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The wit who wooed and won
7:00am Saturday 3rd November 2012 in Books
Comedian and columnist David Mitchell, star of Peep Show and That Mitchell And Webb Look, has long played on the comic image of lonely, dysfunctional loser. But, as his autobiography Back Story reveals, he's really an incurable romantic who fell hopelessly in love with his fiancee, writer and presenter Victoria Coren - and waited three years for her to ditch her boyfriend before making his move. He tells Hannah Stephenson about their forthcoming wedding and his plans for the future.
By Hannah Stephenson
He's posh, uncool and a little nerdy. In fact, comedian David Mitchell has long played on the comic image of lonely, dysfunctional loser.
He made his name as repressed, socially inept Mark Corrigan in Peep Show, the longest-running sitcom in Channel 4 history which begins a new series in November co-starring his comedy partner Robert Webb.
And in his autobiography Back Story, the witty panellist on QI, Would I Lie To You? and Have I Got News For You, admits he's never been much good with girls.
Until the penultimate chapter, that is, when readers will discover that the Cambridge graduate and star of That Mitchell And Webb Look is really an incurable romantic who fell hopelessly in love with writer and presenter Victoria Coren - and waited three years for her to ditch her boyfriend before making his move.
"I'd never really had a long, meaningful relationship before," he says now. "I'd had the odd one-night stand here and there. I thought maybe it wouldn't work out for me.
"I had lots of friends who were serial monogamists and had a series of relationships, none of which was perfect, and I thought, that's not for me. I don't want to go out with someone who I'm not head over heels in love with.
"But then I met Victoria. It took us a while to get together but I was smitten."
They met in 2007 at a film premiere party and went out on a few dates, but then she dropped a bombshell when she emailed him to say that she didn't think the timing was right.
She went on to find another boyfriend. Mitchell went out and got drunk a lot.
"I didn't tell my closest friends or my parents of the enormous sadness that overshadowed my life," he writes. "I was ashamed and I knew what they'd say. 'Stop indulging yourself in these hopeless feelings. Snap out of it. She doesn't want to go out with you - she said so'."
Today, recalling this phase, he laughs and adds: "How did I feel? The word 'bad' springs to mind.
"It was terrible but at the same time I felt, you know what, I think it's still going to happen."
As his private life collapsed, his career went from strength to strength, with the sitcom, the sketch show and his appearances on panel shows.
Three years later, Coren, who is also a champion poker player, became single again and they started dating. They got engaged in March this year when he popped the question in her kitchen and the announcement appeared in The Times newspaper.
"She's clever, funny, beautiful," he says, beaming. "I think she's amazing. She's brilliant at what she does.
"For three years I thought about her all the time, and I still do but in a much happier way. I get to spend all my time with her and she is the most fun person to be with. That makes me incredibly happy.
"I didn't know whether I was built to be in a couple and finding that I am is tremendous.
"Life is a lot less bewildering and stressful when there's someone to talk to who you know will back you up whatever happens."
They live together in her London flat and are tying the knot in November in London. Webb will be the best man (Mitchell was Webb's best man in 2007). So will he be giving Webb any tips on what not to include in his speech?
"I'd much rather he didn't offend anyone than worry too much about being funny," says Mitchell, seriously.
Aside from wedding planning, Mitchell is currently promoting his memoir, which he wrote while sitting on a yoga ball due to a long-term back problem.
It takes readers on a walk across London (Mitchell finds relief for his back in walking) while he reminisces about his childhood, comedy career and other aspects of his life.
Born in Salisbury, Wiltshire, he is the son of a couple who ran a West Country pub in the Seventies and then moved to Oxford where they became lecturers in hotel management. The young Mitchell began to tread the boards at New College prep school in Oxford, but never thought he had a talent for comedy.
"I remember thinking, I'm quite bright but I'm not funny. It was only when I was a teenager and got involved with the debating society at school that I realised that, while some boys were trying to make arguments, I'd be trying to make jokes."
He failed to get into Oxford University but was offered a place at Cambridge to study history, becoming president of Cambridge Footlights, where he met Robert Webb. The pair formed a double act which has lasted 20 years.
Mitchell struggled to make ends meet for some years after leaving university, hanging around in digs in London's Swiss Cottage which he shared with friends.
"In some ways I was very driven," he recalls. "I knew exactly what I wanted to do and I wasn't going to give up. But I was extremely disorganised and quite lazy. It was that student combination of dynamism and incompetence."
He says now that Robert Webb kept him going. The fact that there were two of them working together made it easier to stick it out. They began performing a number of two-man shows at the Edinburgh Fringe and were then given the chance to write for Alexander Armstrong and Ben Miller.
But it was their multi-award-winning Peep Show which raised Mitchell and Webb's profile to new heights, as did the sketch show That Mitchell And Webb Look.
Mitchell's quick wit and intelligence also made him a prime candidate for fast-moving, verbal-sparring panel shows including QI and Mock The Week.
Indeed, he was once nicknamed the 'Prince Regent' of panel games. Why does he do so many?
"I love doing them. You don't have to write the show, you just turn up and show off in front of people and, with a following wind, they'll laugh."
He is now wary of doing too many, though. "There was definitely a time when I did too many panel shows, I turn more down now and think more carefully about whether people need to see me again. But I do enjoy them and my whole career has always been about getting to do what I enjoy for a living.
"If you think too seriously beyond that, then you might as well be trying to climb the corporate structure of a multi-national."
He originally thought that the book was going to be a series of rants about issues that annoy him, but has to think hard about what things currently get his goat.
"As soon as you say that, the emptiness of my brain appals me. I've got to the point where I'm annoyed that things aren't annoying me."
In February, Mitchell and Webb will be appearing in a BBC Two comedy drama about diplomats called Our Men, in which Mitchell plays the British ambassador to a new fictional state, Tazbekistan.
But for now, his focus is on his personal life as his wedding day looms. And it's clear what love means to him...
"It would have been an incomplete life, one not properly lived, if I'd never fully loved or had the amazing feeling of it being reciprocated."
David Mitchell: Back Story is published by HarperCollins, priced £20. Available now