- 05 Oct 17
Bearing endorsements from Stephen Fry, JK Rowling and Ian Rankin, Peep Show star Robert Webb’s memoir How Not To Be A Boy is one of the funniest books you’ll read this year. The major theme of the book is Webb’s grappling with traditional notions of masculinity, as he moves from school to Cambridge – where he joined the legendary Footlights troupe – and on into a hugely successful comedy career.
The subject of what it means to be a man in the modern world is very much part of the zeitgeist right now.
“Well, with the book, that’s happened completely by accident,” notes Webb, sitting in the lounge of Dublin’s Brooks Hotel. “In 2014 or ’15, it felt like I might be starting a conversation, and now it feels like I’m joining one. I’m very glad about that. With Grayson Perry’s stuff and Matt Haig writing about mental illness, it’s all happening.
“You even have princes of the realm – I forget their names for a minute, Harry and the other one! – saying that ignoring their own grief for two years after their mother died didn’t do them any good. So that’s all good.”
Going back to the aforementioned Fry, How Not To Be A Boy has parallels with his own memoir, the superb Moab Is My Washpot. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Webb is a big fan of the book.
“I read it when it came out,” he recalls. “That was the year after I left, but I was still hanging around Cambridge wondering what to do. All the other people in Footlights were standing at the back, being all cool, and I thought, ‘Fuck it, I’m going to buy this book anyway and get it signed.’ He was very nice. But for me, going to Cambridge and seeking out the Footlights was deliberate.
“Watching TV as a teenager, a lot of the people I was a fan of seemed to have gone to this one place. There was Clive James, Clive Anderson, Fry & Laurie, Emma Thompson, some of the Pythons – the list goes on. I’d been doing these end-of-term sketch shows in school, where I’d cast my mates in supporting roles and write myself all the best parts. I had the vague feeling from the age of about 13 or 14, freakishly early, that I might eventually end up doing comedy.”
Notably, Webb talks in the book about feeling some sexual confusion as a teenager, when he developed a serious crush on a male school friend.
“It didn’t feel confusing to me!” laughs Robert. “It was just odd it turned out that way – that the first person I was really nuts about turned out to be a bloke. It’s a friend of mine and in the book I call him Will. When I knew I was going to do this, I emailed him and said, ‘Look I’m going to have to do you and me, because it’s an important part of the story.’ He replied going, ‘Why do you have to be famous?!’ And then he said, ‘Alright then, but nothing too graphic.’
“The bits with me and Will are pretty chaste, that’s just how it was. I mean, he wasn’t the only one, but it sort of petered out. Well, there was no Peter! But the gay part of my sexuality didn’t really survive that first thing.”
It was in Footlights that Webb met his comedy partner David Mitchell, with the two ultimately going on to star in Peep Show, and more recently, Simon Blackwell’s acclaimed sitcom Back. Despite their obvious comedic gifts, the duo put in a lengthy apprenticeship.
“It was a mixture of being exciting and tremendously dull,” reflects Webb of their early years. “In fact, I skip all that. Normally when you pick up a book like this, you go, ‘Okay, let’s just get to the famous bit – what’s Rowan Atkinson really like? I don’t want to know about your fucking grandparents!’ So I was very conscious of that. I myself am a very chaotic and lazy reader, which I think makes me a much better writer! (laughs).
“I’m writing for my own attention span, so it’s a question of making that childhood interesting and telling a story, basically. I deliberately don’t do the bit David does in his book, which is progressing from Edinburgh to meetings with TV executives and so on. The whole process that eventually resulted in our big breakthrough Peep Show essentially lasted from the mid-’90s to 2003.
“We never really considered giving up. Peep Show happened just in time, but I think we would have carried on. Still, it takes a certain amount stamina and self-belief, followed by colossal amounts of luck. But people who stick around tend to get somewhere – they’ll usually get their five minutes. Then it’s a question of being ready for it and not blowing it. Overall, it has nothing to do with us being talented; there are so many strokes of good fortune that resulted in it happening, and it could so easily not have done.”
Finally, I mention the achievement that tops them all – when yours truly selected the top 40 TV shows of Hot Press’ lifetime for our 40th anniversary issue earlier this year, Peep Show made the cut… “Where, which number?!” mock-protests Webb. “Obviously we’re very grateful for the show’s success. The creators, Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, were writing for us. I like to think I could have played Mark. I’m not sure about David playing Jez – maybe, it’s possible. But we were sufficiently like those characters that to do it the other way around would have been weird. There’s a bit in the first series, where Mark is having an argument with Jeff, who’s trying to come through the door, and he’s giving him the broom.
“Mark’s going, ‘I’m going to broom you Jeff!’ And you hear Jez in a voiceover saying, ‘Mark or Jeff? I could be a normal person like Jeff, and I wouldn’t have to live with Mark in a weird puddle on the edge of society.’ And I suppose that’s a universal feeling – we all think everyone else is the normal one and we’re the freak. I think that goes some way to explaining the show’s appeal.”
How Not To Be A Boy is out now, published by Canongate.