
‘I played a murderer in a Marple,’ adds Webb, ‘but you only get to do “evil acting” once it’s been discovered you’re the killer or in the flashbacks where you’re being evil and doing the murder. With this, I get to be the murderer for two whole series…
Those scenes are quite cathartic for two people who have spent as much time together as me and David. We get to really scream at each other without causing any lasting harm to our friendship or career.’
The experience has only reignited their appetite to keep working together in some capacity – ideally on a third series of Back. Meanwhile, each will continue his own successful individual career: Mitchell as Would I Lie To You? panellist, jobbing actor and star of Upstart Crow on stage and screen, Webb as novelist and memoirist.
Webb has been spending lockdown working on his second novel, while Mitchell will soon be appearing in new Greg Davies sitcom The Cleaner. Sadly, one long-forgotten proposal will remain the fever dream of a deluded BBC exec.
‘Someone somewhere in the BBC sent through a proposal to make a proper quiz show version of [lunatic quiz show spoof] Numberwang,’ says Mitchell in disbelief. ‘We didn’t know where to start in expressing how completely they’d missed the point.’
What is clear is that both men are happy in a way Stephen and Andrew could barely contemplate.
‘My heart has gone back to the right size and shape after doing extraordinary things to keep the show on the road,’ says Webb. ‘Back saved my life!’
Back series 2 is on Thurdays at 10pm on Channel 4.