By David Hennessy
In 2011 Neil, Jay, Simon and Will, the much loved characters of E4’s The Inbetweeners graduated from Rudge Park Comprehensive to become an international box office sensation.
The Inbetweeners Movie set a new record for the most successful opening weekend ever achieved by a comedy film in the UK. Showing the lads cutting loose on their first foreign holiday in Malia, the film then went on to take over £45 million at the UK box office. In the process, it broke away from its original core E4 audience into mainstream. Now the lads are back with a sequel that finds them in Australia, the new rite of passage destination for young people from the UK and Ireland.
Although they have been away for three years, the interest has not dwindled with E4 continually repeating episodes that remain popular. Described sometimes as being similar to the American Pie franchise, the close to the bone humour of The Inbetweeners includes running jokes about Blake Harrison’s character Neil’s father being gay, the other boys’ attraction to Will’s mother and like Eugene Levy in American Pie, Joe Thomas’ Simon having a father who likes to talk a little too openly about sex.
But nobody involved could have believed the sitcom about first sexual experiences and all the other awkwardness that goes with the teenage years would have struck such a chord. Simon Bird who plays Will Mckenzie tells The Irish World: “I remember in the first week of filming everyone, crew, cast, saying ‘this will not be re commissioned’, because everyone working on it was doing their jobs sort of for the first time except James, James had acted before but Blake, me and Joe had never done any acting before. Iain and Damon had never written before. E4 had never made a sitcom before. It was just an experiment really.”
The Inbetweeners 2 is set six months after the last film. Although at the end of that adventure, all four had girlfriends and seemed to be growing, Jay has since broken up and moved to Australia where he tells his friends he is having a great time with loose women. Simon and Will are dissatisfied with how university is turning out and so are happy to oblige when Neil, who is now working in a bank, suggests the three of them travel down under to get the gang back together again.
Jay, played by James Buckley, has always had some questionable stories with an example being when he told his friends his father played cards with Danny Dyer and the Krays so it should come as no surprise that his stories have not been altogether true.
Joe Thomas, who is also known for his role in Fresh Meat, spent six months in Australia straight after school and was reminded of the experience by this film. Joe was tempted to tour around Asia also but found the idea “terrifying”: “Going to a foreign country where they didn’t speak English on my own without having a job or any income was just terrifying: Why would I do that? That’s my idea of a nightmare. I would do anything to get out of that situation.
“Other people my age did do that, and came back with incredible stories. That is an element of the film that rings true for me, the sense that people are accelerating away: ‘Where do you get all this worldliness from? Where do you get all this confidence from? We were just together in the same class and you seem to have acquired this confidence that everything is going to be alright in a foreign land and with no sense of the culture or the language’. That parochialism is The Inbetweeners. It’s that sense of ‘I feel nervous and other people seem to know what they’re doing but I don’t and I do sort of still wish I was at home with my parents’. That is what The Inbetweeners is all about I think, that lack of confidence.
“Most people felt like they weren’t quite with the cool gang. They knew they weren’t total losers but they knew that they weren’t quite able to pull off stuff that other people seemed to be able to pull off. I think that’s an important element in the show.”
But shortly after these comments, Simon Bird says he didn’t draw on any real experience, and neither did Joe! “We don’t really.. Joe is lying. None of us draw on anything for this really. We turn up, we’ve got a script, we just try and be as funny as we can. There’s no real acting that goes on, worryingly really.”
The title comes from the characters being stuck between being “cool” or “losers”. Based largely on the real life experiences of writers Iain Morris and Damon Beesley, many can relate to this. Iain and Damon took on directorial duties for this second film although Ben Palmer, who directed much of the TV show, took charge of the first film. Their four stars mocked their new directors’ authority all through filming, saying things like they would check any direction from them with Ben when he arrived. But this was all of their own making.
Joe says: “When we first met for that first series, we got on so well together straight away and Iain and Damon, the writers, set the tone for how we behave with each other which is just totally unprofessional, very juvenile and playing lots of pranks.
“One of my first memories of doing The Inbetweeners was Iain and Damon being told off by the first AD (assistant director) for winding us up too much. They would encourage any winding up. What goes around comes around. Iain and Damon directed this film so they made a rod for their own back. Now they were in control, having told us to disobey authority and defy authority, they then took the reins of power and found that-
Blake cuts in: “They created four monsters. The whole thing was scrubbing off Iain’s name where it said director and replacing it with various different incarnations. David Moyes was one, he had taken over the franchise. The Inbetweeners is different to any other set we’re ever on. The things that happen on the Inbetweeners set would just not fly on any other set I’ve been on. If we mess about and act really immature, it’s good because we’re getting into character a bit.
“It feels like such a family show- Not obviously the viewers. It is not a show to watch with your grandparents. It’s not. But in terms of how we are on set, it does feel like a family because the six of us, actors and directors, know each other so well now that if you’re winding each other up or even if there is an argument on set, it’s forgotten within the next 30 minutes. You’re in each other’s pockets all day and you’re just winding each other up and having jokes all day and you do feel really secure and safe despite all the wind ups.”
What kind of wind ups took place on set? Simon begins: “Joe, as we were talking about earlier, is pretentious. You’ll often find him with his beak in a book and James doesn’t like the idea that Joe reads for pleasure so whenever Joe is in the midst of reading a novel, we’ll try and find some way to ruin it for him. For the first film, he was working on a really long one and James just very carefully, with surgical precision, cut out the last page with a scalpel, and then Iain ate the page. We built on that for this sequel.”
James takes up the story: “Book one, I went to the last chapter and with a marker blanked out every fourth or fifth word so it would be like: ‘Did you see the blank?’ ‘No, I didn’t see the blank. But blank said the blank..’ I left little bits in there so it just made no sense. He was upset about. He bought a new book. I read the last chapter of it and slowly told him bit by bit what happened in the last chapter.”
Simon adds: “He (James) read his first book. It was like homework. James stole it, hid it away, read it.”
When meeting the lads, you are struck how different they are to their characters. Blake Harrison is far more articulate than slow to catch on Neil, Simon Bird is not nerdy like Will and Joe is far more approachable and down to earth than Simon who tends to sulk and talk about nobody other than Carly.
Of course, it’s a delight to find all this out but James Buckley reveals fans are disappointed to find out he’s not really like Jay who could say any outlandish thing at any time: “People want you to be (like Jay) and most people are very disappointed when they meet me. They think they’re going to meet this mental, sex obsessed pervert, they go: ‘There’s Jay from The Inbetweeners, let’s go talk to him and get a picture with him, that will be a laugh’. Then when I go: ‘Alright guys, it will have to be quick, I’m just dropping off the laundry and I’ve got to get back to my wife and kids’, I just see a bit of their soul crushed and they’re so like..”
Simon cuts in with a dejected: “You’re not Jay from The Inbetweeners.”
With its risqué humour and un-PC approach, would the actors let their own children watch it?
James answers with no doubt in his voice: “They won’t watch it. My oldest is nearly three, they won’t want to watch it. People won’t still be talking about it, it won’t be a problem. By that time (they’re 13), I’ll have such an incredible body of work. I’ll have my Oscar. I’ll be doing a campaign to get people to forget about The Inbetweeners.”
Blake says: “I would set a very good age of like 13 or 14 before I let them watch anything like this. I don’t know. I’ve got my mum and brother coming to the premiere and all that kind of stuff so I’ll probably just avoid their eyes throughout.”
What about the lads’ Irish links? James says: “I’m named James Patrick Buckley after my grandad, Paddy. West Cork, I’ve got family around that area, near Skibbereen.”
Blake adds: “I do but I don’t really know much about it. My partner has Irish grandparents on both sides so there’s quite a heavy influence there.”
Simon says: “My wife’s family are all Irish, both parents are from the Dublin area. I go to Dublin a lot because my wife’s family are there. It’s great. We had a drive around the west last year for three weeks. Connemara, Kerry, just the most insanely beautiful part of the world.”
Joe is less sure but doesn’t rule it out: “I think there might be a great aunt somewhere but more Wales for me, there’s a contingent of the Welsh Thomases. Maybe one (Irish relative) quite distant.”
For the full interview see this week’s edition of the Irish World (August 9)
The Inbetweeners 2 is out on August 6