The Inbetweeners: The latest teenage pick
It is the latest series to show that British TV is challenging America in the teen market. And young viewers love it, says Julian Hall
The second series of sixth-form teen comedy The Inbetweeners starts next week on E4, following hot on the heels of the third series of the teen drama Skins that ended this week on the same channel. E4, it seems, is “teen central” and has found itself a focus of a burgeoning interest in the period between childhood and adulthood that is canonised as a whole genre in the US. No longer does the fading memory of Grange Hill and the continuing saga of Hollyoaks appear to stand alone against transatlantic adolescent film and television fare from Breakfast Club to American Pie and Freaks and Geeks to Gossip Girl.
Before a screening of the first two episodes of The Inbetweeners earlier this month, Angela Jain, head of E4, reported that the channel has seen a year-on-year increase of 24 per cent of viewers for the 18-24 age range. Both Skins and The Inbetweeners attract an audience beyond those boundaries, though, as younger people aspire to be the age of the characters and older viewers are, as Skins writer Brian Elsley describes, "buying into a memory" rather than an actual experience, thereby putting these two shows much more in line with the American teen-show experience, ie teen shows not made for teens per se. For the most part, the memory being explored in The Inbetweeners is the shambolic pursuit of women by clueless men and a chorus of one-upmanship in the "post-match" analysis.
"The moments in between being a teen and becoming an adult are pivotal times in most people's lives," says Jain, explaining the fascination with the 16-18 period. "The Skins experience is completely dramatic and aspirational and clearly not how most teenagers lived their lives but how they would dream to live them, it has a drop-dead-gorgeous cast, an amazing soundtrack. The Inbetweeners is almost the antithesis of it ["the anti-Skins", as Heat called it], just as good, just as funny but suburban and more real in some respects in its depiction of four slightly rubbish, hapless boys."
Among the hapless happenings in a show that has been described as "the English Superbad" and "American Pie mixed with Peep Show" are the inevitable misadventure with alcohol leading to comic projectile vomiting of Exorcist proportions, and suffering the ignominy of being driven around in a little yellow car that would make a Lada or a Skoda look like a Rolls-Royce. The four protagonists accept their fates with a due sense of teenage doom as they lurch from one failure to the next.
James Buckley, who plays the Liam Gallagher-esque loud-mouth character Jay in the show (and also appears in Fresh!), feels the show speaks to his own experiences: "Obviously the show is heightened reality, but I did feel like you could relate to it. It was sort of how I spent the early years of my life growing up in Dagenham. I remember I had too much energy that I didn't know what to do with and I didn't know anything about the world, though I thought I did. Being young means finding different ways of wasting time before you can go to a pub, mucking about with friends most of the time and just laughing, things that aren't exciting on their own but become that on a storyboard."
Mucking about and laughing with your mates is a timeless pursuit and one that writers Iain Morris and Damon Beesley didn't lose sight of when they mined their 1980s schooldays for inspiration. The Inbetweeners was actually going to be set in the Eighties, as Judd Apatow's series Freaks and Geeks was. However, that idea was deemed too retro and too niche, and the enduring notion of male bonding, or near-bonding, was correctly seen as enough to draw in viewers nostalgic for their schooldays.
"You do terrible things at that age and get away with it, like getting drunk, fighting, worse things than you'll see on American teen shows," says Morris, expanding on the notion of "mucking about", "and you do them just because you really don't know what they are doing. I see this cluelessness physically embodied by kids on street corners not knowing where their limbs are, looking awkward and lanky."
This sense of awkwardness is most evident in The Inbetweeners in terms of ludicrously coarse exchanges about sex - it's one of the few elements that runs counter to the overall innocence of the show, and the quartet are often involved in banter that might make readers of Nuts and ZOO blush. "When you are that age you say the worst possible things for a reaction, and some of the terrible things that our characters say are almost excused by their naivety," maintains Beesley.
In this second series, the naivety of the four boys is contrasted more sharply with more brazen outside influences, such as obnoxious 12-year-olds who are clearly much harder than the group and add to their growing collective capacity for embarrassment. However, for Morris and Beesley there's no pressure to walk on the wild side as Skins does, or to go out of their way to play to Daily Mail stereotypes of teenage hoodlums. Morris says: "The idea is that there are some people at their school who are having sex and doing drugs or are thinking about doing either or both of them, but the focus of the show is a certain stratum of teenage life."
Of course, the stratum of teenage life that is most publicly apparent is the one that is associated with drugs, sex and crime, but Beesley dismisses the stereotype and argues that when he was at school he remembers similar Clockwork Orange-style scare-mongering stories and dramatic headlines that meant "a stabbing in London became a countrywide epidemic".
It's possibly symbiotic that there's a preoccupation with teen troubles at the same time as there is a larger appetite to see their exploits on television. It's also possible, even, that now is the "School Disco" moment for teen shows, to borrow from the popular retro-clubbing movement. More specifically, a 1980s revival theme is pertinent to the cultural baggage of Morris and Beesley, who cite among their influences John Hughes films such as Ferris Bueller's Day Off.
A multitude of teen-oriented scripts have circulated in the wake of E4's stable of teen shows and whether good, bad or indifferent, there have been a number of attempts in recent years to get with the teen scene, either on film, from Kidulthood to Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging, or on television, where, other than E4's duo, efforts have included BBC3's Coming of Age to BBC Switch's university sitcom, Fresh!, now going from an internet platform to television.
However, Skins creator Bryan Elsley is circumspect about a new dawn for teen drama and comedy, though he knows the potential is there: "When we started Skins there was no interest whatsoever in that kind of show - apart from Hollyoaks - that has stuck in there admirably over the years. When Skins was not the abject failure that everyone predicted it to be, other broadcasters started looking at that area and approaching the audience through the internet. So the demographic exists and the platforms exist but the broadcasting industry always lags a year behind, so you could argue that the moment for teen drama and comedy at the cutting edge has actually passed already and is moving off into other areas to combat falling ad revenue on mainstream channels.
"Whatever happens, Skins and The Inbetweeners have created a crazier kind of teen genre without doing cheerleaders, jocks and high-school proms, and built and retained and audience."
'The Inbetweeners' starts on E4 next Thursday. 'Skins: The Complete Third Series' and 'Skins: The Complete Series 1-3' box sets are available on DVD from 6 April
Greg Davies as Mr Gilbert
A former drama teacher and one-third of sketch troupe We Are Klang (who are to get their own BBC3 show later this year), Greg Davies plays the world-weary Mr Gilbert, the head of sixth form at Rudge Park Comprehensive.
Simon Bird as Will McKenzie
When he received his British Comedy Award for Best Male Newcomer last year, Bird joked that being a bookish teenager wasn't a role he had to dig too deep to find: "I was a bit of a geek, I suppose, being in the orchestra and not doing very well at sports."
Emily Atack as Charlotte Hinchcliffe
The school's resident Jayne Mansfield-style pin-up forges an unexpected friendship with Will that is tested by his inexperience. Atack has appeared in crime drama 'Blue Murder' and 'Heartbeat'.
Blake Harrison as Neil Sutherland
Harrison says he looked to Rodney from 'Only Fools and Horses' for inspiration in playing the slightly away-with-the-fairies Neil. Harrison's credits include roles in theatre productions of 'Market Boy', 'On the Razzle' and 'Richard III'.
James Buckley as Jay Cartwright
James Buckley has notched up work in ''Orrible', 'Skins', and the new BBC Switch sitcom 'Fresh!'. His character is the archetypal 'gobshite' who is hell-bent on bigging up every situation to the maximum and overestimating his own sexual prowess.
Emily Head as Carli D'Amato
One of the daughters of 'Buffy' and 'Little Britain' star Anthony Head, Emily plays the self-assured object of Simon's burning desire. Her television credits include 'The Invisibles', 'Doc Martin' and 'Trial and Retribution'.
Joe Thomas as Simon Cooper
Writing and performing comedy since his days at Cambridge University, Joe Thomas plays Will's closest friend. Simon has an unrequited desire for Carli D'Amato but season two sees him being diverted on to other members of the fairer sex.
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