There’s a wonderful anecdote concerning the singer-songwriter Sting and the nature of fame. The story goes that Sting finally realised the level of his global superstardom when he was in a hotel elevator and heard one of his own compositions being played in the ‘musak’ style so favoured by hotel chains. Whilst the cast and crew of Spaced can hardly claim to have reached such stratospheric heights, it would seem that they are well on their way.
Exhibit A presented itself recently when I was perusing the text of an English language text book (for basic learners) and discovered an article and full page photograph of Jessica Stevenson and Simon Pegg, the two figures at the centre of the growing cult comedy that is Spaced.
Written by and starring Stevenson and Pegg, and majestically directed by their friend Edgar Wright, Spaced is, quite simply, the funniest television comedy since Blackadder II. It has joined the pantheon of Great British Comedy, a singular club whose members include the aforementioned Blackadder, The Fast Show, The Office and Mr. Jolly lives next door.
Ostensibly concerning nothing more complex than the adventures of a group of late twenty-somethings’ in a small London flat, Spaced has carved out a particular niche amongst the age-group which it depicts: 25-35 year old Star Wars-watching, comic book-reading, spliff-smoking, hopelessly self-deluding aspirational ‘new media’ types.
Pegg plays Tim Bisley, a skateboarding obsessed, wannabe comic book illustrator, caught in a web of cash-strapped misery, desperately trying to get over a five-year relationship with a harpy of an ex-girlfriend who ditched him for his friend (the terrifyingly macho Dwayne Bensey). Stevenson plays Daisy, a directionless scribe who can’t quite bring herself to actually write anything. She has a boyfriend who she can’t be arsed with, a dog she is only half-concerned with and no real career to speak of.
The two are thrust together when they find themselves homeless and penniless and desperately searching for somewhere to live. After a chance encounter in a London coffee shop, they agree to pose as a couple to get a flat, which has been advertised for a ‘professional couple only’. After convincing Marsha (the landlady) of their bona-fides, they move in.
“How sexy am I?”
Tim Bisley must surely be the most perfect depiction of modern man. Maudlin, cynical, childish, lost and utterly loveable, he wanders from accident to accident, disaster to disaster, only vaguely aware of what he is doing and where he is going. Stuck in a student-like existence (despite approaching the end of his twenties) his most pressing concerns are his desires to get his girl back, avenge himself on Dwayne, to work for Darkstar comics, to get stoned as often as is possible and to help his life-long friend Mike sort out his even more messed-up life. We have every reason in the world to detest and hate Tim: he is filled with self-loathing, lives in total denial of his situation, is horribly intolerant of his flatmate Daisy, is rude to Brian (the artist who lives downstairs), pines pathetically for his ex and is spectacularly woeful at talking to women.
Yet, in Pegg’s hands, Tim becomes not a figure that we dislike, but rather the best drawn, most believable, affable fool to grace TV screens in decades. Whereas Ricky Gervais’ David Brent was a skin-crawlingly horrible creation who we wanted to punch, Tim is a guy that we can relate to: riven with self-doubt, blind to what’s happening around him, oblivious to the feelings of those who love him and lost in a sci-fi inspired, fantasy world of computer games, hash and movies. To put it simply: Tim is every guy I know.
“It’s the cutting edge!”
Generally speaking, most female actors don’t get to write their own parts and scripts. When they do, many have been guilty of indulging themselves and making their on-screen personas as sexy, desirable and cool as is possible. I probably don’t need to name names, but a great deal of recent English language comedy, written by women, centres around their difficulties with make-up, hordes of attractive men, newspaper column deadlines, oh-so-hilarious incidents involving stiletto shoes and great deluges of coffee-fuelled, self-analysing dross.
Stevenson, in contrast, has gone completely the other way. Daisy Steiner is every bit as self-deluding as Tim, but is, in addition, clumsy, inarticulate, graceless and lazy. She clatters into doors, walks into walls, always says the wrong thing, lies about her achievements, talks utter rubbish, has terrible taste in music (one famous scene involving Prefab Sprout stands out) and dresses just woefully. The net effect is to make Daisy (and Stevenson) hilariously funny and probably the most realistic and attractive woman on modern television. Her performance is one of sublime brilliance and she deserves to be showered in awards. Women actors take note: this is how to do it.
Like Tim, Daisy can’t quite shake herself free of her student life (a recurring theme of the show) and figure out what she wants to do. Like Tim, she needs to be insulted and cursed at before doing what she needs to do, and like Tim is in total, complete denial of the reality around her.
Tim and Daisy’s relationship is moulded in the classic ‘will they or won’t they?’ scenario. It’s Bruce and Cybil, Tim and Dawn, Mulder and Scully. Reluctantly in love with each other but utterly unaware of it and irritated by feelings they can’t explain; they spark off each other with an infectious, natural chemistry which is a simple joy to watch.
“Guns. Guts. Guts and Guns…”
Nick Frost (Mike) is not an actor. At least not in the strict sense of how we would interpret the word. Simon Pegg’s best friend since God-knows-when, he made his way into the cast of Spaced purely because Pegg loves having him around and decided to write a part for him. Mike is a gun-nut of the worst order. Perennially clad in combat gear, aviator shades, hob-nail boots and waxing lyrical about carnage, destruction, machineguns, blood and guts, he initially hovers on the periphery of the story-arc only to become central to the fate of all characters by the end of season one. Kicked out of the Territorial Army for stealing a tank during weekend manoeuvres in France and trying to invade Paris, his sole ambition in life is to secure his entry back into the army and do his long-suffering friend Tim proud.
The evolution of Mike’s character and Frost’s abilities as an actor are astounding. Initially, Mike is nothing more than a delightful clichï¿½, a foil for Pegg to bounce jokes off. But as the episodes progress his dialogue gets sharper, his storylines more central and his scenes more expertly executed. Indeed, by the end of season one it is arguable that Frost is stealing the entire show out from underneath the noses of Pegg and Stevenson. By season two, we begin to grow irritated by his absence and overjoyed by his appearances, a special mention having to go to the superb season two climax involving Mike, a tank, Take That’s ‘Back for good’ and the classic ‘something bloody spectacular’ save-the-day finale.
“I’m working Tim. Working? Do you understand?”
Initially conceived as an arrogant, pretentious prick representing a pastiche of London’s insufferable art scene, Brian is a character so adorable and totally watchable, that (like Mike) we find ourselves begging for more and more of him. Actor Mark Heap, brings a cracked, broken vulnerability to manic-depressive Brian Topp, a gloomy, doom-laden freak who inhabits the basement flat in Tim and Dawn’s house. Twitchy, self-loathing, miserable and downright weird, Heap’s Brian is a creation of comic genius: the perfect marriage of brilliant script and flawless interpretation by an actor who seems to have been born to play the part.
His life revolves around trying to find radical approaches to art (subjects generally involving anger, violence, fear and despite what he says, love) carried out in a series of ever-increasingly bizarre methods, the most memorable of which involves Brian flogging the canvas with his paint-smattered prodigious member.
Ill communicative, insular and uptight, Brian moves from initial comic-relief to quasi-messianic anti-hero. With a bumbling, stuttering, scatter-gun delivery, and despite his pretensions and absurd eccentricities, Heap forces us to sympathise with Brian. His relationship with the predatory Marsha, the devious Twist and his burgeoning friendship with Mike and Tim are masterfully observed. Most wonderfully of all, we come to understand that Brian can only be truly happy when he is at his most miserable and filled with self-hatred. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant.
“Fancy a glass of the old Vino Colapso?”
Julie Deakin’s performance as Marsha Klein, the chain-smoking, wine-guzzling, single mother landlady is, like Stevenson’s performance, a master class in comedic acting. Never shirking from humiliating herself, Deakin brings a delicious humanity to the man-eating, piss-head ex-groupie which leaves you wondering how the hell it is that Deakin has not been accepting Brits, Oscars and Tony’s for the last twenty years.
Clad in hippy-inspired, sixties velvet dresses, Marsha is a sheer delight to watch. Like all the other characters, we are given an early, initial sketch (cunning, predatory and nosey) only to see it evolve in complex and painfully funny human being.
Pissed-on, shat-on and dumped with a horrific teenage daughter (the never-to-be-seen Amber) Marsha is the quintessential embarrassing relative: relentlessly pissed, interfering, cringe-inducingly sexual and always there when you never want her. It’s testament to the writing and Deakin’s skills as an actor that Marsha is invested with such maternal humanity and such precise comic timing when we should dread her.
“Is he the one that does the white paintings?”
Daisy’s best friend (though no-one knows why), Twist, is a shrill-voiced, clubbing-addicted, fickle, diet-obsessed fag-hag who you can’t help but love. Working in fashion (translation: she works in a dry-cleaners) she relentlessly runs down Daisy, insults Marsha, ignores Tim and Mike and (in one of the show’s more ingenious moves) has a ferocious, sex-crazed relationship with manic-depressive Brian.
Described as either ‘stupid and sweet or an evil genius’ by Tim, her character is one of the more enigmatic in the show. The writing leaves her vaguely drawn, insubstantial and deliberately evasive: her foibles becoming likeable, her cruel treatment of the broken-hearted Brian understandable and her pretensions endearing as the show progresses.
Played by Coronation Street regular Katy Carmichael, Twist is yet another in the long list of Spaced characters whom we really should detest, but because of hilarious dialogue and painfully funny acting, we find ourselves warming to. But just one question: why does she really dump Brian?
“You shot me in the bollocks Tim”
Dwayne Bensey (Peter Serafinowicz) is every man’s worst nightmare: the handsome, wealthy, articulate guy who nicks your girlfriend. And you just know they guy’s hung like a hoover too. Brought to life by none other than the voice of Darth Maul himself (a coincidence which Pegg exploits to the maximum – ‘At last I shall have my revenge…’) Dwayne is Tim’s nemesis: a horridly smug letch, playing on Tim’s insecurities and driving him mad with jealousy. The acerbic and hysterical dialogue between the two represents some of Spaced’s finer moments, especially the season two confrontation in the pub when Tim finally flips the switch of Dwayne’s paranoia about his girlfriend. Ludicrously husky-voiced, enormously built, leather-clad and dripping with testosterone, Dwayne is another gem of characterisation, every bit as memorable as Swiss Tony or Lord Flasheart.
Tyres. Where do you begin describing Tyres? Yet another of Pegg’s flatmates, Michael Smiley is given the task of bringing Tyres to life: a clubbing-addicted, e-guzzling, violently moody bicycle courier who moves faster than the eye can see. Tyres storms the Spaced set, his manic energy reducing you to helpless laughter. As far as I am concerned his e-induced dance frenzies to the sound of telephones, kettles and traffic signals count for some of the stupidest and funniest moments in recent TV history.
Tim’s Boss at the Fantasy Bazaar comic store, Bilbo, is played by superstar Bill Bailey. Special mention must go to a superbly crafted scene involving Tim being bollocked because of his vicious intolerance of an eight-year old boy who has the sheer temerity to come in to the shop and ask for a Jar Jar toy (another Spaced theme: the alleged betrayal of a generation by George Lucas). Bonkers, eccentric and a joy to behold.
“Skip to the end…”
Shaun of the Dead may have brought the cash in, and yes it was awesome, but let’s face it, we want Spaced 3. Why? Well, consider it: consider the painfully funny slow-mo telepathic gun-fight (now re-enacted daily in a thousand student flats), consider the robot war/fight club showdown, consider Daisy asking a guy to ‘pull her finger’ on a disastrous date, Tim shooting Dwayne in the balls with a paint gun, Mike leading a whacked-out dance troupe in the legendary e nightclub scene, Tyres trying to control his ‘fucking mood swings’, Brian accidentally rendering himself unconscious for an art installation, Marsha’s seduction of the paper-boy, Twist in the art gallery, Tim and Bilbo’s ‘happy dance’ and finally, gloriously, the Empire Strikes Back ending of season two, with Tim’s Woody Allen dash to the train station to get the departing Daisy.
Magical, funny, touching, shrewd and all too human, frankly, TV just doesn’t get much better than this.