Having discovered comedy gold in the shape of one of the funniest series to hit the small screen in the past decade, Channel 4 has had to face an unpalatable truth: inbetweeners do not stay inbetweeners forever.
And so, just as the crude and gawky gang of four from Rudge Park comprehensive enjoy their third and most successful series, attracting record audiences to youth channel E4, they are already being consigned to television history. The Inbetweeners, conscious that actors in their late Twenties cannot go on playing teenagers indefinitely, have planned their final act, a two-part parting of the ways which will be screened at Christmas next year.
In the meantime, fans of the show have much to look forward to. In January, Will, Simon, Jay and Neil, will be transported to the sex-charged Greek resort of Malia where their attempts to undergo the rite of passage of a post-exams foreign holiday will be the subject of a feature film due to be released in August.
The four actors, Simon Bird (Will), Joe Thomas (Simon), James Buckley (Jay) and Blake Harrison (Neil), have already sampled the atmosphere on the strip in the Crete holiday town, making a two-minute clip as a sampler for the full movie. “It’s so painfully funny, it’s all the most terrible things that have ever happened to anyone on a boys’ holiday,” said Shane Allen, Channel 4’s head of Comedy, who has watched the clip. “They meet a group of girls out there who are kind of their counterparts in a way and it’s what happens next. By the end they’ve all gone on their own emotional journeys. They go from being The Inbetweeners to being slightly more grown up by the end of it.”
The Inbetweeners, which is written by Damon Beesley and Iain Morris and won a Bafta award this year, is the narrated story of former schoolboy Will McKenzie, who moves to his local comprehensive and forms a friendship of convenience with his three schoolmates as they collectively attempt to negotiate the minefield that is adolescence.
The show has grown from an audience of 238,000 when it launched in 2008 to 4.2m for the third series, which finished this month. But Thomas turned 27 yesterday and Bird is 26. They can’t always dress in the navy blazer or the royal blue school sweatshirt of Rudge Park. “There is something getting to be slightly creepy when you are 27 and you are coming on to a 17-year-old,” said Allen.
So the quartet of actors have planned their own finale. After the feature film, which like the television show will be directed by Ben Palmer, they will make two final half-hour shows depicting the boys in early adulthood, with the school discos and the playground banter all a distant memory. “It will be like a mini-series for E4 for Christmas 2011,” said Allen. “It would be the boys coming back from university - the ones who have gone to university that is - and them all getting together and then realising that they have moved on and the world has changed. It will be a nice little send off. They wanted to do that, to have a nice little series wrap up.”
There is another practical reason for drawing a line underneath The Inbetweeners. The writers, who originally titled the show Baggy Trousers and set it in the 1980s of their own teenage years, and the lead actors are insistent on maintaining a quality threshold. “A lot of it is very heavily biographical and I think they have told a lot of the stories that they want to tell,” said Allen. “There’s that British mentality of quitting while you’re ahead - John Cleese did it with Fawlty Towers and Ricky [Gervais] did it with both of his things. There’s that element of don’t overstay your welcome, which is a shame because it’s only in the current series that things have really started to explode.”
Allen said he was not interested in finding a new quartet of awkward sixth-formers. “People have said you should do like in Skins and have a new cast but in comedy it is all about the alchemy between the characters and a comedy where they have recast the lead is never the same is it?”
Bird and Thomas have already lined up an intriguing follow-up project, Chickens, which sounds like a cross between The Inbetweeners, Last of the Summer Wine and Dads Army. Again the pair will play characters who struggle to gain social acceptance but this time as adults at the time of the First World War. Along with their friend Jonny Sweet, with whom they formed a university comedy trio called House of Windsor, Bird and Thomas will play the only three men in an English village who have not been called up for active service. “One’s a conscientious objector, one’s got flat feet and doesn’t go on medical grounds and the other is a cad stroke deserter,” said Allen. “They are social pariahs and the women totally despise them and they have got to try and function in a society that treats them as outcasts. It’s a strong concept.” Chickens will be shown next year as a one-off show with a view to making it into a series.
Next spring Bird will appear in a Channel 4 sitcom called Friday Night Dinner, Robert Popper’s semi-autobiographical depiction of the weekly Jewish domestic ritual. In this, Bird will be playing someone his own age, although his mother will be played by Tamsin Greig (Green Wing), who is only 17 years his senior. Harrison, 25, who played the hulking Neil in The Inbetweeners, will appear in The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret, the first sitcom on More4. Buckley, the youngest of the four at 23, is preparing for next year’s full length series of Rock & Chips, the BBC’s prequel to Only Fools and Horses, in which he plays a young Del Boy Trotter. Each in their own way, The Inbetweeners are coming of age.