Thursday, 18 October 2012
SET VISIT: Behind the scenes of Fresh Meat, for the Telegraph Magazine
It is mid-August in a former electronics warehouse in east Manchester, and the filming of the second series of Fresh Meat – Channel 4’s comedy drama about six students mismatched in a shared house – is nearing the end of its three-month shoot.
The comedian Jack Whitehall, who plays the incorrigibly posh JP, wanders around the set in a vest and boxer shorts. The sneaker-clad feet of Joe Thomas, who plays Kingsley (an everyman similar to his character, Simon, in The Inbetweeners), stick out of one of the bedrooms (he’s trying to sleep off a hangover). Kimberley Nixon, the Welsh dentistry student Josie, ferrets around in a spotted dressing gown; Charlotte Ritchie, who plays the English-lit student Oregon, is in a long printed charity-shop dress; while Greg McHugh, who plays the bearded and bespectacled outsider Howard, struggles under the lights in a thick woolly jumper.
'We haven’t come here to play some cool, foam-party-loving students living it up and having a great time,’ Zawe Ashton, who plays the tough-as-nails Vod, says. 'Walk around the set and you will realise it is actually very smelly here. You don’t want to open that fridge.’
Fresh Meat was devised by Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, the creators of the Channel 4 sitcom Peep Show. It was almost inevitable that they would tackle the subject of student life – the pair met at the University of Manchester during the 1990s. 'We wanted to try to create something that would feel unique,’ the co-producer Rhonda Smith says. 'Sometimes comedy can be really funny, but it doesn’t always look fantastic. We wanted to have really funny scripts but high production values and a dramatic element in it as well.’
Although critical reception was muted at first, the profile of the series grew, and it went on to be nominated for a Bafta for Best Sitcom, and to win Best New Comedy at the British Comedy Awards and Best TV Show at the NME Awards. Crucially, it won a sizeable audience: the average viewing figure for the first series was 2.7 million.
The masterstroke of Fresh Meat is its balance between comedy and drama. The plot feels as plausible as the situations it throws up are hilarious.
'Going to university has become a much more universal experience,’ the co-writer Tony Roche (The Thick of It, Veep) says. 'When I went to college it was still unusual, but now it is much more part of normal life – everyone has been or knows someone who has been.’ In the first series Josie repeatedly made a queasily-named recipe, 'vegetable munge’, which is veggies boiled to an unappetising gloop. 'I had a friend at college who made it,’ Roche says. 'She actually called it that.’
Aside from Roche, the team of writers includes Tom Basden (The Armstrong and Miller Show), and the playwright Penelope Skinner (The Village Bike). At the beginning of the first series there were regular comparisons to The Young Ones, whose four protagonists Neil, Vyvyan, Rick and Mike were notable for their unlikeableness. Fresh Meat works in a similar way – you notice the characters’ negative characteristics first, but it’s the slow realisation of their human qualities that creates the drama.
'Comedy drama is such a poisoned chalice,’ McHugh says. 'It makes you think, “Do you want to be funny or do you want to tell a dramatic story?” Obviously life isn’t like that at all – and that’s what Sam and Jesse and the writers have done so brilliantly. If you can buy into the characters, you can achieve pathos.’
The new series begins midway through the first academic year, yet each character has already been on quite a journey. In the first series Kingsley and Josie engaged in a messy bout of will-they-won’t-they that ended in Josie breaking it off with her Cardiff-based fiancé. JP has had to contend with the death of his father and – even worse – being snubbed by his peers from his former school. Howard has successfully made human contact with his fellow housemates, and, possibly just as life changing, Vod has read a book.
Perhaps the most spectacular strand is Oregon’s affair with her domineering English tutor, Professor Tony Shales (played by The Thick of It actor Tony Gardner). Real-name Melissa, Oregon is a bright English student from a privileged background who plays down her abilities and hides the fact that she owns a car and a horse in order to impress her peers. When Shales’s wife finds out and wants to arrange a coffee to discuss things with her, she is visibly thrilled by the adultness of it all. 'That’s so French,’ she says wistfully. 'What a total f***ing drama – it’s like something from a Woody Allen!’
Oregon is played by Charlotte Ritchie, who first made her name in the classical-pop crossover group All Angels. The youngest of the cast at 22, she graduated from the University of Bristol only in June last year. 'I didn’t have an affair with my English tutor, or have a friend like Vod who led me astray, but I have definitely met a lot of Oregons,’ she says. 'The character is perfectly observed. It’s so hedonistic, that first year of university – so much more about your own personal drama, how you feel about it from your own perspective.’
Whereas Oregon is all self-conscious statements and intellectual dreaming, Vod is a walking, sniping, powder-snorting embodiment of hormonal id. 'It is really nice to have a female character who is not always repenting their sins,’ Ashton says. '[Who is] sexually out there and slightly gross at times – there are a lot of sins that Vod should be repenting but she’s never made to do that. She has been allowed to develop and figure out things about herself and where she is in the world. She’s got real backbone.’
Whitehall’s character, JP, is more complex than he first appears. Educated at the Buckinghamshire private school Stowe (as was Whitehall), he is the embodiment of plummy privilege and instantly dislikeable. Yet by the end of the series he has become a fulcrum of the group. You learn that he, like the rest of the characters, is merely a product of his background; that university is partly about forging a new life and learning to rub along with people at opposite ends of the spectrum.
'The value of what this show projects is the friendships, and that’s really what you take away,’ McHugh says. 'Unless you are doing a vocational degree, often the best thing you get out of it is a sense of how to live with people and how to develop friendships and relationships.’
McHugh’s character, Howard, is a self-styled loner, part geek, part fantasist, and someone everyone who has lived in shared accommodation at university will recognise. 'I think I benefited from being a bit older than the rest of the cast. I have been in a lot of house shares through the years and lived with some scarily Howard-like people.’
The advertising teaser that preceded the first series showed the cast members naked in a tray inside a kebab-shop fridge. It perfectly articulated the predicament of the student that the show explores. Whereas once a person’s university years might have been described as a new dawn, these days the jump from school to university is more akin to a lemming-like leap into a life of debt. The cost of university per student was recently estimated at £60,000.
'I think that’s why students are humorous,’ 28-year-old Thomas, who studied at Cambridge, says. 'They realise the slight absurdity of their situation. In my case, I wasn’t exactly sure why I was there.
I knew I was getting into lots of debt, and the sense of why I was doing that was quite vague. Now the debt’s much higher [than when I went to university], and the sense of why you are doing it is probably not any greater. I think the humour, and to a certain extent the nihilism, of studenthood comes from that. That feeling that your life doesn’t make any sense.’
To ensure the setting’s accuracy, the production team found a suitably studenty property in Manchester and recreated its exterior and interior in the studio. The resulting set is an uncannily accurate imagining of an archetypal student dwelling, right down to the dry, musty smell that hangs thick in the air. On the landing, forgotten-about clothes hang over the bannister, a forlorn cuddly toy sits among beer cans and whisky bottles.
Each character’s bedroom is meticulously designed. In Oregon’s room, a volume of English mystery plays sits alongside a copy of OK!. In Josie’s (she fulfils the girl-next-door role in the show), Russell Brand’s My Booky Wook is on a shelf. A Florence & the Machine poster adorns her wall, whereas Kingsley inevitably has a Radiohead poster on his; JP’s room is decorated with lads’ mag posters and bottles of champagne; Vod’s is filled with vodka bottles, ashtrays and industrial boots.
'It was a huge amount of preparation,’ Smith says. 'Each room, every single thing that you see here has been thought about with regards to that character.’ Most impressive is the sense that the property has a history of its own. 'The feeling that lots of students had come and gone. Each year when a student has left, they have left a little bit of something. You can feel the history of the people who have passed through, hence the colour of the wallpaper, the shabbiness.’
One distinguishing feature of this season as opposed to last is that there have been more location shoots, including a lengthy trip to the Pennines for a geology field trip, which includes JP hanging off a rock at 30ft. Kingsley makes an ill-fated attempt to branch out from bumbling awkwardness into cooler territory. Graham Coxon, the lead guitarist of Blur, has written a song for the show, which Kingsley is meant to have penned, and which Thomas recorded a version of. 'It was really interesting because it was Graham Coxon deliberately trying to write a bad song. At times it slips into sounding half-decent, particularly when he plays it, because he can’t help embellishing it. It’s quite confusing to listen to because you think it’s bad – but it’s almost good.’
As I speak to each of the actors about the three months of long days in Manchester, what comes across most of all is the genuine sense of camaraderie that the cast and crew enjoy on set. The day before we meet, all six actors travelled down to London to see the Olympic closing concert at Hyde Park, which featured Coxon’s band, Blur, along with New Order and the Specials.
'One guy shouted at us, “Oh, my God, I can’t believe you all hang out together, that’s so cool!”’ McHugh says.
They didn’t get back home until 4am (which explains Thomas’s hangover) but they had to get up bright and early for the day’s filming. 'The six of us really like each other’s company,’ Nixon says. 'It’s nice to relax after filming as it is quite a mad day, especially for my character. She’s quite high energy.’
The cast all live in the same apartment block during the shoot. For Whitehall (who studied in Manchester – as did Ashton a few years before him), the art of playing a student for three months quickly merges into his life. 'It’s as if we’re in halls, only slightly more hygienic,’ he says. 'While I am up here I turn back into a student. Eating a Rustlers [microwave burger] because I can’t be bothered to cook anything after a long day’s filming. Not washing any clothing, and then at the end of the week putting all of my dirty pants and socks into a bag and taking it back to my mum’s house. How much can you pass off as method?’