In a dimly lit room backstage at an underground club in east London, four men in their 30s share their masturbation secrets with me. Seapa finds it difficult at the moment: it hurts. Seapa also says (Seapa does most of the talking) that Steve does it with his legs behind his head, and that he spits on his... Well, I won’t say, in case you’re having your breakfast.
Anyway, he’s joking, he says. “We all wank perfectly normally.”
“Very healthy masturbation,” Asim confirms.
Until Seapa remembers Hugo. “Hundred per cent a fact: Hugo has to do it on his knees.”
Rather than deny it, Hugo corrects him. “Not even on my knees,” he says. “Squatting on all fours.” He has an explanation, too, one that harks back to his teens and verges on the Freudian. “I think it’s when I had a family computer downstairs at this level,” he says, indicating its height. “Literally, the laptop’s there and my chin’s there…” I’m not totally picturing it, and not trying too hard, to be honest; the four of them crack up.
Apologies for sharing, but this is symptomatic of the entire 90 minutes I spend with Seapa, Steve, Asim and Hugo. These men know each other very well, are proper friends from way back, with no secrets, no no-go areas, and who cares if there’s a geezer from the Guardian here as well (“You’re a journalist, you’re not a human,” Seapa tells me). They relentlessly take the piss, out of each other, out of me; they’re boysy, rude, open, very funny – individually, collectively, all ways.
It has to be said that the line between fact and fiction isn’t always clear. I’d guess the story about Hugo is true, about Steve not (I hope). I’m not even sure how we got on to masturbation. Oh, yes, they were talking about “blazing” (smoking weed, something else they do a lot of, although there’s some talk of having stopped) and how it affects the senses, vision and touch, and it progressed naturally from there, do you see?
As well as being blazers and wankers, they – real names Allan “Seapa” Mustafa, Steve Stamp, Asim Chaudhry and Hugo Chegwin – are the creators, writers (principally Steve and Seapa) and stars of the award-winning BBC comedy People Just Do Nothing.
Big up PJDN
Confession: I’m a fan, big time. If you know the show, you surely will be, too – and if you don’t, you should get involved. A mockumentary sitcom centred on Kurupt FM, a pirate radio station broadcasting UK garage to not very many people at all in west London, it won a Bafta last year (beating Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag), which Seapa doesn’t let you forget.
People Just Do Nothing is not a million miles from The Office – in actual mileage (it’s about 10 from Brentford to Slough), as well as in format and vibe. They’re massive fans of Ricky Gervais’ show: Seapa’s character, MC Grindah, is a kind of tower-block David Brent, while The Office producer Ash Atalla has become their executive producer. (As well as Gervais, they mention Alan Partridge, Brass Eye, Peep Show, Spinal Tap, Summer Heights High and documentaries such as the BBC Three series Tower Block Dreams.)
But PJDN is much more than The Office at 130bpm. It’s a heartfelt homage to a very different world – beautifully observed, authentic down to the music samples and trainer brands, because it’s a world its makers know inside out, having grown up in it. It’s more than a television show, too; as Kurupt FM, they have toured clubs and venues, played Glastonbury and taken over Radio 1Xtra.
You don’t need to know your UK garage from your drum’n’bass, or be a pirate radio aficionado, to appreciate People Just Do Nothing. Because, more than anything, it’s about people – not doing nothing, so much as doing the wrong thing.
4x4 - The Kurupt playlist
I realise this could be getting a little muddly: four different characters, being played by four different people. Usually, for interviews, as with their live shows, Kurupt FM remain in character. Today, they’re letting the masks slip, but it’s a blurry line between the real and the invented. So, for reference, your cast:
MC Grindah, convinced he’s the greatest MC on the planet, unwisely unwilling to let go of the dream, unrelated to the dating app; played by Allan “Seapa” Mustafa, 33, who also writes.
DJ Beats, Grindah’s lieutenant, loyal and loving, in spite of Grindah’s bullying (he is like a badly treated labrador); played by Hugo Chegwin, 33. Hugo, incidentally, is a nephew of Keith “Cheggers” Chegwin. Doesn’t play pop, though.
Chabuddy G, their sort-of manager, a wheeler-dealer Arthur Daley kind of fella and hopeless entrepreneur; played by Asim Chaudhry, 31.
Steves, basically on drugs, a “wiggy mess”. If they were the Happy Mondays, he’d be Bez; played by Steve Stamp, 33, who also writes.
Even if you’ve never tuned into a pirate radio station, let alone been to one, you will know one or more of a Grindah, a Steves, a Beats and a Chabuddy G. Know and likely also love, because, despite their absurd foolishness, there is lots to root for, too.
It’s also about jokes – ongoing jokes, such as Angel, Grindah’s daughter with his girlfriend (later wife) Miche, who clearly isn’t – biologically speaking – Grindah’s daughter, on account of the colour of her skin (she’s mixed race; Miche and Grindah are white). Then there are the smaller, more ephemeral jokes, such as Grindah’s definition of salvation: “McDonald’s on the horizon when you need a shit.” Or Chabuddy G’s devotion to Sean Paul Gaultier fragrance. Or Chabuddy’s explanation of what hormones are: “Little balls of anger that live inside women.”
Yes, PJDN is undeniably blokey. “It’s tricky, because pirate radio is such a boys’ club,” says Steve, possibly the most thoughtful of the four, and definitely the tallest. “I think we’ve worked hard to try and get more of the female perspective in there.” This comes mainly via Miche (the brilliant Lily Brazier, who grows into the role and demands a place at the cast’s top table).
“One thing I would say, though, is the joke is always on the men,” Seapa says. “Grindah’s pretending to be this bravado guy, but he always gets bit on the arse and looks like a dickhead in the end.”
The show’s pilot and the first four episodes were only loosely threaded together. But from the second series, story arcs began to form, narrative rainbows over the concrete Brentford skyline – themes, issues, even. Not just male hopelessness, but loss and grief, addiction, bankruptcy and homelessness, abusive relationships. Prepare yourselves – in the fifth and final series – for gentrification. And, sadly, for everyone having to grow up. First, though, back to the beginning...
If you’re up to speed, you’ll know this means going back to the beginning halfway through – just as Grindah does in the middle of Grindah and Beats’s track, Heart Monitor Riddim (Lyrical Blow To The Jaw). “So me and Steve used to run a dogging company, out of a car park in Guildford,” Seapa says in the dingy backstage room (the club was the location for today’s cover shoot; this room, though horrid, seems entirely appropriate).
“We were on a forum, because we all caught the same disease,” Hugo adds.
Neither is true (I don’t think). But they all agree that Hugo was central to the beginning of what became a beautiful thing. “Hugo’s the clitoris,” Seapa says, taking it back down there. That’s Seapa’s role, as well as doing most of the talking, and the reminding about their Bafta.
Hugo – more of an introvert, less readable, equally comfortable with filth – goes with it: “And these guys are my orgasm.” Loads of laughing at that.
Here’s the actual truth (I think). Hugo grew up next door to Steve in Brentford, on the other side of the M4 motorway from the towers of the Haverfield Estate, as featured in the show. Hugo met Asim (from Hounslow) and Seapa (from Chessington) at Thames Valley College through a shared passion for smoking weed and creating music. Hugo would make hip-hop beats in his room; Asim rapped and made videos. Seapa ran a tinpot pirate radio station, and hung around squat parties and raves.
When Seapa and Hugo dropped out of college, they used their student loans to visit Steve in Thailand; he was travelling having finished uni (English literature at Sussex). They went to beach parties, where Steve, who wasn’t really taking serious drugs, would pretend to be on pills just for a laugh. (This was the birth of his character Steves.)
Back in London, they continued to hang out, smoking more weed, messing around with Xbox Live and early camera phones, creating more characters. They used to make prank calls, too, which is where Asim’s character, Chabuddy G, began, partly inspired by his father, a bit of a hustler who once ran a business from a portable office.
I wonder if Asim – warm and instantly likable – has ever been accused of stereotyping, playing a comedy south Asian businessman with a finger in a lot of pies? “I’ve had a bit,” he says. “But you have to look at the detail behind it, the layers of research that go into it, and the real-life connection you have to it.”
Chabuddy G could be any race or culture, he says; it’s his self-delusion that makes him funny. This is nothing like, for example, Hank Azaria, a white guy, doing Apu on the Simpsons. “No one talks like Apu in real life, no one says [he puts on an Apu voice], ‘Thank you, come again.’ A lot of people speak like Chabuddy, a lot of people dress like Chabuddy, a lot of people are Chabuddy.”
Anyway, Asim, who had been camera operator (because he had a camera), was now in it, as Chabuddy G, even if he wasn’t clear what it was.
People just do something
What would become People Just Do Nothing was born, chiefly, out of experience, hence the pinpoint authenticity. But the irony of authenticity is that a lot of work went into it.
They created their characters, and improvised material that they posted on Asim’s YouTube channel. Some of the people they knew wondered why the hell they were doing it, investing all this time and energy into posting YouTube clips (this was before everyone starting spending all their time posting YouTube clips).
“We were about 24, and everyone else was working, and we hadn’t really achieved anything,” Seapa says. “We didn’t start out like, ‘This is going to be on telly and earn money’, we just did it. We were in shit, dead-end jobs, but we always made sure we were doing something creative.”
At one point, three of them were working in the same call centre. Hugo also worked at a will-writing firm, in accounts (if he were in The Office, he’d be Tim).
“All I had on my CV were admin jobs that I wasn’t proud of,” Steve says. “If I wanted to get something I enjoyed, I would have to create my own work and show that I can do stuff outside the admin world. There always needed to be projects – writing.”
Steve always wanted to write. “I didn’t know if it was going to be scripts or...”
“Romantic novels,” Seapa butts in.
“Romantic novels,” Steve agrees, going along with it, a little resignedly at first, then raising him. “Erotic novels.”
“At one point, you were into Ukrainian erotic novels, weren’t you?” Seapa asks, not just seeing him, but raising him further. And they’re all off again: they were all into Ukrainian erotic novels and read them aloud together, sitting back to back, topless, but no one wanted to do it with Asim, because of his back hair. Make up your own mind about the veracity of that one.
Urban powerhouse/radio station/family
The YouTube episodes were not an overnight viral sensation; the viewers trickled in over a couple of years. But the producer Jon Petrie, who worked with Atalla at the independent production company Rough Cut TV, saw them and got the boys in for a meeting in early 2011.
“They basically said, ‘Are you happy for us to approach channels on your behalf and try to get you a pilot?’” Steve says.
They were keen to – and did – retain creative control, hanging on to the baby that had been conceived over a big chunk of their lives, in their bedrooms, blazing, back to back (maybe). But they also got some help with things like how to write a script, which they hadn’t done before: the YouTube webisodes were all improvised.
Today, there is still room for improv to sneak in: they reckon it’s about 70-30 script to improv in the final cut. “We’ve been in these characters since 2010, so we’re very comfortable with them,” Asim says. “We know how they’re going to react, what they’re going to say.”
After the pilot went out on BBC Three in 2011, a series was commissioned, followed by a second, then a further two. The Bafta came after a poignant third series that ends – on Valentine’s Day – with a birth and a death.
There’s irony in their success, too, because, while in many ways their lives mirror those of their characters, they have also left them way behind. A big part of the ongoing joke is that, while Kurupt FM claims to be the biggest and baddest pirate station in the land, even the more conservative claim of “over 100 listeners” is hopelessly optimistic – it’s probably time to think about throwing in the mic. Whereas for Seapa, Steve, Asim and Hugo, things are kicking off big time. It’s not just the series, the live show and the real radio station takeovers (where they hold their own alongside Stormzy and Craig David); there is the hilarious sketch they did with very game “urban artist” Ed Sheeran on Comic Relief last year (they attempt to make him “less shit”); Chabuddy G has a comedy advice book out, How To Be A Man; and if you’ve taken a British Airways flight recently, you will have seen him as the lead in the (actually funny) safety video. After this final series, there’s going to be a film, which they’re working on (they’ve been talking to the Inbetweeners people, who successfully translated their sitcom to the big screen).
About all of which, they’re dead proud – not so much about where they’ve got to, more where they started from. “Where I’m from, no one I know has come into this industry,” Seapa says. “I didn’t even know it was an option.”
“You don’t have to come through the conventional route,” Asim adds. “You don’t have to go to the Edinburgh festival, you don’t need to be in a drama club, you don’t need to do this – you’ve got a camera, you’ve got funny friends.”
“For the younger generation who’ve grown up with YouTube and stuff, maybe we can be a small inspiration,” Hugo starts to say, before being interrupted by Seapa: “Hugo Chegwin, motivational speaker!”
More than anything else, People Just Do Nothing is – at risk of sounding cheesy – a massive shout-out to friendship. “You can be talented, you can be creative, but if you’re not in the right circles…” Seapa begins, and by the right circles he’s not talking about media contacts or LinkedIn connections. “These are my best friends. We were all cruxes [sic; he means crutches] for each other, spurred each other on – that’s why we got through.”
Speaking of sic, they don’t say sick (with a k, for Kurupt FM), as in good, as much as they do on the show. Or trust me. Or bruv. But they do finish each other’s sentences, as only people who are close do. Mostly Seapa finishes them.
What is clear – while we talk, but also watching them arse about in the photoshoot – is they enjoy hanging out together, and it’s from this, and trying to make each other laugh, that the comedy comes. “These are my funniest friends,” Steve says. “The more I work with other actors, I realise that, even though we’re not actors, what we do in front of camera is impressive.”
Asim agrees, and says that for him it’s mainly about trying to make Steve crack up. Hugo talks of the journey, the experiences, the bond they’ve formed – something that a lot of music acts don’t have.
Are they the Beatles of Brentford? “I don’t know,” Seapa says. “Have they got a Bafta?”
Our time is up and Seapa has the last word, unsurprisingly. Nor is the direction he takes it in surprising. “Nice little chat,” he says. “Hope that was good for you.” And he laughs, they all do. “It’s like we just had sex.”
• The fifth and final series of People Just Do Nothing starts on BBC Two next month. Kurupt FM tour the UK from 9 November 9.
Opening shot: Asim wears jacket, Balenciaga at Harrods. Tracksuit bottoms, Stone Island at Browns. Steve wears sweatshirt, Palace. Allan wears vintage jacket, Stone Island. Tracksuit bottoms, Stone Island at Browns. Hugo wears Camo polar jacket, Stussy at Mr Porter. Cap, Lacoste. Tracksuit bottoms, Stone Island at Harvey Nichols.
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• This article was amended on 30 October 2018. An earlier version implied The Office was set in Staines. This has been corrected to Slough.