May 14 - 20 2007
Fast becoming the nation’s favourite comedy double act, David Mitchell and Robert Webb have graduated to the big screen with new film Magicians. They tell Leigh Singer how they manage to separate work and play, and why Paul Daniels was not an inspiration.
They’re on Channel 4 starring in the award-winning, point-of-view comedy series Peep Show; on BBC TV and radio fronting their own sketch-based comedy, which they toured live all over the UK. They’re even plastered all over the country’s billboards advertising a certain computer system. The only outlet David Mitchell, 33, and Robert Webb, 34, hadn’t taken over in their meteoric rise is film and then - hey presto! – they pull a new movie about feuding illusionists, Magicians, from their collective sleeve. Whatever tricks they’re using to mesmerise audiences, a disappearing act isn’t one of them.
Inevitably the media-savvy, highly likeable duo are aware of the risks of over-exposure, but as Webb – the blonder, quieter one – jovially shrugs, “In an ideal world we’d like to have spaced all that out a bit but what’s the alternative? You turn down another series of Peep Show? That’s not going to happen, is it?”
Indeed not, given the show’s growing cult following (Ricky Gervais a particularly vocal fan). So the fact that Magicians was scripted by Peep Show scribes Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong made their joint feature debut an obvious choice. The world of old school magic seemed almost overripe material (in the film Webb’s cocky Karl and Mitchell’s nervy Harry split when a guillotine trick works all too realistically on Harry’s wife / Karl’s lover), even if neither Mitchell nor Webb had any long-cherished love of illusion.
“We watched Paul Daniels in the 80s like everybody did…” deadpans Mitchell – the slightly portlier, more outspoken one - “because none of us knew any better,” laughs Webb, jumping in, in true double-act style. But what about the cool, modern illusionists like David Blaine or Derren Brown? “Ah, but that’s not the reality of grass roots magic,” Mitchell explains. “They’re all still in bow ties and pulling rabbits out of hats. They all want their own Paul Daniels magic show; they don’t want a David Blaine cool-on-the-streets show. They’re sort of stuck in their heyday.”
So much for buttering up your potential audience. But then the pair has garnered such widespread success so quickly that confidence in their ability and opinion seems perfectly natural. They’re perhaps only second to Little Britain’s Matt Lucas and David Walliams as the country’s most popular comedy team, and ranging from Peep Show’s character-based tragicomedy to out-and-out surreal sketches on That Mitchell and Webb Look – “that’s Numberwang!” – means they cover an awful lot of bases. A less overtly toff version of Fry and Laurie seems the most apt comparison, Cambridge Footlights connection and all - which happens to be where they met.
“I remember seeing David in a show with some college mates,” recalls Webb, whose was in the year above, “and everyone was looking at him whether he was speaking or not. I thought, oh that reminds me of some upstaging little bastard I know.” “I think we found each other funny,” adds Mitchell, “but I don’t think we had any sense that we would particularly click. That was lucky.”
The pair hooked up, writing sketches for the Footlights tour and, professionally, have been an item ever since. They’re also blessed, despite different physicality and personalities, with the ability to switch straight or funny roles with effortless ease. Mitchell modestly downplays this, while characteristically provoking faux outrage.
“The straight man / funny man act is long gone,” he points out. “The only people doing it after the 70s were Little & Large and Cannon & Ball who, I’m sure they won’t mind me saying, were shit.” Webb practically convulses with wild laughter. Mitchell continues, unflustered. “The last good one of that genre was Morecambe & Wise and I do think it’s gone.”
Which brings up a different balancing act dilemma. “That’s where it’s good to have a producer,” says Webb, “because if we’ve both written a sketch where there’s a funny character, I think we both think, ‘oh I should do that, I know what I’m doing…’” “You just have to make sure everyone has a reasonable bite at the funny cherry,” summarises Mitchell. Surprisingly, neither follows up that quote with a punchline. But then, the vagaries of working consistently with one other person, is serious business.
So how does it work when things reach breaking point? “We’re pretty polite,” observes Mitchell. “We don’t have big blowouts.” Agrees Webb, “It works with manners. We’ve always been friends from the start but we don’t go out of our way to spend time with each other socially, because that’s just asking for trouble when you spend so much of your time working together. But we have the same group of friends in the same part of London so we’ll often bump into each other in the pub and it’s perfectly alright.”
Lest they give a misleading impression, both are quick to emphasise how fortunate and happy with the current situation they are. Yet it’s also clear they value their respective freedoms to pursue independent projects. Aside from regular TV panel show stints, Mitchell recently completed a Michelle Pfeiffer rom-com; Webb let it all hang out as a naturist in last year’s big screen improv feature Confetti. Still, how does it feel to watch your partner give good comedy to someone else? And do you volunteer your opinion on the results?
“I don’t think we’re in the habit of asking anybody ‘what did you think?’” says Webb. “That’s the first rule if you’re an actor and therefore a bit neurotic and in need of approval. But if I’ve seen David do Have I Got News For You and he was fantastic, as he always is, and I remember to, I might say ‘You were very funny last night.’” “At that point it’s not a ‘Mitchell & Webb’ thing,” agrees Mitchell, “so the other one of us doesn’t have jurisdiction.”
“For example,” adds Robert Webb, “I did Graham Norton[’s talkshow] alone last night…” and with crack timing, honed over years of working together, David Mitchell swoops in. “And I didn’t even watch it.”
Magicians opens on May 18th; Peep Show continues on Channel 4, Fridays, 10 p.m