The final year of university is a time for knuckling down, when thoughts turn towards exams and jobs and life out in the cold, wide world. Alternatively, if you’re the gang of layabout students in Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain’s hit comedy drama Fresh Meat, which returns to Channel Four for a fourth and final season next month, it’s the perfect excuse to go out on one more group bender – with predictably dreadful (and entertaining) results.
“It’s still very funny because of the dynamic between the six of us and that idea that no one in the house can ever get away with a single thing, but there’s a darkness there too,” says Kimberley Nixon who plays the almost permanently sozzled pharmacology student Josie. “Their time at university is coming to the end and most of them have no idea what they’re going to do.”
We’re deep in the bowels of Channel Four’s Horseferry Road headquarters and the sense of nostalgia is heavy in the air. Not just for the show itself – though that is clearly present and more than one cast member talks about their character with an almost wistful pride – but also for the intense time they spent together on the show. “We knew it would be the last time we were together so everything became very poignant, you know, this is the last meal we’ll have as a group, this is the last glass of wine we’re ever going to have together, it was kind of a special time,” says Nixon.
“It’s also quite a dark season,” adds Joe Thomas, who plays the show’s befuddled everyman Kingsley. “Which is about right because becoming a student has become really expensive and also doesn’t really lead anywhere. There’s no guarantee of a job and a lot of this season’s stories – Vod’s mounting debt, JP’s worries about whether he can go his own way, Kingsley’s exam fears – are kind of reflective of that. They’re all worrying about what they’re going to do.”
Jack Whitehall, aka JP, the gang’s resident braying posh boy, interjects: “It is, it’s a very bleak series.” Pause. “But with lots of knob gags.” The others look at him in mock outrage and then crack up.
“I do think the layer of skin between us and our characters is probably the thinnest it has been this season,” says Zawe Ashton, the show’s breakout star who plays the hedonistic Vod, a force of nature in bovver boots and black lipstick. “We were all so emotional about leaving because over the course of four seasons we’ve become such close friends, and that probably shows in the series.”
Charlotte Ritchie aka over-achieving, neurotic Oregon agrees, adding. “There’s an interesting shift in expectations, a lot of people are feeling pressure in different ways with final exams approaching and they don’t always behave the way that people expect.”
Then again subverting expectations has always been one of the chief joys of Fresh Meat. Originally conceived by Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain as a 21st-century Young Ones, the end result was always a rather more interesting beast than that premise suggests. Centring on a bunch of mismatched students sharing a ramshackle house in Manchester, while attending the fictional Manchester Medlock University, the show walks a fine line between quickfire comedy and surprisingly bleak storylines.
Over the course of four years we’ve seen the gang deal with the death of JP’s father, watched the seemingly unstoppable Vod get stopped dead by her difficult alcoholic mother and grimaced from the sidelines as the relationship between Josie and Kingsley fell slowly and bitterly apart. It’s a hard act to pull off, but Armstrong, Bain and their team of writers manage it perfectly – the beautifully paced opening episode of the new series contains the unveiling of the reclusive Howard’s (Scottish comedian Greg McHugh, fittingly the only major cast member not present today) revision cellar (“I’m the Fritzl of revision”), the quietly heartbreaking end of a relationship and the arrival of JP’s smugly successful older brother, Tomothy (“My dad liked the name Tom and mum wanted to call him Timothy”), to knock some sense into his wayward brother (“Dad got me a job and now he’s not here so I’m going to do it for you”).
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“When we were filming there was a quite noticeable feeling of character arcs being wrapped up, and the sense that everything was ending,” says Ashton. “It definitely felt as though there was something at stake.”
And not just for the characters. From the start Fresh Meat was the sort of show that was clearly going to make stars of its cast. It wasn’t just the tight clever writing or the perfectly realised setting, so much as the way the actors clicked making you believe in JP and Kingsley’s mutual loathing tempered by occasional affection, in Josie’s desire to fit in and anti-social Howard’s refusal to do so, in Oregon and Vod’s unlikely yet deep friendship. “It’s been lovely to do a storyline that’s about female friendship rather than romantic love,” says Ritchie. “It works because it’s a really well written relationship. It feels real as I think do all the relationships on the show.”
Ritchie was cast on Fresh Meat immediately after leaving university and admits it was the luckiest of breaks. “I don’t know what would have happened if I hadn’t got it, it was a real chance.” Since then she has gone on to parts in comedy Siblings and ratings juggernaut Call the Midwife: “I know that a lot of the jobs I’ve got since then have been partially because people of Fresh Meat. It’s been amazing.”
Ashton, by contrast, had been acting professionally since she was a child, yet she too saw her career transformed by the show. “Even when you’ve been acting a long time, there are still only moments when you head goes slightly above the parapet,” she says. “This was one of those moments for me.”
Similarly Nixon says she’d never done comedy before Fresh Meat, but “now I get sent loads of comedy scripts”. While Whitehall, already well-known as a stand-up comedian, had never acted before, “and if I’m to believe some of the reviews I still haven’t… but it was such an enjoyable experience and it’s made me realise that I’d definitely love to do more drama, that was the stuff I loved most.”
Why do they think the show was such a hit? “People relate to the storylines, but respond to the sillier moments as well,” says Whitehall.Thomas agrees. “There’s an element of sadness combined with optimism that really appeals,” he says. “The thing about being at university is that when you leave you still haven’t resolved all your issues. You finish school and you can put some distance between who you were and say ‘we were just silly idiots back then’, but most people leave university and they still don’t really know who they are or what they’ll be. They still have all these worries and fears and there’s something that’s so relatable about that.”
The final series of ‘Fresh Meat’ will air on Channel 4 early in 2016
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