Fresh Meat: The most eagerly awaited series of the year?
The writers of Peep Show have turned their attention to sudent like for a anew comedy-drama for Channel 4.
Jack Whitehall and Joe Thomas star in Fresh Meat, Channel 4's new comedy-drama about student life. Photo: Channel 4By Catherine Bray
Word of a new comedy-drama series from writers Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong is unlikely to be greeted by most viewers with much more than an amiable shrug – the pair hardly constitute household names. Yet take a look at the highlights of their CVs, and you’ll see why Fresh Meat is the most eagerly awaited series of the year for their fans. So far, they have been part-responsible for Channel 4’s longest-running sitcom Peep Show, about two hapless flatmates’ attempts to navigate the modern world, and the gloriously myth-puncturing mockery of a gaggle of self-styled Islamic “martyrs” that was Four Lions, the film they wrote with Chris Morris. On top of that, Armstrong co-wrote the Oscar-nominated comedy In the Loop. Fresh Meat, a comedy-drama for Channel 4 about six cohabiting students, has a lot to live up to.
Or has it? When we meet, Bain and Armstrong, both 40, are perfectly happy to discuss their less successful ventures, the pair having met at university themselves and since shared the ups and downs intrinsic to every career. “We met in Manchester, on a creative writing course,” Bain says. “We started writing together back in London, doing different weird jobs [Bain worked in a video shop, Armstrong was a researcher for a Labour MP]. This was the mid-Nineties. Everything was kicking off, Four Weddings had just come out, it was pre-Blair, good old days.” He laughs and instantly retracts this. “I don’t even mean that, why did I say that? I voted for Blair.”
As much as having to do “different weird jobs” to pay the rent provided a spur to succeed in the world of TV comedy, it was an early taste of the sour side of show business that inspired the pair to make sure their eventual breakthrough was as good onscreen as it was in their heads. A commission to adapt the US sitcom That ’70s Show for UK screens in 1999 did not prove the launch pad for a glittering career that they had hoped. “ITV didn’t even show all of it,” Bain says. “It didn’t go well. When we had the Peep Show opportunity a few years later, we knew how important it was to make sure it went well if we could, because we’d been burned. We weren’t in any way complacent.”
With seven series, a couple of Baftas and near-universal critical acclaim to its name, Peep Show – starring David Mitchell and Robert Webb – is their most recognisable calling card to date. An eighth series will air in 2012. Many would focus their energy on the existing programme. Instead, Bain and Armstrong created Fresh Meat. Why?
“We were amazed nobody had revisited students since The Young Ones,” Armstrong explains. Unlike The Young Ones’ wholly fictional “Scumbag College”, Fresh Meat is set explicitly at Bain and Armstrong’s own alma mater. “We always felt that Manchester was the right place, partly because it’s so huge and you get all these different people from very different backgrounds.”
With around 45 per cent of young people now attending university, the writers had real scope to find conflict in the notion of disparate types of people being forced to cohabit, from a former public school boy (played by 23-year-old stand-up comedian Jack Whitehall), to a girl who spent her summer working in a fish factory (27-year-old playwright Zawe Ashton). Bain and Armstrong created a six-strong ensemble – three women, three men – that feels very different to the more laddish antics of a straight comedy like E4’s The Inbetweeners. None of which is to imply the show is prudish. “One thing we don’t do is censor ourselves,” says Bain. “That’s important. There are a couple of sex scenes in Fresh Meat. But you do need to make sure you do things for a reason and it’s not gratuitous.”
Fresh Meat is not a show that would have been to Mary Whitehouse’s taste, and nor is it supposed to be. It has a dramatic remit to reflect a heightened version of student life as it is, not as some might like it to be. “What you don’t think when you sit down to write a show is, ‘How can I be shocking?’” says Armstrong. “That question isn’t interesting, it’s all about, ‘Is this funny, does it work?’” Then again, he admits, “Some of the material in Peep Show I wouldn’t sit down and watch with even my parents, who are not easily offended.”
So can comedy take things “too far”? Armstrong believes context is everything: “I wouldn’t defend comedy that I find offensive, but there is a lot of comedy that some people find offensive which I would defend. You can’t talk usefully in generalisations.” He gives an example: “Roy Chubby Brown’s offensive material is disgusting to me, an offensive beating-down of people who have already been beaten down plenty, culturally and historically. Other things that people find offensive – Four Lions would be a classic example. If anyone wanted to come and say that they found that offensive, I can defend everything in that.” He reflects on this. “That’s what you need as a writer, to be able to sleep at night, to be able to say why you don’t have a problem with it and don’t feel it causes harm in the world.”
Fresh Meat begins tonight, Wednesday September 21, on Channel 4 at 10.00pm