FRESH MEAT, CHANNEL 4, THURSDAYS 10PM
The second season of the hour long comedy drama Fresh Meat prompts the obvious question: why is this the first successful comedy about students since… well how long exactly? Some critics have cited The Young Ones thirty years ago as the last example, even though its characters are usually just monumentally bored rather than engaged in study, though they did appear on University Challenge.
Some suggest This Life (1996-7), which strictly speaking was about young graduates trying to make their way in the world.
Or deep in the mists of TV history, The History Man based on Malcolm Bradbury’s novel of 60s life at Sussex or East Anglia. From the US, there was The Paper Chase from 1978, itself based on a movie with John Houseman reprising his role as the ultimate authoritarian professor. This, however, was a drama rather than a comedy. Perhaps the closest recent antecedent is the early evening teen soap Hollyoaks whose inmates have sometimes ended up at a fictional Chester University (which has a real-life doppelganger). Fresh Meat is from the same production company, Lime Pictures. But these sparse examples are just about all there has been in the way of student-based comedy series.
So why are there so few antecedents? After all, the idea of a bunch of assorted individuals sharing a house together is prime sitcom territory (there was once a fairly successful show called Friends using this format). Almost half contemporary UK 18 year olds end up at university (or at least they did until the imposition of £9000 a year fees). The overwhelming majority of people working in TV are university educated. So it would seem an obvious terrain. But it took the writers of Peep Show (Jessie Armstrong and Sam Bain) to come up with a viable format, using their talent for finely observed comedy of embarrassment.
Maybe there have been dozens of failed attempts to get the right formula which have not even made it to pilot stage. For the ‘situation’ in ‘situation comedy’ is not a matter of a building or institution, but rather the dynamic between the characters and a feeling that the comedy is holding tragedy at bay. Each character has to have a strong trajectory of their own: a collection of unshakeable obsessions and behaviour patterns, together with a marked lack of self-awareness (“why are they laughing at me?”). The comedy dynamic comes from the repeated collisions between them which always threaten to end badly. Sitcom characters are only one laugh away from tragedy. The secret of Fresh Meat’s success is to realise the source of that impending tragedy for its student characters. Behind the obsessions and drive of any enduring sitcom character lies vulnerability and insecurity. This is the key fact about the ‘fresh meat’ of first year students, thrown into the vortex of a pretend-adult world from which there is no escape apart from ‘dropping out’, yet in which a felt lack of self-confidence always threatens to betray the real schoolkid behind the mask of cool. The only exception to this might be Howard, the older inhabitant of the house. But he really is strange, something that all the characters notice and he acknowledges about himself. In this second series he is taking the series title a little too literally, working nights in an abbatoir and coming home with bags of unidentifiable animal protein.
Vulnerability unites the characters. Jack Whitehall as JP performs his hopeless public schoolboy act (which is now becoming one of the most well-known comedy routines in Britain), but it gains an edge. Kingsley’s decision to change from Geology to Drama in his first term was finely handled, the first move in shaking of a cramping adolescence, misunderstood by all around him. Oregon (not her real name it turns out) seems the most poised and successful of the household, launching into an affair with her English lecturer Professor Shales. He is the unsuccessful husband of a highly successful wife in the same department, displaying his own vulnerability at every turn. The death of Oregon’s pony back home reveals her secret: she is just as much a toff as JD, and her self-reinvention as someone from an ordinary home involves denying just about everything about her background. Vod is the most colossally unselfaware of all: projecting a cool beneath which runs a blind panic. Her study of English literature is suddenly derailed when she agonises that the text for the week “hasn’t been done”. This, it turns out, means that the book has not been adapted for film or TV, hitherto her only source of study material. So she has to read the book. Reading turns out to be a revelation to her, which she reports in typically spaced-out language to her weekly seminar… only to be slapped down by Professor Shales. Who amongst us can deny that they have met such students?
However, this is still sitcom, though it runs for an hour rather than the usual 30 minutes. The characters are broadly drawn and can therefore be seen as stereotypes. That is the essence of sitcom, the very reason why it works,but can upset some, including Gary Day in the British academic’s parish magazine THES.” I think my ire is more to do with the remoteness of Manchester Medlock University from the real world of higher education. There’s no sense of crisis, there’s no mention of fees, and what male lecturer is ever going to address his female students as “missy”? Laughter doesn’t come from fleeing reality but facing it.” It depends on what particular reality you want your comedy to confront. There are few laughs in the fees debacle other than those that come from a genuine Whitehall farce. Sitcom is about the everyday and the fundamentally human. The secret of sitcom is the writing: taking the stereotypes and making them work in recognisable scenarios: setting them in motion. Armstrong and Bain’s writing is full of sharp observation and the ordinary stuff of student life. The things that happen are all too familiar to anyone who has spent time in higher education. This is not the burlesque of the Young Ones on University Challenge. The standing set of the student house is far more solid and grubby than anything inhabited by Friends. The pub is clearly the cheapest place to drink in the whole of Manchester. And some hapless university has clearly volunteered its premises for the fictional Manchester Medlock University. Will it appear in the prospectus or on the website, I wonder? It’s great that Fresh Meat has come along to reflect the experiences of the almost-grown-ups who inhabit higher education (on both sides of the counter in the educational exchange). But what took it so long to arrive?
JOHN ELLIS is Professor of Media Arts at Royal Holloway University of London. He is the author of Documentary: Witness and Self-revelation (Routledge 2011), TV FAQ (IB Tauris 2007), Seeing Things (IB Tauris 2000) and Visible Fictions (1984). Between 1982 and 1999 he was an independent producer of TV documentaries through Large Door Productions, working for Channel 4 and BBC. He is chair of the British Universities Film & Video Council and leads the Royal Holloway team working on EUscreen. His publications can be found HERE.