Entertainment

The Inside Story of 'Peep Show', According to Gerard, Big Suze and Elena

We spoke to the actors behind the infamous characters about their memories of the show and its enduring cultural relevance.
Hannah Ewens
London, United Kingdom
July 23, 2019, 12:14pm
Jeremy (Robert Webb) and Mark (David Mitchell) in ​Peep Show​
Jeremy (Robert Webb) and Mark (David Mitchell) in Peep Show. Photo by Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo

Who'd have guessed that two flatmates from Croydon could define the comic sensibility of millions? Premiering in 2003, Peep Show managed to become an exemplar of British humour through its tone, visual aesthetic and quotability. Everyone had a certain amount of Mark Corrigan (David Mitchell) and Jez Usborne (Robert Webb) in them, depending on their own personal levels of scathing judgement and pedantry, or sexual promiscuity and general disregard for the working world.

The British viewers who'd been fumbling their way through their twenties when the show first aired grew up to find there are no longer jobs for life, or a reality without renting, which makes it feel just as true to life for millennials as it did for Generation X, if not more so. The very British hideousness in us all, how hopeless and conniving we can be, is evergreen.

It is a show about a couple of mates who know the sort of horrible truth about each other that we'd all fear anyone else discovering. But what elevated it to a fully formed masterpiece were the supporting characters: the many difficult and zany girlfriends, the grim male mavericks, the Sophies, the Super Hanses, the Jeffs, Johnsons and Tonis.

This is what three characters – who, in the space of just a few episodes, were elevated to iconic status – had to say about the show.

JIM HOWICK (AKA GERARD MATTHEW)

The ever-sickly Gerard went from Mark’s benevolent co-worker at JLB Credit to his love rival over Dobby. Devastatingly, the ailing frienemy died of flu in the first episode of the eighth series, and one of the funniest, cruelest relationships illustrated in the show went with him.

I was in Chipotle in Charing Cross Road, and the producer Phil Clarke called me up and told me of Gerard's demise – essentially, you're leaving a family behind. It wasn't a shock, I suppose, in the respect that my character was always very ill, and if anyone would go then it was Gerard. But it was sad to have the life support machine switched off and know that I wasn't going to be going back to JLB Credit and the Dobby Club. These things happen, and it wasn't long before it finished anyway. Perhaps it was me going that caused that.

I was a massive fan of the show before I got a chance to audition for it. I auditioned for the then-producer Robert Popper. I thought it was just gonna be for one of Mark's one-off work freaks, and would like to think I created a recurring character for myself in a sense that Sam and Jesse [Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, the show's writers] didn't want to let me go. I remember my first day very clearly, because I was being lap-danced upon all day in some industrial estate in London. I didn't even have any lines. We had a break for lunch, we went off and had some lasagne or something, and then came back to more lap-dancing.

Gerard is obviously a physically small man, reasonably over-nourished, so you know he has these vulnerabilities, and obviously his stomach acid levels and the tube up his nose. The fact that he takes himself so seriously with this tube up his nose is an absolute walking comedy gift for me. As soon as that tube goes up my nose, I’m Gerard.

There was a competitiveness that actually brought Mark and Gerard together. They decided to sort of team up; it was quite political towards the end. I think that they see women as a collection. A rare piece to obtain, like a valuable sci-fi toy that you can’t unwrap. Then they’ll come to the loving side of the relationship later.

Gerard’s death did upset my family. I’ve died in a few things but the picture the show used of me on my coffin was of me next to the London Eye that my wife took, and I think they got off Facebook or something. They might have asked me at lunch and I was like, ‘yeah, sure, no problem’ and didn't think of the consequences. My parents were watching a coffin with a picture of me on it; I think they found it quite upsetting. They were in a minority.

I get cast for the Gerard part quite a lot. I think I’m an archetype for that sort of character to be fair, a very low-key, self-effacing man. I have to accept that now: I’m never going to be Bond, but I will be the lab assistant who pours acid onto his hand. It is fine, it's my bread and butter, I get it. Looking back I'm very happy that I was not just able to play a part in Peep Show but to also make people laugh and affect people. It's a great honour."

SOPHIE WINKLEMAN (AKA BIG SUZE)

Best characterised by Mark as a “mental posho”, Suze was a notably-upper class jobbing actress, often romantically involved with Jeremy. After a messy break-up with Alan Johnson, Mark’s boss, at the end of the seventh series, Big Suze and her vaguely offensive and completely clueless one-liners never return.

"I hadn’t watched the first two series, but all my male friends from university broke down with excitement when I said I was doing this weird thing called Peep Show. I didn’t prepare for the role: when the writing’s really good the script tells you what you need to do without having to look too far around you. Suze was so clearly an innocent, rather posh, rather lucky, very idealistic little thing, in a bubble of ease and privilege. Very sweet natured, but not searching for the meaning of life. It just came worryingly naturally to me.

I was rabbit-in-headlights about it all, because I joined later, in season 3, when the boys were well into it. I’d never acted into a camera before. Whenever Paterson [Joseph, who played Johnson] was in, I’d relax because he looked after me like no one else. The rest of them apart from the girls are mainly comedians – he’s a full-on actor and I was much more used to that. He was warm and thespy and fun. I got on really well with Nick the cameraman who was basically the other actor, because you were looking down his camera, so it was important to have a good relationship with him. He was clever because he managed to make it look really depressing, these two idiots in their dead-end world. That is a lot to do with the camera work. It’s easy to keep a straight face because you’re staring into a camera the whole time. If I was looking at Rob Webb I probably would’ve found it very hard.

One hopes that Suze is alright somewhere. She has a vulnerable innocence to her, and you hope the world keeps treating her like she’s in Mary Poppins or something. I didn’t wish for anything more though; I liked hopping in and out and sprinkling her Big Suze dust on things. She’s probably floated off to be with someone a bit more suitable.

People are devoted to that show in quite an unusual way. Sometimes a young person will bound over to me, so excited that it’s someone from Peep Show. I like television that gives young people lots of happiness. I get recognised mainly from my voice – it’s more of a giveaway than my face. It’ll usually be in a coffee shop. The other day a server started asking me so many questions about how I take my coffee, trying to find out whether I’m Big Suze.

I’ve done a lot of comedy writer’s rooms in America and all the writers over there are obsessed with the show. It really connected with a whole group of young people who were leaving university and couldn’t afford to live anywhere nice; it’s not a glamorous time. Peep Show tapped into an inner life, the comic seedy nature of it, in a way I don’t think anything else has done. It won’t date – it’ll stay authentic and meaningful to young people emerging into the world."

VERA FILATOVA (AKA ELENA)

With hobbies that include DILFs, sex and spelt bread, Elena is the Russian girl-next-door who breaks Jeremy’s heart. Her final appearance is during the absurd sixth season wedding finale, when Elena’s love triangle with Jeremy and long-term girlfriend Gail comes to light.

"Elena’s really clueless: a little bit harmful to lots of people but in a really innocent way. She’s a superficial character, driven by instinct. There’s a freedom to her that I don’t have myself. I just played a sillier version of myself. It was right in the beginning of my acting career, when I had high-brow and serious roles in mind for my career. I’d finished drama school LAMDA, started my own theatre company and done a one-woman show based on Dostoevsky. It’s probably one of the least prepared auditions I’ve had – I had a four-month-old baby.

Robert Webb had a baby around the same time as me, so we connected over the whole parenthood, not-sleeping and coming to work thing. The writers, Sam and Jesse, were the ones I spoke to the most. They were there all the time, watching the whole thing.

I really loved the fact that Elena was bisexual. I had acted in another comedy film before with James Corden and Mathew Horne [Lesbian Vampire Killers (2008)], in which I played a lesbian character, and you approach it in exactly the same way. Plus when I was a bit younger I was more fluid, so I never saw people in terms of gender; I connected to the person. It wasn’t, ‘oh my god, I have to act opposite this woman’, it was, ‘do I have an energy with this person or don’t I?’ And I think Emily [Bruni, playing Elena's girlfriend Gail] and I did, and it was great acting together as a couple.

If it was lasting longer, I’d want Elena to be given more dimensions. For one series, I think all her carefreeness and silliness was great. But the women come and go, don’t they? I do think of it as a male-orientated show. That’s not a criticism but that’s what it is. It certainly comes from the point of view of a man.

I was asked to do the next series – series 7 – and then another character, Zahra, came along instead. She was too similar to my character, who reads books and likes movies, which was quite strange. I was a bit disappointed but it was fine to move on to other things.

Still, the writers captured something about a generation and its lost-ness in the writing, with this humour that translated across borders. There is less PC culture here [in Britain] and so as a result the comedy can be much braver, transgressive. You can laugh in different ways, but the laughs in Peep Show are always genuine and quite deep."

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