God, my family are terrible. This is a thought I have every year on Christmas Day—usually at some point between my aunt throwing a hissy fit because I used the wrong baking tray for the potatoes (10 AM) and my dad drunkenly spilling red wine everywhere as he falls over in the living room (around 4 PM). Christmas is such an effective catalyst for familial tensions, it’s a surprise we still bother with it. Oh good, I think as I wake from my usually unsettled Christmas Eve slumber, a day of enforced fun with 12 people who believe I’m the kind of person who would enjoy receiving a baby pink M&S gilet.
It is in this thought that I find myself relating to Mark Corrigan, the perpetually awkward corporate slave played by David Mitchell in the British sitcom Peep Show. In the season seven Christmas episode, Mark rues the collision of family and friends, plus his new girlfriend Dobby, who all decide to spend Christmas at his flat. A meal is cooked, charades is played, and bad and/or inappropriate presents are exchanged. The episode culminates in Mark’s dad telling Mark to “put a muzzle” on Dobby, causing her to storm out. Some ham also ends up in a shredder. Fun!
In one of the episode's memorable exchanges between Mark and flatmate Jeremy, he epitomises the low-key dread many British people feel about Christmas:
Mark: “Now obviously, this is a fucking disaster, but Dobby's staying. For Christmas.”
Jeremy: “Right. Lovely! The more, the merrier.”
Mark: “Exactly. The more, the merrier, they said as another poor soul was crammed into the Black Hole of Calcutta.”
Yes! Exactly! I think when I hear this line for the 15th time of my life, thanks to excessive seasonal watching. Christmas is a prison of festive family obligations, and the sooner you can get in and get out, the quicker you can go back to watching that Dogs documentary on Netflix and eating Ferrero Rocher in bed without having to weigh up the risk of a cousin walking in while you have an afternoon wank.
“In general, and in comedy obviously, you want things to be horrible,” Sam Bain, co-creator and writer of Peep Show tells me over the phone. “You want people to relate to that. That’s the whole point, right? That you laugh at the things that make you uncomfortable in real life and that’s a great release.”
“You won’t find many episodes, or even scenes that aren’t horrible,” he continues. “We just try to put the characters though huge amounts of pain as a rule."
And what a better scenario for extreme pain than Christmas? The opportunity for failure is high, no one likes each other, and the only true winner in this battle of Scotch tape and booze-flavoured butter is capitalism.
“I think we just felt like it was a very good, emotionally loaded scenario, particularly for Mark,” Bain explains after I ask why he and Peep Show writing partner Jesse Armstrong decided to do a Christmas episode. “It just felt like Peep Show always benefitted from having quite high drama but real life situations, where things could go really well or really badly, and it just felt really natural to do that.”
“Also,” he adds, “it just felt the whole idea of traditions, family traditions, and cultural traditions were funny.”
This focus on tradition—in particular food traditions—is crucial to the episode’s humour.
“We were initially inspired by Ian Morris, (the co-creator of the Inbetweeners), and he was our longtime script editor on the show. Ian was talking about how he went to America with his American wife, and how upset he got about the traditions in America,” Bain tells me. “That whole argument with [Mark’s] dad about whether cauliflower is traditional is probably inspired by Ian.”
Christmas inspires many rituals—disappointing your siblings with a book for a present, dressing the Christmas tree with the same salt dough decorations you brought home in Year 2—but most of them revolve around the dinner table. The dishes we eat, plus how and when we eat them, are drilled into us from childhood, so it's inevitable that we become very emotionally attached to bread sauce and the purple Quality Street. It’s this tension that centres over a fairly harmless Brassica (and many other things) that makes Peep Show’s Christmas episode so relatable, and therefore one of the most entertaining festive episode of any TV series.
Cauliflower isn’t the only source of disagreement. Mark and Jeremy clash over whether Christmas lunch should be at one or three. Jeremy is hurt by the idea that his mother, on a cruise around “the Med,” is having salade niçoise for Christmas. “Salade niçoise?” he says. “That's not turkey. It's not even chicken.” In the episode's opening scene, we see Jeremy gift Mark a stocking of Cognac, Lindt chocolate, and “Roy Adkins on Trafalgar.” Mark unthinkingly gives Jeremy firelighters, kitchen tongs (two-for-one), and a leftover ScotRail eye mask from his overnight train journey to Aberdeen. It’s not part of Mark’s tradition to give good stocking presents, so he doesn’t. Tradition and the lack of abiding by said tradition creates a dynamic of expectation and disappointment—and it’s crushingly entertaining to watch.
Along with salad niçoise, cauliflower, gravy in the shredder mechanism, and Cognac, I count 21 food-based jokes in Peep Show's Christmas episode. The show always excelled at drawing comedy out of the mundane—office politics, the supermarket, a pub, and in this instance: food. While Christmas dinner isn’t exactly the most boring meal, there’s a certain “ugh, this again” sensibility to the whole event. From a joke about whether potatoes are a vegetable or “er, bread? No … they're wheaty?” to purposely not putting a cross on the bottom of the Brussels sprouts out of spite, Peep Show adds humour to our festive dining traditions.
I tell Bain about my steadfast recording of “food-based jokes” in the Christmas episode, and he laughs. Although neither he nor Armstrong intended to focus on food, it inevitably became a centrepiece. Shooting a real Christmas dinner also provided some of its own humorous moments.
“People generally hate filming food because you often have to repeat the same bit of dialogue over and over again, so if you’ve eaten a sprout, you have to eat the sprout six times,” Bain explains. “So, if you watch the episode, a lot of people were choosing carrots to eat, because they’re a slightly less aggressive thing to eat.”
He pauses, then recalls another issue with shooting the episode.
“My only regret is sadly our art director, who is brilliant, and had to cook three Christmas dinners, was vegan. She found it quite upsetting,” he tells me, half-remorseful, half-chuckling. “She had to do it though. Pretty sure we also had a vegetarian art assistant who put the meat in the bed in series one, so we've managed to give our vegan and vegetarian friends quite a hammering.”
Well, if Christmas teaches us anything, it’s that you can’t please everyone.