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27 January 2021updated 04 Apr 2023 10:59am

Channel 4’s Back knows the provincial pub is Britain in microcosm

This comedy series starring David Mitchell and Robert Webb also has deep feeling for its boozer’s denizens.  

By Rachel Cooke

In the new series of Back Stephen (David Mitchell) has left the residential hospital where he was being treated for the breakdown induced by his dastardly foster brother Andrew (Robert Webb), and has returned to the family pub, the John Barleycorn. Is he better? This isn’t clear. It’s hard to see beyond the misanthropy, which is fully intact, in spite of the therapy. Either way, he remains an utter chump. Aiming for chumminess with a delivery man, he tries to mimic the shaking of dice with his hands. But he can’t even get this right. I’m not going to use the w-word in my first paragraph, but the hard-to-misinterpret gesture in question has to do with, you know, self-pleasure.

Like all the best comedies, Back gathers a load of clots and misfits together in a confined space so it can be funny about them – and sometimes it is very funny, especially if your sense of humour tends, like mine, to the scatological. But it has an ongoing plot, too: one that would be quite Patricia Highsmith were we in Greenwich Village, rather than Stroud, Gloucestershire. Simon Blackwell, its writer, let us know early on that Andrew is a psycho and, perhaps, an imposter – he just turned up, out of nowhere, at Stephen’s father’s funeral – and thanks to this, there’s jeopardy involved in his every encounter with his pseudo-sibling. How far will he go? When will all those he has seduced (Stephen’s entire family, basically) see through him? Stephen’s brisk ex-wife Alison (Olivia Poulet) used to have Andrew’s number, but even she’s crumbling now.

In Stephen’s absence, the cuckoo in the nest has made a slick job of running the family pub. At the cash and carry, Andrew always remembers to buy the anti-whiff urinal cakes (the mind boggles at such modernity; when I was a cleaner in a pub, I would run in, prod at them with a mop, as if at an alligator, and then run out again, gasping). But there have been changes, too. Stephen’s mother Ellen (Penny Downie) has shacked up with the hottie vicar Julian (John Macmillan), which is awkward – “Forgive us our stepfather, who art in Ellen,” as Mike (Oliver Maltman) the barman put it – and Cass (Louise Brealey), his neurotic sister, feels Stephen has stolen the limelight with his very public breakdown (she soothes herself by treating Julian’s communion wafers like cheesy Wotsits). Can Stephen wrest back control of the John Barleycorn? Only time and many passion fruit-based soft drinks (he’s off the booze) will tell.

[see also: Russell T Davies’s It’s a Sin is about the Aids crisis – and much more]

Just as Blackwell sees that the provincial pub bar is Britain in microcosm – a mostly male realm of bullshit and boastfulness – he also has a deep feeling for its most typical (and appalling) denizens. At the John Barleycorn, a new character has appeared, Charismatic Mike (played with creepy brilliance by Anthony Head). You’ll recognise Charismatic Mike, for most pubs have one among their regulars (as do many newspaper offices and university senior common rooms). His hair is a little too long. He wears a leather waistcoat. He is apt to talk, quite a lot, of his travels on the Silk Road, of the importance of freedom and following your dreams. His old-fashioned, hippy liberalism hides the gentle sound of the beating of his secretly quite conservative heart.

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Ellen, an old lover, is still in his thrall, and so is everyone else. Mike, they insist, is “an utter legend”. No wonder Andrew looks put out. He’s supposed to be the John Barleycorn’s resident prodigal son. I fear Mike may not be a series regular (though I hope I’m wrong; Head is such an underrated actor). But even if he isn’t, he has done his job well so far. Like some ghost at the feast, he has appeared with his warm pint and cracker barrel aphorisms to suggest to Andrew (and perhaps to Stephen, too) of yet another possible outcome in the crap masculinity stakes. At bottom – and I do mean this fondly (sort of) – the chief subject of Back is the general ineptitude of men: their emotional cowardice; their pitiful need for dinky pools in which they, such big fish, are free to swim round and round and round.

The full series of “Back” is streaming now on All 4

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This article appears in the 27 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Lost