It’s somewhat disconcerting to find yourself sitting on a sofa – in Edward Hall’s office no less – next to someone you spent more days hung over with at university than cans of full fat coke and Nurofen. Especially when this is the first time they’ve ever set eyes on you.
“We like to think [we have] a slightly more sophisticated audience, that they know the difference between me and Jeremy,” Robert Webb tells me with a slightly concerned look when I ask if this is a common feeling among Peep Show’s many loyal fans, and yes, while in my creased jumper that matches Webb’s similarly scruffy jeans, I may not be strictly sophisticated, I am au fait with the concept of acting. It still seems tempting – in part perhaps due to the fact that Webb hasn’t always shied away from lending Jeremy’s biting cynicism to his regular appearances on comedy panel shows – to structure this interview as ‘Ten ways in which Robert Webb is not Jez’.
But, aside from making it clear that a) Jeremy wouldn’t be seen dead at Hampstead theatre unless there were lies and a girl involved – “I don’t do much lying in real life because I don’t get away with it,” Webb dryly assures me – b) Webb has successfully managed to fulfil that Peep Show Mecca of a fulfilling relationship, married as he is to fellow comedian Abigail Burdess, and c) while the description of Mumsnet as “a lot of sleep deprived, dare I say it hormonal women, tearing strips off each other” could definitely have comes from the mouth of Jez, he’d likely not do it with quite such a nervous look on his face, it would be a disservice to reduce Webb to this one role. We even go 12 minutes and 26 seconds (according to my records anyway) before either of us mention David Mitchell, his other (comedy) half, and there are only the briefest flickers of wicked sarcasm on show to bind Webb to his most famous television counterpart.
Parallels between Webb and his next character – described by the actor with relish as “a liar, a hypocrite and an almost pathological, insanely deceitful person” – are similarly thin on the ground with Webb making his first return to the stage following 2008’s critically acclaimed West End turn in Neil LaBute’s 2008 dark comedy Fat Pig to play one half of a smug couple, described by Webb, as he glances down to the thick, annotated wad of paper at his feet comprising actor Simon Paisley Day’s debut play Raving, as “the perfect couple, the perfect parents, always immaculately turned out, massively on message… almost a double act”.
In casting that will surely have pleased many a television comedy fan, the other half of Webb’s latest double act comes in the form of the actor’s regular collaborator Sarah Hadland. “It’s great working with Sarah, she’s lovely,” Webb states simply when I mention the Miranda star, who also appeared in three series of Webb and Mitchell’s popular BBC sketch programme That Mitchell And Webb Look; summarising their working relationship as having been discovered together “naked in a magic box in Magicians [Webb’s film writing debut with Mitchell] just before David decapitated her,” suggesting little bonding was needed for their forthcoming roles.
While their on stage marriage, which quickly unravels with the discovery that not all is quite as rosy as it first appears from the Stepford couple’s too good to be true exterior, may be hard to relate to for a man who, according to my research before the interview and YouTube evidence, once declared he couldn’t go too near his wife for fear he would go dizzy, Paisley Day’s dark comedy takes a look at the topical subject of competitive parenting, something Webb has found more close to home.
“It rung all kinds of bells,” Webb tells me. “When you’re a parent of young children, the golden rule is not to criticise other people’s parenting choices, and that’s going on all over this play.” A father of two young daughters, the complicated politics of parenting, seemingly beginning years before the playground, even before conception, is something Webb pores over with interest when the subject is raised. “Tamsin [Outhwaite, his Raving co-star] plays a mother who thinks she’s doing everything wrong. It’s a very difficult time, especially for women because they come in for the brunt of the breast feeding debate, what you’re doing at nap times and controlled crying.”
“I specifically went to Cambridge to find out if I was as funny as the other people who had gone there to find out if they were as funny as the people who went there.”
It’s a conversational turn I hadn’t foreseen – I planned on asking about barbequed dogs and controversial Mac adverts – but as Webb relives the questions anyone of a certain age will recognise, it’s enough to put a journalist in her late-20s into existential crisis. “It’s do you or don’t you [have kids]? Are you secure enough in your relationship? Have you got enough money? What’s your plan? How many are you going to have? How will you cope with the pregnancy? There are so many ways for people to criticise each other.”
While his (edited) outburst may have put me firmly off the idea of children for a while, Webb makes his position very clear, his face unequivocally becoming more animated when the subject of his own children arises, his mannered, dare I say it serious, façade lightening with every mention. He does admit, however, that the question of whether he enjoys being a dad or not can only be answered truthfully with the caveat that it takes some time. “You’re not really yourself for a while, you’re surviving on three or four hours [sleep] and you become a different person”, the enjoyment heightening when the sleep deprivation passes and, in Webb’s case, your agent can rely on your sanity once more.
“There was one thing I did when Dory, our second daughter, was born,” Webb tells me, with an embarrassed grin. “I thought ‘I’m fine, I’m behaving rationally, I’m completely fine!’ I got asked if I wanted to – I thought – be the host of Argumental [an improvised comedy panel show]. I thought ‘I’ll take over from John Sergeant, yeah I’ll be a slightly less lovable but possibly a bit funnier John Sergeant and read his jokes off the autocue and it’ll be a lovely, old job.” No, there were two emails and two phone calls I’d had where I’d been told Team Captain. I got there and suddenly had to write loads of material and it was a massive mistake.”
It would be a lovely story to imagine Webb turning up and taking Sergeant’s chair with a cocksure defiance but Webb is so polite, it’s hard to imagine. For all his success, 10 years of cult hit Peep Show, four series of That Mitchell And Webb Look, film roles in British comedies including Confetti and a starring role in a new British embassy-set series Ambassadors set to premiere later this month, not to mention this leading role at Hall’s North London venue, there are no tell tale signs of an ego that needs to be kept in check, the fag he had before our interview the only rock and roll behaviour on show. Instead he is generous with his time, ignoring a call to cut our interview short, and fiercely bright, possessing a justified confidence in his achievements and subsequent fame, and freely admitting to getting “at least grinned at in the streets several times a day”, it only proving a source of annoyance when someone asks for a picture “when you’ve got a cold or need a wee.”
Of course many of his achievements are not his to bear alone, the long list of successful comic offerings more often than not coming alongside his long-time collaborator Mitchell. In a slightly eccentric move on Webb’s part, this double act was not so much a case of the stars aligning for the birth of a new creative genius, more a plotted plan from the tender age of 15 to attend Cambridge University in order to use Footlights as a sort of match.com for comedy partners.
“I noticed a lot of these people I really like watching on TV had been there,” Webb explains, seemingly immune to the idea that such decisive career choices at an age when most teenagers are finessing their Championship Manager skills are unusual. “Fry and Laurie, Emma Thompson, Peter Cook, John Cleese, everybody that I really liked. I thought ‘Oh blimey, that does seem to involve getting some quite good A-Levels’ and I had to retake them to get there, but I eventually got them… I sort of figured I wouldn’t be the only person thinking that.
“I can imagine me and David playing Mark and Jeremy when we’re in our mid-50s, the theme tune coming on and the fans dissolving into a liquid puddle of nostalgia and gratitude!”
“I specifically went there to find out if I was as funny as the other people who had gone there to find out if they were as funny as the people who went there,” Webb tells me with a grin and explaining that it took a year before he bumped into David and the rest is history. It begs the question, however, how different would his life have been if he hadn’t have attended the esteemed institution?
Concluding he’d probably have ended up a “popular but fairly ineffectual teacher or a very lazy journalist”, Webb reflects, “It’s been a series of near misses and lucky scrapes really; if I had got the A-level results I needed first time, then I would have gone there a year earlier and wouldn’t have met David until my third year, then that’s a first year and a third year working together, and that’s a bit weird! And if I hadn’t have gone at all, I would have ended up at my second choice, which was Liverpool, then I might have met someone funny there, who knows?”
Like any number of other creative duos, fate – along with some fairly hard graft you’d imagine – has ensured that a Mitchell without a Webb just feels odd. Luckily, even with a decade spent seeing each other almost every day. Webb is insistent their collaboration, so often compared to a marriage in interviews, is similarly committed. “I don’t even have to look at him and I know how he’s playing a line,” Webb explains. “There’s still that chemistry which we always said made us greater than the sum of our parts, so I don’t ever want to stop altogether, but the gaps in between projects are expanding slightly and that seems to suit us at the moment.”
Fans won’t have to wait long for the next project. Following Ambassadors, there is the promise of one final series of Peep Show to come. “It was enough of a mutual thing that I can say it was sort of by mutual agreement without sounding like I’ve been fired!” Webb jokes. With Webb’s assurance that there will be no driving off cliffs or dramatic explosions, the hint of a film and the show’s writers Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong planning to leave the doors wide open for a return, final doesn’t seem quite so final with Webb joking “I can imagine me and David playing Mark and Jeremy when we’re in our mid-50s, the theme tune coming on and the fans dissolving into a liquid puddle of nostalgia and gratitude!” The only absolute definite it seems is there won’t be a happy ending for the pair.
“You always leave them in pain! The worst thing you can do is let Del-Boy win the pools because then it’s a completely different show, so they’re not going to win their version of the pools; actually having a fulfilling relationship with a woman… sitcom characters must stay the same; they’re allowed to move on but not move up.”
You get the feeling that Webb has already got his happy ending though, with a career that enables him to choose only roles that are, as with Raving, “the kind of part where if I’d seen anyone else do it I’d be annoyed” and, hopefully, more theatrical surprises to come. He admits to be thinking about a musical theatre appearance.
“It’s a constant phew of relief that I got there. If I hadn’t got into comedy, I wouldn’t have met Abbey my wife and I wouldn’t have my two girls and the whole thing unravels,” Webb tells me, with a look of genuine surprise it’s all panned out as planned. “That’s the thing about being basically – whisper it quietly – happy, is that you don’t really want to change anything because once you start changing stuff then what you’ve got all disappears.” A healthy relationship with both his partners and the admission that the one single thing that would improve his life would be to enjoy a healthier lifestyle in order to enjoy it all for longer; it’s all very un-Jeremy.