I was living in London briefly during 2007 when those Get a Mac campaigns were everywhere. You remember: “I’m a Mac. I’m a PC.” Except, in England, it wasn’t the recognizable faces of John Hodgman and Justin Long. It was these other guys, David Mitchell and Robert Webb. It wasn’t until later I started seeing them pop up on TV and magazines for adverts for their new movie, Magicians, or one of their television programs that apparently all the Brits were familiar with already. Mitchell and Webb have been a comedy duo since pretty much the start of their careers and remain so today, and yet I’ll always remember them as the Mac and PC guys. I didn’t think something like a little advertisement campaign warranted a mention in David Mitchell’s memoir of a successful career in comedy and television, but surprisingly, there are several paragraphs devoted to his regret, having been chastised by peers by appearing in these commercials. Mitchell and Webb hadn’t thought much of it when they signed up. They used Macs, so it wasn’t hypocritical, but they would have gladly done a commercial for Microsoft. They were actors for hire, after all. Yet, Mitchell was careful about the sort of advertising gigs he took from that moment on.
David Mitchell’s Back Story is many things. It’s a backstory of Mitchell’s life growing up and getting into show business, but it’s also a bit of a walking tour around where he lives. He goes on walks because he has a bad back (hence the title) and takes us on one of these strolls, pointing out landmarks, which often trigger memories.
This is a show business book, primarily. We get Mitchell’s story of his hero Michael Palin coming up to him in a pub and complimenting him and Mitchell not handling it well, we get his involvement with Footlights, which also spawned the talents of John Cleese, Douglas Adams, Simon Jones, and so on, and we of course get the introduction to his friendship with Robert Webb. He and Webb met in school and started doing shows together. They continued to work together afterward with other former students, including Olivia Colman who, from Mitchell’s re-telling, was brilliant as she is today. One time, after tying his bowtie in the dark backstage without a mirror, Mitchell walked out on stage. Colman who was playing opposite laughed so hard at the state of Mitchell’s bowtie, she pissed herself on stage. These are the sorts of stories you turn to a celebrity memoir for, no?
Mitchell is stereotyped as being posh, which is funny because he’s painfully middle-class and worries that real posh people will realize he’s a fake. He compares himself to his Would I Lie to You? co-star Lee Mack because they both come from a very similar middle-class upbringing: both their parents owned an establishment (Mack’s a pub, Mitchell’s a hotel), struggled with money a little without being too poor, got a university education, always wanted to be comedians, and so on. Yet Mitchell is pegged as the upper class snob and Mack lower class and under educated, almost entirely because of the accents.
Toward the end of the book, you stop getting “What was Martin Freeman like?” and how filming a point of view show like Peep Show (which was retitled Peep Show from POV by the network, much to Mitchell’s horror) takes so much longer because of the lighting, and you start to see more into Mitchell’s soul. After more than 30 years being alone, sharing little more than a one-off date or a drunken snog outside a pub (a photo of which later appeared in Heat magazine), he meets Victoria. This is such a sad scene, and if you don’t know the outcome like I didn’t know, it’s heartbreaking to watch her dump him and him unable to get over it for three years until she becomes single again and they start dating once more. I did not expect the story of the man who’s always billed on TV as the unhappy, lonely, posh guy to have a happy ending. But they’ve been married for a year now and this is what Mitchell has to say:
The downside is the fear of something happening to her. The pressure of there being two bodies in the world that I want to keep from harm and only being able to watchfully inhabit one of them. I wonder if you know what I mean. I hope that you do, for your sake. It’s a worry I’ll have to learn to live with because I’m definitely out of wishes.
Back Story is available in paperback and hardcover, as well as an e-book. I had the audiobook from audible.com, which I would recommend because David Mitchell has a unique voice, and you can hear the annoyance and agitation or sorrow or relief through every convincing step around town.