Back is back, as 1970s disco outfit Belle Époque once almost sang, and I for one am delighted the second series is underway. It’s still a joy to watch, and particularly so now, when we really do need all the quality entertainment we can get. If you think that this is just another vehicle for David Mitchell and Robert Webb now that they’re much too old for their Peep Show act then you’d be right. If you think that the characters they play are strikingly similar to Peep Show’s stolid Mark Corrigan and the untrustworthy Jez Usborne, you’d be quite right too. If you think that they’ve gone and got themselves another fine comedy writer (Simon Blackwell, who also collaborated on Peep Show), and assembled a new hugely talented crew of supporting actors, yes, you’re bang on. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what makes Back (Channel 4) so blooming brilliant.
The theme is what has commonly come to be called gaslighting. A 42-year old divorcee Stephen (David Mitchell) is driven insane as his job (pub landlord), the affections of his family and his very consciousness are slowly infiltrated, usurped, and possessed by a foster brother he’d forgotten he’d ever had (Robert Webb’s Andrew), who turns up unexpectedly at his/their father’s funeral.
Like real-life gaslighting, it’s the horrible, unwanted gift that keeps on giving, and there seems no end to the agonies and humiliations heaped upon poor Stephen (rather like Mark Corrigan, it must be said, and other classic figures such as Alan Partridge and David Brent – sado-comicism).
We don’t get to hear the internal dialogue as we did in Peep Show, but no matter, because Stephen’s expressions of abject, confused, drugged, alcoholic misery to anyone who’ll listen are part of his hell. Of course no one believes him when he protests that Andrew is evil. Indeed, Stephen doesn’t either for some of the time. His frustrations are released into some wonderful rhetorical outbursts.
Thus, on his release from being sectioned, a briefly confident Stephen angrily rejects Andrew’s insincere attempts at apology for “everything that happened before”: “What, everything in the world? The Napoleonic Wars? Smallpox? The cry-laugh emoji? Slavery? Declining literacy rates? I don’t trust a word you say.”
Stephen thinks he’s “changed the locks” on his mind so Andrew can’t get in again, but by the end of the episode Stephen’s being set up for yet another disaster, trying to run a pretentious, gentrified new pub (“P:UB”) next door. Meanwhile, his flirty, flighty mum (Penny Downie) has started an affair with the vicar (John Macmillan), about 30 years her junior and not all he seems either. Stephen’s only vaguely reliable ally is his ex-wife Alison (subtly played by Olivia Poulet), but even she’s started getting all lovey-dovey with Andrew.
Any writer who can come up with the observation of uncle Geoff (Geoffrey McGivern in fine form) that “terrorists and sex offenders have decimated the balaclava industry”; any actors who can extract comic value from the phrase “urinal cakes”(Mitchell and Webb); and any team who can make us laugh as we confront deeply troubling mental health issues (what Stephen just calls being “mad” as “useful shorthand”) deserves recognition and the odd Bafta. Then again, as Stephen so quotably remarks: “Never dream. Dreams aren’t real. Only nightmares.” Or was that Mark Corrigan who said that? My mind seems to be playing tricks on me.