Iain Stirling’s voice precedes him. Every balmy summer evening when you tune into the most watched British dating show, you hear him narrate the ups and downs of the relationships of the UK’s hottest offerings, say things like “sanitised sex bubbles” and hook you back in with a bassy “tomorrow night”.
It’s a voice so recognisable that we’ve had to meet up early on a Tuesday morning in an empty north London pub – just before he goes to record Love Island voice over – to drink coffee and talk about his new show, Buffering. It’s Stirling’s first proper acting role and as he passes his coffee cup between his hands and looks down, it’s clear that he’s nervous about what people will think.
“I think it does come across a bit,” he says of his lack of acting experience. “But I think I done a lot better than people would expect.”
The six episode sitcom, written by Stirling and fellow writer/comedian Steve Bugeja, follows Iain [played by Stirling], a twenty-something kid’s TV presenter struggling with his relationships, coming to terms with grief and trying to boost his career.
It’s not totally dissimilar to Stirling’s real life early twenties, which provided the inspiration for the show. “I done a stand up show which was basically about having to go to Bristol with Jedward for two days just after my girlfriend of four years had broken up with me,” he says. “It was a week before Christmas as well.”
For those unfamiliar with Stirling’s beginnings, before he became the omnipresent voice of Love Island, he was once the beloved floppy-haired, baby faced presenter on CBBC – a children's TV channel – between 2009 and his departure in 2013. From Monday to Friday, he was flanked by Hacker T. Dog – a puppet Border Collie created and voiced by puppeteer Phil Fletcher. Together they did stuff like interviewing Jedward, taking cream pies to the face and inexplicably talking about Sue Barker more times than you thought possible.
Most people spend their early twenties getting drunk, maxing out their overdraft and shagging. But for Stirling, hanging out with a puppet or being fake jolly on-screen for his day job meant that his early twenties were a little bit different. Although sex plays a huge role in Buffering, Stirling says being a kid’s TV presenter didn’t make dating any easier since he usually brought work home with him.
“I think I’d just tell girls I was a comedian,” he says. “But I was on a date once and we came back to mine for a drink and then Phil – as well as being a puppeteer, he builds puppets, he's got hundreds of them – and seven people from our work are watching the Muppet movie. They all have puppets on their hands too, and we just walked back out the door. It was genuinely quite bizarre.”
Naturally, as a show featuring kids TV, gunge makes an appearance in Buffering – but Stirling’s time at CBBC was largely gunge-free. “I did genuinely think I was too good for gunge. It was like, if I'm playing a character, performing and writing, then I’m above gunge,” he explains. “I'll dress up as Mary, Queen of Scots, but I will not be gunged. I did genuinely think I was too good for gunge. All the big shows of my era were all charactery and sketchy like Horrible Histories. Basically they just wanted white guys with fringes in 2009.”
Beyond heartbreak, sex and navigating your career in your early twenties, the show takes on a huge feat of tackling miscarriage. With help from writers Eleanor Tiernan and Christine Robertson, to balance perspectives, Buffering follows the aftermath of Iain and ex-girlfriend Olivia (played by Elena Saurel) experiencing a miscarriage, something that was important to both Stirling and Bugeja to portray due to their own experiences. “Me and Steve have both experienced similar stuff and we wanted to do it from the male gaze,” he says. “But I haven't seen many people do miscarriage, [in a] funny [way], which I thought was really interesting.”
He’s mostly grown up now – he’s married, a parent and with the recent addition of a coffee machine and months of lockdown, he now knows how to do those little hearts in foam like a barista. Lockdown was surprisingly fruitful for Stirling, although Love Island didn’t happen and his headline tour was postponed again and again – it meant that he was given more time, most of which he poured into writing with Bugeja over Zoom.
“Because Love Island went sort of mad a couple of years ago, I never had time to commit to any project. I've got a book that I'm sort of quite proud of but I was writing that in the backseat of a car driving to gigs and always just fitting stuff in,” he explains. “So this is the first time I've actually had a big chunk of time to commit to work. It's very nice having a whole year to make it and I definitely think it's reflected in it. It's quite dense in terms of structure and stuff.”
It’s difficult to think that someone who is an integral part of one of the biggest shows of the past few years, with a headline comedy tour and a prime time TV slot, would still be nervous about putting out something new. “Everything I’ve always done is live. I really love the immediacy of it, like you do it and it's just done,” he explains. “But with a sitcom, I liked the idea of taking your time and creating something and then being rewarded. I've never really had that before, I've always just done a gig. It's like the excuse that I've never actually put any effort in which is a real defence mechanism. But I think I've made something I'm really proud of.”
As Stirling gets ready to go and record more voice over after our coffee, he’s optimistic in his own way. “I genuinely can’t wait,” he laughs. “Although it's the British public, so they’ll probably hate it at the start.”
Buffering premieres on ITV2 on Thursday the 5th of August at 10PM. All episodes are available on ITV Hub.