Last Night's TV: - Fresh Meat / Channel 4, The Fades / BBC3

Class acts are going to make the cut

Tom Sutcliffe
Thursday 22 September 2011 00:03

I quite understand. You've been burned. You had a one-night stand with Campus and swore that was the very last time you were ever going to have anything to do with university comedy. They can be scarring these things. But I'd like to introduce you to Fresh Meat. And yes, it's a bit lavatorial, and has a relish for verbal crudity (though not a lot of swearing as it happens). But I think you might get along. Because underneath the superficial similarities this student comedy from the creators of Peep Show, Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, is an altogether smarter and kinder affair. Perfectly timed for the start of a new university year, its first episode addressed the problem writers have in introducing us to a group of strangers by concentrating on the anxiety many students will have in meeting one.

Joe Thomas plays Kingsley, painfully aware that his small talk leaves something to be desired, but awkwardly powerless to put it right. ("So... you're a coffee man," he says, trying to break the ice with one of his fellow housemates. "The coffster!"). Kingsley shares the house with Vod, a terrifyingly confident urban hipster, Oregon (who never does or says anything without first flicking her eyes sidewards to check what Vod has done) and Josie, a relatively innocent Welsh girl determined not to let it show. Leftover from a previous term is Howard, first encountered by Vod drying Peking duck with a hairdryer while wearing a sweater and nothing else: "Sorry," he explains, "I've just got used to wearing trousers of the mind." And arriving late is JP, a wonderfully repellent public-school boy with the sense of entitlement of an investment banker.

Things don't go very well. Josie fancies Kingsley but ends up with JP instead, unaware that he is actually living in the same house and is thus ill-qualified as a "starter lay". Kingsley hooks up with a gorgeous girl at the pub only to find that her definition of the missionary position doesn't match his: "It was going well," he confesses later, "until she revealed that she thinks sexual impulses are sent by Satan to lure us into a trap, which ends with our souls frying like bacon for eternity." And Oregon finds herself handing over her personal statement to Vod, after the latter asks for advice on their first assignment: "I'm a bit pissed and I can't think of why I want to do English right now. I thought I should put something about books." Only JP – whose self-assurance is impenetrable – counts the night as a success. "I, my friend, am a certified vagina miner," he boasts to a friend on his mobile, the moment Josie has left the room.

If you think that line is repellently callow, well, that's the point. JP is a comic monster... and in Jack Whitehall's performance a very promising one too. And in Howard, the house geek, he has a worthy sparring partner. Howard eats a meal he calls blinner because he doesn't have any time for "this multiple meal bullshit" and responds to JP drawing a penis on his forehead with a serene illogic: "It's his ink," he says calmly. "It has nothing to do with my face." Their Mexican standoff over bathroom access was simultaneously juvenile, vulgar and very funny. But what really holds the thing together is an underlying sympathy, the sense that these characters might be comically foolish but they aren't (with some exceptions) contemptible. It ended with a sweetly melancholy crane shot – Josie and Kingsley separated by the shoddy partition between their room, each thinking of the other and both feeling out of their depth. It was tender, that shot, not an essential quality for all comedy but quite important if you want people to care.

By some knot in the zeitgeist, The Fades, a stylish exercise in urban gothic, also featured awkward teenage courtships and uncomfortable moments in a lavatory. The point here is that these bathetic moments have been mashed together with an apocalyptic breach into an alternative universe. Paul, bedwetter and social outsider, discovers he has the ability to see the dead, who tend to stand around on rooftops like an Antony Gormley installation. If they can't make it to the other side, they go bad, like bottles of milk in a student fridge, and if too many of them turn sour something really terrible is going to happen. I can't really work out the cosmology of the thing and if I'm honest I don't really care. But Jack Thorne's script understands how much pop-culture references matter to those who will, and is scary and funny in just the right measure.

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