Sat on the train from Manchester to Wales, screeching with a friend about 90210, and something else equally mind-numbing, I had, as yet, not taken a great deal of notice of the man sitting opposite us – pen in hand; script on the table. It was probably about half an hour of subsequent conversation and general chat with the guy – who turned out to be Sam Bain, half of the brains behind Peep Show, and a third behind Four Lions – that embarrassment really started to set in.
But while I didn’t come off as mature per se, for Bain, 40, this was likely a welcome confirmation that students haven’t changed a bit since he and long-term writing partner Jesse Armstrong were at University themselves (both on a Creative Writing course at Manchester), as he sat making the finishing touches to their latest and biggest project to date: Fresh Meat. When we meet again via Skype four months later my suspicion is confirmed: “I remember on the train you and your friend talking about this bullshitter you knew,” oh god, “and we have a character exactly like that on the show.”
Yes, true to form the new series uncannily mirrors your varying kinds of ‘typical student’ in depicting – as Bain summarises somewhat brazenly – “students sharing a house and, you know, their life and loves; ups and downs; drug overdoses and breakdowns; affairs with tutors… All that kind of thing.” He definitely doesn’t wear his BAFTAs on his sleeve – jumping from this remark into some deadpan crack about the classic lonesome indie kid, you would never guess quite how big a project it is. The whole concept is in fact 12 years old, put to bed for a while after some unsuccessful pitches to the BBC, and later ITV2, before Channel 4 gave it a shot following Peep Show’s success.
Finally on Wednesday 21st September the British public, and anyone with 4OD a couple of hours later, met the final concoction of fictional Manchester Uni students, lumped together in some of the most gratingly awkward, yet bitingly funny encounters. You have: your public school toff (stand up comedian, Jack Whitehall); your super involved, uber positive keeno; your indie kid – suitably reclusive, played by Joe Thomas (aka Simon from The Inbetweeners); a girl that desperately wants to be cool; and a girl that is desperately cool.
At first, for Bain and Armstrong, they were just bouncing off what they knew; what they were experiencing (“we wrote it fresh out of Uni – people we’d met, people we’d been like”). But once they were given the go-ahead to take it out of the “bottom draw” they seem, even years later, enraptured by what a feast for storylines it proved to be. “The thing with University,” says Bain, slipping from his customary quizzicle frown into a kind of quizzicle grin, “is anything can happen…it’s a place of reinvention!
“It’s quite simply a time when people leave home and start a new life and often don’t know what the hell they are doing. That fundamental time of transition is brilliant for comedy. University is such a great time of life, such a ripe area, we were surprised no one had revisited this comedy form since The Young Ones.”
I’m less surprised. Despite the possibilities it throws up, it’s a difficult terrain to cross and get right. Drama or comedy about young people is often angsty, or overtly childish. But having proved their mettle for portraying British social awkwardness at its finest, Armstrong and Bain just may be able to tackle this one.
“With students,” says cast-member, Joe Thomas, “it’s important to have people who deal in subtle detail because students don’t operate on that many scales; they do the same thing pretty much for three years.
“I think Sam and Jesse are very well suited to looking at the minutiae of student life – noticing what it is about person or environment that makes you feel a certain way.”
Though a “big fan” of Ben Elton and Rick Mayall’s critically acclaimed portrayal of this social group, Bain is swift to establish a difference (“this is more realistic – they’re different things”). I wonder, though, if he’s thought of any other parallels people will draw? Flying wake of ‘young-people-going-wild’ show, Skins, and with Joe Thomas in the cast drawing obvious comparisons with The Inbetweeners, is this a concern?
He moves on: “The main difference between Fresh Meat and The Inbetweeners is, well first they’re at school, but mainly they’re all boys. The thing that I’m really quite proud of – or,” he checks himself, “happy with – is that we have three really good female lead characters, that each have their own story and each develop. A big thing about Fresh Meat is that it’s not all from the ‘lads’ perspective – it’s both.” After deliberating a bit he affords himself an approving nod with: “There aren’t many funny female comedies out there so I’m glad we managed to bring that in.”
The main feat Bain seemed overwhemingly relieved to have completed “erm, successfully? I think…” was writing not just a comedy, but a comedy drama. As a commission from the drama department the series has “moments that are quite emotional and unfunny” on top of the smuttering of silly jokes and characters, and it had to surpass the ‘its funny coz it’s true’ stage, striking a far more emotional chord than, for example, they have been prone to writing in Peep Show.
It is in our second meeting that Bain seems positively liberated discussing the outcome of this collaboration, having kept markably schtum in May, while the project was still in the pre-filming stages: “It doesn’t sound like much but in our world being commissioned by the drama department is huge – you’re dealing with a whole new set of people, a whole new way of doing things. And I think we were worried they were going to be more for drama, and less for comedy, but in the end it was fine and we got a really good balance.”
He remains very conscious not to jump the gun – all success tales are followed by: “…and I think – well, I hope – it shows…”
Of course, over half the series remains, but if the first-night-at-uni-mid-sex-bed-making encounter is anything to go by, they’re certainly not playing it safe.