Spaced: Revisiting a Cult Sitcom 20 Years On

This is where it all began for the dream team of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost.

spaced simon pegg nick frost jessica hynes

Looking back on the history of British television, there seems to be an unwritten rule about one genre in particular – sitcoms. The unwritten rule is that the nation’s favourites (Only Fools and Horses, Dad’s Army, Fawlty Towers, and the works of Ronnie Barker) are produced by the BBC, whereas Channel 4 sitcoms (such as Green Wing and Black Books) tend to have more of a cult status. Of the various sitcoms which Channel 4 have produced in the last thirty years, arguably none have been quite as niche or as worthy of their cult status as Spaced, which premiered on September 24, 1999 and ran for a total of only fourteen episodes, with the finale airing on April 13, 2001 (a rather short sitcom, even by British standards).

Today, as we come ever closer to the impending start of the 2020s, we have become accustomed to regularly seeing Simon Pegg and Nick Frost on cinema screens. Pegg has appeared in countless big franchises (including Mission: Impossible and Star Trek), while Frost regularly steals the show in comedy films such as The Festival and Fighting With My Family, plus there are the various films which the real-life best friends have appeared in together. Meanwhile, Edgar Wright has received an increased amount of attention during the 2010s, a decade in which (following Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz) he completed The Cornetto trilogy (starring Pegg and Frost) with The World’s End, resigned from directorial duties of the Marvel film Ant-Man over creative differences, and directed the hugely successful Baby Driver.

Yet only twenty years ago these three men were relatively unknown, with Pegg and Frost primarily working as bit-part actors, and Wright’s first film (spoof-western A Fistful of Fingers) having flown under the radar. Spaced, however, gave the three of them the big break which they had been working for. Co-written by Pegg and Jessica Stevenson (better known today by her married name – Jessica Hynes), all fourteen episodes were directed by Wright, whose very short-lived comedy series Asylum had starred Pegg and Stevenson. The title ‘Spaced’ could imply that it is also a science-fiction series (my initial assumption when I was first told about it at aged sixteen), and certain moments tonally borrow from series such as The X-Files and The Twilight Zone. However, the series is nevertheless very much grounded in late 20th/early 21st Century London, with ‘Spaced’ referring to the recreational drug use in which the main characters partake.

The basic premise of the series is simple enough, but a key factor in the series’ surreal quality are the characters. Co-writers Pegg and Stevenson star as aspiring graphic artist Tim and aspiring writer Daisy respectively, two twenty-somethings in Greater London, who befriend each other while flat-hunting and eventually agree to rent together after finding a place which is both nice and affordable. The catch, however, is that the landlady – chain-smoking, alcoholic Marsha (Julia Deakin) – is only willing to rent to a couple, so the pair pretend to be one in order to secure the flat, and must be very careful about what they say if they want to keep it. The quirky cast of characters are rounded off by their neighbour Brian (Mark Heap), a socially awkward and struggling artist who paints emotions; Tim’s best friend Mike (Frost), who has recently been suspended from the TA for stealing a tank and trying to invade Paris; and Daisy’s best friend Twist (Katy Carmichael), a “fashion fascist” who develops a romance with Brian.

Sitcoms will often have quite a quirky ensemble of characters, but there are few which rival those of Spaced. While Tim is very much a science-fiction geek, who would fit right in with the main characters of The Big Bang Theory were it not for his lack of both a university education and knowledge of physics, Daisy tries to act like an intellectual and has a habit of trying to get involved in other people’s dramas. While the two regularly butt heads, particularly over Daisy’s work-shy approach to life and tendency to try to offer Tim advice, the two do get along very well, and Pegg and Stevenson have a natural chemistry with each other.

However, Tim, has a much more interesting dynamic with Mike, a character whom Pegg wrote specifically with real-life best friend Frost in mind. Watching their scenes together twenty years later, having seen them co-star in multiple films, we see Pegg and Frost establish a dynamic with Tim and Mike which would go on to be replicated time and again. Like with their respective characters Shaun and Ed in Shaun of the Dead (2004), Pegg is ultimately the straight man and voice of reason in the Tim-Mike friendship, while Frost is the hilariously uncouth one, and the two very much share a bromance throughout the series, even holding hands on occasion. Plus, the fact that Mike is regularly arming himself with weapons and shares elaborate tales of his military work is made all the more amusing by Tim’s reaction – usually a mixture of bemusement and exasperation.

Of the rest of the main cast, Twist ultimately serves the most as a plot device, as her presence helps Brian come out of his shell in the first few episodes, his feelings for her motivating him to socialise more with the rest of the group. Other than that, however, Twist serves little purpose, with Tim not being quite able to put his finger on why Daisy is friends with her, and the character’s lack of purpose and direction is best exemplified by the fact that she is the only one of the main characters to not appear in all fourteen episodes.

By contrast, Brian is one of the strongest characters in the series, not just because he is the most quirky, but because of Heap’s excellent performance. Brian is very socially awkward and often reacts slowly, in a manner which conveys uncertainty, and Heap’s comic timing is note-perfect, while he is also very expressive as the aspiring artist, especially in the hilariously absurd cutaways which depict Brian painting “anger, pain, fear, aggression.” Finally, as the permanently-inebriated Marsha, Deakin plays the character’s drunkenness very well, never exaggerating it beyond the realms of plausibility. Furthermore, Deakin conveys a sense of warmth through the drunkenness, conveying the fact that Marsha ultimately has a heart of gold and is very fond of her tenants.

Outside of the characters, the basic premise of young people trying to live and work in London remains plausible and realistic twenty years later. By the time that Spaced began, iconic 1990s’ US sitcom Friends was five seasons in, and part of its charm lay in its depiction of an almost dream-like ideal for young professionals – being able to find spacious and affordable apartments in a nice area, seemingly picking and choosing when you go to work, and in-group romances never quite ruining the status quo. While Tim and Daisy are not young professionals, they do try to come across that way for Marsha, but either way Spaced depicts aspects of young professional life which Friends tended to side-step, and which remain relatable two decades on. It takes Tim and Daisy ages to find a property which is nice, affordable and relatively close to work, a battle which many young professionals continue to face, particularly in cities like London, while the pair also have to deal with unsuccessful job applications, again something which most young professionals have to deal with at some stage.

Through Tim in particular, Pegg, Stevenson and Wright clearly channel their own personal experiences to create an aspiring young artist who is trying his best to get his big break. Tim dreams of working for Darkstar Comics, can regularly be found sketching, and works at the comic book store Fantasy Bazaar until he gets his big break (had the series been made twenty years later, then he could well have had a man-bun and been making the best flat whites in town for a living). When asked in 2013 about whether Spaced could ever be revived, Wright stated “we couldn’t possibly write it with any degree of truth now, because that’s not where we are or who we are anymore. I always find it’s better to write from a perspective of truth.” In other words, Wright, Pegg and Stevenson were able to depict creative people struggling to find regular work and make ends meet twenty years ago because they had experienced it themselves during the 1990s. However, now that they have gone on to have successful careers in film and television, they feel that they could not revive Spaced as they no longer have that experience in recent memory which they could channel.

Rewatching Spaced now, after twenty years and five directorial works by Wright (including The Cornetto trilogy), we see the blossoming of a directorial style which is quite unlike any other in the film and television industries today. Wright is very much a cinephile, which is probably best exemplified by a list he gave to MUBI in July 2016 of his 1,000 favourite films, which cover a period of 96 years and include Pre-Code Hollywood, German Expressionism, Italian Neorealism, French New Wave, British New Wave and New Hollywood films. His love for cinema has come through a lot in his filmmaking, with his directorial works paying homage to countless pre-2000 films (often with a comical spin), which is most clearly where we see his style blossoming in Spaced.

One of the best examples is in a face-off between Tim and his nemesis Duane (Peter Serafinowicz) during a paintballing game in Episode 4 (Battles). In its cinematography and editing, the face-off evokes similar scenes from Clint Eastwood westerns and the Chinese film The Killer, but with the added comic factor of both men realising that they had forgotten to load their paintball guns. Similarly, a rescue operation which the group execute in Episode 5 (Chaos) evokes numerous heists from crime films, but also sees Brian and Mike befriending a security guard and helping him with his crossword. Some of the homages are more overt, such as the robot club in Episode 10 (Mettle), which pays tribute to Fight Club, and a very tongue-in-cheek homage to The Sixth Sense in Episode 11 (Help).

For eagle-eyed fans of The Cornetto trilogy, it is also fun to spot familiar moments in Spaced, with the aftermath of Tim and Duane’s paintball face-off later getting recreated in Hot Fuzz, while bar brawls in Shaun of the Dead and The World’s End evoke one such fight in Episode 8 (Back). Wright’s filmography also boasts quite a distinct editing style, with The Cornetto trilogy and Baby Driver having all become noted for their use of quick cut editing, the latter having won the BAFTA for Best Editing in 2018. While this editing style is less prominent in Spaced (a series which is shot with a single camera and transitions between scenes in the middle of a pan), it is nevertheless executed quite well on several occasions during the series’ run. The best examples are when raver Tyres (Michael Smiley) comes over to the flat and ends up dancing to everyday sounds such as a kettle boiling and a phone ringing, the quick cut editing emphasising the character’s frankly phenomenal ability to find rhythm in literally anything, in moments which are hilarious in their absurdity.

Rewatching Spaced now, despite the fact that its basic premise has a degree of authenticity and relatability for modern audiences, it is very much a product of the 1990s and early 2000s, giving it a retro quality. Different television series which debuted during the 1990s have different reasons for being instantly recognisable as a product of that era. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is most obviously a 1990s’ series due to its soundtrack, while Friends is recognisably 1990s due to the haircuts and fashion on display. Spaced, however, is most recognisably a product of the 1990s due to the culture on display, which also further emphasises the fact that Tim is a nerd, while being an early work to touch upon awareness of wider pop culture, which has become far more common in film and television in the subsequent decades. Tim’s bedroom has posters of iconic 1990s’ television series such as The Simpsons, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Friends, while the bookcase in the living room has a number of VHS tapes on it. Furthermore, Tim can often be found playing PlayStation 1 games, such as Resident Evil 2 and Tomb Raider III (classics!), while Pegg and Stevenson embraced turn of the century pop culture for the latter episodes by giving Tim a hatred for The Phantom Menace, which is so deep-rooted that he burnt a lifetime’s worth of Star Wars memorabilia in Episode 8 (Back).

The basic premise of two young people trying to make their way in the world by finding a nice, affordable flat to live in and pursuing their dream jobs can translate into any era and almost any location. In Spaced, however, it is born from a place of honest experience, as the director and writers alike channel their own real-life struggles of trying to make ends meet as they pursue a big break in the creative industries. What elevates the basic premise of the series into more surreal territory are quite possibly the most unique ensemble of quirky characters found in any sitcom, played by a talented cast who have a natural chemistry with each other, and also frequent homages to pre-2000 cinema and overt pop culture references, which give Spaced a niche quality and have led to its cult status.

Watching Spaced twenty years and five Wright films later, it is ultimately an encapsulation of the turn of the century, in which Wright’s directorial style blossomed into what it has become today, as he helped craft the series which gave himself, Pegg, Frost and Stevenson their big breaks. Spaced may only have run for fourteen episodes, but they are fourteen episodes which hold up tremendously well today, thanks to the clever screenwriting, deft direction and talented cast, proving that it is better to end a series on a high-note after a brief run than to keep going, or even to try to revive it, until it has become a pale imitation of what it once was. If only network executives and screenwriters behind certain other series from the ’90s had done the same thing.

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