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Peep Show is a national humiliation Its nihilism speaks for us all

(Channel 4)


September 18, 2023   6 mins

The history of British comedy is a history of ever-increasing male humiliation. Let’s start in the Seventies, the decade of declinism and brown suits. Forced to bear witness to both is Basil Fawlty, the supreme specimen of self-righteous control-freakery who, shorn of Empire and role, is doomed to patrol a seaside town far from any front or position. Advance through his successors, and see the punishing realism cranked up each time. Discarded pensioner and domestic authoritarian Victor Meldrew. Showbiz’s great charisma-bypass Alan Partridge. And David Brent, the most vibrantly hideous character introduced to a British audience since David Copperfield first noticed Uriah Heep at Mr Wickfield’s window.

All have lofty ideas of station and status and all have these ideas disappointed. All are repulsed by a hostile, progressive world. And all are shown in the process to be (to varying degrees) trapped, spiteful, grasping, status-obsessed and self-deluding. It’s a comic instinct that speaks to something masochistic in the British spirit. Some sense that human dignity really is only as thick as a sticking plaster, but that tearing it back to expose our wounds and prejudices is in fact cathartic — cringe-making yet somehow soothing. It is through these embarrassments of men that we strangely choose to represent and interpret our culture.

Much psycho-historical ink has been spilt on the roots of this national quirk. Is it the bad British weather? Perhaps it’s a sublimation of glories lost, of needing to find a personification for superpower contraction. It’s a seductive theory — while other countries (France) tried to physically cling on to empire, we channelled the loss of ours into making people laugh. Whatever the cause, it has generated a streak of vicious, self-lacerating humour, which always works best when targeted at flawed cases of masculine psychology. It’s a tradition that has a culminating triumph in Peep Show, which marks its 20th birthday tomorrow, and despite its age, is increasingly emerging as the defining British sitcom of the early 21st century.

At first glance, Peep Show doesn’t represent any great advance in subject matter. Mark and Jez, played by David Mitchell and Robert Webb, are two mid-ult everymen fated by their creators to have a difficult time in work, play, and everything in between — middle-class men behaving slightly badly. Instead, its innovation is chiefly formal. Peep Show is filmed entirely from the perspective of its characters — quite literally in the cheap and crude first series, the actors wearing bicycle helmets with camera-antennae. The viewer is trapped deep in the cockpit of the characters’ minds, following them everywhere, from bedroom to bathroom.

This is accompanied by a script of wonderful linguistic aggression — but only around half of which is dialogue. The other half is delivered as voiceover, the thoughts and thoughtcrimes of Mark and Jez fed straight into your ear. At times, it is like a neurotic ghost train: the show has been described as “an intrusive thought in physical form”. Watching it is to experience consciousness with clunky but near-novelistic intensity. For some it’s unwatchable. For the rest of us it’s addictive.

Peep Show originally ran from 2003 to 2015, inadvertently forming a Balzacian chronicle of that charmless, formless, nameless era of British life after Blair and before Brexit. It is full of the stuff of that age: iPods, chavs and coffee chains; Bez, Bush and oil wars on TV. It runs the full alphabet of chronological references from Ali G to Zoella, capturing all the anesthetising affluence of the Noughties just before the snap of tumult and hyper-politicisation that followed. A low, dishonest time if ever there was one, characterised by little more culturally than a tabloid-carnival of endless frivolity. And all the while, society’s atoms continued to drift ever further apart and a low of hum of bitterness set in.

Mark and Jez are two such atoms who have collided and glued together, though bound not by attraction but necessity, two university friends who have wound up living together in Croydon. Their friendship is formed of mutual love and loathing, each regarding the other as the worst-case scenario, a motivating example of how bad things could get. But they’re both outcasts and they know it. In a line that Robert Webb regards as the show’s thesis statement, Jez imagines a more “normal” existence, thinking he could abandon Mark and “be in the mainstream of the culture instead of lying like a freak in our weird puddle”. Of course, he doesn’t leave, and neither of them get anywhere, trying and failing to scale the ladders of success they’ve misguidedly selected.

For Mark, this looks like a Blairite update of the dad-on-the-Meccano-box family man. He wants a house in Surrey (and ultimately a “cottage in the Ardennes”), children who learn the viola and ancient Greek, a mid-level executive job, a Mensa membership and a Sunday Times subscription. He is too anxious and self-sabotaging to achieve nearly any of these things. And for much of the series, he projects these expectations onto Sophie (Olivia Colman), a colleague he imagines holds the key to this lifestyle, even though, as he admits, they have “very little basic compatibility”.

This creates the show’s greatest and most agonising plotline: Sophie and Mark’s relationship, accidental engagement (a twin product of “embarrassment” and “fear”), and Mark’s attempts to extricate himself (respectably) from the arrangement, up to and including on their wedding day. This leaves him at the altar saying “I do”, even his attempted jilting a failure, with his bride-to-be weeping beside him. He thinks to himself (and to us): “That’s it. I’ve ruined it. I’ve ruined my life. You only get one life, and I’ve ruined mine.” It’s a disastrous tilt at 21st-century bourgeois-dom, later to be further disappointed by menial, manual jobs, further failed (though initially more promising) relationships, and a child born out of wedlock.

Whereas Jez is an altogether more contemporary creature. He’s desperate above all to be celebrity-famous, even, if necessary, just for being famous. Craig Phillips or The Chemical Brothers will do fine (an outtake from the first series even shows Jez’s audition tape for Big Brother). This initially takes the form of trying to make it as a talentless DJ-musician alongside “Super Hans”, his erratic and “crack-addled maniac” bandmate, just one of the pack of eccentrics and one-offs that orbit Jez and Mark’s lives, there to perplex and bedevil them further. When music and the dole give out, he pursues the even more fashionable, undemanding and unpromising career of a “life coach”, delivering catastrophic and unethical advice to his clients, who are marginally more damaged than him.

If Mark is buttoned-up and emotionally barren, a superhuman super-ego of English repression, Jez is his exact double, the “work-shy freeloader” to Mark’s “tight-fisted cockmuncher”. He’s a bohemian with none of the art and all of the mess. At one point, he’s living in a bathtub; at another, he agrees to pimp out his girlfriend to Mark’s boss (after haggling to the exact price of £530). He’s feckless and thoughtless, driven by a pathological adolescence summed-up by his motto of “sucky-fucky” and his “higher law” of “if it feels good, do it”. To which Mark responds, with full David Mitchell panel-show condescension, “Oh, that’s a great law, isn’t it? What’s that, Gaddafi’s law?” At Peep Show’s best, entire episodes can pass like this, the minutiae of life chewed up in perfectly weighted and acted exchanges between its leads. And the quality of the comedy is what sustains such a bleak format, the viewer caught in the bitter-sweet spot of laugh or cry, wince or snort, smile or groan.

It’s not a classic recipe for a large audience, and while it was on TV, Peep Show only ever enjoyed the dubious honour of “cult” status. Beloved by a few, heralded by critics, and commercially unfortunate. It was threatened with cancellation annually. Remarkable, then, that, in the past half-decade, it has achieved a cultural significance and pop-cultural ubiquity that is rare for any modern sitcom, celebrated at the very top of “best-of” lists. These days there are only two sitcoms one can, in need of auxiliary humour at a forbidding social gathering, quote to some agreeable recognition: The Inbetweeners and Peep Show. The “four naan?” exchange in particular has become so commonplace as to have slipped from reference to irritating catchphrase.

And that’s because the mood of Peep Show has moved from cult to collective. Its cackling cynicism, its unchanging protagonists and its anxious interiority were all original at the time of release, improvements and innovations on the cringe comedy trend. The Office may be the more singular, sculpted achievement, and The Thick of It a greater satire, while Fleabag achieves a level of genuine artistic beauty neither can compete with. But — sprawling, baggy, inconsistent but never far from brilliant — in its totality, Peep Show offers some of the pleasures previously reserved for the English comic novel.

The final frame of Peep Show sees our protagonists slumped at angles to the TV in their flat, both rejected by respective love interests, discussing exactly how they’d murder each other (if the situation arose). For all of its comedy, there’s something existential, something of an English Godot about the scene. And, for better or worse, they sit as our representatives: their schemes for improvement defeated and humiliated. Even if Britain has always found solace in abjection, it’s quite a terminal pair for us to have taken up. Ricky Gervais found the heart to relent on David Brent at the end, granting him that laugh from his colleagues that he always wanted. But, in a world that feels ever more joyless and farcical, manic and dejected, perhaps laughter in the dark is only the natural accompaniment.


is a Junior Commissioning Editor at UnHerd.

nickpaulharris

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Richard M
2
Richard M
7 months ago

I love Peep Show. Brilliant writing and endlessly quotable.
The author is correct about Mark and Jez standing in the long line of male humiliation which has been the backbone of British comedy for decades. However, he needs to go back further than Basil Fawlty.
In my opinion, the key postwar moment is Galton and Simpson’s creation, with its star, of Hancock’s Half Hour. Originally on radio in the 1950s. Hancock is the paterfamilias of all the delusional failures who follow. Men who are at odds with the modern world they nevertheless aspire to conquer in small and petty ways. Which even so, still always turn out to be ambitions outstripping their meagre talents.
There probably is something in the idea that they are allegories for Britian’s postwar decline. But I also think they speak of an endearing stoicism in the British male character. In Peep Show, Mark tells Jez in one episode, “Listen Jeremy. Nothing you want is ever going to happen. This is the real world.” But still they carry on each week, believing things might just get better. Just as Harold Steptoe, Basil Fawlty, David Brent and all the rest did.

Rocky Martiano
RM
Rocky Martiano
7 months ago
Reply to  Richard M

Spot on. Hancock was a comic genius and the first of this long line of great comedy losers.

Phil Rees
PR
Phil Rees
7 months ago
Reply to  Rocky Martiano

Were Peter Cook and Dudley Moore before Hancock? I can’t now remember, but I’ll never forget those two on a park bench, Pete n Dud, with Dud in a black oilskin mac. Surely they were champion losers, and I think Cook the greatest comic genius we’ve ever had.

Last edited 7 months ago by Phil Rees
Kirk Susong
KS
Kirk Susong
7 months ago
Reply to  Richard M

The “long line of male humiliation” in British comedy goes back a long way, long before the mid-century era. Diary of a Nobody, Three Men in a Boat, etc.

Hugh Bryant
HB
Hugh Bryant
7 months ago

Nice article – but the notion that our comedy arises out of nostalgia for empire is getting more than a little bit tired. The British middle class represented by David Mitchell loathes itself because it knows it has become parasitic, dependant on artificial house price inflation and money printing and the barrier to blue collar aspiration of largely worthless ‘soft’ university degrees. We laugh at ourselves because the alternative is to cry.

J Bryant
JB
J Bryant
7 months ago

Despite never having heard of this show, I wanted to leave a comment congratulating the author on such a witty and engaging article. I just checked my local library catalogue and, incredibly, there’s a DVD of the first series of Peep Show (although no subsequent series). I’ll check it out.
No doubt I’m being a crass American, but from the author’s description, the show sounds like a UK version of Seinfeld: shallow, amoral people engaged in rather fruitless lives. As Seinfeld memorably said when pitching his own show to TV executives: yes, it’s a show about nothing.

Steve Murray
LL
Steve Murray
7 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

I agree about the quality of writing in this piece. I’m an Englishman but have never watched it either; i don’t intend to look it up, being vaguely aware of its existence but too busy living to be bothered with it.

The one thing i’d disagree with the author about is the timing of this type of comedy. It’s present in Shakespeare, and not a product of “hankering after lost empire” which i always find to be something of a lazy trope. It’s more universal than that.

Albireo Double
AD
Albireo Double
7 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

…and not a product of “hankering after lost empire” which i always find to be something of a lazy trope. It’s more universal than that…”

Yes, thanks for saying that. Saves me the trouble. I don’t know why people insist on claiming that the English yearn after our former empire.

It must surely be clear to most people that the empire was a pain in the arse when we had it, and it has been an even bigger pain in the arse ever since.

ben arnulfssen
BA
ben arnulfssen
7 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Indeed. I offer as an example, the delusional Malvolio, cruelly mocked by his staff for his unrequited passion for Olivia.

The greatest of Shakespeare’s tragic comics has no modern equivalent, though – Falstaff; possibly because he is so much a man of his time.

Falstaff was once, it seems, a man of real consequence. He is still wealthy. However the changes of Royal patronage have left him dependent upon the obnoxious, self-centred Prince Hal.

He is also disillusioned about his past, as his soliloquy about the nature of honour shows.

The modern age has no heroes. Its gods and idols are false, with feet of clay. Consider an earlier ensemble comedy of huge popularity, Dad’s Army. This is based around a core of older men (and they would mostly have been in their late 40s or 50s) who once faced hideous things because they thought it right to do so.

Wilson, Fraser and Godfrey are combat veterans. There is a clear implication that there are others in the platoon. Jones is an addled veteran of long-past wars who today, would be regarded as a PTSD victim. Mainwaring, although not a combat veteran and generally shown as a pompous wind-bag confronts a German officer with a pistol, in the full belief that the pistol is loaded.

During the “German invasion” episode, several of the platoon prepare to conduct a “rear-guard” action against a (actually non-existent) German tank supported by infantry, in the full recognition that they are probably going upon their deaths, open-eyed and because they believe it right to do so.

This is particularly important because it is a portrayal of WW2 combat troops, BY actors who were themselves veterans (Fraser of Arctic convoys; Godfrey, of the actual WW1 trenches, Jones an infantryman and ex-PoW)

They also recognise Msinwaring to be a fool and a blowhard, but support him when it matters.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
7 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Don’t watch it with minors or elderly family members. It has very grown-up themes and can be very crude and crass. I watched a couple of episodes before deciding I hated it.

Jeff Cunningham
JC
Jeff Cunningham
7 months ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

I’m going to hazard a guess that there is a high correlation with fans of Infinite Jest.

Jeff Butcher
JB
Jeff Butcher
7 months ago

Nah it’s not that high-brow

Allison Barrows
AB
Allison Barrows
7 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

I’m an American, too (although not crass, I hope), and a huge fan of “Peep Show”. It is absolutely nothing like “Seinfeld”, which is brilliant in its own unique way.
Even though there’s a selfishness to the Seinfeld characters, the overall attitude is sunny, light, and the characters genuinely love each other. Ostensible “loser” George has a big deal job with the New York Yankees and later teams with his super successful comedian best friend to write a TV pilot. Elaine’s job as an editor leads to a right-hand-man position with a famous catalogue personality. Kramer, who is unemployed but somehow never at a loss for money, becomes a Calvin Klein underwear model and coffee table book author.
Mark and Jez’s bleak, hopeless mediocrity stands in stark difference to the bouncy optimism of “Seinfeld”, and its sharp wit and excellent acting by Mitchell and Webb is the absolute body and soul of the show. I love the author’s Godot analogy – quite apt.
Mitchell and Webb’s other partnerships are equally good, and I recommend all of them, including the wonderful but inexplicably short-lived series, “The Ambassadors”. Their book is really funny, too.

Kirsten Walstedt
Kirsten Walstedt
7 months ago

You’ve sold me on it!

c hutchinson
CH
c hutchinson
7 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

I shall stick to reruns of Yes, Minister and Mr Bean.

Chris Hayes
Chris Hayes
7 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Careful. It’ll kill you.

Yvonne Hayton
YH
Yvonne Hayton
7 months ago

I do take issue with Victor Meldrew being included in the list with David Brent and Basil Fawlty. To me Victor was a much more gentle character who despaired of and was frustrated by the modern world and all its stupidity, lack of manners and general weirdness. I would have liked Victor in real life.

Nick Wade
NW
Nick Wade
7 months ago

Peep Show was hilarious. The cringeworthy nature of the show comes from the fact that, much as with Homer Simpson, we can all see a little bit of ourselves in Jez and Mark.

James Hooper
JH
James Hooper
7 months ago

A genius, ‘toe curling’ piece of television that totally nails the periphery characters too. Check out Paterson Joseph’s “Johnson’ and anyone that’s worked in an office for any period of time will start to experiencing signs of PTSD……
Also worth noting that the genesis of Succession started here. Jess Armstrong wrote both……

Billy Bob
BB
Billy Bob
7 months ago
Reply to  James Hooper

“People like Coldplay and voted for the Nazis, you can’t trust people Jeremy!”

James Hooper
JH
James Hooper
7 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Johnson Just wanted to drop by and say “Have fun.” Tonight should be a free-fire idea zone. Watch a DVD, eat some pizza, f**k each other. I’m serious. F*ck a chicken if that’s what it takes. Watch a chicken f*cking a horse. What? You think the guys who invented Google sat around watching Trumpton?Mark Corrigan [voiceover]  Oh, he is good. Taboo-busting, semi-incomprehensible pep talk.Yes, this kind of stuff actually exists……

Billy Bob
BB
Billy Bob
7 months ago
Reply to  James Hooper

“Don’t be alarmed, Mark, it’s just Tai Chi, take a seat and I’ll just power through.
It should take 45 minutes, I’m done in 10. Stick that up your dojo!”

Richard M
2
Richard M
7 months ago
Reply to  James Hooper

Absolutely. Peep Show has a brilliant recurring cast of supporting characters. Johnson, Super Hans, Gerald, Dobbie, Sophie, Geoff etc.

M Harries
MH
M Harries
7 months ago
Reply to  James Hooper

You’re NEVER… TAKING… THE GAGGIA!

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
7 months ago

Tragedy is premised on the idea that moral law is a real objective thing and is just as inexorable as physical law, and that when we contravene it, at some deep level we don’t really deserve whatever punishment it metes out.
Comedy concurs on the existence of moral law, but holds, by contrast, that when we break it we deserve, one hundred percent, right down to our toes, whatever we get, and probably then some.

Gordon Arta
GA
Gordon Arta
7 months ago

Shows such as those mentioned, with male central characters, male writers, and male producers, simply demonstrate that British men can laugh at themselves and their, wildly exaggerated, absurdities. Women can’t do that, nor can other nationalities, and the adaptations of Alf Garnet and David Brent – pale imitations of the originals – show.

Marissa M
MM
Marissa M
7 months ago
Reply to  Gordon Arta

Actually Americans do a pretty good job of it, too
Watch Best in Show or any of the comedies of Christopher Guest.
Also, the best American comedy ever: Arrested Development.

Ian Johnston
Ian Johnston
7 months ago
Reply to  Marissa M

Curb too.

It’s a total myth that Americans can’t do humour.

AD and CYE are both awesomely funny.

Amelia Melkinthorpe
Amelia Melkinthorpe
7 months ago
Reply to  Gordon Arta

I’m not so sure … Mrs Bucket (Keeping Up Appearances), Diana Trent (Waiting for God – and she’s who I want to be when I get there), Carolyn Knapp-Shappey (Cabin Pressure (the last good comedy ever on Radio 4 – and another Stephanie Cole masterclass)
All women characters with certain ideas about themselves, but also with self awareness, and in the case of “the Bucket woman”, a hinterland of relatives and other characters intent on puncturing her balloon of self-importance by their mere existence.
The only American series that comes close to the subtlety of British humour is “Frasier”, but not the reboot. That looks PC and dire …

Clare Knight
CK
Clare Knight
7 months ago
Reply to  Gordon Arta

“Women can’t do that”? So not true. Absolutely Fabulous comes to mind as one, In Australia Kath and Kim, The Carol Burnett show, I love Lucy, Mary Tyler Moore in the US, Hyacinth in Keeping Up Appearances and on and on.

Last edited 7 months ago by Clare Knight
Martin Smith
Martin Smith
7 months ago
Reply to  Gordon Arta

‘Frasier’ is a masterclass in the highly humourous and witty mocking of male pretension.

Sonny Ramadhin
SR
Sonny Ramadhin
7 months ago

I loved the peep show in the later years. Found it a bit strange when I was younger. I scene I remember so well is of Mark struggling to bring himself to terms with using an un-PC term to refer to a Chinese takeaway. It seemed so strange as the term was common place where I was from and never used to be disparaging. The term has now disappeared almost all together and seems so strange to say. On reflection, it is not possible to see what was so wrong, you must take someone else’s opinion that is wrong. You must cede to those who claim to know better and speak on behalf of the unheard.

The author hints at the time period of the show in terms of the ongoings in politics. Almost as if to suggest that the Blair government was the main driver in the feeling and nostalgia towards the early 21st century.

I see this period as the last before the digital age. This I why I believe the show may have grown out of cult popularity. I remember this as a better time because people were still people. Everyday interactions were still allowed by technology. The smartphone since represented a step change following decades of gradual evolution.

Britain wasn’t divided by Brexit, it was divided by the iPhone. The introduction of the iPhone was the breaking of the dam that allowed the power of technology to wash away humanity, carrying Brexit and the rest with it. The 90s & 00s were the pre-modern age of the good before the bad.

Steve Murray
LL
Steve Murray
7 months ago
Reply to  Sonny Ramadhin

I think you’ve found the chink in the author’s argument.

Paul Cree
PC
Paul Cree
7 months ago

Spot on. I was a late convert, dismissed it when it first aired. However, I got really into it. It’s brilliant.

Both Jez and Mark are like symbols for the worst excesses of us all, particularly politically. Both inept, narcissistic, deluded and selfish.

I still quote Peep Show, so much

Marissa M
Marissa M
7 months ago

Brilliant show.
The Brits are so likable when they make dry fun of themselves vs. being represented by foppish and unrelatable characters played by Hugh Grant types.

Sue Ross
Sue Ross
7 months ago

Well, that’s as maybe, but it’s still the best comedy show ever and that’s enough for me.
I AM James Bond.

Chris Hayes
Chris Hayes
7 months ago

Peep Show: the Radiohead of comedy.

Frank McCusker
FM
Frank McCusker
7 months ago

F Towers and Inbetweeners are hysterical. Peep Show was funny as well, but had an all-pervasive gloom about it which rather spoilt it for me, certainly by comparison to the other two.  

Chris Hayes
Chris Hayes
7 months ago

To paraphrase…all comedy is humiliation…if it’s any good. And in this regard Peep Show humiliated everyone: including the viewer from time to time. I loved it.

Emre S
Emre S
7 months ago

I’ve always seen Peep Show as a criticism of the supposedly triumphalist Neoliberalism of the time. In the light of everything that’s happened since then, Peep Show almost feels naively optimistic to me today despite its cringe humour and cynicism.

Last edited 7 months ago by Emre S
Mark Gilmour
MG
Mark Gilmour
7 months ago

First two seasons are brilliant black satire. The toe curling scene in which Mark attempts to leave an answering machine message for Sophie in his risible attempts to woo her is brilliant writing – so relatable you feel every moment of Mark’s pain.

From Season 3 onwards the writers ramped up the elements of farce which some prefer but not I.

Martin Bounds
Martin Bounds
7 months ago
Reply to  Mark Gilmour

I remember enjoying the 3rd and 4th seasons quite a bit too – but I think around then it had its ‘jump the shark’ moment when Jez ate that dog.

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
7 months ago

What a strangely scathing eye to cast on a largely insipid if harmlessly beign British comedy. Is this Year Zero generational warfare again, where all that came before internet cultural activism must be attacked then discarded as decadence in need of political purification?

Ian Cooper
Ian Cooper
7 months ago

So is this comedy for losers?

Billy Bob
BB
Billy Bob
7 months ago
Reply to  Ian Cooper

No, it’s comedy for everybody. The characters aren’t even losers, they’re all simply deeply flawed

Andrew Boughton
Andrew Boughton
7 months ago

“Is itcthe bad English weather?” Or perhaps something analogous and just as prosaic, 100 years of unrelenting Marxist feminism being finally internalised? The appeal to women being someone to blame, after the untimely death of God, for the difficulty and pain of life.

And instead of “praise Him, praise Him” more “braise him, braise him!”

Last edited 7 months ago by Andrew Boughton
Clare Knight
CK
Clare Knight
7 months ago

OMG!!

Nicholas Taylor
Nicholas Taylor
7 months ago

I stopped watching British sit-comedy with Fawlty Towers. Whatever you might think of the attitudes that satirised, it did rise above everyday life. Having said that, maybe it is time to build a series about an arch-brexiteer, say modelled on Nigel Farage (is he still in this country?).

Jeff Butcher
JB
Jeff Butcher
7 months ago

I think Alan Partridge would definitely have voted Brexit

Jeff Butcher
Jeff Butcher
7 months ago
Reply to  Jeff Butcher

And Alan B’stard