'I was hoovering up sick... which you shouldn't do' | C4's new student sitcom Fresh Meat © C4

'I was hoovering up sick... which you shouldn't do'

C4's new student sitcom Fresh Meat

In the book How Not To Write A Sitcom, which Chortle reviewed yesterday, the unequivocal advice was: ‘Don’t write about sitcoms... if you set your sitcom entirely in halls or on campus, you are going to fail your comedy degree.’

It’s advice Peep Show creators Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong wilfully ignored, as their new Channel 4 comedy-drama Fresh Meat is, indeed, based entirely around a group of six students.

So why did the pair, who shared a house together at Manchester University, decide to choose this situation?

‘It's such a great time of life, such a ripe area, we were surprised no one had revisited this in comedy form since The Young Ones,’ says Bain.

‘It's quite simply a time when people leave home and start a new life and often don't know what the hell they are doing. That fundamental time of transition is a brilliant area for comedy.

‘Also, Manchester was a great place for us to set it because you find an interesting mix of people; a great clash of backgrounds. For instance I went to public school in London and Jesse went to a comprehensive in Shropshire so we had our own stories to tell.’

Armstrong adds: ‘It's that classic scenario when people who may be very different are trapped together. You can get that in the workplace, in flat shares like Peep Show and you get that in colleges and universities where people who wouldn't normally even say hello to each other are forced into close proximity.

‘I never went into halls so, like our freshers, I went straight into a shared house in my first year. But what was unusual was that I was living with a bunch of people from my fairly small Shropshire hometown; a little group of people who'd all ended up at Manchester created a little republic of Shropshire.’

The writers have not written Fresh Meat alone, but recruited a team to aid them, includng comedian Tom Basden, Tony Roche from the Thick Of It writing team, and Rose Heiney, who was runner-up in So You Think You're Funny? in 2006.

Bain explains: ‘We always imagined this as a team-written show partly for practical reasons because Peep Show has been recommissioned and moving forward if we're lucky enough to get another series of Fresh Meat we simply couldn't write two shows at once.

‘So we always knew we wanted to bring other writers on board, some are more experienced, some very talented women writers, and one who had just graduated when we started writing. We've had a brief experience of team writing in the past but nothing as big as this. It felt good leading a team and we were excited to do that .. although obviously we don't want any competition, so in a way we're concerned we're creating our own enemies who will defeat us eventually...’

The show, which starts later this month, features an ensemble cast including comics Jack Whitehall, Greg McHugh and Joe Thomas, from the Inbetweeners, with guest stars including Robert Webb as a geology lecturer.

Armstrong says: ‘Casting is so crucial, you can see so many people and then someone will make the part come alive, often in a way you didn't expect. For a writer it's wonderful, quite a magical thing.’

Bain adds: ‘We're delighted with who we've got, it feels so locked in now we couldn't imagine who else could play those roles which is a lovely feeling. With Peep Show we didn't have this situation because we wrote the parts for Mitchell and Webb so there was never any casting issue. This was a bigger leap of faith.’

And it turns out Whitehall wouldn’t have landed this - his first acting job - had it not been for Chortle, after he spotted news about the series on this very website.

‘I sort of found the job myself. There was a press release about it on Chortle, a comedy website I go on all the time. So I called my agent and asked to be seen for it,’ he said. ‘It was definitely something I chased after.

‘I did a little bit of acting when I was younger; I suppose I had early aspirations. But I have always wanted to act and I wanted to get this role. I love Sam and Jesse and thought it would be so good to do something they'd written. Luckily I fluked the audition.’

But he initially didn’t think he'd land the role of JP after reading that the character was supposed to be sporty.

‘I was completely physically inept at school,’ he admits, ‘but luckily they decided to slightly alter the part after they'd seen me and went with a less sport jock type. But they still have me rowing. How anyone is going to look at me and think I could row...I don't have any shoulders.’

He added that after stand-up, acting was ‘a new discipline. It's slightly weird doing other people's work when you are so used to doing your own stuff, but if you're going to do anyone else's material then Sam and Jesse's is a pretty good place to start. The scripts are so good and I feel so confident in them which makes it a lot easier to be regimented to stick to the script and not go off on your own tangent.’

McHugh is more used to acting given his starring role in Gary:Tank Commander, and says that Fresh Meat ‘rings very true’ to his experiences at at Stirling University.

‘I certainly had a few majorly drunken incidents happen to me over the course of five years,’ he admits.

‘One evening I went out, got very drunk, came back to my room and fell over onto a unit which held my TV and hi-fi system. I hit my head on a speaker that was on the floor and knocked myself unconscious.

‘The next day I woke up with a TV on my back and sick in my shoes. I genuinely didn't know what was going on. I probably could have died so it's not really that funny especially as I started hoovering up the sick which you shouldn't do because of the risk of electrocution...but waking up with a TV on your back is definitely the sign of a good night out.’

Living close to his castmates on the shoot meant filming Fresh Meat was similar to a student experience – if not so extreme.

‘We've all been living in flats near each other so we've had lot of nights out, lots of drinking but nothing too scandalous,’ said McHugh. ‘We all get on genuinely really well. We eat out together about eight times a week, and go out but we can't go too crazy because the schedule is pretty nuts. But if we have a later start or day off...it's all method of course, coming in stinking of booze. I'm not joking; we're playing students. I think they've saved a lot of time in make-up from us coming in looking worse for wear!’

It’s a sentiment Thomas shares. ;We were all there together, living in the same apartment building and there is that sense of having a semi-student experience,’ he says.

‘There is always a kind of common room atmosphere on set, sitting together and talking about work and then going out and getting horribly drunk. But we had to stop going out drinking because what is not like being a student is that we had to get up at 7am.’

Published: 1 Sep 2011

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