"We're aware of what people are going to expect from a Love Island/Iain Stirling sitcom so we want to immediately surprise them."
Usually, around this time of year, I'd be catching up with comedian Steve Bugeja to talk about his latest Edinburgh Fringe show. But little did Steve (or anyone for that matter) know that after his fifth consecutive Fringe in 2019 that there wouldn't be a festival in 2020 and that the festival in 2021 would look very different.
However, one thing he did know but wasn't allowed to say, was that ITV2 had agreed to commission a sitcom from him and his close friend/fellow comedian/voice of Love Island Iain Stirling. That sitcom is Buffering and launches this week on ITV2.
It follows twenty-something Iain, played by Iain Stirling, a children's TV presenter in a complicated relationship with TV producer Olivia and his housemates Rosie, Greg, Ashley and Talia, played by Jessie Cave, Paul G Raymond, Rosa Robson and Janine Harouni alongside Ashley's old flame Robbie, played by Sean Sagar.
Together they face the daily challenges of millennial living. As a generation who have been brought up to believe you must live the perfect life, these friends will discover it's OK to fail, over and over again. And whilst not part of the main ensemble, Steve does play Iain's floor manager Finn throughout the series.
In keeping with tradition, I caught up with Steve Bugeja and we spoke about the long road to Buffering, including the challenges of shooting during a pandemic, and Steve shared his favourite moments from series one and ambitions for a second series.
Explain the journey to Buffering. How long have you and Iain had the idea for?
It's been a few years now. It got commissioned at the beginning of Edinburgh 2019 and I remember it very clearly because - and you know what Edinburgh's like - I got a bad review that day and got a sitcom commission. But obviously, all I cared about, was the review.
My agent was like "What are you talking about? You've got a sitcom." and I was like "Yes, but they said nasty things!"
So we were probably working on it for about two years before that. Two Edinburghs before 2019 we had that first discussion. And it was a slow process because Iain is very busy, we're both doing our own thing and actually, we both weren't sure it was going to happen.
It was our production company that approached us and said "You should write a sitcom". Obviously, it's a dream come true. But you don't really think it's going to happen when someone says "Make a sitcom".
So we worked on it quite a lot, but always in the back of our heads was this feeling that it wasn't going to come to anything. But then it started to get more real in the first half of 2019 as the channel began to commit a bit more.
Where did the initial idea come from for Buffering?
It came from Iain's stand-up really. In his show that year, he talked about the battle between being a kids' TV presenter and also living a normal life in your twenties where you're not always happy all the time.
We thought that seemed like a funny jumping-off point for a sitcom and it expanded from there. Initially, it was just going to be Iain and that clash between the kids' TV world and him doing whatever he does in his twenties!
But then, we realised that there were more stories to tell and we wanted a bigger cast. We wanted to write a very fast-paced sitcom and you physically can't do that with one story going on.
We then started to expand the characters and work out the other sorts of people Iain might be hanging out with, and that's when we thought logically, let's take it away from the kid's TV studio - let's have Iain's world as kids' TV - but everyone else is more normal.
It then became what it is now and we were really lucky to get the casting that we did.
It's very much an ensemble piece, isn't it? Despite Iain's character being at the centre of it.
Yeah, we never thought of it as "Iain Stirling's sitcom". Iain was never bothered about being the main force in each episode. I think naturally, in some of the episodes he is, but actually, in episode five, he's in it but not in the first two main stories.
We were really keen to get a really great ensemble cast because they're my favourite sorts of comedy. Once we had that cast in place, we just knew that we had to play to their strengths. We knew that to have them just in the background being funny, would be massively underselling them so we just knew that we had to have them all doing their own thing.
What's the best way for you to describe Buffering?
Buffering is about people in that stage of life where they're just a little bit too old to be young, free and single and going out partying all the time. But they're not rich enough to have a mortgage.
So they're sort of stuck in that bit where they know they should be adults by now, and a lot of their friends are adults, but because of the nature of living in London or delayed adulthood, they're kind of stuck in this bit where they're trying to get to the next stage. But they're nowhere near it.
And I think that's a very good area for comedy because no one is really happy with where they're at. It's basically the stage I'm at now and the stage Iain was at a few years ago - where you just want to get on with your life and be an adult, but also you're conscious of not throwing away your youth.
So it's that battle between not wanting to wish away my young days, but also wanting that stability and owning a house and all my friends having babies. The gap between the people who are progressing and the people who are stuck becomes bigger and bigger and bigger. Until maybe your mid-thirties/forties, when it evens out again? I'm not sure.
ITV2 seems like the perfect fit then for Buffering, especially following Love Island in the schedules. Do you feel the same?
Absolutely! It was never really going to go anywhere else. Iain has a very keen eye for who watched Love Island and actually, it's not the people you'd expect to watch Love Island who are.
There's a stereotype of who watches trashy TV or whatever, and it's just not true. The people who watch Love Island are very smart, successful people who want escapism in the evening. And Love Island is their escapism.
It would have been easy to write something that was a little bit more frivolous and trivial, but we very consciously decided not to do that. The people who watch Love Island are the same people who are binging Rose Matafeo's show on iPlayer and Mae Martin's show on Netflix - it's the same people. I hope we created something that will surprise some people.
Well, it certainly surprised me, in a good way, because as well as the highs and the laughs, there are some lows and real warmth and emotion too. How important was that you to strike the right balance between the two?
That's what life is. So to create something that didn't reflect life, we didn't want to do. We were never interested in that. If you're going to tell the story of what it's like in your mid-late twenties, when you're struggling to become an adult, you're going to have to tell the hard bits as well as the funny bits.
All my favourite sitcoms do that. They all have those moments of heart and pathos and it's what I think, makes you love a character.
There's a Maya Angelou quote I always remember, with Edinburgh shows and everything, and it's "People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."
I always take that to mean, yeah you can do the laughs, and people will enjoy the laughs, but actually what people will resonate with is that feeling of sadness. And you have to give them that, otherwise they won't come back. They might only watch one or two episodes.
And actually, some of the tougher storylines, come fairly early on in the series, which is a risk when we're still getting to know the characters. But a risk I think pays off. I really cared for Iain and Olivia during those miscarriage scenes.
Thank you very much, that means a lot. We're aware of what people are going to expect from a Love Island/Iain Stirling sitcom so we want to immediately surprise them. Also, that is what we wanted to make. It wasn't a cynical effort, they're genuinely our favourite type of sitcoms.
I'm glad you think it worked. It was a huge risk, the miscarriage stuff. We had to be really careful with it and it does come from personal experience from many places and we had other writers on it, Eleanor Tiernan and Christine Robertson, who helped us a lot with the female experience of that.
We were very conscious that we wanted to handle that right. There were a lot of people who helped us craft it because it could easily go wrong. Hopefully, it didn't. I think it's what gives the show its core. Ultimately, these are just people who are going through things everyone goes through.
1 in 4 pregnancies end in miscarriage and I don't think you see it on TV loads. I'm not saying we're groundbreaking or anything, I just think comedies certainly haven't delved into it too much. I think there's room for it and hopefully, it doesn't feel too incongruous after Love Island. Hopefully, people will just go "Oh yeah, that's what our lives are like."
How did the writing process work between yourself and Iain? What were the timelines like with the pandemic?
The timelines were mixed, so the first two episodes were filmed pre-pandemic and we wrote those while on tour, so in the Avalon office but also several hotels up and down the country, with the brilliant Christine Robertson who was our script editor for the first two episodes.
We were under a lot of time pressure because it got commissioned in August but we were in Edinburgh for that month and then September, October the tour and we filmed in November.
We did have a pilot script, which is what got commissioned, but we scrapped it so wrote a whole new first episode. We had this new vision for the show and the miscarriage storyline became more important so decided that we could no longer use that first pilot episode so got rid of it. I'm so glad we did. It was the best thing we did. We would basically have been a whole episode out. It works much better like this.
So that was really intense, we then filmed it in November and it was the most brilliant experience, but we also learnt a lot because we'd watched our cast really bring it to life and made us realise what it was about each character that made them funny.
And then... we were writing the next four episodes, due to film them in May and the pandemic hit and we got delayed by a year, which gave us an extra year to write the final four episodes. Which was amazing because it did allow us to change some stuff and work on it, but it was also heartwrenching because we'd worked so hard on it and we weren't sure if it was going to come back.
It was also really great for me during lockdown, because it gave me something to focus on. It does mean that between episodes two and three, there's an 18-month gap in the filming.
And didn't you also lose the house that you were filming in?
That's right. We filmed in an actual house in Peckham but then due to various Covid things, we couldn't film there anymore so they had to build the entire house in Pinewood Studios.
Humphrey, who's our set designer, went into the house for 15 minutes max, to scout it out and from memory rebuilt the whole thing again. It's honestly incredible. You walk onto the set in Pinewood and you feel like you're there.
There were a few bits in episode one that we had to reshoot and actually, there's a bit in episode one where if you look later on in that episode, there's a bit of a difference. But it's fine.
In terms of the cast, there are many great up and coming comedians in Buffering. Was that important to you?
We were really keen to get comics in because first of all comics are funny, so they make us funnier. The number of times Janine - especially Janine (Harouni) - would take our line, adlib a few extra bits and we'd go "Ah, that's funnier."
Janine would ad-lib so much that I would be tense, waiting to find out what her next ad-lib is going to be and then burst out laughing!
But actually, they all did that and they were all brilliant at doing that. With Janine particularly, I saw her at 99 Club in Edinburgh, just as Buffering got commissioned and I'd never met her before, I just heard of her. I watched it and I thought "Oh, that's Talia!" so we got her to audition and luckily she could act.
Jessie Cave was literally our first choice for Rosie the whole time but we didn't think she'd do it. We thought she was too cool, but luckily she did.
The other guys all came in to audition, I didn't know them that well. I'd heard of Paul (G Raymond), I'd seen Rosa (Robson) in her sketch group but they just came in and smashed their auditions really.
We didn't necessarily say we wanted comics, some straight actors came in to audition, some comics came in to audition and I think naturally the comics brought a slightly different energy to it that we wanted.
There are also some great guest stars, like Lolly Adefope, Alistair Green, Michael Spicer, Joel Dommett, Vicky Pattison, Sam Womack, Nigel Ng and Phil Fletcher.
They were all brilliant. Lolly just smashed it, she came in for a day, she's such a pro, totally got the character, made it her own and nailed it. Alistair was great as well and actually, we put Alistair in that before he'd really blew up, so we thought we were ahead of the curve, but now we just look like we put a famous guy in our show. We knew he'd be great and he was.
We were keen to have at least one guest star per episode. Joel Dommett did a really good job in episode four for example. And actually, they're really fun to write because you can write anything. You don't have to worry about them coming back.
One character which I'm assuming is based on you, is Greg. Is that right? And were you ever going to play him?
(Laughs) I'm glad you spotted it so easily. That's a man who has seen my stand-up. Initially, it was very based on me and then it became less and less. As we kept writing it, it became clear that Greg was slightly nerdier than me, but he's had some of the same sorts of insecurities and neurosis of panicking.
I was never going to play him. I never wanted to be in the main cast. I thought, two guys writing a sitcom and putting themselves in it is a bit much and I think there's something to be said about not being in every scene. So I could be on set and watch and give notes. I didn't actually realise it before, but at the time I thought, if I was in this, it would be a nightmare.
Also, Paul is just great. He smashed it. There was never a discussion for that part to be played by me. But short answer, yes he is based on a younger version of me.
What are some of your favourite scenes that we should look out for?
Episode 4 is my favourite episode. Joel Dommett has some really funny stuff in the gym and Ashley and Robbie go boxing with Talia. That's really fun! There's a whole episode where Iain gets into a throuple and it was the most fun to film!
In episode five, they host an art gallery at the house and Rosie, who's hosting it, ends up turning into a capitalist maniac which is the story I'm most proud of because Rosie goes on this journey and Jessie did so well with that. She's so funny with it.
I assume you've got ambitions for a second series?
Yeah, I mean we don't know if we've got one, but we've got lots of plans and lots of hopes for it because we're now so attached to the characters. We know what we want them to do and the funny situations we want to put them in.
I've fallen in love with the characters now. I genuinely route for them and want to tell the story of Ashley and Iain and see where that goes. There's so much more to be done with Rosie and Talia as well. They're two of the funniest characters. And they're in it a lot, but I think they could be more front and centre if we had a second series.
When it goes out on Thursday, will you be watching along and looking at Twitter?
I mean, I'd love to say that I'll be off Twitter, and not looking at any of it, but obviously, I will scroll through every single thing that gets said about it, and I will watch it and I will cry if someone says something nasty and probably won't even flinch if someone says something nice because that is the way things are!
I try and take it all with a pinch of salt. I know social media isn't always an accurate representation of people's views. It's a new sitcom and new sitcoms don't always land straight away, so we're not expecting it to be an immediate smash. But we hope it's good enough, that it cuts through and that people talk about it and tell others to binge that show. It's pretty bingeable.
Is that how you want people to watch it? To binge it?
The first two episodes go out on Thursday and then it's one a week but all episodes will be available on the ITV Hub which is how I think most people will watch it anyway.
ITV were really smart I think, to put it all on the hub, because you can watch it all in two hours ten or something. It's like a film really. That's how I think hopefully, people will watch it.
There are cliffhangers at the end of each episode, so I hope people get invested and then tell their friends to go and binge it.
Buffering starts Thursday at 10pm on ITV2 with a double-bill and all episodes available