By the time he reached his mid-30s David Mitchell had never really had a girlfriend. He was one of the most successful and ubiquitous comedians on British television, but he was still living like a student in a shared former council flat in Kilburn, north-west London.
There were drunken one-night stands after which he felt “shit about myself”.
Sex was something that happened “unexpectedly, occasionally and almost by accident”. But he never went on dates. That would have been far too awkward.
At university there were tortured crushes, desolate infatuations during which he never actually mentioned his feelings to the woman he desired: “No broaching of the subject in any way whatsoever with them.”
His agonised inaction was partly due to the fear of rejection and partly the fear of disappointment. “It would have meant,” he writes in his 2012 memoir, Back Story, “that the feelings of significance, importance, magic that unrequited love gives you were illusory, and those feelings were probably as much what drew me to the crush as the charms of its object”.
He had accepted the fact that he was just a single kind of person. “That just seemed to be one of the things about me, like brown eyes and a preference for tea of over coffee.” And he didn’t dislike being single enough to put himself through the “pain”.
He only had to look at the internet to know that he was attractive to women –“usually, they add, to their ‘surprise’ and ask their friends if it is ‘wrong’ that they fancy me” – but his public image was that of a kind of tweedy loner “who eats his ready-made meals in the dark”. Not unlike his character Mark Corrigan in Peep Show, the longest-running sitcom on British television. It was no accident – the writers were old friends of his.
And he was busy. In addition to spending nine months doing Peep Show every year, he writes a weekly column for The Observer, does radio comedy shows, wrote and performed the television sketch show That Mitchell and Webb Look, is a wryly witty panellist on shows such as QI and Would I Lie to You?, as well as making the films Magicians and I Could Never Be Your Woman.
As his profile soared he became an enigma to journalists sent to profile him.
What was wrong with him? Was he a closet gay? Why wasn’t he indulging his new-found wealth and fame like any normal person would? He didn’t even have a flat-screen television next to his BAFTAs when an astounded interviewer from The Guardian visited his flat in 2009 – “most people’s grandparents would have discarded it [his television] as obsolete at least a decade ago. It even has one of those portable aerials on it …”
Mitchell tried to be helpful. He admitted on Desert Island Discs that he was single and not happy, but he resented the journalistic probing. As he writes in Back Story: “They couldn’t know me personally and I didn’t want to be trapped into creating the illusion that they could – an illusion that might subsequently be shattered if I was caught on film strangling a cat.”
Even though he still doesn’t drive, didn’t have a credit card until he was well in his 30s and his haircut hasn’t changed since school, it wasn’t just a bad case of arrested development. In fact, for three years, he was hiding something. Something he never even told his closest friends. Instead, he worked harder and harder, playing his crusty bachelor status for laughs to compensate for his secret. Trying to distract and console himself from the fact he didn’t have a private life at all.
He was “enormously” sad. Hopelessly in love, consumed by it. Because he couldn’t talk about it, he couldn’t adequately explain his life. He still lived in the dump in Kilburn because to move to a more luxurious house would be a sign of moving on without her. “I didn’t want to change any major aspect of my existence on my own,” he writes. “I wanted to do it as part of my future with her.”
There was only ever going to be one woman for David Mitchell, but the problem was that she wasn’t available.
He had met Victoria Coren at a film premiere and they had gone out for a short time. He had even let his guard down enough to actually clumsily ask her out and book restaurants; to allow himself to get into close physical proximity to someone he had fallen for. Glamorous, clever, witty Coren was also a columnist for The Observer, a television personality and, as a professional poker player, the first woman and only two-time winner of the European Poker Tour, winning well over a million pounds.
But after a few dates she had emailed him and kindly explained that, even though she felt strongly about him, the timing was wrong. Her father, the satirist Alan Coren, had just died (her brother is The Times food critic Giles Coren), and she had met somebody else, though she didn’t know what would come of it. Perhaps in six months …
Mitchell was crippled, suddenly acutely lonely. Heartbroken. He drank a lot as the six months came and went. And then he drank some more. He suffered. He couldn’t stop thinking about her. “I couldn’t shake the cheesy thought that it was meant to be.” He clung to the hope that it had been a “reluctant” brush-off.
And after three long years she was finally free.
Their wedding, in November 2012, made front pages all over Britain.
Those years of waiting were “hell”, he says now, but “now I see it as romantic. I would have suffered 10 times as much if I had known it would work out.”
Now, an absolutely delighted Mitchell, 40, just can’t stop talking about his life. “I can’t believe my luck.” The only possible downside, since he has invested everything in this one person, is that something might happen to her. Because he literally couldn’t live without her.
For her part, Coren said in a recent interview that she got “preposterously lucky. I am amazed by David.”
Until his recent opening up, Mitchell had been a study in British middle-class repression and reticence. “I hate conflict – I’d rather nod and smile and then bitch behind people’s backs,” he admits several times in Back Story. Being self-deprecating, emotionally inarticulate, self-conscious and buttoned up has been the cornerstone of his comic persona. But while he subscribes to the old-fashioned idea that you should draw attention to yourself subtly, “without being seen to do so”, he points out that this does not mean he suffers from self-doubt, low self-esteem or lack of confidence. And that people who make these assumptions are very much mistaken. He is shy and can be modest, he says, but he is still up there standing on that stage or in front of those cameras.
Mitchell knows some people think he is a “posh twat” because he went to Cambridge, but says this is unfair. He grew up in Oxford but his parents were lecturers in hotel management at the local polytechnic who “scrimped and saved” to send him to the “minor public school” Abingdon.
A swot who was good at exams, he was the sort of weedy boy who ran away from the ball on the field. His main interest was watching television.
“I think when I was a teenager was when I became obsessed with comedy and watched loads of TV comedy and comedy films and it became my thing as a viewer. And I suppose that is the time when you start noticing how Monty Python or Smith and Jones or Blackadder take a thing in the real world or phenomenon and turn it into a joke. Or make it ridiculous, or reverse it. I suppose that is when those patterns in my brain were being laid down.”
At Cambridge he pretty much abandoned his degree in history and threw himself into drinking and Footlights, the drama club that spawned Monty Python and much of the crème de la crème of British comedy.
It was here that his life really began, and here that he would meet the people who would form his tight circle of lifelong friends and colleagues.
And here that he would meet Robert Webb, who has been his comedy partner for more than 20 years. Webb is the slacker unemployed musician in Peep Show to Mitchell’s socially inept, pessimistic but always-employed-in-dull-jobs Mark Corrigan.
The first years after leaving Cambridge were spent in “miserable poverty”. Mitchell’s only paid work was as an usher at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith, dodging train fares to get there and spending his meagre earnings on beer and snacks.
He and Webb took their two-man shows to the Edinburgh Fringe every year, which led to writing work. They discovered the television industry was basically made up of aimless meetings that gave them false hope. But their first break in television, in 2000, with their sketch show Bruiser came as something of a shock. You have to get up early in the morning for television. Coming from the theatre, Mitchell writes, “I didn’t mind the idea of working in the evenings, maybe of rehearsing in the afternoons, but mornings, I felt, should be the preserve of sleep, tea and paracetamol.”
Mitchell’s memoir has an interesting structure. It is framed within his walks around London, something he took up to alleviate chronic back pain.
From there he digresses to revealing vignettes about his life. “It turned out that I am a lot more interested in myself than I thought.”
This digressive style of writing is deployed to pithy and erudite effect in his columns for The Observer.
Every week Mitchell trawls the newspapers looking for “something that doesn’t seem logical or right. Something in your brain goes, ‘Oh, hang on, there is a thing here. What is it?’ And for me the funny side is often what might be the counterintuitive or the annoying side. That is where I tend to get a lot of my stuff. By pointing out things that don’t make sense. And using my irritation at them not making sense to drive through into something hopefully funny.”
He took aim at Australia when Dr Grant Tomkinson from the University of South Australia found that cardiovascular fitness in children has fallen by 15 per cent in a generation. And that sitting in front of computers all day now will herald heart disease in later life.
“I reckon,” wrote Mitchell, “Australia will be where the active, outdoorsy T. rexes, who can take a lungful of air without spluttering, will make their final stand – before surrendering to the weeds’ wobbling army of mobility-scootered multiscreeners, on the condition that we show them how to reboot their wi-fi.”
Still the art of the perfect column is fraught with anxiety. “The nightmare is that you think, ‘I am going to write that’, and you sit down and write it and it is 300 words long and you have finished. And the other thing that is difficult is that sometimes it is hard to know whether you have the right shape of an idea. It has to be an idea that you can express in 1000 words, you know. On one level I am sort of panicking that it is not going to happen and on the other level I know it has to happen.”
With his subversive rants, his eccentricity cloaked in ordinariness, his seemingly naive sophistication, his wit, Mitchell couldn’t be anything other than British. He went to Los Angeles once and found it awful beyond description.
It is all the elements of British society that feed him. “It’s sort of pompousness and self-loathing and class system and cynicism and irony.”