We grab the Spaced leading man in a quiet moment between projects...
Wandering around a Salford funeral parlour, it is easy to become a little unnerved about being so close to death. And as film crew wander past the huge shelves of boxes, one stops to notice that the dusty boxes are in fact all people, neatly labelled, stacked and unclaimed. And one feels unnerved some more.
However Steve Coogan and Simon Pegg are on top form, walking through the corridors solemnly on their way to a tiny room with a coffin in it. Today is Ian Curtis's funeral in the movie, and Simon has been brought in to play a journalist given exclusive access to the corpse by Tony Wilson. "I wasn't sure at first but I just really liked the sound of the project, it's just a really interesting thing and it would be great to be a part of it." he explains.
Perhaps being in funeral parlour is somewhat appropriate for Simon, whose next project is an ambitious horrror movie, to be directed by long standing colleague Edgar Wright, and financed by Film Four. "It's provisionally called Shaun of the Dead, and it's a zombie comedy but not in an ironic sense, but in a scary way. Not in a Return of the Living Dead way, but in a scary American way."
These two projects are only two examples of Simon's rapid ascension through Britain's comedy ranks. A Bristol graduate in 1991, Simon had already been warming up on the stand up circuit, when he move to London and managed to get hooked up with an agent. It was through a regional sketch show called Six Pairs of Pants that Simon first met Spaced co-star to-be Jessica Stevenson.
A big break came in 1997 with Linda Bellingham's 'Faith In The Future' ITV sitcom, hardly the sharp alternative comedy that Simon has since become associated with. "I had a really good time doing that, loved every minute of that." says Simon. "I don't know, it's hard, it's a difficult one. You see Eastenders getting 8 or 9 million viewers and it's not very good. The most important thing for me is trying to make something good. If that ended up being on a mainstream channel getting 10 million viewers then that would be fine." Simon is the first to defend the general quality of British comedy against the regular media bashing. "I think quality comedy is really healthy right now. I think mainstream comedy always struggles because it doesn't really have any single group to appeal to, it has to appeal to everyone, and as a result stretches itself really thin. Which is why you end up with these nothing-ey ITV sitcoms that have this weird 'Who are you talking to?' feel about them. But I think comedy that is being true to itself, settling on a specific idea and trying to appeal to a certain group of people, is very healthy."
In the meantime, interest in Simon's comedy started to hot up. Throughout the mid-90s he made a legion of appearances on television stand up shows, toured with other comedians, and guested on shows like I'm Alan Partridge (where he first met Steve Coogan). In 1997 he was approached to appear in the pilot for alternative sketch show Big Train. Hippies followed, and then Spaced was born.
Spaced is Simon and Jessica's labour of love. Initially approached by Paramount to make a comedy vehicle for themselves, it was eventually Channel Four that grabbed the concept. Originally pitched as a cross between The Simpsons, X-Files and Northern Exposure, it tells the story of Tim and Daisy, two twenty something adult-teens shooting the breeze. Spaced ended up becoming a massive hit for Channel Four. "At the crux of the show is the bewilderment about that period in your life which is just happening now - we're the first generation to be given an extension on your childhood, because you suddenly find yourself in the position that you don't have to make decisions that your parents made. You've actually got this time to spare, where you still haven't decided what you want to do, if anything, and it has led to a greater period of leisure time and the evolution of the best things for people in that situation, computer games and all this kind of stuff. It's all part of servicing that new demographic of people."
Simon is of course not a million miles from his character in Spaced, sharing passions for computer games ("I'm playing the Playstation 2 at the moment. I'm waiting for better games, but it's certainly my console of choice right now") and Star Wars (we don't count the last one - "Obviously George Lucas has completely lost the plot about what made Star Wars good").
Admitting there is a whole generation of not-yet-grown-ups is one thing, but is this a good trend? "It's in its genesis, that's what Spaced is all about, trying to make sense of it - whether it is a good thing or whether you do suddenly reach 30 and think "Fuck, what have I done with my life? Why didn't I get up and do stuff earlier?" I don't know if it is necessarily a good thing."
Spaced sits in a strange genre - it's classed as a comedy, and as such gets a comedy show budget, but is in fact shot for drama production values. "We are very ambititious and we do stretch ourselves and so we have to expect work that hard." he admits. "Channel Four have been enormously supportive and wonderful, it's nothing to do with that. It's not to do with them not being behind us, because they are very behind us."
After the success of the first series of 'Spaced', Channel Four immediately signed up the team to produce a second series. However, the filming didn't go quite so easily second time round. "Basically I think we had 1724 set ups for the first series and the second series was 2097 set ups, so there was already 400 more slates than there were on the first one - but the same amount of time and money." he recalls. "It was just a struggle to get things done every day. It was fun, because the show is a labour of love, something that we really care about, and everyone involved is really dedicated to it. Every day was 'We've got to get things finished' and because it flips around all over the place, it's quite a complicated show to schedule as well."
Part of the complexities of the season two shoot are to do with Simon's dogged determination to not repeat himself, and keep himself ahead of the game. "The fact is that if you do anything which is remotely different - not that we that we thought 'Oh let's try and be really different', it just happened to be that that was the only way the show was going to work. But as soon as you do something different, people catch up with it, and it starts getting emulated. You have to stay fresh and new to stay ahead of the game."
Back at the funeral parlour, Simon has finished his one day shoot. The day has been typical of much of the rest of the shoot - many takes, hand held, no lights, improvisation. "Michael's film-making style is very loose and gives you lots of room to improvise and it was really good fun doing that." Simon recalls. "It was great doing the whole thing on DVC because it just gave you a lot more space as an actor, rather than hanging around for ages waiting for lighting shots to get set up. I think it was just a case of doing the scene again and again until it was right. We shot a lot of stuff that day. And it was really great to have that kind of freedom."
It was a different kettle of fish a few months earlier when Simon was shooting the Spielberg/Hanks produced mini-series Band of Brothers, as David Schwimmer's sidekick. "Well that was a case of days and days on that where I did nothing at all. I'd just go in and sit around with the other soldiers doing fuck all! And then going on and doing the shot in which we were all background artists, just walking around being soldiers in the background. It wasn't anywhere near as fulfilling as this. When I finally got to do my character parts, it was more fun - but ultimately I think I got more out of that one day filming on Party People that I did the entire time on Band of Brothers."
Somewhere between the zombie movie and multiple cameos across the spectrum of drama and comedy, Simon has to fit in another, final series of Spaced. Although a little way off conception, Simon is keen to make sure the third series moves forward from the second as much as the second did from the first, "but we will definitely go into it with both series in mind and try and evolve it, rather than improve it".
You can visit the the great Spaced website here
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