The idea of creating something feel-good is never really an issue... | Sam Bain on writing Fresh Meat © Michael Prince

The idea of creating something feel-good is never really an issue...

Sam Bain on writing Fresh Meat

Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong created both Peep Show and Fresh Meat. As the university sitcom returns, Sam talks about the writing process, why the characters remain likeable, and how he’ll never pen anything schmaltzy...

You write the show as part of a team. Why did you decide to do that when you and Jesse Armstrong already had so much success writing as a pair?

It was a mixture. It was partly practical, because we had an outstanding commission for Peep Show series eight. We just wouldn’t have been able to write them all ourselves, it would have been unmanageable.

But we’ve also always really believed in team-writing. We’d done it before ourselves earlier in our careers. It’s fun to get together and come up with some comedy ideas. It’s the way all American comedies are written. And there are a lot of advantages to it.

It’s great to have other voices. And it’s a great way of breaking in new talent who may not have written for TV before, and also to work with some really experienced talent like Tony Roche.

How does the dynamic work? Does everyone write their own episode, or do they become the voice for each specific character, or do you all just sit around a table shouting at each other?

There is some shouting – although usually fun shouting rather than aggressive shouting. We meet up at the beginning and do a week or two of group brainstorming, where we come up with the ideas that will fuel the series, and then we break up into two groups, splitting the series into block one and block two, and we’ll sit around and figure out storylines together for those episodes, and then the writers go off and write the first drafts on their own. And then we obviously review them, make notes, do more drafts, lots of read-throughs and that sort of thing.

You and Jesse met as students in Manchester. How do you think being a student then compares to being one now?

I have no idea, because I’m not a student now. But we’re guessing that it’s exactly the same. That’s the premise upon which the show is based.

Obviously there are some differences we touch upon a little bit, about student hardship and stuff – but on the whole, we just hope that the experience is universal, and even if you went to university in the 1950s you might still relate to it. Obviously the emotions and the characters are the feature of the show, it’s not so much about contemporary issues as about these characters. And I think the experience of going away from home for the first time, living in these weird, unfamiliar places with these weird, unfamiliar people, hopefully that’s pretty universal.

What were the best and worst aspects of university life for you?

Well, the best aspects were all the amazing friends I made and people I met, and I’m still in touch with – obviously Jesse being the obvious example. And it was there that I started doing writing – I did a creative writing course, and if I hadn’t done that I probably would never have started writing, so that changed my life in quite a dramatic way.

And it does give you an airlock in your life somewhere you can grow and change outside of the pressures of work and mortgages and family and stuff. I think there’s lots of plusses. The minuses are it can be quite a lonely experience, it’s not always that easy to adjust to this whole new life, new city and new group of friends. Sometimes it can be a bit hard. But overall it’s a really positive thing – at least it was for me.

This was the first TV comedy set at university since The Young Ones. Did you watch that back in the day, and did you re-watch it before writing Fresh Meat?

Yes and no! Jesse and I loved that show. We were just the right age for it when it came out, and it was great. It was a classic, hilarious sitcom. But it was totally different from Fresh Meat in terms of tone.

Obviously people bring it up, because it’s uni-set, but that was a physical farce with huge broad laughs and amazing caricatures, whereas we’re going for something much more realistic. But it was a great show.

The characters in Fresh Meat are, despite their faults, very likeable. Is that an important part of the show?

That kind of crept up on us by accident. Two factors make it different to Peep Show, for example. Number one, it’s a comedy drama, so you don’t always have to end everything with jokes – you can end with someone looking sad, and seeing someone looking sad makes them more likeable, somehow. You don’t have the pressure of always making them funny.

And also the fact that the cast and characters are quite young - they’re basically teenagers, 18, 19 – makes them, I think, immediately more likeable, because if you do a terrible thing and you’re young, you’re sort of excused in a way. You think ‘Well, they’ll learn,’ whereas if you’re Mark and Jeremy’s age, there’s no excuse. So I think that does help make them more likeable.

Is it difficult to write a programme that’s about friendship without it becoming schmaltzy?

Well, I think comedy is drama and drama is conflict, so there’s always going to be conflict. The tendency is to create more conflict, so the idea of creating something really feel-good and schmaltzy is never really an issue. We try and create divisions and conflicts between the characters. Obviously there is a sweetness to it as well – the romantic plots in particular – so hopefully we get the balance right.

Do you and Jesse get involved on set, or do you bow out once the scripts are done?

We don’t really get involved on set, mainly because of time. It’s a two month shoot, maybe longer, it’s a huge amount of time. So we don’t get involved, but we have such great directors and great cast that we don’t need to worry about it. It’s great.

Lastly, what are the comedies at the moment that you are enjoying?

At the moment? I’m a big fan of Girls. Louie is really good. And Hunderby. Those are my three favourite recent shows, off the top of my head.

• Fresh Meat starts on Channel 4 in November

Published: 17 Oct 2013

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