The places in which we come of age never really leave us. They have a habit of living just beneath the surface of adult life, a barely perceptible palimpsest of early heartbreak, first kisses, teenage beatings, formative hedonism, friendship, frustration and thwarted boredom that can't help but shape the way we process and navigate the world years later.
As such, coming-of-age culture is a heavy canon, but Ladhood – a new BBC 3 series written by and starring the comedian Liam Williams – is a six-part snapshot of what it was to grow up in the first decade of this millennium that is rare in its wit, poignancy and incision.
Set in the town of Garforth in Leeds, the series of six 20-minute episodes takes in all the usual rites of young male passage – drinking in parks, getting off with girls, getting your head kicked in by harder kids – but does so in a way that is refreshingly tender, honest and funny. The programme time-hops between recollections of those teenage years and other scenes from the present day, with an older Liam encroaching upon his own memories as he reminisces and explores the way those earlier years shaped him in adulthood.
The result is a topography of raw adolescent experience that will not just resonate with anyone who grew up in a small British town, but shed light on why they feel the way they do today. I spoke to Liam about the show, the clubbable nature of memory and shedding the psychological baggage accumulated during those early tussles with maturity.
VICE: First things first: in the penultimate episode, where were the present-day cocaine party scenes shot?
Liam Williams: Just an old warehouse in Hemel Hempstead.
That's a surprise. It was painfully evocative of London.
That's good, but it actually wasn't. It was a facsimile. A sham. Like lots of TV.
Having been in that situation many times, my friends and I found it excruciatingly difficult to watch. At the end, when you’re making the phone call and weighing up whether to go back to some house for a rollover sesh, we were screaming at the screen, "Don't get in the car!"
The hit-rate of them going right, those kinds of decisions, is low. The producer, Joe, his catchphrase is: "Never go to a second location with a hippy." You need to know what that point is when things cannot get any better. I don't get into that situation as much these days.
Obviously you wrote the show, and there are two versions of "you" in it – a teenage iteration and another who traces the effects of that adolescence into adulthood. How autobiographical is Ladhood?
We're calling it "semi-autobiographical". The Radio 4 series [that preceded the TV show] was pretty verbatim, but even then they said it needed more jokes, stories, structure. The demands of TV mean you can't just tell a fully real story from your life, because it’s invariably boring to other people.
Did you go back to your hometown to dredge up any memories?
I started writing the radio series in 2013, after I'd graduated and returned home to Garforth for a year, in that frustrated time of being on the dole and trapped in my parents' house. There was nothing much to complain about, it was just quite existentially challenging. Then, over the next five to ten years, I'd go home less but enjoy it more.
Because you felt less trapped?
Yeah, that's it. The people I'd grown up with had drifted away, we no longer got on as well. But there was one guy I still loved seeing and we'd always go to the same pub, the quietest in town, in the middle of an estate, overlooked and out of favour. We'd chat shit for hours, then I'd walk 40 minutes home, taking a circuitous route past old haunts… At the time, I was getting weird flashbacks to random moments in my life that have taken on symbolic or emotional significance. As we touch on in the series, that can be the thrill of the beginning of a Friday night in the park in that town, aged 15, when you're just getting the booze or whatever, and there's still hours to go. And at 15, that’s how you feel about life – there's still years and years to go.
You're on the cusp of something.
Yeah, and I have this very specific spot that just flashes up as an image at certain times in my life, usually if I'm mourning the lost excitement of that more innocent time, that sense of anticipation, or if I am genuinely excited about something. So I didn't have to do much deliberate dredging, because it'd been happening in my mind anyway. These days, the town has changed, there's loads more houses being built and it's more expensive to live there. It feels like a different place.
I moved away at 18 – I don't what to project too much, but I only realised recently that I'd arrogantly assumed the small town I'd "left behind" would be preserved in amber forever. But it's reached a critical mass now, where so much has changed that it's dissolving.
Yeah, it's not the same place anymore. Do you go back often?
No, but like you I get these occasional cut-scenes in the memory, glimpses of places I used to know. Actually, the rec where the big fight takes place in the first episode of Ladhood is the doppelgänger of the park near my granddad's house where I got beaten up for the first time when I was 13. I'd walk home across it after getting stoned at my mate's – I'll always remember that moment at dusk when the grey skies would start turning violet and the commuter train from London slid past over on the far side. I feel as though it's no coincidence it’s similar, that you can find these places everywhere, in any small town across the country.
I asked a few times if we could film up north, but they didn't go for it. I was wary of Hemel Hempstead at first, but when we started going out on the location recces, seeing that park and the graveyard, I was like, 'This is all exactly the same.' The suburbs are the suburbs wherever you go.
Did you think much about how today's teenagers might receive the show?
Yes. Do they live the same way, spend their time in the same way? When I was younger, I'd see massive groups of teenagers hanging out, 50 all wandering around together, or just sat in the park. And I feel like you don't see that much anymore.
Maybe that's because you're spending less time in parks on a Friday night.
Yes. It could simply be that.
How did you get on with the younger actors? How much did they relate to the subject matter?
Really well, considering they're ten years younger than me. I think it'd be weird to spend too much time with them. They got on great with each other, which was reassuring. I'd seen a couple of them before – Shaun Thomas in Selfish Giant and Sam Bottomley in Paddy Considine's Tyrannosaur – so I knew they were great actors. There was nothing that threw them, and that reassured me that there's a timelessness to the teenage experience. Sam loved The Streets, who feature prominently on the soundtrack, and Original Pirate Material is 20 years old. There were a few things that separated us – their old Nokia prop phones, for instance, which they couldn't believe. And there was a line based on the lyrics of "Mr Brightside" that we had to cut because Shaun couldn't get it right – he'd never heard the song.
How close were they as characters to people you actually grew up with?
The four of them became an amalgam of, I dunno, ten to 15 different people from my youth.
How close were Rupert and Tinhead to the bigger boys you grew up fearing?
People occasionally ask, "Have you ever been mugged?" I used to say, "Yeah, like 50 times." But I wasn't really. You'd just be walking round town and someone bigger and harder than you tells you to give them all your weed and cigs, and you do, and that's it. It's par for the course. Occasionally you'd have to give them money, but you'd only have a fiver, if you were lucky. So I spent the first five years of my quasi-adulthood getting mugged constantly. Hopefully we captured what it feels like with Rupert and Tinhead – they're slightly buffoonish and, actually, they kind of become mates with the younger boys by series' end. There's almost an affection there – by the time the same guy's taken your weed six times, you're kind of smiling while it happens. There's a bond.
I thought that was one of the most interesting aspects of the show – the tenderness between the younger and older lads. Each group performs a role that's useful to the other – the younger lads see the older boys as a conduit to a semi-adult world they're on the cusp of, and the older lads get status bonus from putting the younger ones in their place.
Yeah, there's status and probably something about Rupert and Tinhead not really knowing how to grow up in their own lives, and them seeing safety in people who're closer to childhood and the comfort that represents. I was always interested in those unexpected moments of tenderness from people who're otherwise very concerned with being hard or cold, or coming off as nihilistic.
Was any part of making Ladhood cathartic for you?
Yeah, I think so. Sometimes something bizarre can trigger a flashback to a certain time in your life, and it's not really clear why. Sometimes it can be overwhelming; the nostalgia can be sad, or obsessive. I'm not getting that as much now, though. I don't think that's a bad thing. I think my psyche's letting go of my adolescence, the idea of it being this halcyon, perfect time. A feeling I've had for a while is that, since my teenage years, I've not felt emotions that strong, or joy that intense, and there's been the worry that life will never be that much of a rush again. But I think to have been lucky enough to have spent my time doing this project – dwelling on the memories, tying up loose ends – means I've gotten past that now. I'm a bit more content in the present.
Will there be a second series?
Yeah, hopefully. A theme we introduced in the first is that [Young Liam is] gonna go to therapy, maybe. There's scope for someone to more directly scrutinise why he's so obsessed with this part of his life. Adding a third party might mean he won't be so in control of curating his own memories and always coming off the way he wants. Having someone calling out his bullshit more might be fun.