I'm with stupid: "awkward über-geek" Dobby flanked by Mark and Jeremy in Peep Show. Photo: Channel 4
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Robert Webb: Peep Show has taught me we need to let women be idiots, too

You hear TV producers sometimes talking about the importance of having “strong female characters”. This is balls, particularly in comedy.

I don’t know about you but I’m a big fan of Peep Show. The ninth and final series of Sam Bain’s and Jesse Armstrong’s award-gobbling sitcom will be filmed next year and I know the experience will be as bitter-sweet as a chocolate liqueur, except less disgusting. It will be as poignant stepping on to the set of the boys’ flat for the last time as it will be watching David Mitchell stoically munching down a fruit salad breakfast so he can treat himself to a cooked one immediately afterwards. Paterson Joseph (Johnson) and I will exchange elaborate apologies for not going to see each other in plays, Matt King (Super Hans) will moan about his costume, Sam and Jesse will be lovely. Long days, knackering and fun. Can’t wait.

But I’ve been thinking about the show for another reason. Lately in these pages, I’ve been preoccupied with matters of gender and masculinity and it occurs to me (probably quite late in the day) that half of my acting career has been built on a show that negotiates these issues every time it opens its mouth. Now, don’t worry, I am not about to offer a feminist critique of a Channel 4 sitcom – that’s why we have GCSE media studies (I got an A!) – but clearly a show that is seen from the point of view of two male characters who exhibit signs of arrested development and whose every contact with women is a disaster waiting to happen might be seen to overlap with notions of “blokiness”, or “laddism”, or, at worst, Dapper Laughs. You’ll understand if, as a father of daughters, I’m quite keen to make a couple of distinctions there.

Do you remember where you were when you first heard that ITV2 was not going to commission a second series of Dapper Laughs: On the Pull? Me neither. If you sneezed at some point in mid-November, you might have missed the whole thing. In summary, Dapper Laughs was a video blogger called Daniel O’Reilly, who got his own show in which he roamed around London being a “proper geezer” with “girth” who told women they were “proper moist” and made jokes about how some women were “gagging for a rape”. Throw in casual homophobia and quips at the expense of homeless people and you get the picture. Complaints were made to Ofcom, Twitter went spare and the show was pulled. O’Reilly turned up on Newsnight to have his jokes read out to him by Emily Maitlis (surely tattooing “cock” on his forehead would have been a kinder punishment?) and that was that.

Except, that isn’t that. Dapper Laughs is gone but his fans are legion and genuinely don’t appear to see what the problem is. Worse, like some of their sweet brethren in the online gaming community for whom a rape threat is a kind of mild rebuke and like the guys in university societies who make up misogynist chants to sing, there’s a pathetic air of persecution. They talk as if threatening women with violence were some kind of free-speech issue. The crowning absurdity is the sorry-assed inadequates of men’s rights activism who point out how the prisons are disproportionately occupied by men and that rates of suicide are disproportionately high among men and decide to blame – wait for it – “feminists”.

No, lads. Feminism is an attack on social practices and habits of thought that keep women and men boxed into gender roles that are harmful. Most of the people in prison are men because men committed most of the crimes: that is at least partly down to the violent expectations of masculinity and “bread-winning” expectations of a patriarchy. Most suicides are male at least partly because the tough-guy requirements of masculinity prohibit sharing our feelings or going to see a therapist. When it comes to comedy in an area such as rape, you need to be pretty clear about where the joke is coming from and who it’s aimed at. O’Reilly claims his character was satirising misogyny and wants to make it clear that he is separate from his character. If that was his intention, he has utterly failed. This was not a satire of masculinity: it was its helpless plaything.

And then, what with this being Britain, there’s class. It should go without saying that there are as many working-class people who hold socially liberal views as there are public-school bigots. Dapper Laughs was not sexist because he was working-class, he was sexist because he was sexist.

As it happens, the two main characters in Peep Show are liberal graduates, written and performed by liberal graduates, but I don’t think it’s especially this that saves the show from “laddishness”. It’s more that Mark and Jeremy don’t belong. They know they ought to be PC; they also think they ought to worship “the gods of Nuts and Zoo”. And they aren’t very good at either.

Then again, there are the female characters. You hear TV producers sometimes talking about the importance of having “strong female characters”. This is balls, particularly in comedy. The female characters in Peep Show are not “strong”: they are idiots. As idiotic as the men. In Men Behaving Badly, a show I enjoyed, Debs and Dorothy were strong, all right, but did they get to be funny? Their function was mainly to walk into a room and go: “Tonyyyyy! Garyyyy! Stop being funnyyyy!”

In Peep Show, there have been Toni (brittle narcissist), Nancy (manipulative American hippie), Big Suze (oblivious posh sadist), Carla (oversexed thief), Merry (certified lunatic), Dobby (awkward, Cheddar-loving über-geek), Elena (bisexual Ukrainian liar), Zahra (pseudo-intellectual bore), Penny (randy jam-making lost cause), Liz (vindictive Christian) and Cally (BlackBerry-obsessed control freak), to name a few. Characters are not people. They can only have one or two things about them and that goes for Mark and Jeremy, too. But to allow the women to be as flawed as the men is to allow them to be equally funny. And, while we’re at it, equally human. 

Robert Webb is a comedian, actor and writer. Alongside David Mitchell, he is one half of the double act Mitchell and Webb, best known for award-winning sitcom Peep Show.

This article first appeared in the 19 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Issue 2014

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The Wood Wide Web: the world of trees underneath the surface

Mycorrhizal networks, better known as the Wood Wide Web, have allowed scientists to understand the social networks formed by trees underground.

In 1854, Henry David Thoreau published Walden, an extensive rumination on his two years, two months and two days spent in a cabin in the woodlands near Walden Pond. It was situated on a plot of land owned by his friend, mentor and noted transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Thoreau’s escape from the city was a self-imposed experiment - one which sought to find peace and harmony through a minimalistic, simple way of living amongst nature. Voicing his reasons for embarking on the rural getaway, Thoreau said, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.”

Walden cemented Thoreau’s reputation as a key figure in naturalism; his reflections have since been studied, his practices meticulously replicated. But in the knowledge that Thoreau’s excursion into the woods was a means to better understand how to integrate into society, curious minds are left to wonder what essays and aphorisms Thoreau would have produced had he known what the botanists of today know of nature’s very own societal networks.

As scientists have now discovered, what lies beneath the ground Thoreau walked upon, and indeed beneath the ground anyone walks upon when near trees, is perhaps the most storied history and study of collaborative society in something which is now known as the mycorrhizal network or the “Wood Wide Web”.

Coined by the journal Nature, the term Wood Wide Web has come to describe the complex mass of interactions between trees and their microbial counterparts underneath the soil. Spend enough time among trees and you may get a sense that they have been around for centuries, standing tall and sturdy, self-sufficient and independent. But anchoring trees and forestry everywhere, and therefore enjoining them into an almost singular superoganism, is a very intimate relationship between their roots and microbes called mycorrhizal fungi.

Understanding the relationship between the roots of trees and mycorrhizal fungi has completely shifted the way we think about the world underneath them. Once thought to be harmful, mycorrhizal fungi are now known to have a bond of mutualism with the roots – a symbiotic connection from which both parties benefit.

Despite the discovery being a recent one, the link between the two goes as far back as 450 million years. A pinch of soil can hold up to seven miles worth of coiled, tubular, thread-like fungi. The fungi release tubes called hyphae which infiltrate the soil and roots in a non-invasive way, creating a tie between tree and fungus at a cellular level. It is this bond which is called mycorrhiza. As a result, plants 20m away from each other can be connected in the same way as plants connected 200 metres away; a hyphal network forms which brings the organisms into connection.

At the heart of the mutualistic relationship is an exchange; the fungi have minerals which the tree needs, and the trees have carbon (which is essentially food) which the fungi need. The trees receive nitrogen for things such as lignin – a component which keep the trees upright, and various other minerals such as phosphorus, magnesium, calcium, copper and more. In return, fungi get the sugars they need from the trees’ ongoing photosynthesis to energise their activities and build their bodies. The connection runs so deep that 20-80% of a tree’s sugar can be transferred to the fungi, while the transfer of nitrogen to trees is such that without the swap, trees would be toy-sized.

It’s a bond that has resulted in some remarkable phenomena. Suzanne Simard, an ecologist at the University of British Columbia, has researched into these back and forth exchanges and has found that rather than competing against one another as often assumed, there is a sort of teamwork between the trees facilitated by the mycorrhizal fungi.

In one particular example, Simard looked at a Douglas fir tree planted next to a birch tree. Upon taking the birch tree out, there was a completely unexpected result: the fir tree – instead of prospering from the reduced competition for sunlight – began to decay and die. The trees were connected underground via the mycorrhizal system, transferring carbon, nitrogen and water to one another, communicating underground, talking to each other. As Simard says in her TED talk, “it might remind you of a sort of intelligence.”

It has been documented that trees share food not just with trees of the same species, but with trees of all kinds of species, forming a social network which some have come to describe as a socialist system. Growth rates are positively affected while seedlings face greater chances of survival. There is in fact a group of plants – the mycoheterotrophic plants of which there are around 400 species – which wouldn’t survive without the mycorrhizal network. These plants are unable to photosynthesise and are therefore heavily dependent on other plants for carbon and minerals.

Over the years, Thoreau has had his fair share of critics who deemed his trip to the woods nothing more than an exercise in self-indulgence and narcissism. Perhaps if Thoreau had the chance to head back to Walden Pond with the knowledge of the Wood Wide Web at hand, he would fully understand that no one man is an island, as no one tree is a forest.