Two years before they shot to fame in the mighty Peep Show, Mitchell and Webb wrote their own sitcom and the pilot aired as part of Channel Four’s Comedy Lab strand on December 20th 2001. Perhaps if it had been successful we might never have got Peep Show, or at least a completely different version of the show with other actors, and that would have been something of a disappointment as while funny in places this is a reasonably odd show and definitely not as good as Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong’s masterpiece.
Perhaps it’s a bit unfair to compare though as Peep Show is one of the finest British sitcoms ever made and this was just a pilot, and who knows how it might have developed (well, lots of people who heard the radio version in 2007, but we’ll get to that in a bit). Daydream Believers certainly showed a fair amount of promise but it’s a flawed creation, though there’s definitely not been anything quite like it before or since. The central concept was that Ray (David Mitchell) is a sci-fi novelist who lives in a big old house with his lodger Clive (Robert Webb) and uses the events of their lives as plot points in his latest novel, and it frequently cuts to a sci-fi setting with Mitchell playing Baron Amstrad, the evil captain of a spaceship, and Webb is Info, a fairly rubbish android.
It bares some similarities with Peep Show, mainly in that Webb’s Colin is very Jeremy-esque as he’s rather stupid and extremely easily led, and hangs out with Ray because he doesn’t work for a living or having anything else to do. Ray is a fairly different character though, more nerd-ish than Mark (with Mitchell affecting a very geeky voice) but also slightly laddish, at the beginning of the episode he buys and shows off his BMW, even though he can’t drive. This leads to the first cutaway to the sci-fi side of things with Captain Amstrad having just bought a beamer (do you see what they did there?), a teleportation device which he’s inordinately proud of. Mitchell and Webb regular and recent Oscar winner Olivia Colman pops up here too as the navigator of the ship, she gets the odd decent line but they don’t give her much to do unfortunatey and it doesn’t tax her exactly, though it’s a far more fun role than that of Peep Show’s Sophie.
Back on Earth and in reality Colin joins an anti-capitalist group called Final Solution (allowing Mitchell to make a bunch of Nazi related gags) which consists of Ian (Michael Fenton Stevens), Joy (Joanna Scanlan) and Wayne (Jamie Deeks), the latter being two of my favourite comedic actors, and unsurprisingly they turn in strong performances here. It finally gives Ray a chance to be funny too as he tries to be enthusiastic about the cause despite not really knowing much about it, quipping at one point “I tell you Wayne, if there’s one thing that’s been getting really on my nerves lately it’s capitalism”.
Meanwhile Ray’s attempting to flirt with Jill (Sarah Kennedy) who has moved in next door, which happens to be no.69, and yeah, you’ve probably guessed the kind of gags they make about that. But Ray’s seduction techniques are funny stuff, including his offering her a Campari and pineapple chunks, because what sane woman could resist such a thing? Colin’s jealous of Ray’s lust object and at the same time Ray’s not happy about Colin’s new interest in anti-capitalism, leading him to incorporate the members of Final Solution in to his novel and portraying them as space hippies who suffer terribly from B.O. Again it’s not highbrow stuff, but it allows Fenton-Stevens, Scanlan and Deeks to play alternate versions of themselves in a few amusing scenes.
The plot develops as it turns out Final Solution are planning to protest in Milan and Colin’s truly not happy about this, if only because Ray helps him out with his back rash and he doesn’t want to hire a prostitute to do it for him again, especially as she forced him to piss on her last time. Yep, you read that right, and while it’s kind of funny it’s an example of a lot of the coarser humour in the pilot that feels a bit off in places, I’ve no issue with swearing (some might even suggest I enjoy it) but at times some of the language feel forced and that it’s been inserted only to create very cheap laughs.
There’s a few more scenes set in space with Baron Amstrad wanting to borrow giant metal wasps from the annoying space hippies (it mostly makes sense within the context of the piece) before deciding to steal them instead and blow up the planet the hippies live on. There’s some semi-decent CGI here which suggests it would have been an expensive series to make, which might be one of the reasons why it wasn’t picked up. Then it ends with Colin protesting a chicken shop and a bank by spraying it with silly string before they vandalise Ray’s new car, Colin feels guilty about this and decides not to hang out with them anymore. It’s a slightly rushed ending but contains a couple of funny moments at least, with the anti-capitalists stamping on chips as they object to fast food for some reason being the best.
It’s a bizarre old thing but I did quite like it, there’s undoubtedly some weak jokes and the script needed a couple of more drafts and some of the dodgier gags removed, and it would have been nice if they’d given Olivia Colman a bit more to do (or indeed cast her in every role because I love her so much), but there is a fair amount to like about it and the mix of out there sci-fi sitcom and mundane reality makes it pretty unique. I’m not sure if it’s the kind of thing which could have gone on as long as Peep Show did but it would have been interesting to see how it would have developed, especially as six years later the duo repurposed it as a radio pilot and made it even more appealing.
The radio pilot only aired once on Radio 2 but it was released on cd so can still be heard to this day, and though it cost £9 initially (which is bit much for 27 minutes of audio) currently it’s only £1.49 on Amazon which is a far better deal. Being on Radio 2 meant they had to get rid of all of the swearing and risque material but it’s a much more likeable show for it, and though the characters and set up are similar otherwise it has very little in common with the tv version. The whole plot line with Final Solution and the space hippies is jettisoned and instead it revolves around Colin feeling broody and wanting to have a kid, so he’s been hanging around an anti-natal class in the hope that he’ll find someone single who will let him act as the father to her child.
On the sci-fi side of things it sees the spaceship under attack from Labradons, a Borg like species who capture people and make them part dog. As with the tv pilot the events of their lives is transferred in to this setting with Baron Amstrad becoming broody and wanting kids, and it ends with him having a child which is half alien half dog. There’s a fun gag about the kid licking his testicles and Amstrad commenting “Ah yeah, he gets that from his dad” and then it ends, which feels a little abrupt but at least it comes to a close with a funny line.
The radio version also benefits from Mark Benton and Simon Greenall being part of the cast and the script is sharper in general with a lot less predictable sex jokes, though there is a dodgy bit about how the words “poof”, “gay” and “uphill gardener” all have homosexual connotations that I doubt was meant to offensive, but they don’t quite pull it off. Otherwise it’s a fun little show and it’s a shame that once again no one decided to let Mitchell and Webb explore the idea further.