New Times,
New Thinking.

7 September 2017

Mitchell and Webb’s Back is a promising imposter comedy with plenty of awkwardness

David Mitchell could just stand there and pull a face – you know, that face – and I’d be happy.

By Rachel Cooke

I don’t think Back (6 September, Channel 4, 10pm) is the greatest title for a TV show. Simon Blackwell, its writer, should have called it Front, which is not only grabbier, but works rather well, given that Andrew, the character played by Robert Webb, has only to open his mouth for a tsunami of lies to pour out. All the same, I’m hopeful that this new sitcom – eat your heart out Ben Elton – is a keeper.

OK, so Webb and David Mitchell, who plays Stephen, Andrew’s former foster brother, are basically reprising their Peep Show characters (Andrew’s a braggart and a fool, and Stephen’s a square and a tit). But who cares? I love Peep Show. I love Mitchell and Webb. And I love this set-up, which, with its imposter theme, strikes me as a comedy version not, as Stephen suggests, of The Return of Martin Guerre, but of Josephine Tey’s 1949 crime novel, Brat Farrar (which, by the way, is quite good).

But I digress, as Stephen might say over the bar after half a bitter shandy too many. Stephen’s father, a pub landlord in some moderately godforsaken West Country (I think) village, has just died. Naturally, this is awful. But it also gives him, a failed London lawyer with a divorce under his belt, the chance to take over behind the bar – and his makeover of the old place, which involves more orange pine than my parents’ kitchen circa 1976, is already complete.

Only now there is a fly in the chiller cabinet. Among the mourners at the funeral is Andrew, whom Stephen’s parents fostered for a few months as a boy. Andrew had been in touch with Stephen’s dad via Facebook before he died, and now Stephen’s mum, Ellen (Penny Downie), has decided that it would be a good idea if he were to stick around to help during the transition period. He’s so much more capable than Stephen, you see. In fact, he’s your average business genius.

Except he’s not. We already know, having seen him pretend to be a doctor on his flight over – the bloke died – that he’s a psychopath. As for Stephen, he has no recollection of Andrew at all. He could be one of the dozens of feral children he had to put up with as a boy, or he could be an opportunist thief, looking to steal his entire inheritance, including the static caravans he’s got planned for the field behind the pub.

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Sitcoms need time to bed in, and this one is no exception. It’s not LOLs yet. But the first episode had its moments. Olivia Poulet is great as Stephen’s ex, Alison, and I hope we’ll see a lot more of Tony Gardner as an annoying local. (“Your old man: a living legend!” he says to Stephen, offering his condolences.) As for David Mitchell, he could just stand there and pull a face – you know, that face – and I’d be happy.

At the end of the last series of Doctor Foster (5 September, BBC One, 9pm), our heroine – demented or plucky, depending on your hormones and how hard your week has been – Gemma Foster (Suranne Jones) finally saw off her lying, cheating, weasel of a husband, Simon (Bertie Carvel). Away he went to London, with his pregnant 23-year-old mistress, Kate (Jodie Comer), leaving Gemma to get on with life in boring old Parminster (played by Hitchin, apparently). But now, two years on, he’s back, new wife and darling little daughter in tow. He’s bought a huge house with a swimming pool in a development called The Acres, and it’s driving Gemma mad. So mad, in fact, that she goes round there to snoop, at which point Simon  arrives back home unexpectedly and it is all very awkward.

Where is Mike Bartlett, the writer of Doctor Foster, going with this? Are we just here for a replay? It certainly looks that way, given that Simon has persuaded their son Tom to move into The Acres, leaving Gemma feeling desperate once again (at the end of the first episode – major metaphor alert – she dissolved her wedding ring in acid).

But still, I will keep watching. There aren’t many places where you get this much suburban toxicity to the pound. Bartlett is the Mary Braddon of 21st century television, and I am all aquiver to see what spite and destruction he may yet have up his (leg-of-mutton) sleeve. 

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This article appears in the 06 Sep 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s next move