How would you describe Truth Seekers, referencing other sci-fi or horror shows?
Our touchstones were The X Files, Arthur C Clarke’s World of Strange Powers, an old show called Sapphire and Steel but adding the weirdness of The Prisoner.
It also has a bit of old Doctor Who. Comedically, we were looking at The Odd Couple and Steptoe and Son – although I’m not sure who is Steptoe and who is the son.
Has this story been percolating long?
When we were younger men, Simon Pegg and I would spend weekends looking around old churches, sitting in graveyards at night or creeping around boarded-up houses to see if we could find a ghost.
We never did. But we always frightened ourselves. All four writers – me and Simon as a pair and Nat [Saunders] and James [Serafinowicz] separately – have always loved the occult, the spirit world, aliens and conspiracy theories. Then me and James started talking about this character Gus.
You’ve acted with Simon Pegg many times – how do you keep the dynamic fresh?
You only see Simon in his office in this, but his story builds. It’s nice to not always be together. I’m mainly with Samson. I am his Shaun [of The Dead], or he is my Danny Butterman [from Hot Fuzz], in this, you know? I loved hanging out with him. We spent a lot of time in the van together, so we’d hide bags of sweets to keep us going.
Do you enjoy seeing a project through from idea to screen?
Until I started acting when I was 30, I’d start things and never finish them. I started to feel it was a weakness in my character. So when we started to make TV shows and films, and especially when we made Paul in 2011 – where we had the idea, wrote the script, produced it and shot it – I felt for the first time I had put to bed that spiritual weakness.
Is there a science to the scares-to-laughs ratio in a show like this?
Oh, God, I don’t know – we’d have to run the scripts through the algorithm! But we never wanted to undercut a scare with a joke. We wanted the horror to be frightening and the comedy to be funny and the emotion to be real. If it was within the character’s realm of them being shit scared and saying funny stuff, like, ‘Don’t let go of my hand!’, which is what Simon and I experienced so often when we went ghost hunting, that was OK.
Did you go back to your old youthful misadventures for inspiration?
Just the scariness of old houses, really. We shot in an old hospital for deaf children which has been closed for 10 years and there were loads of cellars and tunnels. There were a few times I was left on my own while everyone got a shot ready and that was a bit scary.
But you had enough ideas from a lifetime of supernatural interest?
Oh, we over-wrote massively. When Amazon said our scripts needed to be half as long it knocked us on our arse. We’d tried to be so ambitious and were stuck for ages about how to gut these episodes. We had to take anything that didn’t add to the flow, but keep nice character quirks. Elton’s sister is played by Susan Wokoma – and you don’t get actors that good and not give them anything to do.
And Malcolm McDowell plays your dad…
He is just a proper actor, you know? I was in awe. I felt honoured to be on the same stage. It was great hanging out with him. I like making Malcolm laugh. It really means something.
Is this a good time to launch a show, when none of us are allowed out?
It feels like a great time. Sadly, we’re in a world where Covid is doing its thing right now, but people are setting fire to 5G masts and stuff – and that’s kind of the storyline in our later episodes. We wanted to set it in a weird world where you weren’t sure what was real, which Black Mirror does so well.
Is this a world you can imagine returning to?
With the world-building we intend to do, hopefully it will be a journey we can do a few times. This is part of my learning curve as a producer – when you pitch ideas, they don’t just want your idea for one season, they want three or four.
Are you getting good at those meetings now?
Not really. I hate them if I’m perfectly honest. But if you’re passionate and talk at length about the project and you’re animated and honest and you make people laugh, that does the job.
We are clinging to popular culture like never before, what have you been watching through lockdown period?
Honestly, it’s been Octonauts, Fireman Sam and Hey Duggee. Because I’ve got a two-year old. I drove my wife bonkers watching every episode of Octonauts ever made even when the baby wasn’t watching. But it’s so compelling and there’s a musical number at the end…
Truth Seekers is on Amazon Prime Video from October 30