Armstrong & Bain: Time to take a peep at student life

Comedy 'Fresh Meat' homes in on the first year at uni, but it's nothing like 'The Young Ones', the writers tell Gerard Gilbert
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The Independent Culture

When is the time of our lives? Some lucky types might cite the here and now, but many look back with a fondness bordering on yearning to the years they spent at university – a time of unlikely-to-be-revisited freedoms and opportunities.

It is a time when you can be, or pretend to be, whoever you want – and make a fool of yourself in the process. That's how Peep Show creators Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong see it anyway.

Bain and Armstrong, who met on a creative writing course while studying English and Philosophy at Manchester University, have crafted a new comedy drama, Fresh Meat, about a bunch of first-year students sharing a house.

With a talented young cast that includes Joe Thomas from The Inbetweeners and stand-up Jack Whitehall in his first acting role, Fresh Meat is very funny – as you'd expect from the creators of the best British sitcom of the Noughties – but it's also sweet and truthful.

"It's such a ripe area that we were surprised no one had revisited student life in a comedy since The Young Ones," says Bain. This is not strictly accurate since a decent-enough BBC3 sitcom, Off the Hook, attempted to nudge The Inbetweeners formula on to campus in 2009.

"It's a time when people leave home and start a new life and often don't know what the hell they are doing ... a brilliant area for comedy. Also, Manchester was a great place to set it because you find a great clash of backgrounds. I went to public school in London and Jesse went to a comprehensive in Shropshire and we each had stories to tell."

The Young Ones, which ran from 1982 to 1984 and made the careers of Rik Mayall, Adrian Edmondson and Nigel Planer, casts a long shadow on any writer approaching a comedy of student life. It's akin to someone deciding it was high time to pen another sitcom about a snobbish, bigoted South Coast hotelier.

Where Fresh Meat differs from The Young Ones is that this is comedy drama rather sitcom. "There are very few scenes with no jokes, yet the script remains anchored in reality and never strays into pure silliness, says Bain."

The character with the biggest potential for silliness is JP, a posturing ex-public schoolboy with an inflated sense of entitlement played by Whitehall.

As it happens, Whitehall himself went to public school, although the character is not based on him. "I lived with a guy at university who was, basically, JP", Whitehall says. "He was a friend of mine from Eton who I based some of my portrayal on ... I hope he won't realise.

"The important thing was to make him sympathetic. If he was all bravado and arrogance throughout the series it would be one-dimensional. In truth, he's insecure ... it's all a front. He was a bit of a loser at school and doesn't really know who he is."

Whitehall himself barely attended a lecture during his unfinished History of Art course and he left, without a qualification, four years ago. "They still sort of think that I'm there ... I still get emails asking me to attend seminars," he says.

"I started doing stand-up pretty much out of school, so by the time I went to Manchester I was already working in comedy. I was only really doing university to make my mum happy, and I was going off to do gigs every night in working men's clubs in satellite towns like Oldham and Wigan."

Joe Thomas, who plays Essex-boy Kingsley, had a rather more illustrious student career, graduating in history from Cambridge, having met his Inbetweeners co-star Simon Bird at Footlights.

"What's funny about freshers is that they all try to imply that they've seen it all even though they've mostly come straight from living with their parents," he says.

"I went through that posturing phase. I took a girl out on my first night and said 'you're just a girl and I'm just a regular guy' – I thought that would sound good, like I'd lived on the road or something."

Fresh Meat also differs from Peep Show in that Bain and Armstrong, having written the first episode, brought in a team of writers for the remaining seven. They included "some talented women ... we had three female leads as well as male leads which was great for us because Peep Show took a male perspective most of the time."

With Bain and Armstrong's university days long behind them, a youthful perspective was also required, although Armstrong quips that "it's a great comfort to us that Iain Morris and Damon Beesley, who do The Inbetweeners, are in their mid-60s". (They're actually in their late 30s.)

"One of the additional motivations for Channel 4 was the proportion of the population who now attend university. When The Young Ones was on, it would have been, what?, 12 to 16 per cent of the population, and now it's pushing 50 per cent. Almost everyone either goes or knows someone who's been.

"Sadly, folk are largely not going to be aided by the state any more so they're just people paying for a service. Essentially, though, nothing's changed – the student experience is the same whenever you go."

Fresh Meat begins on Wednesday on Channel 4