There is no greater study of British teenage masculinity than The Inbetweeners. It has everything: embarrassed rage outbursts ("FUCK OFF!!!"), hair gel, in-jokes so authentic they rippled out across the country, ensuring no one would ever stand at a bus stop again without some little prick sticking his head out the window of a Citroën Saxo to shout: "Bus wanker!!!"
Created by Iain Morris and Damon Beesley, former flatmates who met while working on Channel 4’s 11 O’Clock Show, The Inbetweeners aired on E4 in 2008 – a year after the lawless behemoth that was Skins. On paper it ran the risk of being viewed as competition, but while Skins gave us the cinematic view of adolescence we tend to have when we’re going through it – when our problems feel so unique and significant as to be deserving of a TV show in their own right – The Inbetweeners gave us adolescence as it actually is: crap.
Centred around a fantastically average friendship group – Will (Simon Bird), Simon (Joe Thomas), Jay (James Buckley) and Neil (Blake Harrison) – The Inbetweeners strikes a tone few other teen comedies have managed. Despite being written by men in their thirties and starring actors in their twenties, the show nailed down four eternal stereotypes of the British classroom: the spoff, the guy who would be cool if he wasn’t so desperate, the idiot who isn’t really an idiot, and the idiot who really is an idiot. So recognisable are these characters that, even when the show veers into risky territory, we intuitively know where to laugh at them and where to be sympathetic.
From convoluted operations to get served at an off-licence to Jay’s insecure bragging about all the fictional girls he’s fingered, The Inbetweeners is the Sistine Chapel of ordinary puberty. It’s a stunning portrait of the bog-standard sixth form experience, when most events can be summed up with a sarcastic "brilliant", and the romantic lead of your life probably isn’t some mysterious Tony who toys with your emotions before getting tragically hit by a bus, but an unremarkable lad with a zip-up cardigan and a fringe that looks like the Fife Tiara made of lard.
We spoke to co-creator Iain Morris and actor Joe Thomas about putting together the show we've crowned number 13 on our list of the greatest British TV shows since the turn of the century.
PUTTING THE SCRIPT TOGETHER
Iain Morris: Damon and I started talking about The Inbetweeners around 2002, when we first moved in together. We were living on the seventh floor of this big glass building just south of Old Street roundabout and I was like “this is going to be babe central!” Actually what we did was stay in and play FIFA [and Singstar]. We did a lot of drinking red wine, getting takeaway food and singing to each other. In between that we talked about anecdotes from our youth, our mates… I was also working on Peep Show at the time, and I was really impressed with that. So, after years of telling anecdotes to each other about our friends, we thought, why don’t we write something about teenage boys?
Joe Thomas: Teenage boys are very dedicated to humour and making each other laugh, and it’s amazing how [Iain and Damon] managed to capture that in the script. I think banter actually plays a very important role in a lot of young men’s lives. To some extent it’s a way that men de-shame the experiences they’ve had, and turn it into something comic as a way of saying it’s OK. There are so many moments in the script where they had the opportunity to sanitise a joke. You can imagine other writers going “well something like that… but not that.” But I can almost imagine Iain going “no, that’s it, we’re doing that otherwise we’re not doing the joke at all.”
Iain Beesley: There were definitely road bumps when we delivered the script, because people weren’t sure about teenagers on TV. They made us write another one about adults, which wasn’t very good. Then we did a pilot and that wasn’t very good either, so it just sat in a drawer for a while. There was a period after the pilot where one of the execs said, "The problem with this show is there's no drugs in it! I used to go to acid house raves, why don’t they do more of that?" We were like… that’s not what teenagers do. Ultimately it was Caroline Levy, our Executive Producer, who put her head on the block for us and said we could make it work.
HOW IT CAME TOGETHER
Joe: They definitely wanted to cast 16-year-olds and have it be fully authentic. I was 23. Obviously at the time I thought 23 was incredibly mature, like the year before death.
Iain: We were doing open auditions and found James Buckley quite early on. He was so funny for Neil. The next year we found out we were doing the TV series, but we had to recast [the pilot]. James phoned us to say good luck, and we had a moment where we were like… "He's not Neil, but he might be Jay." We called him in to audition and he nailed it.
It was getting closer and closer to September, when we were going to start filming, and we still didn't have any of the others. Everyone turned to me and Damon and said,
"You've got these two guys [Simon Bird and Joe Thomas] you’ve been working with for a year and you’ve never mentioned them? They're definitely Will and Simon." Blake [Harrison] was on his way to a job at Carphone Warehouse or something, and he was like, "I don’t know if I should do this audition because I’ll be late for my first day," but his mum convinced him to try it. It was his first audition out of drama school and he came in and he smashed it.
Joe: I remember being offered the part, and I thought, 'Oh, that's good,' mainly so I could tell my parents I got a job. I remember ringing up Simon: "They want me for that thing, are you gonna do it?" He was like, "Yeah, I guess so…" We didn’t have anything else on. We were also a bit nervous, but the lack of enthusiasm at the beginning was quite something. I was basically annoyed I hadn’t got a first [at university] and just wanted to have a year of sulking, so I was annoyed that anyone was making me do anything. I was probably a bit depressed, to be honest.
Iain: [The character of] Simon came about because we wanted a romantic-ish lead. Initially, a lot of his stories were Damon’s stories – getting wanked off at the side of a disco, etc – but Joe is so funny as a person he morphed more into Joe than anyone else. Jay was an amalgamation of all the stories about mates we told each other getting drunk and playing Singstar – people who would say things like, "There was this girl who fucked the whole rugby team." No, she didn’t. "He said he had sex with the cleaner when he was 14." No, he didn’t. Jay became an amalgam of all those stories.
Neil was based on a bunch of people we knew that were lovely but kind of dozy and didn’t really care about it. We talked about it in a structural way, of Simon being the centre. It all came from the idea of having friends at that age through proximity. Damon and I grew up on opposite ends of London, but we grew up in exactly the same sort of estates, built in the 1960s with a school on the corner – and you just became mates with people who lived on your road.
Joe: [Filming] was an incredibly emotional experience. Quite often there'd be someone in tears because they thought they hadn’t done it properly. I'd always worry that 'because I haven't got that scene exactly how I wanted it, the entire show is now fucked and it’s all my fault!' Blake and Simon were more steadying. They just found everything funny. For the first week, me and Simon were just comparing notes on who was fucking it up more heinously.
Iain: When we started rehearsals we had to take a picture of the four of them together standing up against the wall for make-up and wardrobe. I’ve watched so many shows over the years that were so funny and so clever and didn’t go anywhere, but I had this moment when they were all standing there and I thought, 'They look funny together.' That was the image we ended up using for the DVD box.
Joe: We loved each other’s company. Sometimes you get people where, although they’re a member of the team, they’re kinda looking out for themselves and making sure they get their shit right. But this honestly didn’t feel like that. It felt like people would be happy to ruin a take if it led to a more fun day.
HOW IT CAPTURED BRITISH TEENAGERS IN THE 2000S
Iain: When we were writing it, everything [in the UK] was about "hoodies". Everything in the Mail and the Express was hoodies, hoodies, hoodies. If you look back through modern British history, every ten years it’s some new group of teenagers – like mods and rockers in the 50s and 60s – having fights and stabbing each other, but "hoodies" were often just a group of kids who had nowhere to go so just stood on the corner. When you’re a teenage boy, your body grows before your mind does. You’re totally not aware of the space you take up and how, like, five of you just standing on the corner maybe talking about FIFA could look terrifying to someone.
Joe: Teenagers take themselves really seriously, and they take the world seriously. I always think it’s a bit like when you go to a house party and you have a memory of it being this epic thing, but if you had a camera there it would just be a few teenagers sitting around listening to tinny music and wearing clothes they got from the high street. Skins is the experience of the person who’s having it, and The Inbetweeners is what they actually look like from the outside.
I don’t think there are any points at which we get to look cool – it was absolutely brutal in making sure that they never achieved anything even 5 percent more than what would be realistic. The restraint that was shown in doing that through the writing is really impressive.
Iain: Damon and I are both a couple of classic Guardian-reading lefties, so we did spend a lot of time thinking about what was justifiable and what wasn’t in terms of what they say and do. When we watched the first series back before we put it out, I had a real moment where I was like, 'If the audience doesn’t get this, we’re fucked.' The things Jay and Neil say… they’re going to think we’re these terrible people who think these things! You massively underestimate an audience, though – of course people got it.
Joe: Teenage boys very quickly start impersonating their dads and think they’re "men of the world". I remember listening to a conversation between some of my brother’s 17 and 18-year-old mates and one of them was like, "Bloody motor's packed in again, gotta get it down the garage." Jay is the most obvious example of them talking about stuff like he knows about it without actually knowing about it, but lots of them talk like that. Will in the way he talks about ideas, and Simon in the way he talks about romance.
The only one who doesn’t is Neil, the classic idiot savant. He’s the one who’s actually open to new experiences and genuinely lives in the moment. He makes mistakes because he’s stupid, not because of pride or arrogance. Whereas the rest of them, almost all their troubles are to do with that. I think a lot of it is Iain and Damon looking back and thinking, 'If only I could tell them that they don’t need to do this or they should just do this, then almost all their problems would be OK.'
DRAWING FROM PERSONAL EXPERIENCE
Iain: For better or worse, Will was pretty much always me. I left a not-particularly-posh grammar school when I was 16 and went to comprehensive in Australia for six months. I did literally turn up in long trousers and a blazer, and there were just Aussies in shorts and T-shirts going, "Who’s this fucking bellend?" Will losing his virginity – or not, rather – was word for word what happened to me.
Joe: The basic setup of the show, the school they go to and what they do – quite a lot of that I didn’t actually do. I never bunked off school, I didn’t go and "knock for" people, I didn’t drink until I was 18 – mainly because I couldn’t get into places. The years between 16 and 18 seemed brutally unfair, because the only culture was "going out", and if you couldn’t get served you just couldn’t participate. It was weird, doing The Inbetweeners at that age, because it wasn’t really about the life I’d just had – it was about another life that I might have had.
Iain: Initially we were going to set it in [mine and Damon’s] teenage years, but E4 wanted something modern. We were like, "God, this is going to be difficult, kids are so different." We went back to both of our old schools and we were like, "OK, yeah, basically everyone is the same." We talked about language and linguistics a lot – we kept getting feedback like, "You’ve got to put 'sick' in." But we wanted them to sound authentic. When you have a friendship group you all end up sounding a bit like each other. So we thought, 'Let's just give them our vocabularies, and that will make them sound like each other, and people will buy into them being friends because they sound like each other.'
Joe: One of the ironies for me is that everyone is always like, "Oh, this show is so relatable…" But I went to a boys' school, which was completely different. Even Simon’s limited interactions with girls – I hadn’t had any of them. The stuff I was able to process most was his petulant relationship with his family.
Iain: The drug episode is one of my favourite episodes. I don’t take drugs at all, but one time I ate some cannabis and my arms did start randomly moving and I did get taken to hospital. The most humiliating thing, which is my favourite touch in the episode, is that it was at a halls of residence in Bristol and I got taken out into the ambulance but sitting upright instead of being wheeled out under the blanket. Like, "We've got to take him out, but he’s not really sick enough to lie down."
HOW IT CAME TO AN END
Iain: I couldn’t even tell [how impactful it was] until the first film came out and the DVD sales at Christmas. But then I was like, "Oh, maybe this is actually a successful comedy show." Only now, ten years later, has it dawned on me that people still want to talk about it, and it’s still on TV – all the things I genuinely in my wildest dreams never thought would happen. In general, only positive things have come from it in my life, and I find myself being stupidly lucky that people laugh at it still and want to talk about it.
Joe: It won awards quite early and quite consistently, but the idea of it becoming a mainstream hit… I’m still surprised now. I remember doing a PA during Series Two and I was like, 'This isn’t too tragic, it’s a popular show and I’m in it.' It’s not like Pat Sharp doing one. The night was being promoted as an "Inbetweeners night" and I was like, 'Well, I guess you wouldn’t do that unless there was some commercial reason for it.'
Iain: We definitely stopped too early, it feels like to me now. There were all sorts of negotiations that were making things difficult – Damon and I felt that other people weren’t getting what they deserved and we were trying to fight for it. It all gets a bit stressful. Beyond all that, though, the main reason we stopped was because we didn’t want every review to start with a variant of, "They look too old to be teenagers." We’d planned it to be four seasons – lower sixth form for two years, upper sixth form for two years – but we condensed upper sixth into one year and did the film instead. If I could preserve those four actors in aspic so they never aged I would’ve kept doing it forever. I’ve been buying Joe moisturiser for 12 years now.