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Freshers' Week: Playing away from home

A comedy set among first year students starts tonight on TV. But could fiction ever match the antics of real-life freshers? Will Dean introduces our writers' memories
  • @willydean

For those lucky enough to go to university, Freshers' Week – and all that goes with it – can be life-altering. A mixture of first-day nerves and a lack of authority, multiplied by a wallet full of student loan money; it's a chance for provincial dweebs to reinvent themselves as urban raconteurs as they meet new friends.

It's this odd melting pot that the writers behind C4's new show Fresh Meat – including Peep Show's Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong – have tapped in to to create the first major UK series about students for years.

Students have been weirdly undercovered on UK TV, but C4's successes with Skins, The Inbetweeners and Misfits have given the broadcaster the confidence to commission an eight-parter about the lives of six of them.

We meet them all in the first episode of Fresh Meat – from the immediately in-love Kingsley (Inbetweener Joe Thomas) and Kimberley Nixon's Josie, to Jack Whitehall's grotesque public schoolboy JP, insecure fibber Oregon and near-feral third-year Gary.

Many will recognise the characters' behaviour from their first week, a time when braggadocio collides with the reality of being an 18-year-old from the suburbs. Watching Fresh Meat certainly engendered me with feelings of both nostalgia and retrospective cringe.

Especially the scenes of the awkward flirtation with Josie and Kingsley as they both battle shyness, homesickness and hangovers while circling each other like pathetic lovestruck dogs.

It's this storyline that reminded me of my own terrified arrival in Cardiff halls in 2003. As I arrived, a couple of people, including a pretty blonde girl, were hanging around in the kitchen. Rather than stop and chat, I did the obvious thing and dashed to my room for the important job of arranging my CDs on the nearest shelf.

Eventually I emerged and began to get to know my flatmates. This led to the students' union and – with liquid courage – minor attempts to flirt with the blonde girl.

That week passed in a blur of club nights and adventures into the Bacchanalian conflict zone that is St Mary's Street. I may have fallen off a wall too.

Then, as Freshers' Fairs merged into lectures and trips home, a whole new reality became normal. But life would never quite feel as strange as Freshers' Week, as these stories from other Independent writers attest. And, despite the booze, the memories remain fresh – which is why Fresh Meat is essential viewing.

And the blonde in the kitchen? We're getting married next year.

Fresh Meat starts tonight, 10pm, on Channel 4

Rhodri Marsden: City University London, 1989, Music

The friendships you establish during your first week at university are among the most fleeting, insubstantial and pointless that you ever make in your adult life. While desperately keeping my eyes peeled for anyone I might have something vaguely in common with, I spent days hanging out with a rugby player called Toby, with whom I shared a fondness for Diet Coke, breathing and little else. We would subsequently spend the next three years trying to avoid each other.

The highlight of the week was supposedly the Freshers' Ball. More prosperous universities might have booked The Stone Roses or 808 State for their excitable new intake, but my tiny, cash-strapped institution served up an unlikely double bill of Showaddywaddy and some indie dreck. Unimpressed by the combination of 1970s nostalgia and aeronautical engineering students running around the dance floor, I got incomprehensibly pissed.

Next day, people started calling me "haddock". Apparently, that's how I'd introduced myself. The fishy sobriquet stuck with me for a full year, during which romantic opportunities were limited.

Alice Jones: St John's College, Oxford, 1999, French and Russian

There was, I recall, apathetic outrage that our Freshers' Week wasn't actually a week. Keen to press us into study, college granted us only five days to guzzle pints and chips 'n' cheese, buy identikit Che posters, find the library and make best friends forever. I made up for the missing two days by doing all but one with gusto.

It was 1999. The look was pre-straighteners frizz, gilets and tight tops from Morgan. You know, like one of the All Saints. The soundtrack was Basement Jaxx, Destiny's Child and, indelibly, Eiffel 65's "Blue (Da Ba Dee)". The drink was watered-down Foster's. And the biscuit, for all those neighbourly cups of tea, was the Maryland Cookie (on 2-for-1 at the Co-op). Looking back, I don't think we were terribly cool.

But that didn't matter – there was the matter of being free agents to get on with. Acclimatising to the strange sensation of being in the pub on a Tuesday at 4pm, talking about gap yahs (or, if like me you hadn't had one, talking about The Beach), eating toast on the hour, every hour, and signing your life away at the Freshers' Fayre. I decided I might quite like rowing: a term of 5.45am river outings later, I realised that I didn't.

John Walsh: Exeter College Oxford,1972, English

It was Oxford, 1972. I'd just arrived. I had a David Bowie obsession, a pair of yellow loon pants embroidered with butterflies, a thirst for Courage beer and a passion for Coleridge. Yes, I was virginal, Catholic and shockingly naïve, but I nursed a conviction that my untapped resources needed just a nudge to come flooding out. Give it a year, I told myself. You'll be speaking at the Union, editing Isis, starring in Uncle Vanya at the Playhouse and driving girls mad with your scorching guitar licks.

The Freshers' Fair encouraged these delusions. Guitar Club? Sure – come for a jam next Tuesday. Oxford University Dramatic Society? Auditions next Wednesday, you handsome, talented boy. You're a political thinker? Join the Monday Club/Tribune Club/ Marxist-Leninist Collective on Thursday.

For a weekend I lived in a bubble of about-to-be-fledged omnicompetence. Then I met the Guitar Club. "Can you play 'Anji' by Davey Graham?" they said. I could do the three chords to "Mr Tambourine Man" but not "Anji". They looked at me pityingly. At OUDS, a nice chap called Will asked me to read for the part of a West Country doctor. I pitched my accent between James Mason and Robert Newton. At the end, Will said: "Perhaps you'd like to help with the lighting or something." And don't get me started on how I impressed the Marxist-Leninist Collective by failing to distinguish Marcuse from my school pal, Mark Hughes.

Holly Webley-Naylor: Warwick, 2009, Theatre and Performance Studies

I knew I was meant to join lots of clubs. But, as I entered the kitchen where the 16 strangers I'd be living with for the next year were, I gathered from the chants of "Down it FRESHER!", and the playing of "Ring of Fire", that shoulda, woulda, couldas went out of the window.

The first one I clocked was Eleanor, a nice Jewish girl, necking a bottle of tequila. To her left was Jamie, already hardened by years in the First XI, drinking from a beer-bong. Then there was Laura (or "Laawwra!" as she pronounced it in her native Essex tongue) wearing a necklace with her name on it: "You know... so youse lot don't forget." Freshers' Week was a whirlwind of fancy dress (or undress), hundreds of Facebook friend adds and drinking to the point of incontinence.

It felt like your first long school trip, where everyone is on their worst behaviour. It was fun while it lasted, but I won't miss waking up to find I'd been trapped in my room by duct tape stuck from the top to bottom of my door frame, or the genius who thought it would be hilarious to place a kipper in one of the ceiling panels down our corridor.

Alice-Azania Jarvis: Edinburgh, 2003, History and Politics

Despite months of planning, long afternoons spent studying the clubs and societies' rota and revising Ways To Make New Friends ("offer cups of tea," I repeated, like it was some kind of foreign language), my Freshers' Week couldn't have been more disorientating.

There were two things people asked you: where did you go to school; and what did you do on your gap year? Not being well-versed in the intricacies of British public schools, I found the questions perplexing. My answers seemed to be the wrong way round. No one quite grasped that, no, I didn't go to South Africa on my gap year and then go to school in London. Quite the opposite. I went to school in South Africa, but spent my gap year in a Starbucks just off Upper Street. Loitering nervously on the fringes of what would become the Pippa Middleton set, I was bemused. Why were they dressed in tweed? What was going on with their hair? And how do they all know each other?

But amidst the haze of posh, normality reigned, temporarily cowed into intimidated pockets. We banded together over time, as we still do on a regular basis – in wine bars, cafés, flats, where we talk about our grown-up jobs.

Tim Walker: Trinity College Dublin, 2000, English and Drama

I went to university in Dublin, where (and this may surprise you) Freshers' Week was rather less raucous than in this country. There was a foam party, naturally, and a "Traffic Light Ball", to which I non-committally wore orange. But we had no halls of residence to speak of, so I missed out on certain key Freshers' experiences, such as vomitous drinking games (phew), and late-night bed-hopping (boo). I spent most of the week being glommed into a gang of fellow Brits, though over the following four years I would manage to befriend some locals, too – mainly thanks to the many university societies that I joined during that week. Some I visited once and never went back: the debating clubs, the Tae-Kwon Do society, Sinn Fein. Others became permanent extra-curricular fixtures, and the source of my social life: the college newspaper, Trinity News, and the Players drama society. After a few days, I auditioned and was cast in the "Freshers' Co-op", a glorified panto starring about 50 Freshers, with about 50 more backstage. At last, I had some pals with whom to play those vomitous drinking games. Sadly, the bed-hopping remained elusive.

Victoria Summerley: Edinburgh, 1973, Music

I went to university at 16, so despite having gone to Dunfermline High School, only 11 miles away, I didn't have a cohort of friends starting with me. However, a friend who'd been in the year above me at school was studying music, so I spent Freshers' Week hanging out with him and a group of his friends who had just started at Edinburgh Art College. (We didn't say "hanging out" in the Seventies, of course.)

It was fun, but I must have somehow felt I'd missed out because in my final year, I found myself offering to organise Freshers' Week for the students' union.

One of the highlights was the Sexuality Forum, which was notorious for once having screened a film about how to achieve orgasm. My version was much more staid, with representatives from student health, the gay community and counselling service. I airily introduced them by saying: "Forget all those old wives' tales about jumping up and down after sex to stop you getting pregnant, these guys are here to give you proper advice."

As the forum finished, a friend grabbed me by the arm. "You know what you said about jumping up and down," she demanded with a worried look in her eye. "Is that not true?"