David Mitchell: ‘Contestants learn skills to survive without  the stuff we  live with’

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There are three qualities David Mitchell thinks a candidate for his show Outsiders needs to possess.

“[They need] not to be too attached to personal comfort, to be a natural rule-breaker, and be physically deft,” muses the Salisbury-born comedian, 47. “I’ve described the opposite of me.” 

Luckily, the star of Peep Show and Upstart Crow is just presenting the brand-new comedy entertainment show, rather than competing.

Airing on Dave, Outsiders sees a returning cast of three pairs of comics – Toussaint Douglass and Kerry Godliman, Ed Gamble and Lou Sanders, and Jessica Knappett and Jamali Maddix – take on hilarious challenges to prove they could cope with life in the great outdoors.

“The concept is, can the contestants learn skills to survive without all the stuff we all live with every day: the buildings, the shops, the Wi-Fi, the electricity?” notes Mitchell, who shares a six-year-old daughter, Barbara, with wife, writer and presenter Victoria Coren Mitchell.

“That’s a question that people have asked themselves, literally for centuries, even at times when we would consider they had no modern technology. [Even then], they were thinking maybe we should be living a more rural, a more basic existence.

“So it’s a show that comedically addresses that question. It’s particularly apposite now when the pandemic and the threat of climate change is making us probably ask that question even more.” 

Each episode of the six-part series involves the teams – who are camping together for the entirety of filming, while Mitchell returns to his cosy bed and home comforts each night – tasked with three different activities, from felling trees to milking goats to practising their first aid.

 For each one, there’s a badge up for grabs – but in order to be awarded it, they have to impress the ever-sceptical Mitchell who, at his HQ in the woods, will decide who has been successful, and who has failed at the end of each day.

So, how good would Mitchell be at getting the badges, if he was to compete?

“I would be terrible,” quips the likeable star, who displays his typically wry humour throughout our interview.

“You need a complex civilisation, [whereas] I think we’ve gone too far,” he elaborates. “We’ve created weird creatures like me who can’t begin to think about building his own shelter. I need an economy, whereby I make sarcastic remarks in an attempt to amuse, and that means other people will provide me with food and shelter.” 

Some of the participants in Outsiders. Picture: PA Photo/UKTV/Steve Peskett
Some of the participants in Outsiders. Picture: PA Photo/UKTV/Steve Peskett

What really makes Outsiders so entertaining – as well as Mitchell’s scathing feedback on the comedians’ challenge attempts – is the brilliant dynamics between the three pairings. They all work together very differently, and sometimes with difficulty, (Godliman and Douglass are probably the most like bickering siblings) but the comedy seems very natural, and there are some real moments of camaraderie.

“I thought they worked very well because there was conflict within each pairing, but it didn’t get nasty,” suggests Mitchell.

The funnyman is used to being a team captain on BBC One’s hit panel show Would I Lie To You?, but with Outsiders, he admits the chance to host a show was part of the appeal.

“Outsiders was an opportunity where you felt: ‘There are real strengths to the idea, people who I am working with are receptive to my input, and so is the channel’,” he says.

“It feels like it’s more straightforward working with Dave than it is working with what used to be called the terrestrial broadcasters because I think that they have more freedom to make programmes and hope people like them.

“Whereas the pressures that the BBC and Channel 4 are under, the political pressures to be privatised in the one case, or not have the licence fee in the other, and there’s more scrutiny of their overall output and the news element – it hampers creativity, there’s no doubt.”

 Mitchell’s big break was Channel 4’s Peep Show, which ran for nine series, and followed two dysfunctional flatmates, Mark (Mitchell) and Jeremy (Robert Webb).

It was whilst filming the hit that he suffered his “worst ever outdoors experience”, he recalls.

“We were filming the barn burning, the series where we went to Sophie’s parents’ house, and it was freezing,” he remembers of the 2005 episode. “It kept snowing. And the trouble is, we weren’t shooting in story order, so there were times where they had to clear the snow from the whole street because there isn’t snow in the next scene. You can’t suddenly have snow for two minutes.

“We finished about three hours late and in the cold. That was miserable.”

 Lincolnshire-born Webb, 48, will soon be seen competing in this year’s series of Strictly Come Dancing, on BBC One. So, how does Mitchell think his friend – who he met while studying at Cambridge University, and has worked with on other projects, such as That Mitchell and Webb Look and Back – will fare?

“Well, he’s a good dancer. He won Let’s Dance For Comic Relief, and he’s really fit and healthy,” he declares. “He had a heart operation, but has become a fitness… well, I would see it as fanaticism, in that he goes for a jog every day – some people just think that’s living a healthy lifestyle. He’s a natural, funny, charismatic performer. I think he’s got a very good chance.” 

But as for whether Mitchell will end up waltzing under the famous glitterball one day, don’t get your hopes up. Well not if this answer is anything to go by, anyway… “I was going to say, ‘I don’t think so’, but I think I can say, ‘No!’” he exclaims, chuckling. “What they have to do is spend hours and hours, day after day after day, practising dancing, and I have deliberately chosen a different job.”

  •  Outsiders starts on Dave on Wednesday, September 29