This morning I arrived at University College London, where I managed to avoid interrupting graduation photographs and life-drawing classes (other writers were not so succesful) and was handed a studenty blue folder and ushered into one of the lecture theatres. Preparing to talk to us were Peep Show writers and creators Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, inside the folder were details of their new comedy-drama Fresh Meat, staring this lot:
Yep, that is stand up comedian Jack Whitehall in his first acting role and, yes, there’s Joe Thomas from The Inbetweeners – a show which, along with Skins, has taken us through the trials and humiliations of sixth form life. This time, the focus is on the next rung in the education ladder, with Fresh Meat following six unlikely housemates thrown together in a Manchester University student digs.
Bain and Armstrong are aware that the last comedy to be set in a house full of students was The Young Ones, saying that they purposely avoided doing an out-and-out sitcom as it would have been too intimidating to be in the shadow of the much-loved anarchic 80s series. They find it surprising that nobody has revisited this ripe area for comedy in the three decades since. As Sam says, “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 a brilliant area for comedy.”
Things have changed socially a great deal since The Young Ones was first on our screens, with many more people going through the University experience these days. Jesse says that now undergraduates will have to spend thousands of pounds of their own money on tuition fees, there’s less of the ‘Bloody students!’ hostility of the past. Saying that, they’re keen to stress that the series doesn’t get political. “Apart from the 20-minute monologue about EMAs in episode six”, adds Sam with a laugh.
The first episode sees the freshies arrive on their first day in the house – except Howard, who has already been living there for two years. Played by Scottish comedian Greg McHugh, he’s an oddball recluse who knows the best place in the house to crouch and totally steals the first few scenes of the show. Jesse says that every student house has a Howard. Sam says he doesn’t remember one in theirs, before realising that if you don’t think there’s a Howard in your house, it probably means it’s you.
Zawe Ashton, last seen in an episode of Misfits (she was the girl who took an interest in Simon but had a VERY overprotective father), also stands out early on as Vod, a hedonistic and fairly intimidating girl who immediately dominates the other two girls – sweetly nieve country girl Josie (Kimberly Nixon) and nervous, eager-to-please Oregon (Charlotte Richie). After years of writing for Peep Show, Jesse and Sam say that it’s good to have three female leads to write for.
Joe Thomas’s Kingsley is not a million miles away from The Inbetweeners’ Simon, to the extent that you can almost, nearly imagine that these are his continuing adventures in University. He certainly performs the same role within the show – the sensitive, insecure yet grounded one. It’s Jack Whitehall as JP that most will remember, though, the plummy public schoolboy who is keen to show that while he is down with the kids, he is also most certainly above them.
The first of the eight hour-long episodes was written by Bain and Armstrong while they got a team of writers on board for the remaining scripts. Sam explains, “We always imagined this as a team-written show partly for practical reasons because Peep Show has been recommissioned and moving forward if we’re lucky enough to get another series of Fresh Meat we simply couldn’t write two shows at once. So we always knew we wanted to bring other writers on board, some are more experienced, some very talented women writers, and one who had just graduated when we started writing. We’ve had a brief experience of team writing in the past but nothing as big as this. It felt good leading a team and we were excited to do that .. although obviously we don’t want any competition, so in a way we’re concerned we’re creating our own enemies who will defeat us eventually…!”
The first episode is excellent, with the tone really finely balanced between comedy and drama. At times it reminded me a little of Spaced – not so much the content but the style, with its use of music and Edgar Wright-style whip pans and quick cuts. There were plenty of laughs in this first hour, and while it seems that the drama elements will ramp up over the following weeks, it seems it will have at its heart the classic comedy scenario of having a group of very different characters trapped together, something that can be particularly funny when these characters are students. As Joe Thomas says, “For many people going to uni it’s the first time away from their parents’ home and effectively you’re a child living with lots of other children – if you think of it in that way and imagine children running a house together and organising bills, no wonder things get messed up and nothing gets done.”