I’m a huge fan of Mark Corrigan. Peep Show is probably my favourite series of all time, and therefore I have always considered myself a huge fan of David Mitchell, especially as, during his many appearances on various panel shows he has always come across quite like Mark Corrigan, if Mark Corrigan relaxed and learned how to make fun of himself.
However, and I’m going to get this out of the way before I say anything nice about Backstory, there were points during my reading of this book when I liked Mitchell less than I had before I started it. Sometimes he uses the book as a platform to complain about things he doesn’t like – such as the way television is run, which reminded me (and I admit this is a harsh comparison) of Ben Elton’s This Other Eden, where he moans about the way writers are treated in the movie industry. The problem is that this sort of thing isn’t relatable and it makes you look a bit like you can’t appreciate your charmed bloody life. I’m not saying David Mitchell is like this, just that I don’t want to hear him moan about his job unless it’s funny. I can get my bog-standard complaining anywhere. I go to him for funny.
My other issue with the book was that Mitchell’s life seems to have been overwhelmingly, relentlessly pleasant which, whilst nice for him, doesn’t always make for brilliant reading. Certainly Backstory was no Frankie Boyle’s My Shit Life So Far. David Mitchell is not a heavy drinker and failed teacher – in fact, if he had been a teacher he’d probably have been a rather good one. A valued history teacher in a prep school in Sussex or the Home Counties. In his actual life, Mitchell started making a living out of comedy writing by the age of twenty-four, prior to which he had lived in Oxford with a set of very nice parents and been to Cambridge where he enjoyed drama and became president of Footlights. And therein lies the problem. There’s not enough peril in the book to make it really work as an autobiography. It would, however, be a very good, albeit long, personal statement, the sort required by UCAS. There’s no adversity (unless you count the brief moment where Mitchell doesn’t get in to Oxford and gets a bit upset, only to find out very soon after that he has been accepted to Cambridge). I’m not saying I want him shooting up heroin but he doesn’t even have the decency to be bullied or get his heart broken (unless you count the time when his relationship with Victoria Coren peters out, only for them to get back together and get married).
In all seriousness though, I wasn’t expecting or hankering after some diabolical Jeremy Kyle style mess. I don’t expect Mitchell to pretend to be Frankie Boyle and it’s not like the poor man has ever pretended to be anything he’s not , but if you’re going to have such a pleasant, smooth ride through life you need to throw a few more jokes into your autobiography to keep it moving along.
Having said all that, the book does have some interesting sections and it is funny, just not hilarious. Of course, I doubt David Mitchell went hammering on HarperCollins’ door demanding that his spellbinding story be told and if the book wasn’t a rollercoaster read (a phrase that would have Mitchell shuddering in disgust) neither I nor any other reader should be surprised.
One thing the book is, which I like a lot, despite what I’ve said above, is honest. Not bare-all reality TV honest, but true to yourself, take it or leave it honest. It’s the story of a man who’s a bit posh, very lucky, often guilt-ridden and, actually, rather happy with the way his pleasant life has turned out. Do I want to see David Mitchell falling out of Mahiki arm in arm with Lauren Goodger or making horrible, tasteless jokes about Jordan’s children? No, I like him just the way he is – and I suppose we should all hope to have lives that make boring autobiographies to some degree.