Plunkett on TV: David Schwimmer & Sky’s new GCHQ comedy, Intelligence

There was a moment when comedian Nick Mohammed was writing Intelligence, his new GCHQ-based comedy for Sky One, that he was concerned the character played by David Schwimmer, a blowhard buffoon from the NSA, might have gone too far.

“I was worried initially, I didn’t want it to be too much of a trope and the culture clash being too one note,” he says.

“But when you realise that Trump is the US president and that’s real and happening now, you think, well it’s not really too far removed from the truth that some high powered white guy might be able to stumble upwards to these positions of power and wreak havoc.”

Or, as Schwimmer puts it: “What my character lacks in experience he makes up for in confidence, which is a particularly American quality right now.”

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Schwimmer is both star and one of the executive producers of the sitcom which Zai Bennett, Sky UK’s managing director of content, describes as “Homeland meets The Office”.

“Nick has created and written the show, David has co-exec produced the show, and they have been incredibly hands on,” says Bennett. “It’s all about authorship and loads of what’s in there has come from them so that’s really special for us.

“It is something that’s been in Nick and then David’s mind for ages and we’re really happy to be a part of helping them to bring it together. There’s a real bromance between them and you get that on screen; that’s not something you can really fake.”

The pair’s relationship goes back to a Channel 4 pilot, Morning Has Broken, that Mohammed co-wrote with Julia Davis.

Schwimmer saw the pilot and called to ask if he could help them develop it further. Although the morning TV spoof never made it to a series, they spent a lot of time improvising together and a friendship was born.

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So when Mohammed wrote the first draft of Intelligence, he contacted Schwimmer again and he immediately came on board.

Schwimmer’s character, Jerry Bernstein, is a world away from Central Perk, a sweary alpha male type who chants USA in the mirror and is casually racist, misogynistic and homophobic. At least, that’s how he starts out.

“David didn’t want to play to type and to be given a character who isn’t instantly likeable, someone who is sort of offensive and isn’t woke, he loved the thought of that and had a lot of fun playing that side of things,” says executive producer Nerys Evans.

“There are a lot of things he says that are quite shocking. But by episode two it starts peeling away and you see how vulnerable he is and what a doofus he is. You have these wonderful moments where the curtain gets pulled and you see the little boy behind it, so there’s a real depth to that character.”

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Mohammed says there was a “fine line to be had when doing a comedy which has national security as a backdrop”.

“Some of the comedy comes from the fact that you have got these people who are socially quite awkward and have these odd very everyday human interactions but actually the stuff they are dealing with is really, really important.

“And so we were never poking fun at the work they do and the things they are trying to prevent and sometimes can’t prevent. We’re not doing it to be gratuitously offensive … we’re just trying to find the light relief that must exist in places like GCHQ.”

Mohammed did a “good amount of research” into what it’s like to work at the Cheltenham base.

But they came to the conclusion that if they included some of the things they found out - cake sales, a GCHQ choir - “it will look as though we deliberately tried to design a joke around it”.

"The ideal is that anyone who has worked in any kind of office environment - which is obviously lots of people - can associate with some of the daily interactions, but you just happen to have this big backdrop of national security at somewhere like GCHQ.”

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Most of the comedy is scripted but there was also room in the six-part series for the sort of improvisation that first formed the basis of Mohammed’s working relationship with Schwimmer.

Not least one particular scene about a team building exercise which was heavily informed by Schwimmer’s fondness for ‘Simon Says’. Or, to be specific, ‘Schwimmer Says’.

“I have always done a game with my theatre company in Chicago and with any cast of a play I’m directing,” says Schwimmer.

“I play a game called Schwimmer Says which is a version of Simon Says but it’s really fast and it’s really intense and I’m hardcore.”

Already commissioned for a second series, Schwimmer hopes the show will provide viewers with a bit of light relief from some of the issues that form its backdrop.

“We need that kind of relief and release because we are all struggling every day with so many issues and it’s not an easy time we live in. If we can take 21 minutes out of your day and make you forget or release it through laughter, then I feel like that’s our job.”

* Intelligence is a co-production with Expectation and Dark Harbor Stories. It begins on Sky One on at 9pm on 21 February with all six episodes available to watch on Now TV

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