Interview: Robert Webb

Comedian and writer Robert Webb launches his new book How Not To Be A Boy Picture: Greg Macvean
Comedian and writer Robert Webb launches his new book How Not To Be A Boy Picture: Greg Macvean
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Two young men emerge from the toilets at an Edinburgh Festival venue.

Robert Webb as Jeremy and David Mitchell as Mark in Peep Show

Robert Webb as Jeremy and David Mitchell as Mark in Peep Show

“Too many women in those men’s toilets, what’s that about?” says one.

“Can’t blame them, their queue takes ages,” says the other.

“But they’re our toilets. It’s not right.”

“Whatever. I don’t mind. What if toilets were just toilets, not men’s or women’s?”

“Some women might want women-only toilets.”

“Yeah. Dunno. Let’s get a pint.”

And off they go back to safer ground. Debates like this are more common in these days of non-binary gender fluidity, but back in 1980s Lincolnshire, things were much simpler. Men knew what was expected of them. Robert Webb, Peep Show comedian and actor certainly did, but as he asks in his book, How Not To Be A Boy, are the Rules for Being a Man – “Don’t Cry, Love Sport, Play Rough, Drink Beer and Don’t Talk About Feelings” – actually any use to anyone?

Launched this week at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, his moving memoir provokes both laughter and tears, as his adult self takes a look back at his life and what made him the man he is, and isn’t.

In Edinburgh with his family to launch the book and watch his comedian wife Abigail Burdess in her fringe show Abigail’s Party – Comedy Cabaret, is Webb pleased with the reaction so far? JK Rowling called it “brilliant”, Dawn French found it “a truly great read” and Ian Rankin said it was a “witty, honest, coming of age story with a subtext that tackles masculinity and manhood.”

“I’m delighted, because you do it on your own and send it out and think, what if it’s s**t?” He laughs.

Webb has been sitting in a tiny room at his publisher’s office signing 1,000 copies of his book in record time, yet despite this his handshake is firm, one might even say manly, if we weren’t talking to an author keen to explode such gender stereotyping. Not that he puts it like that.

“I don’t use terms like patriarchy, I want people to read the book!” he says and laughs. He’s unwilling to give his idea of mature masculinity “capital letters and make it a ‘thing’” for fear of sounding preachy.

“I mean f*** off baldy Peep Show dick,” is how he puts it in the book.

Webb’s way into the debate, to demonstrate how the expectations of gender complicate lives, is through his own story, explaining how a working class kid from Lincolnshire who loves The Young Ones, Fry and Laurie, French and Saunders, ends up at Cambridge with a career as a comedy actor and writer.

Now 44 and married to writer, actor and stand-up, Abigail Burdess, with two daughters Esme, eight and Dorie, six, he takes us back to his small town childhood where he discovers he can make people laugh. We meet his beloved mother who dies of breast cancer when he’s 17, his father, aka Darth Vader, step-father and brothers and sister, and the objects of his schoolboy crushes (female and male). Then it’s on to Cambridge, where he meets long-term comedy partner David Mitchell, a successful TV career, marriage and fatherhood.

In his checked shirt, jeans and trainers, with his clear blue eyes and short blond hair, 44-year-old Webb seems ageless, part serious writer who’s been co-authoring hit shows for 20 years, part boyish comedian who at one point leaps out of his seat to dance with laughter.

First off, we dispense with the question so many people have asked me to ask him, in these days of ghost written celeb memoirs; did he actually write it himself?

“Oh my God,” he says. “My mother-in-law even asked me that! She’s seen me coming into the front room, grumpy from writing… ‘Did you write it?’, of course I f***ing wrote it.” He laughs. “Yes, for the record, the idea of having anyone else write anything with my name on it fills me with horror. I know it does happen. I don’t know if Peter Andre has read his book, never mind written it… I’m making that up, by the way, I’m sure he writes his own books.

“I had it in mind to do a memoir approaching gender and masculinity because that’s where it starts, in childhood, and I thought I had a good story. Every time I thought about my life this issue kept popping up. Why did I make that terrible decision? Oh, it was because I was trying to be a boy, or because I was trying to be a man.

“Masculinity causes a lot of deeply unnecessary problems, not least for women who are at the sharp end of it most of the time, but for men too. It’s not that I think being male is this innately fallen state, I think men are terrific, but when I think of the men I admire and the qualities I admire about them, it’s that they are honest and gentle partners and present and loving fathers, and I’ve caught them red-handed being kind in a way they weren’t expecting anyone to notice. It’s when their masculinity isn’t going to make the top 30 of things I know about them. It’s just this attribute, the gendered name for having a penis, and it’s not doing anything apart from conjuring up a set of stereotypes about driving gloves and medallions and chest hair. Masculinity, if you stare straight at it, disappears, like a faint star.

“For about five seconds I thought maybe there will be a chapter on Top Gear and a chapter on men’s magazines then I thought I don’t want to read that book, never mind write it! It would reach fewer people. So it became obvious this was going to be a slightly more reflective thing, though I can’t help trying to entertain the reader.”

What’s striking about Webb’s book is its universality. Take out the references to Stephen Fry and David Mitchell and the fact Webb’s “off the telly” and it could be any man who grew up in a working class, small town environment, and found themselves cringing with embarrassment at having to wear girls’ socks on sports day or somehow barely in control of a seven and a half tonne truck, ironic Yorkie bar melting in his pocket. At times you forget it’s him writing and he’s famous – something Webb takes as a compliment – until he winds up dancing in the street with Carrie Fisher.

“I thought if I’m going to have a celebrity anecdote, I’m going to have that one. I got to Chapter 13 and thought, they could do with a bit of showbiz by now, couldn’t they?”

Webb’s book is very candid and as well as entertaining the reader he writes movingly about his adorable mother, whose loss to breast cancer when he’s 17 leaves him reeling. Did he ever hold back on what he was writing?

“I’ve been as candid as my ego will allow but it turns out my ego will allow a fair bit. A couple of people have said ‘oh, it’s very honest’ and it makes me think ‘oooh, is it?’ Every author gives themselves away by accident in lots of different ways, but I have the illusion I’m sort of in control so it feels like a… to use an annoyingly vogueish term... a safe space.”

Webb admits he was rubbish at being “a boy”. As the youngest of three – his two older brothers being generally regarded as hard and good at football – with a dad who drank too much and whose job description was gangmaster (it’s an agricultural labour term, but still) it’s no surprise that Webb began to question his masculinity very early on. No wonder he was never happier than roaring around in the car with his mother belting out Rod Stewart’s Sailing at the top of their voices.

Webb is well into adulthood before he gives up on the rules, the rigid application of which have left him failing in ways that are at times hilarious, at others destructive, for example when his drinking renders him “a pain in the arse”. “Now I don’t drink on my own or before six-ish (apart from at weekends),” he writes.

“There was a gradual realisation that all the rules I had learnt as a boy, that I had thought I had completely rejected because I’m so left wing and right on and marvellous and educated and middle class, that I haven’t left all that behind at all, because these formative experiences are always lurking. I call it the Farage in the garage, lurking bigotries that are still there and you need to keep your eye on them. I’m not telling people what to do – if you’re Jacob Rees-Mogg and you’ve had five children and never touched a nappy and that was the agreement with your wife then that’s basically fine, although those kids will have a limited idea of what a man does and what a woman does – but I talk about where I went wrong and leave it for the reader to see whether that rings any bells.”

Webb is still best known for Peep Show, Channel 4’s longest running comedy by Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, that ran from 2003 to 2015 over nine series. Does he see that ever coming back?

Peep Show’s over but we sort of left half a crack in the door, saying it might be funny to revisit Mark and Jeremy if David and I make it into our mid/late sixties. They would be in the same flat having the same arguments. But it was getting so sad, because when we meet them they’re in their late twenties and it makes sense for two friends from university to live together, but by the time they’re 40, it’s a different show.”

As well as Peep Show and The Sketch Show, Webb has appeared in the film, Magicians in 2006 and last year was in the BBC’s Our Ex-Wife with Melanie Lynskey and Victoria Hamilton), playing Jack, whose attempts to have a new relationship are sabotaged by his ex-wife.

He’s back again with long-time partner and best friend Mitchell in a new show on Channel 4 this autumn. Back is a dark comedy written by Emmy award winning The Thick of It, In The Loop, Veep and Peep Show writer Simon Blackwell, in which Webb plays a foster kid returning to the home where he was happiest. David Mitchell’s character, who has inherited his parents’ pub, isn’t so pleased to see him.

“I turn up and start making Dave’s character’s life a misery. He’s playing another miserable character, and I turn up to take over his family and push him out. It was un-turndownable and was developed for us. It doesn’t feel like we have to work together but when we do, we’re greater than the sum of our parts.”

After meeting in the Footlights in 1993 at Cambridge, Mitchell and Webb started to work together and brought their sketch show to Edinburgh many years in a row. At first they loved it, but as the years went on, the gloss wore off.

“We never got any good reviews,” says Webb. “The Scotsman always hated us, Time Out hated us, although I’ve got one really nice review from Scotland on Sunday, written by Jack Docherty, when I was with the Footlights. So we just thought, OK, people don’t want this on the telly, that’s a shame, but we’ll be comedy writers and do the odd Edinburgh show and London fringe and that’ll be that. It’s better than nine to five.”

Their big break came in 2000 when they were hired to write sketches for BBC2 sketch shows, leading to their own, The Mitchell and Webb Situation then That Mitchell and Webb Sound which jumped from Radio 4 to BBC2 as That Mitchell and Webb Look, winning a BAFTA for Best Comedy in 2007, and Peep Show.

Apart from Back, Webb is looking forward to writing his second book, also for Canongate.

“It was a two book deal and it will be a novel. I know how it’s going to start but I don’t know what’s going to happen and I’m not going to give you a genre – it’s a hybrid, two sorts of books in one. I feel protective of it, because it doesn’t exist yet. But it’s a really good idea.”

When I ask Webb if he’d rather write than act his response is a swift, emphatic “Yeah. I can’t afford to and I wouldn’t want to retire from acting, but I see the writing taking over in terms of time commitment. And I’m getting quite fussy as an actor over what roles I take.”

Webb writes at home in North London alongside Abbie, him in a little room at the top of the house and her in a room in the middle, with breaks for a coffee and a moan.

“That’s writing days,” he says. “On filming days, I’m out of the house.” He laughs. “Like a proper man.” He’s kidding.

Webb credits Abbie, not only with helping him sort out his drinking, but also with helping him step up to the role of father, where he’s seen the issues anew as the father of daughters.

“I didn’t want to be one of those guys who doesn’t get it about sexism until he has daughters. But I might be one of those guys. It concentrates your mind because you see the world through their eyes.

“I hope things are better now and not as rigid. My girls go to a mixed state primary and they have boys among their friends. But the emotional repression is still with 
us, telling boys to act like a man, to man up and ignore unwanted feelings. That is still going on, but I feel like it’s a conversation that’s already started.”

So was he planning to make a guest appearance in his wife’s show this festival?

“No, no, no,” he says, adamant. “She reckons I am. She thinks I’m going to do the last night, but I don’t have an act. No, not on your nelly.”

I’m appalled, and tell him so. Is he really not going to do his wife’s show?

“No! I’m not doing the Edinburgh Fringe! Don’t make me do more Edinburgh Fringe!” he shouts.

She’s got a show to put on and he can’t even...

“I drove the props up! I drove the car for eight hours...” he says.

Isn’t that just like a man? Oh, sorry.

@JanetChristie2

How Not To Be A Boy, Canongate, £16.99 hardback, audio book (narrated by Webb) £18.99 and Ebook £12.79) is published on Tuesday. Webb will appear at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, tomorrow and Waterstones Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow on Monday, then on nationwide tour, see www.canongate.co.uk/robert-webb-tour for dates.