Simon Pegg, Jessica Hynes and director Edgar Wright’s surreal slacker sitcom Spaced turned 20 last month (on the 24th September to be precise). Twenty years on, with the Cornetto Trilogy and a host of other work by the writers and director (both together and apart) in the collective consciousness of a generation, how has Spaced influenced both the TV and film comedy landscape?
5 years, 8 months, three days…
Here’s the premise: aspiring comic book artist Tim Bisley (Pegg), and would-be journalist Daisy Steiner (Hynes), meet in a cafe; both need a place to live. Through successive meetings, they gradually realise there is only one way to get what they both desire…
The barely acquainted Tim and Daisy become “a couple” and tell each other their life histories. They convince Marsha Kline (Julia Deakin), a chain-smoking, red wine enthusiast and the landlady of 23 Meteor Street (in reality a house in Carleton Road, Tufnell Park, which incidentally is for sale – at the time of writing – if you’ve £3 million!) of their reliability and good character. Their fellow housemate is Brian, an emotionally tortured, self loathing would-be conceptual artist inhabited by the marvellous Mark Heap. Tim’s best mate is Mike Watt (Pegg’s regular creative partner Nick Frost), a bespectacled TA Sergeant in permanent camouflage jacket, regularly sharing a tantalising “psychological moment” from their childhood. (Altogether now – look upwards!) Twist (Katy Carmichael) is Daisy’s unlikely bestie – a somewhat tactless fashionista. Amber, Marsha’s “blink and you’ll miss her” rebellious teenage daughter and Colin (Aida the dog) – Daisy’s pet Miniature Schnauzer make up the rest of the regulars.
Spaced was made for Channel 4 by Paramount UK and (surprisingly) LWT. Simon Pegg observed, in this interview with Empire, that Spaced was “…a reaction to the emergence of these ‘youth sitcoms’ that were trying to be the British version of Friends, and usually were written by people 20 years older than the characters.”
Given it was a contemporary sitcom, Spaced feels very traditional in many ways. Tim and Daisy eschew modern technology in their respective work, favouring the honesty of traditional methods. Daisy’s anachronistic use of a typewriter in an age where computers such as the original colourful iMacs were commonplace is satisfyingly eccentric. Tim’s use of a drawing board is also intriguing though arguably their different occupations are more readily earmarked this way. To have them simply sat side by side at a couple of computers would be rather dull.
Notable pop culture references
Spaced is laced with pop culture, here are just some of the many reference and homages. Deep breath, here goes…
As Daisy and Tim become acquainted, we hear ‘Getting To Know You’ from The King And I – this led to interest in the sitcom by Classic FM! There is a tribute to the animation of the 1981 TV version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. The twin girl guides in the cupboard is the first of several references to The Shining. The brilliant Velma and Shaggy from Scooby Doo scene is beautifully done. Evil Dead and Evil Dead 2 references abound across the series: The cast in harmony urging Daisy to “Join us!” is perhaps the most blatant and in episode four where Pegg poses in the same frightened position as the girl on the Evil Dead 2 poster – in front of said poster, when Daisy announces she is getting a dog.
There is a great homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey (the self-aware fridge and the slowly-whistled Daisy, Daisy in the style of the computer HAL). Daisy’s Chinese robe references Shirley McClaine’s wardrobe in Sweet Charity. Zombie shootings as Resident Evil takes centre stage, which in turn would influence the writing of Shaun Of The Dead. “Vulva” (real name Ian) played by David Walliams is a suitably over the top tribute to the late performance artist Leigh Bowery, his video a tribute to David Bowie’s Ashes To Ashes. Daisy’s confusion during her interview is denoted by the use of the Magic Roundabout theme. Brian is seen switching a lightbulb on and off and the camera pulls back to reveal tickets for Vulva’s exhibition, a clever homage to Fatal Attraction. The theme from Roobarb plays when Tim is seen running away from a pack of dogs. Daisy and Twist go to buy a dog – cue Heads And Tails and Animal Magic themes. There is a very personal homage to Return Of The Jedi‘s Ewok song by Edgar, Simon and Nick. Brian’s 1983 outfit is based on Dexy’s Midnight Runners look from their 1982 video for Come on Eileen. Daisy’s tribute to Jessica Fletcher, typing away then throwing her papers over her shoulder as the Murder She Wrote theme plays. Tim makes a casual mention of the Tripods convention in Swindon.
Manhattan is referenced with the opening of series two, using a monochrome London skyline in place of Allen’s New York, to the strains of Rhapsody In Blue. Brian’s romance with Twist has changed his life, he relates it to Daisy as a fast moving series of snaps – in the style of Run Lola Run. The gentle music from Bagpuss is suddenly shattered by Amber’s speedy dawn departure – leaving a trail of destruction in her wake and a spinning name plate from her door, filmed in the style of the spinning numberplate from Back To The Future. Brian’s creative block is signalled by his desperate “new” approaches being underscored by the mundanity of the Terry And June theme. Mike is revealed to be a part time lollipop man to the strains of Windy Miller’s theme from Camberwick Green. Daisy tells her job centre interviewer she has “two opposing forces inside her” – cue the good girl and bad girl images of Sandy from Grease. Daisy’s work experience in the kitchen is a brilliant homage to One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. The “rules of Robot Club” is an amusing and clever subversion of the classic scene from Fight Club. Daisy’s netball memories reference the comic book opening titles to Grange Hill.
Towards the end of the series Spaced begins to become self-referential, with Tim and Daisy hiding in the cupboard, in which the twin girl guides were seen in the opening episode and surprising an estate agent and potential buyers in the same way the twins had done them. Also action figures of Velma and Shaggy are spotted on a shelf in the flat, as if to say they are happy to be these characters after all!
The legacy of Spaced can be seen in a definite shift in the grammar of film-making for TV. In the same way Trainspotting gave cinema a kick with its fast-moving shorthand introductions to character, so Spaced has influenced other television with its jump-cut storytelling and fantasy sequences: Black Books (the two shows sharing the brilliant Bill Bailey) featured an episode with Simon Pegg as the uber-controlling boss of a rival bookshop, for whom Manny (Bailey) decides to work, in a delicious role-reversal of their jobs at the comic book shop. The IT Crowd – its messy office being a fabulous collection of geek mementoes, much like Tim and Daisy’s flat. In America, the idea of a show heavy on pop culture references can be seen in Community and The Big Bang Theory amongst many others.
Spaced‘s paintballing episode, played like a battle, was something Peep Show, Community and others would emulate. Spaced featured early TV appearances by Ricky Gervais (The Office began three months later) and Joanna Scanlon, later Terri Coverley in The Thick Of It. Pegg, Hynes and Frost have all subsequently featured in Doctor Who, as if their geek credentials weren’t significant enough and remarkably each appeared with a different Doctor to boot.
The Zombie “shoot ’em up” scene was taken to its natural conclusion with Shaun Of The Dead, easily the most well known of all the legacies of Spaced. It is quite telling that for several years afterwards “The best film since Shaun Of The Dead” was often cited on movie posters by (frankly also-ran) British film comedies, wishing they were in the same league. Hot Fuzz and The World’s End completed an underrated cinematic trilogy.
Jessica Hynes recently told the Daily Telegraph, the sheer enormity of the legacy of Spaced only really hit her when she was recording a US DVD commentary of the show with Pegg and Wright and was genuinely surprised to hear Quentin Tarantino would join them. Hynes casually mentioned she had found a scrabble tile on set and had kept it. Tarantino asked her if he could have this piece of Spaced memorabilia – he is such a huge fan. “I got emotional” Hynes said about handing it over, describing Spaced as a “magical creative experience”. Tarantino is quoted on the cover of the US DVDs: ” The one, the only… Spaced. Accept no substitute.”
Last year Simon Pegg ruled out any possibility of Spaced returning, as it was about “a group of twenty-somethings at the turn of the century” adding “I’m not sure what I have to say that’s relatable about life now. It’s not gonna happen, kids – unless you want a sitcom about some clueless actor who can’t tie his own shoelaces” Like John Cleese before him and Ricky Gervais after him, Pegg knew exactly when to end things.
Five stand-out moments
There are countless great moments, but here goes (in chronological order):
1. Tim and Daisy declare their childhood love of Fred and Daphne from Scooby Doo. Camera pulls back: Tim with goatee beard and green T-shirt and Daisy in orange roll neck and glasses. “Look at us now!” Shaggy and Velma!
2. When Colin the dog is abducted by vivisectionists. Tim’s meticulous planning later honed to perfection in Shaun Of The Dead. First time we see the group of friends really acts s a team. Tim’s “…for Mike, that’s 2200 hours, for everyone else – 10 c’clock!” is especially good
3. A wonderful cameo by John Simm in the first episode of series Two – Back. Simm has no lines. Edgar Wright was determined to involve some big name and not give them any lines. Simm’s cameo as a casual acquaintance called Stephen is perfectly pitched against Daisy’s neurotic ramblings.
4: Tim’s rant about The Phantom Menace, obviously:
5. The surprisingly moving moment when Tim, Brian and Mike attempt to get back into Marsha’s “good books” by driving a tank to her door and playing Take That’s Back for Good.