'People Just Do Nothing': How the UK Mockumentary Became a Cult Hit - Rolling Stone
×
×
Home TV TV Features

‘How the F–k Did This Get on the Telly?’: Inside the Cult-Hit UK Mockuseries ‘People Just Do Nothing’

How a YouTube skit about a pirate radio station became an award-winning comedy that spawned an album, a film, and a legion of devoted fans worldwide

People Just Do NothingPeople Just Do Nothing

From left: Daniel Sylvester Woolford, Hugo Chegwin, Steve Stamp, Allan Mustafa, and Asim Chaudhry.

If the title of People Just Do Nothing doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about the cult-hit BBC series, consider the events of the pilot: Out of the gate, we see four boys banging away at their pirate radio station, Kurupt FM, assaulting everyone within a half-mile radius of their block tower with a barrage of British rave tunes. When a hostile neighbor threatens violence, Grindah — the self-proclaimed “Greatest MC in the Galaxy” and “general” of the group — demurs from confrontation, instead castigating his BFF DJ Beats for turning up the volume. The prickly MC then deploys his motley crew to source soundproofing by any means necessary. Steves, who Beats calls a “wiggy, drug-induced mess,” dumpster-dives for debris; DJ Decoy, the most understated of the bunch, drives Beats home to steal egg cartons from his girlfriend’s fridge. Finally, their fixer and soon-to-be-manager Chabuddy G — a ribald Pakistani immigrant proficient in what he calls “friendly crimes” — produces the winning solution: 3,000 suspiciously acquired boxes of Peanut Dust, a snack consisting only of peanut crumbs. 

The episode perfectly encapsulates the engine that drives one of television’s most endearing shows: These people who do a hell of a lot of nothing will also do absolutely anything and everything to keep their tiny illegal broadcast up and running. Through every obstacle that’s thrown at them — from the day-to-day trials of surviving on the dole to fighting off a rival pirate station to having all their equipment seized by the police — PJDN‘s feckless group of lovable idiots are fueled not only by a near-bottomless delusion, but by their love of the culture. Or in their parlance: “radio.”

After hitting BBC Three airwaves in the summer of 2014, People Just Do Nothing blossomed in popularity and acclaim over five seasons, winning a handful of Royal Television Society Awards and BAFTAs (including for Best Scripted Comedy in 2017). The show became a pandemic-binge favorite among ravers and music nerds (after a streaming run on Netflix, episodes are currently available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime and Apple TV+) and last August reached a cultural crescendo as the Kurupt FM boys dropped their first LP, The Greatest Hits (Part 1), and walked the red carpet at the London premiere of their debut feature film, People Just Do Nothing: Big in Japan. It was a pie-in-the-sky capper to an unlikely rise even the show’s creators couldn’t have predicted — especially given the underground, often ignored segment of British society the Kurupt boys represent.

As co-creator Allan “Seapa” Mustafa puts it with a laugh: “Yeah, it’s like, ‘How the fuck did this get on the telly?!'”

The actual “how” starts with Mustafa and co-creator Hugo Chegwin, who both were on pirate radio stations growing up and bring a ton of lived experience to these characters both on the page and in their portrayals of Grindah and Beats, respectively. (Mustafa’s nickname, for example, derives from his graffiti tag; he was arrested for vandalism at 14.)

“It’s really important that we represent that culture properly, because as a fan of that world, going jungle-raving, etcetera, if I saw something that didn’t represent that properly, then I wouldn’t watch it,” says Chegwin. “The joke isn’t on that culture; the joke is on these idiots.”

Adds co-creator Steve Stamp, who plays Steves: “If you don’t know why there’s a penny on top of the needle that’s fine. You can still enjoy the fact that there’s just some really inflated egos and the dramas of family life.”

While Stamp and Chegwin knew each other from childhood in London, Chegwin and co-creator Asim Chaudhry, who plays Chabuddy G, met in college. (Mustafa met Chegwin around college.) The crew were aligned by a shared love of spliffs, prank calls, and bass music. After a fateful Thailand vacation where the lads began playing proto-versions of the PJDN characters — think lots of getting high and jovially mocking each other — they came home and started filming videos for kicks. Chaudhry, mirroring the indomitable hustler that defines Chabuddy, uploaded clips to YouTube and maintained a weekly newsletter to promote the undercooked show.

The clips grew a cult following, eventually grabbing the attention of multiplatinum pop artists and tastemakers like Lily Allen and British rapper Professor Green. Once those high-profile fans started tweeting about the skits, views doubled overnight. Roughly two years after they’d uploaded their first video, the gang received a call from the production house Roughcut — home of PJDN’s most salient influence, The Office.

“There was a bit of trial and error in terms of what the story level would be,” says Stamp, “because for us it was about keeping the scale small in a sense like The Office, where the story of the week might just be like a pub quiz or something. And Roughcut wanted to find a way to make it more TV-worthy by making it bigger, opening it up to a more mainstream audience — less niche and less about pirate radio.” As an English lit grad, Stamp took on the heavy lifting of transforming five minutes’ worth of non-sequitur YouTube jokes into an actual show with a plot, story arcs, and character development. But he fought hard to keep the pilot centered on something mundane: that mission to soundproof the station.  

Filled with shots of tower blocks and suburban landscapes, dirty staircase confessionals and council estate interstitials, PJDN brought an urban aesthetic rarely seen in comedies. Still, don’t get it twisted: Though the Kurupt crew are somewhat dodgy street characters, their stomping grounds aren’t some stabby inner-city councils. The deadliest weapon in their suburb of Brentford may just be its soul-killing boredom.

While PJDN’s highly specific world might be a hurdle for some, mockumentary films like Best in Show, Fear of a Black Hat, and Brüno long ago proved viewers don’t need to care about the particular subculture being skewered (purebred dog shows; gangsta rap; haute-couture fashion) to enjoy the skewering. So while the focus of the Air Max 95/Polo cap/Tommy Hilfiger/Kappa tracksuit-wearing Kurupt FM crew might be hyperlocalized, its appeal remains global. (Although you may need to fire up the closed captioning to follow their most heated exchanges.) And the growth of the characters and the storytelling brings viewers along for the ride.

The first two seasons (a snackable four and five episodes, respectively) hook you in with their hilariously dumb and disposable adventures. The third season becomes expansive, delving into more thoughtfully-constructed episodes with clearer storylines and developing arcs. New facets of the initially two-dimensional Steves are revealed — highlighted by the heartening bond with his Nan — while the relationship between Grindah and his girl Miche, the romantic anchor of the show, roller-coasters for better and worse. It’s here that PJDN reaches its full potential, a consensus seemingly cemented when the show took home that Best Scripted Comedy BAFTA, shocking heavy favorite and critical darling Fleabag. (Chaudhry also earned a Best Male Comedy Performance nomination, losing to Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge.)

The creators credit several developments for this unexpected leap: Getting a two-season pickup after Season Two meant the team could stretch their legs as writers, imagining their characters even further into the future. Producer Jon Petrie then suggested a shift from an episodic to a more serialized structure, with season-long story arcs replacing standalone episodes. But perhaps the most important leap was internal, with the young writers increasingly gaining confidence as creatives. Through it all, as the story and character arcs became more sophisticated, they dug in on keeping the Kurupt FM crew’s antics thoroughly moronic. 

One more key ingredient to the show’s success: Grindah’s girlfriend Miche, the droll embodiment of chav delusion and narcissism. Played to enchanting perfection by Lily Brazier, she is the much needed feminine voice of a show that could otherwise lean too laddish. Brazier was initially cast in the PJDN YouTube clips by Stamp, who she was dating at the time; she quickly became a creative force behind the scenes, writing the show’s female characters, and has since become something of the breakout star, going on to lead her own BBC show, Wannabe, and to star opposite Ethan Hawke, Rose Byrne, and Chris O’Dowd in the Nick Hornby adaptation Juliet, Naked

“In comedy especially, women can be really overlooked, and given the straight role rather than being allowed to be funny on their own right,” Brazier explains from London. “I’ve always been a very awkward person who relied on humor to survive, so I want the female characters to be as funny as the male characters in anything I work on.”

After five seasons, the collective paused the show in 2018. While they were happy to walk away at its creative peak, there was also a feeling that they’d left a lot of meat on the bone. When someone floated the idea of a film, Stamp says, they were cautiously intrigued: “It wasn’t a case of, like, ‘Yeah, let’s do a film and then figure out the idea.’ It was like, ‘Let’s entertain the idea of a film and only if we get a good idea, then we do it.’”

Which brings us to People Just Do Nothing: Big In Japan. (It opened in the UK last September; a U.S. release date is TBD.) The film follows the boys to Tokyo, where, by some cosmic bolt of luck, one of their original songs charts after it’s used by a Japanese game show. For five years, we’ve seen the Kurupt FM crew convinced — despite all evidence to the contrary — that they are destined for superstardom. Big In Japan answers the question of what would happen if they actually achieved it.  

“This is the first time we’ve ever seen them have a taste of what they think they want: success in music and fame,” says Mustafa. “And you can obviously guess that if people out there are flirting with Grindah’s ego, that he is going to change into a slightly different person. So it’s no wonder that it affects their friendships and they go through some shit. There’s things you have to do when you become a pop star, so many compromises, and Grindah’s underground mentality goes out the window.”

“They’re fish out of water in central London,” adds Chegwin, smiling. “Imagine what they’re like in Japan.”

Until the film’s American release, budding fans can sample more of the Kurupt FM oeuvre by diving into their album, loaded with tracks that Beats and Decoy would no doubt spin on Radio. Sure it’s got skits and Chabuddy crooning a love song to his philandering ex-wife Aldona, but it’s also got some bangers — including the DJ Zinc-produced “KuruptFMinit,” a wonder of bingo-beat jumpiness, “Summertime” with Craig David, “Rudeboyz” and their latest video, the MJ Cole-produced “Dreaming.” Consider it a solid 40 minutes of UK garage the Kurupt FM Massive can fully get behind. (The demand is clearly there: The guys sold out their upcoming Greatest Hits arena tour of 20,000 tickets in 15 minutes.) 

“Our music shouldn’t be taken that seriously, but I still want it to be good — like, not wacky novelty music, but something you can bang out in the car,” says Chegwin. “At the same time there’s a few lines in it that are ridiculous, just Grindah’s ego on a million.”

In This Article: people just do nothing

Newswire

Powered by
Arrow Created with Sketch. Calendar Created with Sketch. Path Created with Sketch. Shape Created with Sketch. Plus Created with Sketch. minus Created with Sketch.