Spaced is a sitcom like no other. When it was first transmitted, in 1999, it was unusual in that not only was it both surreal and laugh-out-loud funny, but it also spoke to its audience on several levels. The fact that such a multi-faceted series could be devised in Britain made it even more out of the ordinary. How did this modern marvel come about?
Spaced was written by Simon Pegg and Jessica Stevenson. In the early 1990s they had been pursuing separate careers as stand-up comedians, when they were both cast in a tv sketch show entitled Six Pairs of Pants. They became good friends and started writing together. Stevenson's desire was to create a unique sitcom that really spoke to people of her generation at this point in time. Coupled with Pegg's almost geek-like obsession with pop culture (particularly sci-fi), this proved to be the creative spark that the pair needed.
The actual premise of the show probably sounds quite boring: two people meet and, although not at first attracted to one another, pose as a professional couple in order to rent a flat. This, in itself, in no way sums up the series as a whole - that can only be described as 'what happened afterwards'. Unlike other proposed tv comedies at this time, the two writers were pleasantly surprised to find that, due to the strength of their script, a pilot1 was not required. They could go ahead with seven episodes, as an LWT/Paramount co-production to be shown on the UK terrestrial station Channel Four. It was to be produced by Nira Park and Gareth Edwards; now the hunt was on for a director and a cast.
The director they chose was Edgar Wright. He was already known to the writers, having worked with them on a series called Asylum for Paramount Comedy Channel. His inspired, cinematic style2 convinced them that he would take the utmost care when translating their scripts to screen.
As if any sort of quality assurance was still needed, Simon Pegg and Jessica Stevenson were also to star as the lead characters: Tim Bisley and Daisy Steiner. The former is a somewhat lazy, budding comic-book artist who works in a comics store. As our story opens, he is dumped by his girlfriend and seeks solace in a local café. It is there that he meets Daisy, an aspiring journalist, who is looking for somewhere to live...
As good as the two lead performances are, one of Spaced's key strengths is its ensemble cast of supporting characters who are Tim and Daisy's friends.
Marsha Klein (played by Julia Deakin) is the landlady of Tim and Daisy's flat, part of an Amityville-esque three-storey house located at 23 Meteor Street, Tufnell Park, London. She lives on the top floor - the self-confessed 'weirdo from upstairs' - and has a remarkable affinity for red wine, with a cigarette seemingly superglued to her fingers. Her daughter, Amber (never fully seen but always heard), lives with her some of the time.
Mike Watt (played by Nick Frost) is a gun-mad ex-member of the Territorial Army who happens to have been Tim's best friend since childhood. (The TA threw him out after he attempted to take a tank on to the streets of Paris.)
Nick Frost, at the time, was Simon Pegg's real-life flatmate and had, more or less, already created the character of Mike. Pegg insisted that his friend be cast - despite him having no previous acting experience.
Brian Topp (played by Mark Heap) is an artist who resides in Marsha's basement. Although on the surface rather nervous and quietly spoken, he expresses his work through 'anger, fear, pain... aggression'. Marsha quite likes him.
Mark Heap previously starred with Simon Pegg in the surreal sketch show, Big Train. He is also to be seen in the acclaimed 2004 tv comedy, Green Wing.
Twist Morgan (played by Katy Carmichael) is Daisy's tactless, ultra fashion-conscious best friend. She also rather likes Brian.
Katy Carmichael is a lifelong friend of Jessica Stevenson. They had previously performed as a comedy double-act called the Liz Hurleys.
Colin (played by Ada) is Tim and Daisy's dog, a miniature Schnauzer, who has a nose for trouble. He was allowed into their household midway through the first series, when Marsha granted Daisy permission to keep him.
Three other characters who make infrequent but celebrated appearances are:
Tyres (played by Michael Smiley), a lycra-clad bicycle courier who is very into rave culture and - possibly as a result of this - ultra-quick changes of mood.
Duane Benzie (played by Peter Serafinowicz) is the smooth-talking rat who stole Tim's girlfriend and becomes his nemesis.
Whether he likes it or not, Serafinowicz is still most famously credited as the voice of Darth Maul in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. He even recreates one of his lines in Spaced!
Bilbo Bagshot (played by Bill Bailey) is the proprietor of Fantasy Bazaar, the comic-book store where Tim works.
Bill Bailey is a British stand-up comedian. He starred in the Channel Four comedy Black Books, in which Simon Pegg, Jessica Stevenson and Nick Frost also made appearances. Pegg also worked with him in a series entitled Is It Bill Bailey?.
Some more noted comedy actors who appeared in Spaced are The League of Gentlemen's Reece Shearsmith and Mark Gatiss, as well as Little Britain's David Walliams. Simon Pegg and Mark Heap's former co-star from Big Train, Kevin Eldon, also had a cameo role. Someone else glimpsed in one episode was comedian and actor Paul Kaye, alias that one-time scourge of celebrities the world over, Dennis Pennis.
[We wanted] to create something that really spoke to people, that communicated something specific about life as a twenty-something at the turn of the new century. We wanted to be honest and real and to do this we needed zombies, aliens, invisible teenagers, wild dogs, midnight rescues, good guys, bad guys, rave pixies and guns - lots of guns.
- Simon Pegg, Jessica Stevenson and Edgar Wright3
The way in which each episode unfolds is one of the joys of this show. A situation may appear to be progressing conventionally, but before you know it, a character's thoughts or actions lead to a brief cutaway that is almost always a pastiche of some kind. References and homages to other tv series and cinematic works simply abound. So many, in fact, that the 2004 DVD release of the series includes a 'Homage-o-meter' - a subtitle track that displays the film or tv show being referred to at each relevant moment.
There are countless knowing winks to pop culture: too many to mention here4. The briefest list of examples includes The Matrix, Scooby Doo, Grange Hill, Doctor Who, The Shining, Bagpuss, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, Misery, Robot Wars, The A-Team, The Royle Family and Platoon. They all pop up when least expected. This style of storytelling was established quite early in the first episode, when a montage of meetings between Tim and Daisy is expertly cut to 'Getting to Know You' from the musical The King and I. However, despite all these various allusions, the one that crops up again and again is Star Wars. Lines are quoted (or mis-quoted) frequently. In one unforgettable scene, Tim - a one-time fan - sets fire to all his memorabilia (having lost faith after Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace) in a shot-for-shot replica of the moment in Return of the Jedi when Luke lights his father's funeral pyre, complete with John Williams' evocative music.
Although great fun to spot, these aren't the be-all and end-all of the show. They are some of the means by which Tim and Daisy's story is told. In that sense, it could be just another 'Will they or won't they?' romantic comedy. But it's not. Along with all the funny stuff, there is genuine pathos and emotion. The viewer is made to care about these characters - and that is the fundamental aim of any artistic endeavour.
The first series was very successful. Among many plaudits, it garnered a BAFTA nomination for Situation Comedy and won Jessica Stevenson a British Comedy Award for Best Female Comedy Newcomer5. Before it had even finished its transmission, a second was commissioned, to be broadcast in 2001.
However, the stakes were higher: whereas first time around, no one really knew to what extent people would like the show, now there were expectations. The fruitful triumvirate of Pegg, Stevenson and Wright made no secret of the fact that the second series was planned to be bigger and better. On Series One they'd managed to stretch their relatively small programme budget to do some ambitious things. Unfortunately, although the amount of resource was increased for Series Two, so were their aspirations for it. Edgar Wright confesses that when the money ran out, he managed to inveigle Channel Four into providing some finance for an extra day to shoot a series of promotional trailers. This was a slight subterfuge: they filmed the trailers in the morning and some much-needed reshoots for one of the episodes, guerilla-style, in the afternoon!
That they managed to succeed in what they set out to do is no small tribute to the considerable talents of not only them, but also the principal cast members and crew, most of whom returned. The homages became more elaborate, and the shoot was by no means easy. Edgar Wright, in particular, was working such long days that at one point he wandered off the set, thinking he'd be dead by the end of that week.
Besides being bestowed with a plethora of awards, the second series of Spaced features the cast's favourite episode, entitled 'Gone'. It was rewritten in half-an-hour when Wright rejected the first draft, and includes a glorious parody of every John Woo6 gunfight sequence. Conveyed with no actual weaponry, it is acted purely by miming in simulated slow motion to the strains of Barber's 'Adagio for Strings'.
Skip to the End
Although it looked as though Tim and Daisy's future was fairly certain, nobody knows when or indeed if a third series will be made. According to Simon Pegg, at some stage there will either be a third (and final) series or, at the very least, a one-off special. However, he, Stevenson and Wright have now moved on to other projects. As much as they would love to get the Spaced team back together, it's all a question of finding the time.
'Shaun of the Dead'
Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright reunited for the big screen to make the 'rom-zom-com'7Shaun of the Dead (2004). They co-wrote it, Pegg starred along with Nick Frost, and Wright directed. Again, Nira Park was the producer. In characteristic fashion, it features its share of homages - not least to Spaced, as most of the cast appear in cameos during the film. The movie has received great critical and popular acclaim.
- The official site, spaced-out.org.uk, includes cast biographies, exhaustive episode guides and more.
Related BBC Links
- BBC Comedy has has its own page devoted to Spaced.