Everyone knows that life at university has a huge amount of comic potential: new relationships, perpetual drunkenness and sorry attempts at self-sufficiency. It’s not all cheap laughs, though – the need to forge yourself an identity, independent from your friends and family, for the very first time, means there is also plenty of inner torment to parody. This combination of pathos and slapstick is a recipe for television gold, so it comes as a bit of a surprise that no British comedy has latched onto it since the 80s. Until now. Channel 4’s new comedy-drama Fresh Meat hit our screens last month and, at the very least, has reaffirmed that student living is an impeccable situation for comedy.
In August, I got the chance to have a sneak behind-the-scenes peek at the making of the programme. The show was being filmed in Manchester, so as I made the pilgrimage away from my own riot-torn streets in West London to those in the North, I felt a little oblivious to what I was risking my life to see.
In my friend’s bedroom in Manchester I finally decided it might be a good idea to Google the programme, and found that the cast included comedian Jack Whitehall, Simon from The Inbetweeners (Joe Thomas), Robert Webb (JEZ!!) and Tony Gardner (from Lead Balloon and more hilariously My Parents Are Aliens). To top it all off, Peep Show gods Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong were the creators.
The next day, slightly better informed and very excited, I headed to The Sharp Project where Fresh Meat was being filmed – the old Sharp headquarters, as my driver Walt informed me (yes, I had a driver, and someone put an umbrella over me as I got out of the car… not quite sure what I had done to deserve such star treatment).
Getting exclusive coverage for world-renowned Palatinate might have been met with blank faces, so the ostensible reason for my presence was to help out with the filming of the DVD extras. Zanna, who gets to do this for a living, and I had to grab each cast member between their scenes and ask them some questions about their character and the filming process.
While we waited to pounce on them in between takes, we watched some filming of the final episode. The first scene we saw involved JP (played by Jack Whitehall) and his posh friend Cunty Sykes, (a name which, after a couple of years in Durham, seems almost plausible) discussing a dubstep night. As I watched Cunty dressed to perfection in battered jeans and a gilet muttering “shit and fans, my friend. Shit and fans”, my fears that this show would be an ‘adult’s’ out-of-date idea of university life completely evaporated.
As the day went on, through watching the filming and reading a few scripts, I soon got a good idea of what the show was about. Six Freshers at arrive at university in Manchester having missed out on halls, and get thrown together in a student house. They are: girl from the Valleys, Josie (Kimberley Nixon), rebellious Vod (Zawe Ashton), public school boy and wannabe lad JP (Jack Whitehall), introverted Kingsley (Joe Thomas), classic weirdo Howard (Greg McHugh) and desperate-to-be cool Oregon (Charlotte Ritchie). In fact, there is a seventh housemate, Paul Lamb (the invisible man), the eternal figure who exists (or, err, doesn’t) up and down the country in all halls of residence, and who now, thanks to Fresh Meat, is finally represented in art.
Despite the slightly one-dimensional epithets that can easily be attributed to them, all the characters develop into more rounded figures as the series progresses. Ashton described her character’s journey over the series: “Vod thaws out and you see her insecurities as time goes on – people are quite scared of her to begin with … it was as simple as episodes 1 to 3 not really smiling, then episode 4, I smiled.” For Greg, who plays social pariah Howard, the journey was a little more complex. “For normal people who show empathy easily and can support their friends easily, its second nature but for Howard he’s got to practice these things – so I think his journey is becoming more socially adept”.
One thing that changes over the series that involves all the characters is the bonds they make with each other. This happened just as much in real life for the cast as it did in their scripts, in turn helping their on-screen chemistry – which Ashton described as “art imitating life, imitating art.” And their camaraderie off-camera was obvious, with Jack roping Greg into some classic comedy capers on set. I visited one week before the filming wrapped and at that point the cast had been living together in adjacent apartments in Manchester for 11 weeks, which according to Jack seemed like “a couple of years”. Kimberley was mourning the end of the filming process: “in a week’s time we’re all going to go back to our lives – that’s going to be really heart-breaking”. Everyone else agreed that being with their fellow actors was one of the best things about their experience, with Greg telling us “we all get on terribly well, apart from Jack Whitehall who’s an awful man. No he’s great!”
But, in fact, the idea that Jack Whitehall is an “awful man” has resulted in some unhelpful preconceptions about the show. Having never acted before, and famous for his own brand of apparently divisively precocious stand-up, Whitehall was a risky choice to cast. When we visited, Jack was struggling slightly with the early starts his new career called for “before this I’d only done panel shows and things like that and they’re at night so I’m very much a nocturnal person” and by the time we got to interview him, he was bordering on the comatose. But hopefully Fresh Meat will silence his critics. Alongside McHugh, he puts in one of the best performances in the show. The line he treads between, according to Jack, being “a bit of an idiot” and “vulnerable and insecure” is done pretty masterfully, with the audience never being able to fully sympathise nor detach themselves.
For the DVD, we also got the cast to tell us their most memorable filming moments. Jack remembered having to deal with a misbehaving horse that JP finds a sympathetic ear in at the end of the series. “I had to control it so I ended up horse whispering it and managed to calm him. They said the last film it had done was with Mel Gibson – so maybe that’s why it was so angry.”
Greg, who seems to be naked quite a lot on camera (perhaps due to Howard’s “slow-drying pubic hair”), chose the opening scene of the series. “I was semi-naked, my bums out – I had a sock covering my essentials – and it was just very bizarre to be half-naked, drying Peking ducks – but a brilliantly original scene to open the show with.” For Zawe it was the moment when Vod makes Howard pretend to be her boyfriend: “corpsing went on to a different level. It wasn’t even like being in school and not being able to laugh – it was touch and go. I didn’t think we’d make it through the scene, Greg and I were laughing so much”.
As the housemates navigate their way through a cringe-inducing Freshers’ week, we asked the cast to reveal their own embarrassing student stories. Zawe told us, “once I got so drunk I climbed into bed with my mum and dad.” And Greg recounted an evening when “I went out on a student night – drinking Aftershock and woke up in my student room with a TV on my back and I’d been sick in my shoes in front of me – and then I started to hoover up the sick with the hoover.” Whitehall and Thomas both refused to divulge their own memorable evenings – obviously worried they were too hardcore for Fresh Meat viewers to handle.
Because of the pedigree of its creators and stars, Fresh Meat will undoubtedly face comparisons to other British comedies. There are accusations that Bain and Armstrong have simply applied the Peep Show formula to a different topic – and there are definitely some affinities. For instance, the Jez/Super Hans dynamic: Vod is reminiscent of Super Hans with her hard living and twisted logic, while Oregon is Jez, so desperate to impress those she deems cool, that she will do or say almost anything. But there are differences. This is far more of a drama than Peep Show, and it felt almost cinematic at times – using camera angles that reminded me of Channel 4’s Spaced. Thomas’ appearance highlights yet another possible comparison, but those looking for The Inbetweeners: The University Years might be disappointed. There is some gross-out humour, but the tone is altogether darker, more elevated and slightly surreal. It is, as I had hoped, a refreshing contrast to Skins, where teenager’s lives are glamourized to a ridiculous degree.
A month or so later when adverts for the show finally started airing, I felt slightly apprehensive for the cast and crew about how it would look on screen and the reaction the show would get. Inevitably there has been a lot of “it’s a bit like The Inbetweeners but not as funny” or “it’s like Peep Show but more awkward”, but personally I thought it looked brilliant on screen – evocative, realistic and with just enough Peep Show-isms to make me laugh out loud. The comparisons can only be positive –yes it might have been influenced, inevitably, by other shows, but Fresh Meat has taken the best bits from all my favourite programmes and put them in one. And, anyway, when you mix a lot of old things together you get something new.
Or fresh, as the case may be.
Fresh Meat is shown on Wednesdays at 10pm on Channel 4, or catch up with previous episodes on 4od.