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Robert Webb: 'The doctor said my heart was about to fail. That got my attention'

Posted at Jan 08, 2021

R obert Webb is talking, rather casually, about how he almost died during the making of the much delayed and highly anticipated second season of his sitcom Back. “I went for the cast medical,” he says, “and the GP put his stethoscope on my heart, pulled a face, and said, ‘Interesting. What have you been doing about the heart murmur?’ And I said, ‘What heart murmur?’ Then he referred me – quite urgently – to a cardiologist, who did a couple of tests and told me, ‘I’m not saying you’re going to have a heart attack in the next fortnight – but in the next two to four to six months, this heart will fail.’” He pauses. “So that got my attention.”

What swiftly followed was emergency surgery to fix his mitral valve, which had a birth defect, followed by three and a half months signed off work. And then, three weeks after he returned, Covid happened and the production was forced to shut down once again. The finishing touches were finally put to the series in September. But continuity was somewhat compromised. “There are scenes,” says Webb, “where I look incredibly pasty and bloated and fucked, because my heart had almost doubled in size.”

Happily, he looks much healthier now: thinner, younger, more alert. And it’s great that Back is, well, back, not least because it affords Webb the chance to play the most interesting character of his career: Andrew, a man who enters a community claiming to be the long-lost foster brother of Stephen, the owner of a pub in Stroud, played by David Mitchell. It is never made explicitly clear whether or not he is, in fact, a malevolent but charming, mad man.

Watch the trailer for Back, series two

“I still haven’t decided,” says Webb. “And I have an intuition that it’s important I don’t. Is Andrew entirely motivated by malice? Is he basically Satan? Or is it that he had a tough childhood, and he’s a people pleaser, and he just goes around trying to get attention from people in a slightly harmful way that he hasn’t really thought through?”

I'd turn up at the pub at midday for lunch, which would be me smoking, drinking lager and getting into fights on Twitter

In the first series, Webb had to do two takes for each scene, one hinting at psychopathy and one not. This time, they played it down the middle and show Andrew’s human side as often as possible. The result is a series that’s warmer, slightly. It’s still very, very funny. Writer Simon Blackwell has managed to strap on a heftily traditional sitcom to all the mystery and intrigue, and it’s supported by a great cast. I tell Webb how much I enjoyed Geoff McGivern’s performance as a loudmouth farmer, which causes him to roll his eyes.

“It’s fucking Super Hans all over again, isn’t it?” he replies, referring to the mildly deranged, scene-stealing character in Peep Show. “I’m doing all the fucking hard work: ‘Oh, why not have a bit more exposition, maybe I’ll say what’s going to happen in the next scene?’ And then here comes the funny actor who everyone likes, saying something outrageous, and that’ll be everybody’s favourite character. Oh, shut up, Geoff. Fuck off.’” Webb suddenly exhales deeply, just as I’m starting to worry about his heart, and everything returns to normal. “Geoff’s brilliant,” he says calmly.

It’s also nice to see Webb acting again given that, around the time of the publication of his novel Come Again last spring, he kept saying he was primarily a novelist now. “I might hastily backtrack from that,” he squirms. It turns out that much of that decision to pick up the pen was due to the state of his health. “Even though it came as a surprise that I had such a serious problem with my heart, I knew I was unwell,” he says. “I thought, ‘Oh, this is what it feels like when you’re 47 and you’re really still caning the booze and the fags.’ As a result of that, I was turning down acting work because subconsciously I thought, ‘I’m not fit to do this.’ There were a couple of West End plays I didn’t do because I thought the press night might kill me.”

‘It’s brilliant, because we get a chance to miss each other’ … Webb as Andrew, with David Mitchell as Stephen in series two of Back. Photograph: Channel 4

How badly was he caning the booze and fags? “I’m a bit uncomfortable with the term alcoholic,” he says, “because I was drinking exactly the same as all my friends. You’re in the pub and you have two or three pints, or three or four pints, or whatever, and you have a bit of a hangover. I was doing that all through my 20s and 30s. And then, I don’t know, 40, 42, 43. Suddenly, the time of day when I would start moved earlier and earlier, until I’d get out of bed at eight in the morning – there just wasn’t a bad time of the day or night to have a drink.”

Although he’d been fruitlessly attempting to kick the booze for a while, heart surgery gave him all the impetus he needed. “It was the gap in the domino topple that I needed,” he says. “They literally turned me off and on. They put me under general anaesthetic for many, many hours, then brought me back to life. It’s an extraordinary thing, so that was the line in the sand for me.”

Webb, who turned 48 last September, now runs three miles five times a week and does resistance training supervised by cardiac coaches. He no longer drinks and has quit cigarettes. This has helped to put him in the right frame of mind to tackle some other personal issues. “Having got rid of a couple of addictions,” he says, “I’m very aware that Twitter is an addiction. And it’s not something that makes me happy. I associate it with the bad old days, because I was never happier than when – actually, I wasn’t happy, but it was my habit to turn up at the pub at midday for lunch, which would just be me smoking and drinking lager and getting into fights on Twitter. It was a shit way to spend the day.”

Satanic imposter? … Webb, right, in Back. Photograph: Channel 4

Starting fights on Twitter was something that Webb got quite good at, wading in to arguments about Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn and Ukip with thudding regularity. But now he has decided not to publish every opinion that enters his mind. “If you’re talking about anything important, there’s nothing you can say that bad faith actors won’t be able to put a spin on and say, ‘Look at this fucking cockhead laughing at X, Y, or Z.’ But if you don’t do that, then you turn into a sort of DJ. If I’m not careful, I’m going, ‘Oh, remember Caramac?’ I might as well be Steve Wright. The number of times I’ve started to tweet something and then gone, ‘Oh, shut up.’ And if that’s how I feel, then imagine how the people who can’t stand me must feel.”

Even Webb’s relationship with Mitchell has improved. “Going back to 2006 and 2007, when we were massively busy and Mitchell and Webb was in its pomp, we saw each other every day. For people who are not in love and are not having sex, that is a lot of time together. So we did get sick of the sight of each other. We never had the row – we managed to avoid that, but it was challenging.” And now? “It’s brilliant, because we get a chance to miss each other. Then when I see him, it’s nice to see him for the sake of seeing him.”

Come Again by Robert Webb review – entertaining debut novel Read more

Back is unlikely ever to be the phenomenon that Peep Show was, but Webb is even quite comfortable with that. “Peep Show was a really, really good show, and I’m just very, very proud to be so closely associated with it,” he says. “Parts like Jeremy don’t come along often. That’s a career right there – to be able to play that part on TV for 12 years. It was fantastic.”

While it’s a pleasure to see Webb so healthy and content, it does come as something of a relief to see that he can still find things to be grumpy about, such as Back’s difficult production. “We’re hoping it will go out in January, but maybe a tsunami will swallow London,” he huffs. “And then there’ll be another four or five years before series three.”

  • Back starts on Channel 4 on 21 January.