As the feckless half of one of the most popular double acts on British television in the last decade, Robert Webb could have easily become a victim of his own success.
Alongside David Mitchell, his co-star in Channel Four’s Peep Show, Webb has been so taken into the hearts of fans as Jeremy, that many imagine the line between actor and character must have become a little blurred.
In Peep Show, Jeremy and Mark are men in their thirties, who share a London flat. They are the classic odd couple – Mark, buttoned up and career minded, Jeremy convinced that the world is just waiting to discover his musical genius – this despite his lack of ability to play any instrument.
For a while it seemed like Webb might always be in Jeremy’s shadow when it came to acting roles, but he has discovered a way to break out of the Peep Show straitjacket through turning to the stage.
The Cambridge graduate, who toured with the famous university Footlights group, has spent the last six months proving to London audiences that he is much more than the overgrown teen Jeremy. He has also ably demonstrated he is more than the less intellectual half of the Mitchell and Webb double act.
He did this by firstly taking on the role of Bertie Wooster in the stage adaptation of Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense in the West End. Then once he had turned heads with an impressive performance in that show he went on to appear in a new West End production of the brilliant Tim Firth-written Neville’s Island, which premiered at Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre over a decade ago. The notices were kind about Webb’s performances, so much so for his portrayal of Wooster that the show is now heading out on a national tour, and Webb is coming with it.
Taking on the stage roles was fraught with possible pitfalls. Would those who know Webb only for his television work take him seriously when he trod the boards? He also faced the question of the shoes he was going to fill in taking on the role of Bertie Wooster.
“I didn’t really panic about it, I grew up watching Hugh (Laurie) and Stephen (Fry) playing the roles and read a couple of the books as a teenager, but when the script came along it was of its own world,” says Webb. “I went to see the original production and it’s such a massive and theatrical piece of work, it bears very little relation to the Fry and Laurie version. The concept here is that Bertie has been told down the club that he should be telling his stories on the stage. So he goes on the stage, Jeeves has built all the scenery and Bertie saunters through. It’s a very theatrical piece with huge energy and feels very different to any of the other versions of the stories.”
Taking the characters invented by PG Wodehouse, the stage show was always on to a winner. Wodehouse’s Wooster, an idle aristocrat and his well-read and talented personal valet Jeeves are a perfect combination. The 1990 television series, starring Fry and Laurie, was enormously popular and still well-regarded.
Webb, it is probably little surprise to report, is enormously likeable. He needs to be: in Peep Show Jeremy sells his flatmate’s furniture, has the sexual morals of an alleycat and even ate the pet dog of a girl he was trying to get into bed (it was a convoluted, brilliant episode) yet still the audience somehow finds itself on the side of this useless human being. He is also, however, more serious and focussed that you might imagine – there’s the Jeremy curse again. He is clearly a driven artist. As well as appearing in television and stage shows, he appears to be one of those annoyingly talented people whose work-rate matches his gifts.
“I don’t always feel like I know exactly what I’m doing with my career. For a couple of months I might say I have an idea for a book, or there’s a comedy drama I want to do – there’s always stuff that I could be writing. At the minute I seem to be drawn to working in the theatre. I don’t really have a plan for my career – if something I like the look of comes along, I do it,” says Webb.
“Neville’s Island was something that had been knocking around for a while and I couldn’t do it, so I was really delighted when it came up again. With my career it really is the right job at the right time.”
Webb will be bringing his Wooster to Yorkshire next month, visiting the Sheffield Lyceum then Harrogate Theatre. Webb, who is married to comedian Abigail Burdess with whom he has two daughters, is happy to be touring, saying that he visited Harrogate when he was with the Cambridge Footlights and enjoyed the experience. If he feels a little ubiquitous – he has appeared in a number of television adverts, including most recently for the Post Office Christmas ad campaign – Webb says he could be very much more so.
“You have to be very careful about what you choose to do. The Post Office one is the third TV ad I have ever done,” he says. “It might feel like they are speeding up in frequency because I’ve done a couple in the last few years. The thing people don’t know about is the volume of stuff that I am turning down. It’s a job, though. It feels like the television shows I do are like credit in the bank with the audiences.”
Later this year, he will also film what has been announced will be the final series of Peep Show. When it was revealed that the tales of Jeremy and Mark would be no more, there were howls of anguish. Howls, Webb says, he could not have predicted when the show was first aired.
“Peep Show has been the backbone of our career,” says Webb of the partnership he shares with Mitchell.
“Early on, though, nobody watched it. And the write ups were lousy. When we started getting award nominations though, that was when it felt like it was confirmation that we were right to be doing something we really believed in.
“We would never have imagined that 11 years later we would still be doing it. Having said that, I think we have started to accept that it has to come to an end.”
It’s true, it does have to come to an end and it’s always better to go out on a high, but even Webb can’t help but betray a sadness when he talks about the show coming to an end.
“The great thing is that you know the scripts (written by Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain) are going to be funny,” he says.
One the big selling points of Peep Show, quite aside from the darkly brilliant, comic writing, is that the action is seen from the point of view of the two protagonists. Watching behind the scenes footage of the show being filmed is interesting – Webb and Mitchell wear helmet contraptions fitted out with cameras to capture their point of view.
“It’s actually quite hard to film it, quite difficult work, but in those moments you remember when you read the scripts you were laughing out loud at them. You just have to trust in that.
“Jesse and Sam work so hard on the scripts – they’re actually writing the final show right now. What they work particularly hard on is the storylines, that’s one of the strengths of the show. They make sure that the stories hang together and make sense and then the dialogue comes.
“The lines we get are just so good and playing the characters now is so familiar to us that it feels like breathing in and out for us by now.
“By this time I know exactly what Jeremy is thinking and what he’ll say at any given moment.
“The weirdest thing about the show is that because of the way we film it, for a double act, we’re not actually in it together a lot of the time.”
So to the double act. Meeting and working together for the first time when they were Cambridge undergraduates, there was that special rare alchemy between Mitchell and Webb.
These days it’s easy to wonder if they are sick of the sight of each other – Mitchell appears on panel shows, writes in the Observer and appears to be – if not more highly regarded – taken a little more seriously than Webb. He’s definitely considered the more intellectual of the duo.
Fortunately Webb agrees with this assessment, to a degree. Does it make Webb despise his comedy partner? “That’s not the reason I hate him,” he deadpans. “We have had our moments. We’ve been working together an awful lot for a long time. In 2005 I think we saw each other every single day.
“These days I almost miss him.”
• Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense, Sheffield Lyceum, February 16 to 21, 0114 249 6000, www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk; Harrogate Theatre, February 23 to 28, 01423 502116, www.harrogatetheatre.co.uk