An Oral History of 'Spaced'
Fifteen years since it was last on air, we speak to its stars and director about the cult British classic.
Spaced was initially pitched as a cross between The Simpsons, The X-Files and a mid-90s American comedy-drama called Northern Exposure. It didn't turn out like that at all, obviously, but that's OK, because what emerged instead turned out to be completely unique and has gone on to become a British cult classic.
It was a show about a group of erratically employed young people living in north London, when that was a thing erratically employed young people could still afford to do. Originally broadcast in 1999 and running for two seasons, it was a mix of stark realism – capturing the characters' job struggles, casual drug use, clubbing, pubbing and PlayStation sessions – and post-modern surrealism, crammed with references and homages to icons of 80s and 90s pop culture.
Created and written by Jessica Hynes (then Stevenson) and Simon Pegg, directed by Edgar Wright and starring Nick Frost, Mark Heap, Julia Deakin and Katy Carmichael, it focused on Tim (Pegg) and Daisy (Hynes) living in a flat together and pretending to be a couple to appease their upstairs landlady. Their neighbour is Brian, a pretentious yet vulnerable artist (Heap); Tim's best friend is Mike (Frost), a wannabe army man; and Jess' best friend is the fashion-obsessed and mildly vacuous Twist (Carmichael).
Fifteen years since series two was last on air, the cast recall where it all began.
Simon Pegg (Tim): Jess and I were singled out by a producer for a show we had worked on called Asylum. They said to us, 'If you can think of a format we'd like to make a vehicle for you.' Jess and I were a bit wet behind the ears, so we boldly said, 'Oh yeah, we'll do it, but you've got to let us write it' – like we had any leverage at all. But they fell for it.
Katy Carmichael (Twist): I went to uni with Simon. Jess was a mate at the time, and my stand-up comedy partner. In meeting Simon it was as if she'd found her long-lost comedy other half. They have the same comedy DNA. They both just got each other, and so the writing partnership for Spaced was born.
Jessica Hynes (Daisy): I was living in my boyfriend's squat at the time. Simon had a degree from Bristol University and could spell; I had an electric typewriter and some fucking Tipp-Ex. I've still got the very first thing that was ever put to paper for Spaced, which was a Marsha monologue – that was the very beginning.
Simon Pegg: I was round at Jess' house writing, and Edgar [Wright] came round after he'd read a draft of the first episode. He had this book of storyboards, and we looked them and thought, 'Holy shit.' He was speaking the visual language of what we were saying with text. It felt like such an incredible fit.
Edgar Wright (Director): What spoke to me about the scripts was how spot on it was about being 20-something in London and the huge gulf between the ambition of what you want to do and the reality of doing it and the procrastination and the laziness and the idea of having big ideas, but not having the drive to make them happen. That all felt very real.
ART IMITATING LIFE
Jessica Hynes: My life up until the point of when I started writing it, at 24, that was Spaced: living in squats, taking drugs, trying to find work, being out of work, trying to convince a landlady to give you a tenancy.
Katy Carmichael: We were Generation X: the slackers, the disaffected, directionless, free and human. We were all in it together, and Spaced captures that time perfectly. There was something highly creative about all that lounging around and finding moments to connect and have crazy adventures.
Simon Pegg: When I was a jobbing stand-up earning £50 a gig, I was pretty much like Tim, hanging around in the daytime playing video games and smoking weed. That was my life. Spaced came from our own flat-share experiences, but also in the wake of Friends in the mid-90s there had been a few copycat shows in Britain that were supposedly about young lives, and we just didn't feel represented in those shows at all – they were all fairly attractive people hanging around in brightly-lit wine bars, talking about shagging. We felt a bit affronted by that and wanted to write a sitcom that spoke to us on a much more intimate level than anything we'd seen before. For a while, Nick, Michael Smiley [who played Tyres] and I all lived together in Kentish Town. Nick just lived in the spare room, which we called "the crab pit".
Nick Frost (Mike Watt): The crab pit was a promotion, too. I didn't have a room for a while, but then I was allowed to sleep in this freezing room full of stinking bags of shit that nobody wanted. There wasn't even a bed, just cushions wrapped in an old piss-soaked duvet, and then me on top of that, and then another piss-soaked duvet on top of me. I think what shames me now is that I brought girls back to that room. Those poor women. We had a great crew and we hung out loads together, listened to music, went clubbing, watched The Simpsons and smoked a ton of pot.
Edgar Wright: It was slightly less drugs and clubbing for me! I don't know if, at that point, I'd ever even smoked weed. I was living in a flat in Islington that was very similar, and definitely remember wasting too much time on the PlayStation. I was more of a getting-drunk-in-Camden-and-going-to-the-movies sort of person.
Nick Frost: Mike was an amalgam of two guys I worked with in a Mexican restaurant. One was a cook who was a giant, but also a big baby; he'd get pissed and, at 4AM, he'd call his mum and she'd come out and get him to take him home. He sadly also had a penchant for Nazi memorabilia and hard punk music. He wasn't a Nazi – he was a nice guy – but he just owned things like a fucking Hitler Youth dagger. The other guy would bullshit us about his time in the Territorial Army and all the weird shit he would do to people, and I never believed him for a second. About two years ago I picked up a newspaper and there's a picture of David Cameron in Helmand Province, and standing behind him is this guy, stood there with a M4 carbine and body armour on – so it turns out it wasn't bullshit at all; it was all true.
Julia Deakin (Marsha): They said Marsha had had a bit of a chequered past, and I was exactly the right age to be a bit of an ageing hippy, so had a lot to draw on from that side of things. I chose this weird voice based on my friend Danny, a bloke. There was no blueprint for Marsha – she didn't have to have to be that drunk, she didn't have to have that weird voice, she didn't have to look like she did; it was just something I wanted to run with
Katy Carmichael: Twist is loosely based on a girl at university who was obsessed with fashion and would surreptitiously label check your clothes to see what you were wearing, compare thigh sizes and make helpful comments about how you could improve how you looked. She was forever disappointed in the other students' sartorial efforts.
Jessica Hynes: Tyres was based on a guy I met in Bath when I was about 16 or 17. He was proud of being the first ecstasy casualty. He said something about the cartilage drying up in the base of his spine, and he used to do this thing where he would talk on a loop: he would tell the same story over and over again, and it would last about three hours. He was extraordinary, and Michael Smiley effortlessly channelled him.
Simon Pegg: Smiley is a brilliant actor, but we were all comics together back in those days and he had this really bizarre dynamic to him – he was a cycle courier and a raver, so we thought he should just be that on screen for Tyres. He wasn't allowed to do it in the end, but the character of Brian was actually originally written for Julian Barrett and based on his character Victor Munro from Asylum.
Jessica Hynes: When writing Daisy and Tim, part of my subversive motive was to try and create two protagonists who were on an even keel, who were different genders but not in any way lesser or more interesting or more dynamic or more funny than one another.
Edgar Wright: People had no expectations for it because they didn't know who we were. I think as soon as we started editing it together, I was very excited about it. It felt really different; it felt out there. I think it was such a small budget show that nobody ever really passed too much comment from the network. All I remember is getting notes about language – that we could only say "fuck" twice and we could not say the word "cunt", and that was it. In a weird way I prefer the restriction because it makes your "fucks" count if you only have two of them.
Simon Pegg: In the episode where we watch the three Star Wars films, we could use the ewok celebration music from the end of Return of the Jedi, but we weren't allowed to use the original, so we had to re-record it ourselves and sing it. So if you watch that episode and listen to that music, that's me, Jess and Edgar doing ewok singing.
Jessica Hynes: I helped work on the costumes and making stuff, and the set design – I remember saying to them, "No, Daisy has to have WD-40 on her dressing table," and, "Tim's room can't be neat and it's got to look quite shit."
Simon Pegg: It felt like we were making what we wanted to make, and it was a very happy set as a result – especially the first season. We weren't being interfered with; we were making the show we wanted to make and it made us laugh a lot. It felt like we were getting it right. We were of the mindset that we wanted the show to make one person's head explode rather than lots of people go, "Oh that's quite good." We just wanted the one person to be like, "Holy fuck, this is the best thing I've ever seen and it speaks to me on such a personal level." That was more important to us – to be niche and precise, rather than bland and mainstream. I remember filming the scene when I shot the zombie's head off with a shotgun and thinking, 'This is going to be on after Friends.'
Simon Pegg: Whenever you used to see drug use on TV there had to be some sort of punitive measure taken, even if it was just weed. We all used to come back alive when we went out clubbing, and we'd talk very fondly about those nights for months afterwards. We didn't make a big deal about them smoking weed in the show; we just wanted to make it a regular part of their day. It was part of our daily life at that time, too. The clubbing episode, we never showed anyone popping a pill, it was just taken as read that they were all E-ing off their tits and having a wonderful time and they all came home alive and lived to tell the tale because the vast majority of people who would go out clubbing and take drugs at that time didn't die. One or two people did and it was tragic – and the media rode that into the ground – but there was also this other side of things, which is that drugs can actually be quite fun.
Katy Carmichael: The clubbing scene just replicated what we were all doing on a Saturday night back then, except there were cameras there, hence its authenticity. I wore that very same fairy outfit to many a nightclub and went around granting people wishes with that wand.
Nick Frost: In one episode there was a flashback of Mike stripping an MP5 [submachine gun] blind-folded, so the prop department thought it would be a good idea if they gave me one to take home and practice with. I did the first scene of the day and then went home at about 11AM. It was a really hot summer in Highgate. I opened the back doors and put on a tiny pair of house shorts and smoked a bong for like two hours and sat around watching telly, and then started playing with the gun and walking around with it, storming Simon's room with it and using rolled up socks as flash grenades. I then started having a go stripping it blindfolded and got pretty good at it. After about the fifth time of doing it I sensed there was a person in the room, and as I looked to the back door there were six armed police officers pointing their guns at me. I was actually very calm – which I thank the marijuana for – and I put my hands in the air and sat back in the sofa away from the gun. As soon as they saw me and my blood-shot eyes they just started screaming and stormed the flat. It was terrifying. My favourite bit of that story is that it took them about 45 minutes to work out my story was true, and then the mood became quite jovial when they realised they were just dealing with a fucking idiot. As they left the main officer tapped me on the shoulder and said, "Well done, mate – a lot of people piss themselves."
Julia Deakin: I'm not a great film buff. A lot of the script, which was obviously references, didn't mean too much to me. Even when I was filming I would be asking, "Why am I saying this?" I didn't know what the fuck the twins in the cupboard [a reference to The Shining] were doing, and I still don't. But I trusted them – the writing was so good.
Simon Pegg: I'm always much more satisfied as a viewer if I'm given some work to do and have to draw connections myself, or require some background knowledge to understand something. That's the joy of post-modernism. Because Spaced was heavily referential it created a mission for the viewer to connect the dots, and you feel a sense of satisfaction when you get a reference when you haven't been told what that is. We never tried to rest everything on those moments, though; you could enjoy them if you got them, but if you didn't they could just be enjoyed as a part of the fabric of the show.
Jessica Hynes: We are total film nerds, but we cover very different areas. Simon is Mr Star Wars. I mean, I wouldn't even go there. You could ask him what the third fucking ewok from the left was called in some scene and he'd know – he'd know the name of their mother. Our areas of film do crossover, though, especially the big classic stuff like Spielberg and the great 80s films. It became a nerd-off, basically. Although, I have to say there was a time when I wanted to do this Goonies reference and he was like, "Hmmmm..." Big mistake Simon Pegg. Big mistake.
THE FUTURE OF SPACED
Julia Deakin: I'd do it all again tomorrow if they decided to bring it back. I've been acting 40 years and Spaced is easily in the top three jobs I've ever done.
Nick Frost: I think, for me, it's done. I just don't know how you'd do it; we're all so fucking old and decrepit now. Maybe I could get out of it by saying Mike made it to Afghanistan but he stepped on a mine out there or that he fell out the back of a plane.
Jessica Hynes: My door is always open. I mean, fucking hell, Jesus, who I am to say no? I don't want to make it awkward for them as they have really big careers and I'm noodling about doing my own thing, but I know Simon and I's paths will cross again – our bond is deep.
Simon Pegg: We always wanted to do three series; we just sort of missed the boat on it. We would have liked to have done three and everyone's character have a third part to their arc, and certainly have Tim and Daisy get together in the end and it lead up to this wonderfully exciting and satisfying romantic conclusion, and for everyone in the show to have their moment – but it just didn't happen. It's a source of frustration for me, looking back, but it's something I'm incredibly proud of and it makes me very happy to think we managed to pull off the three Cornetto movies [Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World's End], because I finally felt like I had finished something that I set out to do. The key factor is that we just don't live that life any more. The truth of Spaced was that it came from a very real place and from our hearts and where we were in life. I don't think anybody would be remotely interested in a sitcom about a relatively successful film actor living in rural Hertfordshire.
Edgar Wright: I don't know. I think, for me, it would be a no. I think with Spaced it would be a bit of a lose-lose; I don't know if people would ever be entirely happy. Maybe if Simon and Jessica came up with a really brilliant script, but I just feel because we're all different people now it would be hard. Would you want to see those characters older, or is the beauty of the show in that the last time we ever saw Tim and Daisy was sitting on that beanbag in front of the TV with Colin, and to leave them there in this beautiful time capsule of that era? I would tend to say don't risk it. It's a beautiful 14 episodes, and maybe we could have done more at the time, but I'm very proud of what we did and I don't really want to spoil it now.
Katy Carmichael: Maybe more time needs to pass before we get together again. Another 40 years, then an octogenarian Spaced Christmas special. I'd watch that. Twist with a Swarovski zimmer frame and a Prada colostomy bag, still hobbling around in platform heels but with varicose veins. Tim as a silver fox, perhaps. Daisy as a successful writer – her very own version of Barbara Cartland. Brian starts his own political party. Marsha still a landlady, but moved on from the vino to the gin. And Mike, a pipe and slippers pacifist in a nursing home.
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