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Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging, as told by its stars: ‘I still get asked – are you Slaggy Lindsay?’

Fifteen years ago, a British comedy about the pressures of being a teenage girl became a generation-defining hit. To celebrate its birthday, Isobel Lewis spoke to director Gurinder Chadha and many of its stars – including Georgia Groome and Eleanor Tomlinson – about on-set crushes, sneaky fag breaks and coming of age

Thursday 29 June 2023 06:30 BST
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Gurinder Chadha (right) with Georgia Groome on the set of ‘Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging’
Gurinder Chadha (right) with Georgia Groome on the set of ‘Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging’ (Gurinder Chadha)

Do the words “nunga-nungas” mean anything to you? What about “snogging scale”? “Fabbity fab with knobs on”? For a generation coming of age in the mid-Noughties, this language crept its way into playground conversation and gossip sessions. It was the product of Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging, Gurinder Chadha’s clunkily titled yet much-adored teen movie that perfectly captured the mortification and mundanity of that awkward age. This was the film we piled into cinemas to watch, then pored over at sleepovers and quoted ad nauseum. Fifteen years later, many still return to it, branding it their ultimate comfort movie.

Billed as a teenage answer to Bridget Jones’s Diary, Angus… was based on a teen lit series by the late author Louise Rennison, one that began with 1999’s Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging. Rennison’s books centred around Georgia Nicholson, a distinctly normal 14-year-old girl obsessed with boys, periods and the size of her nose. To this day, Rennison’s 10-book series, sharp and witty beyond their hero’s years, remain the only novels to ever make me laugh out loud.

When we meet Georgia in the 2008 film based on the first three books, she is portrayed by actor Georgia Groome and is troubled by the kinds of problems that adults may find innocuous. For teens, though, they are life-or-death. Georgia wants to be fancied by the hottest boy in her secondary school (a flicky haired, pre-fame Aaron Taylor-Johnson), while her best mate Jas (Eleanor Tomlinson) is gunning for his brother Tom (Sean Bourke). Georgia wants a banging 15th birthday party “in a nightclub, with a DJ”. And Georgia wants her parents (comedians Alan Davies and Karen Taylor) to stop being so embarrassing all the time – or her mum to stop flirting with hunky builder Jem (Steve Jones), at least.

Standing in Georgia’s way are school bully “Slaggy Lindsay” (Kimberley Nixon), her feral pet cat – the titular Angus – and an inability to go five minutes without putting her foot in her mouth. Or, in the film’s opening scene, turning up to a party dressed as a stuffed olive, only to be told by her friends – dressed as a sexy angel, princess, and devil – that “boys don’t like girls for funniness”. If the “issues” here sound like the total opposite of the edgy, drug-infested teen dramas of the time – Channel 4’s salacious Skins was a year old when Angus… hit cinemas – that’s because they were, and deliberately so.

Even in 2023, Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging’s charm remains. For one, there’s its killer soundtrack of mid-Noughties relics such as The Pigeon Detectives, Scouting for Girls, The Maccabees – many of which populated the iPods of the film’s leads. It’s also the place to see some of the earliest performances from future stars, such as Poldark’s Tomlinson to rumoured future Bond Taylor-Johnson. In an age of ever-shortening nostalgia cycles (yes, Gen-Z have managed to be nostalgic about 2008), Angus… catapults you back to that very year, as reflective of it as a waft of So…? body spray or the pressure to choose your MySpace top eight.

To celebrate 15 years since the film’s release, I spoke to Gurinder Chadha and the film’s stars (Georgia Groome, Eleanor Tomlinson, Kimberley Nixon, Georgia Henshaw) about making an underappreciated British classic…

“I told her, ‘You can retire! You’ve made me read!’”

In 1999, comedian-turned-author Louise Rennison releases the first novel in her Georgia Nicholson book series, which becomes a worldwide bestseller. Teen readers fell in love with Georgia and her ‘Ace Gang’ (Jas, Rosie and Ellen) and the bizarre yet relatable scenarios Rennison put them in, from shaving off their eyebrows to sitting on their hands until they went numb before grabbing their own boobs. That? An attempt to experience “what it’s like to be felt up”, in case you were wondering.

Georgia Groome (Georgia Nicholson): I was more of an Adrian Mole than a Georgia Nicholson at that time, but I read the first [book] when I auditioned and loved it. A lot of the books aimed at girls that age at the time were maybe about sex – even some of the Jacqueline Wilson books that were aimed at that slightly older group were a bit too adult for where I possibly was. We weren’t going to parties and getting drunk at that age and it seemed a more honest take on the early teen years.

Eleanor Tomlinson (Jas): I first read the books when I found out they were going to make a film – I picked up the first and was obsessed. I’d read nearly all of them by my first audition.

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Georgia Henshaw (Rosie): They were funny, and so relatable, weren’t they? When I went to the first audition, Louise was there, with Gurinder. She asked if I’d read them and I said, ‘I’ve read them!’ I told her, ‘You can retire! You’ve made me read!’

From L-R: Gurinder Chadha, Eleanor Tomlinson, Georgia Groome, Manjeeven Grewal, Georgia Henshaw (Gurinder Chadha)

Gurinder Chadha (director): The way Louise captures being 12, 13, 14, is remarkable. You’re kind of self-obsessed and you think you’re much more mature than you are, but you’re really just a kid. I liked the fact that they didn’t have huge, terrible problems, but their problems and conflicts were huge to them. It just all felt very, very authentic.

“I know how to do this and I can do this well”

Chadha was riding high, following the success of ‘Bend It Like Beckham’ (2002) and ‘Bride and Prejudice’ (2004). Then the feature film wing of US kids’ TV channel Nickelodeon got in touch, asking if she would be up for adapting the first three of Rennison’s books for the big screen, five years after they’d purchased the rights and failed to successfully adapt them.

Chadha: I’d already made Bend It Like Beckham, which in a way was my teen movie. It captured that sense of girls who were smart and real, as opposed to high school-y. Not mean girls, as it were, just authentic girls with a dream. That really had a big impact. But Angus… was different. It was Louise’s vision of teenagers, which was great. When I read it, I just thought, “yeah, I know how to do this and I can do this well”.

Groome: I was very familiar with a lot of Gurinder’s work. It was really exciting for all of us because [Bend It Like Beckham] was a film we all knew, and it was, again, about girls. That’s how she led the set as well. At that point, there weren’t that many female directors working at the same level as Gurinder, so it was super cool to see her in charge of a crew of hundreds of men. She really led the charge, in that way.

Chadha directing with her twins in hand (Gurinder Chadha)

Kimberley Nixon (Slaggy Lindsay): I remember when we were doing rehearsals and we literally went to Gurinder’s house because she’d just had twins. Now, having a baby myself, I do not know how she had twins, and was in prep for a movie and directing, [then going] straight into shooting it. I remember all the way through, thinking, “oh my God, she’s really doing it all”.

“She looked like somebody who might cut her eyebrow off, you know?”

While US teen dramas of the time often featured adult casts and adult problems, Chadha wanted to find fresh, young talent to play her film’s teenagers. Casting Georgia Nicholson came first, then the “Ace Gang” around her.

Groome: I met Gurinder right at the beginning, I think when they first started. I wasn’t that into the role, as I was a very serious child and had done some quite serious work [but] they were like, “No, you should go. It’s Gurinder, she’s really cool”.

Chadha: It started with Georgia because I just thought she was terrific. She was kind of a bit gorm-ly but also attractive, and very real looking. She looked like somebody who might cut her eyebrow off, you know? But she’s a really good actress and she blew me away, so it all started with her.

Henshaw: I went for [the role of] Georgia and it was me and G [Georgia Groome]. But G is so good, isn’t she? You know when it’s lovely to just see someone smash it, and then you go, “Yeah, that was for you.”

Georgia Groome on set (Gurinder Chadha)

Chadha: Eleanor had some great charisma. She’s very smart and very warm, [a] beautiful person, but she’s also very, very good at playing the slightly ditzy one.

Tomlinson: The role I originally auditioned for was for Georgia, but at 14 years old, let’s just say I was definitely more of a Jas.

Chadha: In the book, all the girls are white, but because I’d just made Bend It Like Beckham, I was conscious of not having a fully white cast. I mean, everyone’s doing it now, casting someone of colour in everything, but back then that wasn’t really the norm. I did break with tradition from the books by casting [Manjeeven Grewal as Ellen], but it represented Britain for me, so it felt authentic. That was ahead of the curve, shall we say?

Groome: Manjeeven I’ve known since she was probably five or six, because we’re from the same town and had really grown up together. She just is exactly that character. Georgia Henshaw was wiser, [and] had a bit more life experience than the rest of us. And I think I was probably [more] Georgia, and Eleanor was [more] Jas.

Henshaw: I was definitely the Rosie of the group. I had the boyfriend, I wasn’t too easily embarrassed; I was up for just doing it, owning it. That’s what Rosie was like as well. She was giving the advice, she wasn’t shy about kissing. That was 100 per cent me.

Tomlinson: The cast became incredibly close. I feel like we were all relatively similar to our characters, so we just had a ball.

Groome: None of us had to do anything that was particularly a stretch or out of our comfort zones. It was very much the life we were living.

“I had no doubt that Aaron was going to be huge”

The girls were the heart of ‘Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging’, but finding an actor to play “Sex God” Robbie – the charming boy-in-a-band and the object of Georgia’s affections – was almost as crucial. Many boys auditioned for the part – including an extremely young Will Poulter (then just “a little nipper”, in Chadha’s words) but none were quite right.

Chadha: There was an actor that the head of Paramount really wanted; he was nice enough, good looking, and he had a bit of a name. But then Aaron auditioned and I couldn’t get him out of my mind. Aaron was 16. He wasn’t a polished diamond, he didn’t do any kind of charm or sucking up or anything like that. He came in, he did his thing, he improvised a bit and then he left. He just became this person and I thought, “This kid is amazing, he really deserves it.” So I went into battle for him.

From L-R: Georgia Groome, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Gurinder Chadha, Benny the Cat (Gurinder Chadha)

Nixon: I remember I checked: Aaron was 17 and I was 21. Obviously, that’s not great, is it? We were all very young and had been… not typecast so much, but very much cast based on how we looked. Aaron was the heartthrob teen boy, but you could see there was something else going on. Then he went on to Nowhere Boy [where he played a young John Lennon] and you could tell he had a lot more to give. But, obviously, we were making a teen movie. It wasn’t going to be a dark thriller, David Lynch kind of thing.

Chadha: I get super excited when I see someone with talent, with something different. I’d seen the same thing with Keira Knightley, when she came in with 40 other girls [for Bend It Like Beckham], and I saw that with Aaron. I had no doubt that he was going to be huge because of his sense of presence. I also thought that with Georgia Groome, so I was surprised that more people haven’t cast Georgia. She’s a really interesting character actress, [and] has that Emma Thompson quality, but I think a lot of people don’t look at actors in that way. Our industry is what it is.

“Watching Gurinder lead as a woman was a pivotal moment for all of us”

Production began in 2007, with scenes being shot on location in the British seaside towns of Eastbourne and Brighton, as well as in Ealing Studios. For some, it was their first experience of a film set; Groome and Tomlinson were 15 and studying for their GCSEs, while Henshaw and Grewal were 13.

Groome: I think the crew had no choice but to lean into the fact we were kids. Having a load of teenagers asking to touch your camera and say, “How does this work?” would probably be annoying, but they were all so kind and so generous.

Tomlinson: I became such good friends with the cast and crew; they taught me so much and definitely had a hand in shaping the way I approach my work now. I learnt how to behave. I watched and listened, so I had a greater understanding of what everyone does and how hard they work. A TV, film or stage production is nothing without its crew.

Chadha teaching Groome to use a camera (Gurinder Chadha)

Henshaw: I wish I’d learnt more from the experience, but what I really remember is how great the food was. We filmed in Ealing Studios, and every lunchtime we were allowed to just order whatever we wanted. I had a foot-long Subway with jalapenos and gherkins every single day.

Groome: Watching Gurinder lead as a woman was quite a pivotal moment for all of us as young teenagers, to see that strength and tenacity that she had to be able to lead that charge. It’s not an easy job, and she just did it so well, and with such fun inside of her. It was a real girl-power thing.

Tomlinson: Gurinder was the perfect leader. I just remember my heart breaking when filming came to an end.

“I think it liberated a teenage side of me”

Let loose a group of teenagers on to a film set and chaos was bound to ensue. Still, the cast all had to keep up their tutoring under the watchful eyes of their mums.

Tomlinson: In terms of being a teenager and making a film about the life of teenagers, I just honestly loved every second. We spent so much time together; not only on set, but in tutoring – yes, we all still had school work to do! – and in the evenings with our mums who were our chaperones. [It] really was a family affair and when people say “it takes a village”, they’re not lying.

Henshaw: It’s so much fun when you’re a kid, but it’s hard work. Teachers, schools think you’re off on a jolly, but you’re not. You’re working, and then you’ve also got to get your tutoring in as well. Legally, you have to do three hours of tutoring every day, which sucked.

Groome: I lived with Eleanor in the same apartment block and [Henshaw and Grewal] were down the road so we’d have dinner together. I mean, we were together 90 per cent of the time. Whenever we weren’t on set, we were playing.

Kimberley Nixon (centre) as ‘Slaggy Lindsay’ (Paramount Pictures)

Nixon: I was in quite a different place in my life – I mean, 15 to 22 is a gulf in experience. I got to have all these weird school experiences that I never actually had. I would put my costume on in the morning and they’d be like, “No, no, you can open a few more buttons, she’s Slaggy Lindsay.” And I was like, “Oh my god, I would never have thought of doing this in school, having my boobs out like that.” It was really fun because I was getting to be such a, well… a b****, really; no other way of saying it. I got to play all the people who had bullied me.

Groome: All of the adults almost regressed down to being teenagers again. The make-up and the costume girls loved all of the silly gossip, and there’d be adult gossip about Steve Jones.

Chadha: My teenage time was probably dormant, because I was an adult at that point. Going back, I think it liberated a teenage side of me.

“I remember fancying the pants off my co-star”

Hormones, naturally, were raging on set too, and teenage crushes quickly formed.

Groome: We were doing our GCSEs, so 15, turning 16. It was quite a pivotal age to be let loose on a set like that with so many other kids and boys.

Nixon: Aaron and Sean [Bourke] were heartthrobs on set. They were just dreamy to the younger girls; we had lots of teenage extras, and they all had stars in their eyes. I was a bit older – I felt like I was the only one who knew that it got better. That you won’t always worry about boys and skin and periods and all those things. You get over that hump.

The female cast and Chadha with Steve Jones (Gurinder Chadha)

Tomlinson: I think every teenager goes through a boy or girl-obsessed phase. I remember fancying the pants off Sean Bourke; he wasn’t interested in me at all! It was very sweet really, perfect for the movie and I’m sure hilarious for all the adults. I was definitely a hormone-driven teenager – when your mum is your chaperone, though, it’s hard to be as cool as you so desperately want to be.

Henshaw: Me and Aaron… I don’t mind saying this, because whatever… but when we were filming, we were staying in Brighton and me and him would secretly go across the road from the hotel for a cigarette – naughty – not realising that it was a glass front to the hotel. So one day, Georgia Groome’s mum comes over the road. I dropped my fag quickly, she went, “Pick it up” “What?” “Pick it up.” She said, “We’ve been watching you smoke every night!”

“Going back to school was humbling, which was good. It’s good to be humbled”

‘Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging’ arrived in cinemas at a pivotal time for British teenage girls on the big screen. In December 2007, we’d got the St Trinian’s remake, featuring early performances from Gemma Arterton, Juno Temple and Paloma Faith, alongside established stars Rupert Everett and Colin Firth. Weeks after Angus’s release, along came ‘Wild Child’, where a badly behaved Malibu teen (Emma Roberts) is forced to attend an English boarding school. Nixon starred in both ‘Wild Child’ and ‘Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging’ making her an instantly recognisable figure to a certain group of 13-year-olds. Despite Chadha’s film facing stiff competition in the box office from much-hyped concurrent releases ‘Mamma Mia!’ and ‘The Dark Knight’, it was a surprise success, grossing £6.6m in the UK and making its actors teen stars months after they’d returned to school.

Groome: It was the summer when Wild Child also came out, and they seemed to be taking the risk on teen movies for girls. And I mean, it worked. That was an era where we’d go to the cinema in groups and be really excited about [a] film coming out. It went mad. It went mad for a few months and then it stayed at a steady level of people loving it.

Henshaw: We went to T4 on the Beach with Steve Jones and it was one of the best days of my life, seriously. We were on the, eugh, “celebrity bus” from Paddington down to Weston-Super-Mare with people from Shipwrecked, Joe Swash from EastEnders, Nicholas Hoult and the cast of Skins. It was sponsored by Red Bull, so I was just drinking Red Bull all day, buzzing buzzing buzzing. We were in the Golden Circle, I was on Aaron Johnson’s shoulders, mental. We were so happy.

Chadha: Interestingly, in America, Nickelodeon didn’t know what to do with the film. They didn’t think it would necessarily be a big hit so they never released it theatrically and [aired it] on a big day on Nickelodeon and [the ratings] went through the roof. An executive did say to me after that they’d made a huge mistake, and they should have put it out theatrically, because of the amount of times girls have watched that film over and over again.

Chadha with the cast (Gurinder Chadha)

Tomlinson: The strangest and possibly hardest part was going back to school [after the film was released]. I was suddenly being talked about and pointed at; when you’re a shy teenager, like I was, I found that quite tough. My family have always been so incredibly supportive so I never felt like I was “in the spotlight”. I was always aware of how lucky I was to be working and that’s still my mantra today. I’m incredibly lucky to be working and to be where I am.

Groome: Going back to school was a good thing. I was ripped quite heavily and the catchphrases from the film followed me, and have for most of my life after. I mean, they weren’t words we would have used, but it worked and Louise would still talk in that way years later. That was her personality, which is fun, I guess, but I was only ever possibly slightly bullied about them. It was humbling, which was good. It’s good to be humbled.

“People don’t necessarily think films about young women are as clever as films about adults, and particularly about men”

When fans of the film look back at ‘Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging’ as adults, it feels revolutionary – an authentic portrayal of teen life often not seen on screen.

Chadha: It’s very hard to do a coming-of-age film and get it right, because as an adult, you really have to drop all kinds of barriers about yourself in order to relive your life at that age. My daughter eats up all these Netflix romcoms, but she’s looking at these people from the outside because they’re not her. The experiences are so extreme, and it’s fine; it satisfies an audience, but they don’t have the same relatability. Angus… has a sense of innocence, and obviously it’s hard to capture innocence and be authentic and it is an art form – it’s just not recognised as that. But maybe 15 years later, it is.

Henshaw: We had Sex and the City and Bridget Jones for women [and] adults. Angus… was big for our generation. I think it was the first one that’d been done for young girls, [and] about girls being able to speak out and be themselves and make little mistakes, which we all do, but everyone thinks they’ve got to be perfect.

The Ace Gang with Chadha (Gurinder Chadha)

Groome: That’s something we still miss in that genre. We’re quick to jump to the more exciting things and the things that are more shocking, but we often miss the silliness of it. I think that’s what Gurinder captured, and I think that’s why it’s probably stood a certain test of time. When you’re 13, 14, 15, 16, and those things are happening to you, all you feel is that kind of red-hot embarrassment and the pain. But when you look back at it now, having dealt with the adult stuff of life, it all is just so silly.

Chadha: I think the world is very snobby, and people don’t necessarily think films about young women are as clever as films about adults, and particularly about men. Because so few films get made that satisfy and satiate this very important demographic, the ones that do make it are held with such great esteem. People don’t think girls going through adolescence are deemed a worthy audience to make films for, but people forget that that delicious age of going from a child to an adult is universal. It’s there for all of us.

“It doesn’t feel real sometimes, like I can’t quite believe it was me”

Fifteen years later, the once-teenage fans of ‘Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging’ are in their twenties and thirties, and use Chadha’s film to reminisce about their teenage years just as the cast do.

Chadha: I’m so proud of the film and I was super sad when Louise died so unexpectedly [in 2016] because I thought there was a lot more that we could have done with these characters. And who knows – maybe we will, in her memory. But she was the fifth member of the Ace Gang, hands down, and always will be.

Nixon: Weirdly, the older I got, the more I got recognised for it. If 14 year olds had seen me in a shop or something at that time, they’d just be whispering. But now they’re in their mid twenties, they come over and go, “I just wanted to let you know, I love that film, it’s such a huge part of my childhood”. Sometimes people ask about it when I’m with my son – “I’m so sorry to ask you in front of your baby, [but] are you Slaggy Lindsay?”

The cast and crew of ‘Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging' (Gurinder Chadha)

Henshaw: I’m going to be 30. That’s mad. I mean, I was the youngest, but we were teenagers. It’s mad to think that was half of my life ago. It feels like yesterday.

Groome: I suppose I’ve not really thought about it until the last few weeks, with the 15th anniversary, but it’s half our lives as well. It’s quite mad to know how much has changed in that – turning 15 feels such a short period of your life, and we’ve had another. So much changes and it’s a shot in time that actually is really fleeting but hilarious at the same time.

Tomlinson: When I think back to [those] days, I remember the fun. The belly-aching laughter. The friendships. I feel so lucky to have had that experience. It was a time in my life that I will always hold very dear. It doesn’t feel real sometimes, like I can’t quite believe it was me and I was part of a movie that a whole generation grew up watching. It’s crazy and I still pinch myself, but it was me and all I can say is: “Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging, you shaped and transformed my life.”

Quotes have been condensed for clarity.

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