|written by Jesse Armstrong & Sam Bain; directed by David Kerr|
starring Joe Thomas, Jack Whitehall, Greg McHugh & Kimberley Nixon
There haven't been many successful university-set comedies, strangely. The Young Ones is perhaps the only notable hit, and obviously bore little resemblance to the realities of being a student in the '80s (it was mostly concerned with bottling the anarchic spirit of the era). Earlier this year Channel 4 tried the zany Campus, but it didn't find an audience and has since been axed. Seeing Fresh Meat make such an immediate impact was therefore very unexpected and gratifying; brimming with confidence and class that I'm excited and relieved that Armstrong and Bain have followed Peep Show with something potentially as good. (We'll ignore their poor, misguided BBC1 sitcom The Old Guys.)
Fresh Meat just gets everything right. The production design is exemplary, with everything filmed through a miasma of dust and cigarette smoke, while you can almost smell the wall damp and unwashed laundry in the student house. There are also plenty of moments that ring true, like the first time the gang are assembled in their front room, strangers thrown together by circumstances, trying to awkwardly break the ice. The show nails the sense of loneliness and culture-shock that many "freshers" experience, as going to university is both a liberating and frightening experience for teens who suddenly can't rely on their parents.
The characters were also very well written. Joe Thomas is admittedly playing a more detached version of his Inbetweeners character (so much so this almost works as a spin-off to that series) but he's very good at playing shy. Greg McHugh gets the most cartoonish role as weirdo Howard, introduced using a hairdryer to dry peking ducks hanging from an indoor washing line, while wearing no trousers, and reminded me of Nick Frost's character from Spaced. Similarly, Charlotte Ritchie brings a touch of Spaced's Jessica Hynes (nee Stevenson) in her portrayal of bookworm Oregon, a girl who tries to hide her academic personality because she fears it would alienate her from the group.
Zawe Ashton plays the antithesis of Oregon, as Vod's a domineering person who's clearly going to cheat her way through classes, and already spent this episode copying Oregon's coursework verbatim—forcing Oregon to redo her own essay at three o'clock in the morning, with barely a whisper of protest. Kimberly Nixon (a combination of Kay Panabaker and a young Amanda Holden) was delightfully sweet as Josie, lighting up the screen whenever she was around. Finally, the writers get over the problem that Jack Whitehall's an eminently irritating screen presence by giving him a character written to be the world's most loathsome upper-class cock. We meet him trying to test some potentially poisoned cocaine on Kingsley in a toilet cubicle, he's on the phone to a friend bragging about a "vagina miner" the second Josie leaves the room after they've slept together, and from there he easily manipulates housemates to get his own way by offering to pay for a premium Sky+ subscription.
The relationships between the characters were also swiftly established and engaging: the enmity between JP and Howard (culminating in a bathroom stand-off involving nudity and defecation), JP's dominance over weak-willed Kingsley, Oregon's unspoken scorn for Vod's laziness, and most notably the fact Josie slept with JP (unaware they're going to be housemates), which sours the likelihood of her hooking up with Kingsley.
Overall, I thought this was marvelous from start to finish, and brilliantly scheduled to coincide with the real fresher's week. It has strong characters, sparkling dialogue, and a real heartbeat. It's so rare to have a comedy that premieres with a clear voice and fully calibrated performances, with jokes that work and slithers of intelligence behind it all. It was surprisingly touching at times, too, especially with the symbolism of Kingsley and Josie being separated by a thin partition in their bedroom.
The prospect of watching these six people navigate their way through student life is one I'm very eager to watch more of, for as long as it lasts before they get too old. If Armstrong and Bain can keep the drama as strong as the comedy, it's hard to see Fresh Meat failing because the actors are great and the production very polished. There were a few weak spots here and there, but for an hour-long comedy-drama Fresh Meat was nimble, absorbing, entertaining, and made me laugh a number of times. What more can you really ask for from a comedy?
- The mean Professor Shales is played by Tony Gardner, who played the crazy father in ITV's My Parents Are Aliens, an award-winning children's series written by Armstrong and Bain before they made it big with Peep Show.