What was it like making the second series: easier because you knew what you were doing, or harder because there was a pressure for it to be as good as the first?
Nick: This series is, I hope, a big step in the right direction. I’m super proud of the first series but I just feel like we’re firing on all cylinders this time round. I suspect that’s because I knew what I was doing a lot more as a writer: you know who your cast are and who your characters are, and what dynamics work really well. And I hope that we’ve taken what worked in series one and just built on that.
We were quite lucky that we knew that we had the second-series commission pretty early on, before I finished writing series one. So from a storytelling point of view that was useful, because I knew we could leave it on a bit of a cliffhanger. And we knew what territory we were going to possibly explore in series two.
But yeah, there is absolutely – not a pressure – but a personal desire to deliver more than we delivered in series one. Everyone wanted to step up again and have even more fun with it.
David: As Nick said, we’d settled in by the end of series one as an ensemble and by the time we started series two, everyone hit the ground running because we felt pretty confident in the characters and the dynamics and the relationships. So, it seemed like slipping into a really comfortable jacket.
Although obviously the working conditions were quite different with Covid, which I’m sure we’ll talk about.
What was the reaction like to the first series?
Nick: It was lovely; kind of joyful! I’m on Twitter, and one of the things about making a show these days is that people can quite easily let you know how they feel about a show almost instantly. And so, I was sort of gearing up for that thinking, ‘Well, I’ll just have to take the rough with the smooth, there’ll be people who like it, people who won’t like it’.
But in the end it was just so nice to see people genuinely enjoying the show. There was this general consensus that, because it’s such a silly show, it doesn’t take itself too seriously.
There’s been a fashion of late for a lot of comedies to be quite dark or tipping over into drama. Whereas this is unashamedly fast- paced, gag-heavy, silly, farcical, character- driven, out-and-out comedy. It absolutely puts comedy first. We do dial up some drama and emotion at various points but it’s undoubtedly a comedy and it felt like people enjoyed it for that. So, yeah, I was delighted. I’m increasingly excited for the audience who enjoyed series one to come into series two, already knowing who those characters are and the tone of the show. Hopefully they’re going to be very pleased with what we’ve delivered in series two.
David, what was the reaction like among your peers and friends?
David: No one reached out to me. (He laughs) No, I’m joking. In the States I think it was less on the radar but of course I brought it to the attention of my friends and family and people who follow my Instagram. I made them subscribe to Peacock [laughs].
And I think people were, as you Brits would say, chuffed. They really enjoyed the originality of the workplace and that environment. They like the ‘fish out of water’ story, and basically how much of a dick I was [as Jerry]. From what I understand it was pretty well received in the UK, so my UK friends and family really enjoyed it. So, I’m happy.
“I’M INCREASINGLY EXCITED FOR THE AUDIENCE WHO ENJOYED SERIES ONE TO COME INTO SERIES TWO, ALREADY KNOWING WHO THOSE CHARACTERS ARE AND THE TONE OF THE SHOW.”
I love the use of your word ‘chuffed’. Is that something you’ve picked up over here?
David: I’ve been in and out of the UK now for about 20 years working and also I have family there and very, very good friends. So, I’ve picked up maybe too much.
You wanted to work together after discovering you had a natural chemistry. Has that been getting even stronger as you’ve gone along? Did you feel like maybe you had a shorthand this time that helped the way that you work together?
Nick: Yes, I think so. And I think you can see it not just between Schwim and I, but with the other cast as well. It felt so much easier for us all to bounce around the room with the dialogue and to be able to chip in with ideas and try out alternative lines and so on because I think there was just this general feeling that we trusted each others’ instincts.
Obviously Schwim and I have a lot of scenes together and some of my favourites to film are those two-handers. We’d often have two cameras on those so that we could improvise, and they were always a joy to film, and actually relatively quick and easy to film as well because we’ve had quite a lot of experience improvising together prior to that.
So it was just capitalising on that genuine relationship and friendship as well as the characters’ relationship.
You previously described series one as 90% script and 10% improvisation. Would you say that ratio is the same this time?
Nick: I think so. It jumped around because there were some scenes where we knew that we were allowed to have a little bit more fun so we’d add on a few extra lines or something. But because of Covid there was slightly less time to indulge improv. We were under a little bit more pressure and although the time scale was the same, it felt shorter because we had to factor in all the Covid regulations.
The flip side of that was that we had a lot more time to work on the scripts. We were meant to be filming in July, but because of Covid we didn’t film until September, so I’d been able to spend a bit more time on the script, and David collaborates loads on that as do the other execs in terms of chipping in with ideas. So we were pretty confident with the scripts going into filming.
But when you read it out with the cast, and you’re on the set, there are always little things that creep in that you want to play around with or explore further, and we made sure we still made time for those opportunities, because often that can be really fun and rewarding.
David: I feel the same as Nick. It’s the most liberating experience. There’s a kind of natural thing where performance kind of falls away, and it’s just Nick and me, and we have a chemistry and ease with our characters. As actors we can forget about acting, in a way, and just be present. There’s a lot of trust in the other actor and a comfort and ease and we just kind of fall into this nice dynamic that’s a real pleasure.
My favourite scenes are those where you just stay with those two characters for a little while. At the best times, I found myself totally forgetting we were filming; we were just in a state of flow and those moments are an absolute dream as an actor.
Nick: Those scenes are often the most straightforward to edit. You don’t have to cut around anything. You just feel the scene playing out very easily as a two-hander.
David: Yeah, and because they are shot with two cameras you don’t have to worry about matching. You have this freedom where you know everything is going to be covered by the camera so we can experiment and that’s an additional layer of security, knowing we can vary it from take to take.
Nick: There’s one scene where I do ‘torture practice’ on Jerry and there’s a car battery involved, and it’s quite physical so a lot of that ended up being improvised in the end. So that shorthand we have really helped there, because it was a more complicated scene than the two of us just chatting on either side of a desk. And that’s where it really comes into use. You don’t have to worry too much about the words because you can sort of feed off each other a lot more.
Can you in any way put your finger on what makes that great chemistry between you?
Nick: I mean, obviously, Schwim has infinitely more experience than me as an actor …
David: I do, I do…(They laugh)
Nick: Can you put that in writing, that he emphatically agreed with that? I think it’s a weird, intangible thing. You absolutely know when chemistry is there, and equally you absolutely know when it’s not there.[David laughs]
No, I’m not speaking of anyone in particular! But I know from my experience and going through the casting process that there is a particular quality that works when you’re trying to find a dynamic and you know when you’ve got it and you know when you’ve not got it.
It’s almost an electricity, isn’t it?
David and I first met through Julia Davis whilst on a pilot Julia and I had written and she’s another person I could definitely tune into. And once you’ve done that, and you can improvise around a subject matter, then it really starts to fire. And that’s a wonderful thing.
You could put together two of the best comedians, improvisers or actors on the planet and it might not work, unless the chemistry is right.
Certainly, for me, I have a genuine friendship with and respect for David and what he delivers and how generous he is and brilliant at his craft. There’s an implicit trust there. And then it’s liberating to do those scenes together because nothing else matters. You’re just doing the fun stuff.
David, what do you want to add to that?
David: I wish I felt the same. (They laugh) No, I was thinking back on the shoot and this was a tough one for me personally, this year. It was tough on everyone in terms of Covid but I was also unfortunate because I was dealing with an ear injury and I had to take different medications just to be able to get through shooting without real pain and discomfort at times. And looking back on it
I just so appreciated Nick was – as an actor, as the writer, the executive producer and as a friend – so sympathetic and supportive.
He was also totally unflappable. There were a couple of moments where Nick had to do a total rewrite of the scene because we’d start it and realise something wasn’t working, and
Nick would just say, ‘Okay, I’ll go rewrite it’. His whole attitude was and is consistently cheerful and unflappable. I think in fact, everyone on set – the director, all the producers – everyone came to it with great humility and a real lack of ego which is really the best way to work.
I still feel I’m learning how to behave because I was quite cranky and grumpy a lot this year. And I’m really grateful, in retrospect, with how much people put up with my behaviour.
Nick: Honestly, given how much you were going through with your ear, you were not cranky or grumpy at all. I mean hats off to the whole ensemble really. Because there were times when we would have to change things around so Schwim could get away early. Only a handful of times because he was an absolute trooper but still, the whole ensemble were so understanding of that. Plus, the role of Jerry is so physical, and I added more and more of that stuff in series two because it works so well. I didn’t hold back at all.
So we were going into these scenes knowing that Schwim had his ear thing going on and how he probably wouldn’t be able to hear so well out of one side. So, hats off to the whole cast who just rose to it brilliantly and professionally.
David, how did you injure your inner ear?
David: I was trying to make my daughter laugh. We’d been visiting people who had a place with a pool that we were allowed to use, with social distancing and all of that, so we took advantage of it. I was standing at the edge of the pool and wanted to make her laugh so I did a kind of dead fall into the pool and I slammed my ear at such a perfect angle that I immediately ruptured my eardrum, and I gave myself an inner ear concussion.
That healed eventually after six weeks, but then a whole new condition migrated into both ears and gave me a combination of tinnitus and something called hyperacusis. It’s finally just on its way out now. It’s been seven months. It’s crazy.
I have bad days and good days. The thing that bothers it the most is talking. So, if I talk too much and at significant volume, it generates the ringing. That’s why being that character, who’s pretty loud, was challenging at times.
Nick, can you give me an outline of where we find a team when we start up again in series two?
Nick: So the general arc of series two is that there is a cyber weapon called Eternal Blue, which is based on a real weapon that was designed by the NSA but fell into the wrong hands. And it’s still used, I believe, to this day to wreak havoc across countries certainly in a cyber sense.
So we’ve created the idea that Jerry had a hand in designing this cyber weapon that has gone awry and he has to try and retrieve the weapon and regain full control of it because it’s in the hands of some rogue operatives. We first see it being used against a nuclear power plant in the UK, which is causing a nuclear meltdown, which is a very slight nod to the TV show Chernobyl in that it’s an episode with lots of long continuous sequences within it. Jerry is pretty victorious, then it goes pear-shaped, but I won’t give away too much more about that.
But it gets everyone back up to speed with our characters doing their thing in a high- pressure, tense environment. Then we’ve got some fun individual episodic stories. We’ve got a Valentine’s Day episode. It was fun to imagine what Valentine’s would be like at GCHQ given they’ve got all kinds of spyware and handwriting analysis to try and work out who their Valentine’s cards are from.
And we’ve got an episode which deals with them all having to attend an anti-harassment and anti-bullying workshop. That features the brilliant Morgana Robinson who was just so fun, and a dream to work with.
We’ve also got the amazing Diane Morgan joining us for a couple of episodes as Joseph’s date. They start off having a digital-only relationship because she’s based in another office, but she finally comes over and they go on a dinner date. Diane is a good mate and she’s just terrific.
But we’ve really tried to play to each of the characters’ strengths. Evelyn, played by Elliot Salt, is in it even more in this series, which is wonderful. Colin Salmon is back more than he was in the first series. And all our usual characters are back and as brilliant as ever. It’s such a nice ensemble. We try and make room for everyone.
David, where do we find Jerry?
David: He’s in further pursuit of power and trying to work his way up the ladder as much as he can. Maybe he’s harbouring some secret fantasy of running for president, he certainly thinks very highly of himself and believes he should be in charge of pretty much everything. As Nick said, we find him pursuing anything that will elevate his status and give him more power. But at the same time there’s a real attachment, a bromance forming between Jerry and Joseph. Jerry’s feelings and real friendship for Joseph, are growing deeper, I think.
Some of the things he says to Joseph are still pretty terrible, though. As real-life friends, is that fun to do?
Nick: Yeah, we just try and push all those sorts of boundaries. Now that the audience knows who Jerry is – we spent enough time with him in series one to know his take on the world – it would be completely out of character if he didn’t go for the worst possible thing to say in any given situation. And I love writing all that stuff, especially when he’s doling it out to Joseph, because they’ve got that kind of brotherly quality. It’s like an old brother taking the p*** out of a younger brother. It has that quality to it where there’s a mutual love between them so they can get away with talking to each other like that. And you know, as much as Jerry does that stuff to Joseph, Joseph will often pop Jerry’sballoon with an offhand comment. He will often put Jerry in his place and so do Tuva and Christine, so the joke is always on him. It never feels like we’re punching down on Joseph.
“AS AN ACTOR, I JUST LOVE PHYSICAL COMEDY, SO TO HAVE AN OPPORTUNITY TO PLAY SOME OF THOSE SCENES, ESPECIALLY WITH NICK, IS JUST A JOY.”
David, do you ever feel bad about any of the things you have to say to Nick as Joseph?
David: Oh, no, I don’t feel bad. There’s a great amount of respect and trust among the whole cast and when we approach those jokes that are sexist, or racist or homophobic, or generally insensitive, we do make sure Jerry is always the fool. The joke is on him, as Nick says. He’s the one whose ignorance is shining bright.
I really like those moments because the reality is that there are racist, homophobic, sexist people in almost every workplace and these comments and jokes and behaviours persist and will probably persist for quite a while.
So for us to shine a little light on it and acknowledge that, you know, this is real, it actually affects people.
The supposed ‘victims’ of Jerry’s comments, we never really feel they’re injured. We feel that he’s an idiot or a buffoon – the racist, sexist, homophobic man in this situation.
For me it’s cathartic because I’ve been around these jokes in different settings. And I feel like for a lot of men in power, these behaviours and these attitudes persist, and so it’s quite cathartic to be able to play that guy.
At the same time we have a really great team who we check in with if we’re going to have a joke that is, let’s say racist, with Nick’s character or the character of Tuva, we always check in and make sure we shoot a lot of alternates to these jokes. As a team, Nick, and me, and the many producers, and Matt, the director, we will all kind of weigh in and really discuss what we feel we can get away with and what’s maybe too much over the line. We want to go right up to the line, maybe sit on it, but never cross it.
Nick: Yeah. And it’s deliberate. You know, we have a cast and a crew and execs who are a really diverse bunch, a mix of sexualities and so on, so we do ask for the group’s opinion if we’re wondering whether we’re stepping over the mark, or are we right on the line?
Obviously, none of it is ever written with any kind of malice. It’s always ultimately a warm, silly comedy. You don’t want to go out of your way to be offending someone unnecessarily. I think that there’s never a purpose to do that. But we’ve got such a good group, there is a real kind of wisdom of the crowd. I think that comes with shooting with such a diverse bunch of people. And we can really address some of these topics that it feels good to shine a light on. Comedy is a very good way to do that.
Particularly in the episode with the anti- bullying episode, it feels like you’re really using subversive, powerful ways of confronting old tropes, in fact.
Nick: Yeah, yeah. And I think it’s important to know that I’ve written those lines. And I think that that’s an example of an episode where – especially the material that is dealing with racism – is that we actually get to walk a really fine line. Which I love.
But if I was writing about sexuality, I’m straight so I wouldn’t feel comfortable writing stuff where it treads the line in terms of the differences between heterosexuality and homosexuality, for example.
That whole episode with Morgana is one of my favourites as every single character gets to chip in their opinion on the topic of the week. So it’s a real fun one. And it’s a super fun one for Jerry because he obviously oversteps every single mark along the way and gets caught in his own trap.
There’s a lot of physical humour, especially for Jerry. David, do you enjoy that?
David: So much, so much. And I think Nick’s a brilliant physical comedian. Not everyone can do it. What I do love about this show is that it hits on so many comedic levels. It’s great dialogue, just great written word, great jokes, great situation comedy. And it’s character- driven more than anything, but then there’s all this physical comedy. It’s firing on so many different levels. As an actor, I just love physical comedy, so to have an opportunity to play some of those scenes, especially with Nick, is just a joy.
Do you ever corpse?
Nick: I’m a big corpser. I mean, there was less of it in this series. But there’s one scene – the scene where Joseph is getting ready for his date and Jerry is trying to prepare him. Tuva and Mary are there, and Joseph is basically saying he doesn’t know where the vagina is and everyone is going around the room trying to explain where it is.
Jerry is sort of saying, ‘No, that’s not right’ – of course, the man, the big white man, is saying, ‘Oh, no, this is where it is’. And it’s very childish but I did just go. I really got the giggles. Jane, who plays Mary, she’s always corpsing as well and she was making me laugh so much.
David: I broke, too. The white mysoginist, as you say, is correcting the women on their anatomy out of ignorance and he just starts erasing … erasing …
Nick: … the clitoris!
David: That’s exactly what he’s doing. And I think we all laughed because he’s literally erasing the woman’s anatomy and origin of pleasure. It was just so on point in terms of character. I just burst out laughing.
To end: how intelligent do you think you are?
Nick: I’m just going to go for a very safe seven out of ten, I think.
David: Then I’m seven point one. (They laugh)
Nick: We’re certainly not nearly as intelligent as the people who really work at GCHQ. I’ve got their puzzle book and I can’t do any of them. They are hard.