Why you should be watching Channel 4’s Back
James R | On 25, Oct 2017
Back. It’s a bold statement for a TV show to make, especially one that’s only in its first season, but Channel 4’s hilariously dark comedy has the confidence to proclaim it in big letters on the screen – and the substance to back it up.
Back could refer to the reunion of David Mitchell and Robert Webb, as they team up long after the end of Peep Show to embrace another awkward double act: David plays Stephen, the uncomfortable, vaguely unsuccessful son struggling to process his dad’s passing; Webb plays Andrew, the foster-son of the family, who only stayed with them for a few weeks, but somehow has an even deeper, even more vocal, even more passionate connection with their late shared father.
Back could refer to Andrew’s return to his former family in in Stroud, a homecoming that rides a wave of false superiority, as the shallow charmer claims to be everything from a business tycoon to a doctor to impress the people he meets. Mitchell’s disgust at this intruder is pitched just right – partly a shrewd ability to see through his immature lies, and partly a petty sense of insecurity that never quite allows himself to feel anything other than anger and desperation.
It’s a perfect balancing act for Mitchell and Webb, who have performed together for so many years that they instinctively know how to play to each other’s strengths. As the spiky barbs pass back and forth, the laughs keep stacking up, but they also reveal the moving layers of grief beneath. While Mitchell brings a sympathetic pang of vulnerability to his frustrations, as he tries to take over the John Barleycorn pub, Webb brings an unexpected sincerity to his memories of his time with Stephen and the family – a time that Stephen remembers as miserable.
Director Ben Palmer (The Inbetweeners) cuts between their two perspectives literally, with some wonderfully absurd flashbacks that merge child actors with the grown-up double act. He also finds room to flesh out the cast around them, from his ex-wife, Alison (Olivia Poulet), whom he still holds a torch for, to his mother, Ellen (an amusingly gormless Penny Downie), who gets through mourning by both tripping on illicit substances and tripping over the local priest. Louise Brealey repeatedly steals scenes as Stephen’s sister, Cass, who immediately swoons over Andrew – only slightly more than Stephen’s belligerent Geoff (a hysterical Geoffrey McGivern), who has no sense of political correctness but, like Andrew, seems to be given a free pass by everyone except Stephen. (One episode that sees him look after the pub is cringe-inducingly brilliant.)
As twists and turns make all these relationships even more twisted, the show grows into a surprisingly thoughtful meditation on belonging, family and identity, as well as loss. All that and a bit with a dog that, like Stephen, increasingly seems like a homeless stray? It becomes clear that “Back”, perhaps, refers to something else entirely: it’s the confident call of creator Simon Blackwell (Four Lions, In the Loop), who’s operating at the height of his game. And the pleas you’ll be making for the show to return for a second season as soon as the end credits roll.
Back is available on All 4 until 18th January 2021. It is also available on BritBox, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.