Big Boys is a show that refuses to over-explain. It’s a show that expects its audience to remember the specific Visa-related woes of 2010 X Factor contestant Gamu Nhengu. That River Island shirts once served as code for the chronically uninspiring. And that a pet goldfish isn’t named after the This Morning presenter Alison Hammond for the sake of it, but because Hammond is an adored gay icon and inspirational beacon of positivity who once played Connect 4 with Beyoncé. It’s the secret language smuggled into this sprightly coming-of-age Channel 4 comedy, partly because of when and where the show is set – at a university on the outskirts of London in the autumn of 2013 – but primarily because it’s the vocabulary of being queer and online in the 21st century.
That’s the genius of comedian and writer Jack Rooke. His work, from his stand-up shows to his recent memoir Cheer the F**k Up, has always cross-stitched themes of grief and insecurity with nicher-than-niche pop culture. It’s a bit like eating candy floss in a therapy session. Mirroring much of Rooke’s earlier material, Big Boys is semi-autobiographical; the sitcom begins in 2013 with his arrival at the fictional Brent University. Here he’s played by Derry Girls’ Dylan Llewellyn, with Rooke himself adding a jaunty voiceover. “If you can’t cast yourself as better-looking in your own life story, then what’s the point?” he quips.
Jack is anxious and closeted when he hits campus two years after the death of his father. “I hope you’ll meet a lovely girl here,” says his mum, thumbing the poster of Malala Yousafzi that he’s stuck on his dormitory wall. She’s played by Doctor Who’s Camille Coduri as a walking square on the Love of Huns Instagram account.
Jack also meets his flatmate, the demonstratively heterosexual Danny (Jon Pointing). He’s someone who lines his shelves with bottles of Debenhams-counter aftershave and makes a beeline for the jar of condoms carried by over-eager student union reps. Equally horny and equally struggling – though one is a bit better at suppressing it in public – they form a friendship.
Big Boys borrows its plot tropes and supporting cast – the swot, the posh girl, the wise gay elder – from a host of sitcom classics set within universities, The Young Ones and Fresh Meat among them. But there’s always been rich comic potential in tales of freshers’ weeks and disparate young people tossed together and expected to get on. More specifically, being at that awkward mid-point between adolescence and adulthood, where sex and booze are no longer vaguely illicit, but actual maturity is still out of reach. Rooke’s perspective adds further flavours to the mix: a gay teenager from suburbia who unknowingly downs bottles of poppers like vodka shots and speaks in ITV Daytime metaphors (“Me and mum had stuck together like Phillip Schofield and Holly Willoughby, but deep down we were sad – like Eamonn and Ruth”).
Big Boys has also found a real star in Llewellyn, who shone as perpetual insult magnet James on Derry Girls, but was rarely asked to do more on that show than be English and exasperated. Here he retains a fish-out-of-water sweetness, but finds within it a softer register and darker melancholy. Some actors take years to follow up their breakout hit with something just as good. It’s taken Llewellyn quite literally a week.
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