Six months ago, Robert Webb’s life was hanging in the balance.
So perhaps it should come as no surprise, as he publishes his debut novel on World Book Night, that the comedian and actor is “refocusing” his career.
Webb was in the middle of filming when a routine medical check revealed he had a massive problem with his heart.
It suddenly made sense of symptoms he’d put down to his addiction to alcohol and cigarettes.
Webb tells Sky News: “I was thinking about early death all the time, for years, because I knew I was treating my body quite badly.
“That wasn’t the reason that I have the heart prolapse. It’s a birth defect, a congenital thing.
“But it’s linked in my mind and it’s certainly linked in the way it’s been reported, because you can’t say, ‘I was drinking heavily and smoking a lot, and I had this problem with my heart’, without people quite reasonably linking the two things together.”
Referring to his heart murmur as a “lurking menace”, Webb says the diagnosis came as a complete shock.
“I had absolutely no idea, I just thought, ‘This is what it feels like when you’re 47 years old. You’re tired all the time’. It turned out my heart just wasn’t working at all properly.
“It was having to do really weird things to keep the show on the road. It had grown in size and had become a strange shape.
“The cardiologist said that was the weirdest looking heart he’d ever seen. It’s amazing it kept going as long as it did. It was very close to it just packing up…”
Such a diagnosis would be a major life event for anyone, but for Webb there was an added poignancy to the discovery.
His first novel, Come Again, is about a recently widowed woman whose husband drops dead from a brain tumour he didn’t know he had, but which had been growing since he was a child.
Of course, it’s pure fiction, and there’s a twist. But the comparison seems striking.
Although Webb wrote the novel long before discovering he himself had a congenital condition, he admits the parallel with his time-travelling romance can be seen as “kind of spooky”.
But rather than simply a coincidence, Webb puts it down to intuition: “These ideas come from your brain, and your brain is aware of what’s going on in your body more than your consciousness.”
Far from feeling negative about the experience, Webb says it has been life-changing: “I feel very, very lucky indeed. It’s the best thing that’s happened to me in years.
“It forces you to be very grateful. I’ve been absolutely re-blessed by all the good things that I already had going on, a lovely wife and two great kids, and a job that I always wanted to do.”
As far as drinking and smoking go, Webb says he is now teetotal.
“When you come out of hospital, the absolute last thing you want to do is have a drink or a cigarette or do anything that’s going to cause any harm. You come out with this newfound respect, if not affection, for your own internal organs.”
He says now when he looks at a glass of wine, “all I can see is a face full of poison that I went to some trouble to learn to enjoy”.
The operation, which took place in November, “almost certainly extended my life”.
Filming of the second series of comedy Back with David Mitchell, which had been put on hold for four months to allow for his surgery and recovery, then got back on track. But not for long.
The seemingly cursed production ground to a halt for a second time just three days before it was due to wrap due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Webb jokes: “It’s not been a very lucky shoot. I’m sure we’ll get back in and then the London tsunami will hit and then we’ll get another two scenes done before that.”
On a more serious note, he acknowledges his luck in getting treatment before COVID-19 hit the UK.
“My mended heart goes out to anybody still waiting for treatment. There will be lots of people who were expecting quite important, if not urgent operations…
“I just remember that that was the worst part, the two-and-a-half-week wait in between seeing the cardiologist and the operation. It was horrible because I was just wandering around the house trying not to have a heart attack.”
An enthusiastic partaker of Clap For Carers, Webb is “out there on Thursday nights clapping away like a maniac”. He has also written for the forthcoming book Dear NHS: 100 Letters To Say Thank You, in support of the health service as it battles COVID-19.
The contribution is another nod to Webb’s sideways step from actor to author, which he describes as a “refocusing” rather than a complete career change.
“I’m never going to stop acting. I couldn’t afford to retire even if I wanted to, and I certainly don’t want to. It’s always been my first love.
“I’ve always been a writer-performer and for me, it’s kind of the same thing. I’ve never really tried to separate them.”
He also jokes that it would “scare and upset” his agent.
But he insists, it’s not that much of a shift: “At the moment, this feels like the best way for me to entertain people, which is always what I wanted to do. I’m just doing it through books now.
“Certainly, the next thing I’ll do is write another novel as opposed to trying to think of an idea for a sitcom or a radio show.”
Is it a way, I suggest, to step away from Jeremy Usbourne, the Peep Show character that made him famous?
Webb says not: “I’m very happy to be associated with Peep Show because I’m the biggest ever Peep Show fan. If people think I’m Jez, then that’s absolutely fine.”
Laughing, he adds: “From an artistic point of view, if people think I’m Jez, that’s because I’m a good actor.”
It turns out the light-bulb moment for writing his novel actually came to him while he was filming Peep Show back in 2012.
“I was sitting in Jeremy’s car waiting for the lighting guys to re-rig and it just sort of came to me. It’s one of the last times Jez is in his VW Golf because he’s driving Mark to a wedding.”
While clearly fond of the character, he admits permanent man-boy Jez wasn’t always easy to play.
“On paper, he’s a real s***. He’s not a very nice man. The challenge was to make him watchable and to find those moments where he has puppyish enthusiasm or he’s very vulnerable.
“He has these rare moments of self-awareness where he realises it’s not going to work out for him, and I’d emphasise those. But also, when he’s behaving appallingly, he’s very funny.
“He was just a terrific character. I’m very, very happy [to have played him]. I’m not trying to kill Jez at all.”
As well as the fame and recognition, it turns out playing Jez also had a hidden benefit.
Webb recalls a moment during the book tour for his memoir, How Not To Be A Boy, when he overheard a member of the audience comment: “He’s much smarter than I thought.”
Instead of being offended, Webb reasons: “If I’d been playing Sherlock for 12 years, I might hear the audience going, ‘He’s much stupider than I thought’. So, it’s good that it’s that way around, really.”
So, is Webb concerned that Come Again will be seen as just another celebrity novel?
He says he hopes people will read more into it than that, in the same way that his 2017 autobiography wasn’t a traditional celebrity memoir.
“I couldn’t just talk about my rags-to-riches tale, because the rags weren’t that ragged, and the riches aren’t that rich,” he says. “I wasn’t famous enough to write a book that dull. It had to be about something.”
Webb says his drive to write was urgent: “I had to get the memoir out of the way so that my first novel wouldn’t be this hopelessly autobiographical thing with all real people in it.”
With Come Again serendipitously published on World Book Night, it’s less serendipitous that all the country’s book shops are now closed due to coronavirus.
Webb is philosophical: “There are bigger calls on people’s sympathy at the moment than struggling authors. But it’s hard to publish a book into a brick wall of pandemic monomania, it’s not easy to get heard.”
Instead of physical appearances, Webb will now take part in a series of online events to showcase his book, including #ReadingHour, which aims to bring the nation together during this time of isolation.
Of course, like any good work of fiction, Come Again draws from its author’s experience.
The novel, while starting in the present day, whizzes back to 1992, Webb’s own Freshers’ Week.
He says the 1990s are a time people automatically associate with “Blair and Britpop”, but those didn’t come until later.
John Major was in power for the majority of the decade, which Webb refers to as “the golden age of boredom”.
Despite only using the word once, he says Brexit “runs through the novel like a stick of rock”.
Notably, Webb’s town of birth, Boston in Lincolnshire, has gained fame as Britain’s most pro-Brexit town.
He describes the sort of nostalgia referenced in the book as: “Wanting to go back in time to a period that never really existed, rather than face up to the problems of the present.”
In the book, Webb also refers to contemporary figures in politics, but says he had reservations.
“Theresa May was prime minister when I started the book, and by the third draft it was Boris Johnson. I thought, ‘Is it okay I’m naming him as prime minister, and naming Trump as president, because who knows what’s going to happen between now and April 2020?’
“But it turns out that wasn’t the big change in store, it was a massive public health crisis…”
Referring to the prime minister’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Webb admits, “I say one or two disobliging things about Boris Johnson [in the book]. I hope this is a forgivable author’s monomania, but one of the reasons I was glad that he pulled through was because I was so rude about him in the novel.
“To be clear, that wasn’t the only reason I didn’t want him to die, but it was definitely one of them.”
The prime minister has since recovered, but it’s fair to guess the novel’s publishers, Canongate, probably had a few sleepless nights over the PM’s less than complimentary mentions in the book.
However, with world events changing at an unprecedented rate due to the pandemic, it’s increasingly tricky for novelists and commentators alike to capture the moment without being immediately out of date.
Looking back to a more predictable time, how does Webb think Peep Show stars Jez and Mark Corrigan would have coped with imposed lockdown?
“In a way, the whole series was about lockdown. All great sitcoms are about characters being stuck together.
“Some of the best episodes are when Mark and Jez are physically trapped with each other, like when they’re stuck with each other on the Quantock Hills [in Somerset] or when they’re stuck with each other in the Nether Zone, the bit between the front door and the locked flat, and they’re just forced to talk to each other for half an hour.
“But I don’t know how they’d cope [with real lockdown]. I mean, they just wouldn’t.”
After running for nine series across 12 years, could there ever be a Peep Show reboot?
“We’ve always said that if David and I are so blessed to make it into our mid or late 60s or even older, it’ll be funny to see Mark and Jeremy in old age in the same flat, having the same arguments with the music.
“So, yes, it would be fun if we got a chance to do the old guys version. But until then, no. Peep Show as we know it is finished.”
When I suggest he and Mitchell could create some new Peep Show content to share with fans on social media during lockdown, Webb is less than keen.
“It’s like five times the effort watching any kind of video conferencing footage, because the audio is rubbish, and the video is rubbish. People start shouting in a way that’s just bizarre. And who’s going to write it? I’m not. No. Just no.”
So that would be a no then.
As for celebrities sharing uplifting snippets of song throughout the pandemic, we’re also unlikely to see Webb adding his voice to that trend.
Ready for Waterstones Live interview on Insta at 7.30. This is the construction for not shooting up my nose while allowing hands-free to spaff out of the bottom of phone. It will get dark halfway through. I suppose I’ll have to turn on a light myself. Outrageous. pic.twitter.com/BGH0XsQPhd
— Robert Webb (@arobertwebb) April 21, 2020
“It’s ghastly. They all look like they were off their meds, like something really disconnected and bad was happening in their minds.
“I thought I could do something really daft and maybe I will, but my off-key version of Abide With Me is going to have to wait. I’m not going to be doing anything heartfelt.”
Indeed, such is his dislike of video conferencing, Webb admits that despite pleas from his publisher, he’s even been avoiding lockdown video vlogs about his book.
“You see someone famous turning up and you’re immediately making judgements about what you can see in the background. It’s just a nightmare.”
And for Webb, lockdown Zoom parties with friends also have hidden dangers.
“One of my friends, who’s very energetic and does this kind of thing, organised a quiz, and there were eight of us in household teams. I got halfway through before I realised they were simulating the conditions of a pub and all boozing away.
“For somebody who’s trying not to drink any more that wasn’t ideal. So, I just made my excuses. I don’t do the quiz anymore.
“It took me a long time to figure this out. But in many ways, despite lockdown, staying in is not a new experience for me at the moment.”
World Book Night will be giving away 5,000 free audiobooks to members of the public today, and 50,000 books to organisations including hospitals, care homes, youth centres and mental health groups and prisons later in the year.
Webb’s debut novel Come Again is out today.