So what was my big secret Was I gay Or on drugs No, just hopelessly in love: My life as a total loser by David Mitchell
21:00 GMT, 13 October 2012
21:01 GMT, 13 October 2012
David Mitchell is not cool. Greeting him by a catering van on the set of the new series of Peep Show I point at his tucked-in shirt, scrubbed face and pressed slacks and ask if he’s been filming an office scene in the character of repressed and nerdy Mark Corrigan.
‘We’ve finished filming,’ he says. ‘These are my own clothes.’
Ah. I have basically just walked on to the set of Channel 4’s longest-running sitcom and told its Bafta-winning star that he dresses like a dork. Characteristically, he spots the blunder and offers me a cup of tea to cover my embarrassment.
Mitchell, a well-spoken Cambridge graduate, is also earning a fortune from his witty appearances on QI, Mock The Week, Would I Lie To You and Have I Got News For You. Today, he probably rivals Michael McIntyre as the comedian most girls’ parents would be happy for them to bring home. But would the girls want him
Smitten: David Mitchell admits he can't live without his new fiance Victoria Coren
That was Mitchell’s worry from an early age – and a worry he retained until just a few months ago. In a remarkably honest new autobiography, he reveals far more about himself than at any point before, admitting he believed he might never attract so much as a girlfriend, let alone a wife.
As a schoolboy he wondered if he might be gay. In fact, he reveals that while others were marvelling at his meteoric rise, he felt trapped by the very persona that brought him fame and, to a degree, fortune.
There is a price to pay for projecting yourself on the world’s television screens as a toxic combination of posh, nerdy and really rather feeble. Or, as he puts it, people came to truly believe he was ‘a lonely, dysfunctional, OCD loser’ – and for years, he was happy to be thought of like that. The language of self-loathing, as he puts it, gets a lot of laughs.
‘By my mid-30s I was single and lonely,’ he tells me. ‘My career was going well but that wasn’t really enough. I’d never properly gone out with anyone for any length of time. I hadn’t learned things about myself.
‘I thought I’d be horrendously ill-equipped to forge successful relationships. Worse, I felt like I somehow was now coming across on television as the sort of person who wouldn’t want that.’
But the reality was different, as an introduction to writer and broadcaster Victoria Coren at a showbusiness party made overwhelmingly clear to him. By the end of that evening in 2007, he was completely smitten.
Engaged… but as a schoolboy Mitchell wondered if he might be gay
Sadly, Coren’s father – the broadcaster, editor and humorist Alan Coren – had died recently. She had also met someone else and had decided to pursue that relationship instead, leaving Mitchell distraught.
‘I was hopelessly in love. I told no one about it,’ Mitchell discloses in his book. ‘I didn’t tell my closest friends or my parents of the enormous sadness that overshadowed my life.’
Professionally, he was on an astonishing upwards trajectory. The previous year it had seemed Peep Show would be cancelled due to low ratings but now thanks to high DVD sales, its future was secure. The BBC had commissioned him and comedy partner Robert Webb to make the sketch show That Mitchell And Webb Look, which would win that year’s Bafta for Best Comedy Show.
Mitchell was also ‘on the list’ of comedians who appear on TV panel shows such as QI and Have I Got News For You – a sideline that now accounts for more than half his income. He was developing a parallel workload as a presenter, too – on Channel 4’s 10 O’Clock Live and Radio 4’s The Unbelievable Truth.
Yet, broken-hearted and unable to stop thinking about Victoria, Mitchell was taking long, solitary walks through the darkness of West London. ‘I started walking for my back,’ he writes. ‘I kept going because of her. It made thinking about her more bearable.’
The pub, too, was a refuge.
‘I’d always liked getting drunk in the pub or at parties – now I had a real use for it,’ he explains. ‘You could use it to speed up time – almost like cutting to the next morning’s hangover. So I did that. A lot. A few times, when drunk, I’d get off with someone. The booze allowed me to tell myself that it might make me feel better. Maybe I’ll manage to fall in love with this person instead.’
One of those late-night clinches was captured by a paparazzo and appeared in Heat magazine – an experience he found utterly humiliating. Life was becoming unbearable. As Mitchell says in the book, being single had never bothered him before – ‘Now the feeling was crippling.’
No wonder he used to Google himself to see if women fancied him. ‘Everyone on television Googles themselves,’ he says. ‘If you haven’t, that shows a massive want of curiosity on your part. There are loads of horrible comments but I’d also find women saying, “I fancy David Mitchell” usually followed by “ . . . is that weird” ’
Man behaving sadly: David, right, with Peep Show co-star Robert Webb
Mitchell always reasoned that this made him an acquired taste. ‘People think it shows something discerning about them. I’m like a comedy Waitrose. I realise that’s a fundamentally glass-half-full response to people saying they shouldn’t fancy me.
‘There would have been opportunities once I got on television to say to these women, “Do you know what I’d quite like to have loads of casual sex.” But on the occasions I’ve done that, there’s something in my brain that feels ridiculously full of self-loathing. So I remained a completely untried and untested boyfriend.’
Viewers and interviewers, meanwhile, seemed baffled. Why was he living in an ex-council flat in Kilburn Why were there no expensive cars or giant televisions
‘I think people thought I had something to hide,’ he writes (in what is actually a mostly lighthearted memoir). ‘Maybe he’s gay and can’t admit it, they may have thought. Or spends all his money on morphine. What is his secret I resented the interest because I was hiding something. I was hopelessly in love in a way that wouldn’t go away. That’s why I had no private life to speak of – because I couldn’t face one without her.’
Blonde ambition: David shows off his feminine side
Mitchell hardly seems to be a man in the grip of loneliness when he gets on stage or steps in front of the camera. Like many performers, he has never stopped being afraid of these high-pressure gigs. But where his personal life had seemed marooned in uncertainty, somehow he summoned the drive to overcome professional doubt.
‘I think you’ve got to want to do it more than you fear it,’ he says. ‘It’s not as though rock climbers aren’t frightened of falling off a cliff. It’s that they want to get up it more. My hardest was the first time I went on QI. I had a sort of vertigo moment – what the hell do you talk about’
What helped Mitchell through was the fact that he’d been dreaming of it since he was 12. Maybe it helped that he’d been taught at a young age that not all authority should be respected. When his hotelier parents moved to Oxford so that his father could become a polytechnic teacher, they sent him to a primary school, Napier House, which Mitchell disliked intensely.
Aged six, he was sick during lunch. The teachers saw it as an act of insolence and forced him to stay in his vomit-encrusted clothes all day. Worse, his parents deferred to them.
‘I’d be furious if it happened to my child,’ he says. ‘But I can see why my parents bowed to the school’s rules. They were young parents and they thought they should go along with what the experts were saying. These days people will shove burgers through the railings if the school so much as feeds their kids salad.’
Mitchell’s secondary school days were much happier – notwithstanding his dread of sport and his confusing crushes on feminine-looking boys. He did well, winning so many prizes that the headmaster eventually told him he’d have to give the other boys a go and reassigned Mitchell’s award to someone else.
He admires his headmaster, an imposing man nicknamed Butch who kept a slipper weighted at one end for corporal punishments. ‘I wouldn’t advocate corporal punishment now,’ says Mitchell. ‘But it struck me that Butch was a capable, professional and bright man.
‘He focused his whole life on making a small school as good as possible and that was perfectly respectable in that era. Nowadays people are made to feel like they’re mediocre if they don’t think bigger.’ Other comedians caught the performing bug by watching stand-ups such as Billy Connolly or Ben Elton. Mitchell never did.
For him it was Have I Got News For You, the Angus Deayton years. ‘As a sixth-former, I began to think, “This is what I want to do most in the world”,’ he says.
‘Then when I got to university, the ambition started to seem more believable. By that time, I was thinking, “If not me, then who” ’
David with Olivia Coleman in Footlights in Cambridge University, left, and with his younger brother Dan in 1987
He had been in the scholarship set at school and was shattered when Oxford refused his application to read history. Cambridge accepted him, however, and he joined Footlights, the famous troupe of comedy actors, alongside Robert Webb and Olivia Colman, who went on to star with him in Peep Show.
With Webb he formed a sketch-writing partnership. Their first full-length stage show, entitled Innocent Millions Dead Or Dying, was about the First World War. Mitchell calls it ‘****ing terrible’. But their fascination with history and things that shouldn’t really be funny later developed into a rich seam of absurdist humour.
One classic sketch in That Mitchell And Webb Look for BBC2 sees them dressed as Waffen-SS officers. Mitchell says to Webb: ‘Hans . . . have you noticed that our caps actually have little pictures of skulls on them Are . . . are we the baddies’
As a history graduate, Mitchell can’t help taking the long view on things, which he says helps him deal with the mildly apocalyptic tenor of our times. It also gives him an interesting take on the current trend for deliberate offence among comedians such as Ricky Gervais, Frankie Boyle and Jimmy Carr.
‘The comedy circuit is mostly made of people whose views you’d call alternative and my take on things tends to be from the nerdy, small-c conservative side,’ he says. ‘But I understand the urge. Things that offend other people, but not you, usually make you laugh. You’ll be laughing just up to a point where it goes over a line and offends you.
David's fiance Victoria Coren at a poker tournament
‘Take Larry Grayson on The Generation Game in the Seventies. His entire act, which was hugely popular, was based on repeated references to sodomy. All that “Shut that door” business, what else is it about You’d think homosexuality would be an absolute no-go area on Saturday evening television in 1978, but in fact it was where he based his act. So, historically, even a mainstream audience laughs more when it’s in an area which is taboo.’
Where is the line for him though, I wonder Frankie Boyle got kicked off Channel 4 for saying that most of the Saudi Paralympic team were thieves. Do those mischievous thoughts never occur to him
‘They occur to me,’ he says. ‘Why the hell not make a joke about that They bloody well shouldn’t cut people’s hands off for thieving. We all have to go along with that barbaric regime just because they’ve got so much money. It’s a shaming situation for the entire West.
‘If Frankie Boyle gets a joke out of it, of course it’s going to offend people, but the joke is less offensive than the regime. We’re definitely better off as a culture for having comedians make those points. That impish urge is important.’
Mitchell isn’t free from impish urges of his own – as he discovered at the very beginning of his career, when his first show as president of Footlights brought him his first ever groupie.
‘She basically threw herself at me,’ he writes in his book. ‘I was quite drunk, she was very sexy, wearing stockings, and I remember going to her room thinking the main reason she’d been attracted to me was that I was president of Footlights. I didn’t mind. I was turned on by it. But the next day I somehow felt as though I’d taken advantage of her. I also didn’t want to see her ever again and felt guilty about that.’
Mitchell admits he was never cut out to be the new Russell Brand. ‘I’m a bit of a young fogey, I suppose,’ he says. ‘I’d be happy being the new Graeme Garden or Barry Cryer. I’m probably of the mindset that resents change. I can’t drive a car. I can’t do DIY. I don’t really cook. I’m just fantastically lucky that in this vast pyramid scheme we call society, somehow there’s enough money left over from the farmers and plumbers and policemen doing important things for me to be paid to go on panel shows.’
And yet there must have been something about ‘the new Barry Cryer’ that stuck in Victoria Coren’s mind. For three years after Mitchell fell for her, she stayed in touch. They would meet at TV recordings and when she became single again, she called him. They went on dates. They fell in love.
‘Someone once told me that anything you haven’t done by the age of 28, you probably never will do,’ he writes in his book’s uncommonly moving final chapter. ‘By my mid-30s I’d never formed a long-term relationship. I’d hardly ever got off with the same woman twice. If only I’d known I just had to wait three years . . . I date the current phase of my life from that party.’ Mitchell’s
engagement to Coren was announced in March in a deliberately low-key way, with a listing in The Times. The next day, a rival newspaper wrote: ‘His fiancee drinks, smokes, plays poker and writes porn films,’ implying that fogeyish Mitchell was out of his depth. Mitchell doesn’t say what his initial reaction to this was. Now, though, he’s happy to laugh it off.
‘Well, I drink,’ he points out. ‘And she has only directed one porn film, a long time ago. I’ve now seen it, and basically there is no sex in it. The problem was that she was too polite. They had volunteer actors and if one of them said, “Actually, I’m not entirely comfortable doing that,” she would say, “That’s absolutely fine. Just have a cuddle.” But she’s definitely a lot cooler than me. I barely know the rules of poker.’
Victoria has won nearly 1 million playing professional poker. Odd couple or not, they share a distaste for publicity. The one time they were snapped in public – on the way to media mogul Elisabeth Murdoch’s housewarming party – it looked as if they had had a row. In fact, they were on opposite sides of the pavement just to avoid making the news.
‘We try not to be photographed together,’ says Mitchell. ‘I always think there’s nothing interesting about me as a human other than the fact that I can make jokes.’
And that he can fall in love. At last. ‘Being in a couple is so much better than life without her,’ Mitchell tells me. ‘Generally I’m an against-change guy. Living in a for-change world made me cross. Now I’m in a much better mood about everything.’
As he puts it in the book: ‘I’ve met someone I can’t live without, and I don’t have to. It would have been an incomplete life if I’d never fully loved and had the amazing feeling of it being reciprocated.’
Back Story by David Mitchell is published by HarperCollins, priced 20. To order your copy at the special price of 16.99 with free p&p, please call the Review Bookstore on 0843 382 1111 or visit mailshop.co.uk/books