Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Back Story by David Mitchell

I've long been a fan of David Mitchell. Despite the fact that, for a long time, I felt he'd somehow cheated me out of a potential career.

Let me explain by saying it was definitely an unjustified belief from me. Despite classing myself as a writer, with countless number of fan fictions, appearances on several websites and four self published books, I've never been a success or made much of a living from it. I've made money yes, but a living - even by an Eastern European peasant's standard? Not at all.

Despite this, myself and a good friend (and if you're reading this John, GET IN TOUCH!) spent most of 2001/2002 in a dead end civil service job entertaining ourselves with the notion that our dull and often socially fraught existence, our opposites attract partnership could be the basis for an amusing sitcom.  Being a huge fan of Seinfeld, John probably had just such a dynamic in mind. I myself had, scandalously, never really watched that show (indeed I only did so last year - and it has since become a favourite) so probably had more of a British Odd Couple with the faux pas frustrations of Mike Leigh or The Office in mind. I'm also rather relieved and surprised that John kept in his mind the fact that he clearly had me pegged as essentially the George Costanza figure in his life. Now I'm a fan of the show, I can see how apt that hitherto unspoken comparison actually is.

But there's someone else my character naturally draws comparison to and that brings us back to David Mitchell and my feeling of being cheated. You see, both John and I's semi autobiographical sitcom idea was very much like Peep Show. So imagine our disappointment when in 2003, Peep Show actually appeared with the two lead characters basically exactly how we viewed one another and how the world viewed us (out on the pull, John and I would often get comments like 'You two don't look like you should be mates. You're a bit like them off the tele') Because our characters are different; I'm something of a fusty Luddite who enjoys history and has an encyclopedic knowledge of stuff that could I'm all too aware bore people. I'm also a little anally retentive and borderline OCD. I am in no way street wise and I have little confidence in social situations - though I often mask this inherent shyness by being rather garrulous and loud, depending on how much drink I consume (and boy, can I drink) This trick often sees me through social gatherings, but it also, somewhat ironically, increases the risk of embarrassment - the very thing I want to avoid in the first place. John, as I hope he won't mind my saying, was a far more laddishly acceptable young man when I first met him and no stranger to recreational substances. An aspiring musician, he seemed to exist on the kindness and provision of shelter of one woman to the next. These could be various girlfriends or at its most innocent, his sister; a lady whom I suspected of being somewhat long suffering. In short, John seemed more carefree than I, but had just as many, if not more, hang ups as I did. He was equally capable of putting a foot wrong, or putting said foot in his mouth.

Do those characteristics sound familiar?

They probably do if you watch Peep Show, as in describing John and I, I've essentially also just described the two characters from that show; Mark and Jeremy, played by David Mitchell and Robert Webb respectively. Hell, even Mitchell's character is called Mark. Just like me! His surname isn't even that different to mine!

The brief bitterness soon subsided though and I realised that this show, written by the exceptionally funny writers Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, was possibly one of the funniest sitcoms of all time. In that light, I think we realised our pipe dream would a) never have been possible and b) even if it were, it would have been woeful compared to this gem. I certainly think that, though John on the other hand may still harbour a slight grudge. Much like Jez harbours a grudge against The Chemical Brothers success, thinking his and SuperHans band - which may or may not be called Curse These Metal Hands! that week - would have been far better given the opportunities that act had. 

And so I became hooked on Peep Show and, in turn, a fan of all things Mitchell and Webb were involved in. Yes that even means going to the cinema with my then girlfriend to watch Confetti (the relationship was in its death throes anyway) which starred Robert Webb and Olivia Colman, or sitting through the less successful panel show offerings David Mitchell has been involved in. FAQ U springs to my mind, though not to many others. A forgotten show, one that Mitchell, in this memoir, has the grace to pick over the banality of the title whilst at the same time acknowledging how it led to bigger and better things like the splendid Would I Lie To You?

Bearing in mind I am such a fan, it is with some regret that I cannot say this was the immensely enjoyable book I had hoped it would be. It's a bit of a curate's egg if truth be told, and I'm not altogether sure why it never truly capitalises on its potential. Maybe Mitchell is just naturally more funnier in the flesh than he is, attempting to pin his unique wordy and nasal delivery, on the page? If that's the case, then maybe I'd have enjoyed an audio book of this more? Or maybe it's just too determined to be 'different'. The book essentially tries to stray from the usual autobiography structure by having Mitchell link each chapter to a section of a walk he likes to do across London, an activity he started doing to ease chronic back pain (hence the title of the book) But I'd remind Mitchell of the lesson he learned and details in the book regarding his and Webb's sketch show; that they realised after numerous abortive plans that a sketch show doesn't need to have a theme or something different to stand out, that it just needs to be funny and should embrace its old fashioned and familiar structure. The same could have been said about this autobiography.

That isn't to say that, despite the odd dry and dense patch, this isn't anything other than an enjoyable and largely well written read with some revealing insights into the man himself. Mitchell isn't shy to point out the times in his life where he has, to all intents and purposes, been a bit of a dick. It's refreshing to read such unguarded, open honesty from a celebrity memoir and I'm happy to report each situation he describes is one I feel a good many of us have probably been in; drank too much and got into stupid arguments? Check. One night stands and feeling terribly guilty afterwards? Check. Leaning towards precociousness as a child? Check. Holding a torch for a seemingly unobtainable woman? Check. Letting a bit of power go to your head? Check. Coming off a bit haughty because you're socially awkward? Check.

Then again, maybe it is just me. Maybe this is why I feel so close to the perceived TV personality Mitchell presents to viewers or to his sitcom character Mark?

Another other things I do have in common with the real Mitchell is his take it or leave it approach to nicotine. Mitchell reveals he is a social smoker who can go x amount of time without this supposedly addictive product (And I thought it was just me?) and his inability and disinterest in learning to drive. 

Naturally it's a funny book. Mitchell is a funny man. But it's not laugh out loud on every page; it can't be. Nevertheless some of the recollections he present here did have me chuckling audibly, including the time he made fellow Cambridge student Olivia Colman actually urinate on the stage from laughing too hard at something as banal as him wearing a well constructed bowtie (you have to read it to understand the intricacies and the pelvic floor busting threat a necktie in his hands can clearly have) I also greatly enjoyed his neurosis and the perceived potential minefield of buying pants from Marks and Sparks, the vulnerability and caveman like emotions one feels when laid down with food shopping, and his theory on dogs. I also appreciated his honesty for the time his partnership with Webb reached its one critical point; the gruelling work schedule of 2006 which saw them front a series of ads and get flak for it, make a film, make a couple of TV series both apart and together, and tour a live show nationwide, but am thankful it blew over as quickly as it commenced. I also enjoyed reading about their performance on that tour at Liverpool's Royal Court Theatre, a venue I know well and agree with his claim that it is a health and safety nightmare with a ridiculous cabaret vibe. There's a certain civic pride to be had though that he felt their gig that night was one of the better received and that the audience were uncomplaining despite having an hour's wait outside in the cold on account of a safety issue beyond their control.

But it's perhaps one chapter that deserves most praise, and it does indeed receives it even in the most disparaging one star reviews on Amazon (speaking of which, I find it greatly amusing that there are a few reviews on Amazon bemoaning their purchase because they presumed this David Mitchell was in fact David Mitchell, the successful novelist of Cloud Atlas fame. Amusing because in the book's opening pages Mitchell despairs of being mistaken for him, and relates even David Miliband made that mistake) That chapter is the one that is devoted to his wife, Victoria Coren. How they met, how they almost got it on, but how she gently let him down as she was seeing someone else at the time, and how Mitchell doggedly waited a full THREE YEARS before his greatest wish came true and they became a couple. The chapter is so heartfelt, both in his love for her and in his heart ache for the time he was apart from her, and how unhappy being single yet ironically wanted in the entertainment field, that I defy anyone with a shred of emotion not to feel a teensy bit choked reading it. In that chapter Mitchell relates how easy it is to talk about things that make you unhappy, whilst writing about what makes you happy is hard. I beg to differ, his feelings for his wife here are all too vividly apparent to the reader and it's too his credit.

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