Fresh Meat is back, boasting more squalor and stupidity. Jimi Famurewa tries to avoid contact with the authentically grubby set
It could be any student kitchen in the country. It has the empty booze bottles and packets that suggest a diet of cider and Super Noodles. It has the fastidiously labelled grimy cupboards, the shrivelled used teabags, the passive-aggressive Post-it notes (“Please do not use fridge space for condiments that can be stored at ambient temperatures!”) and, perilously close to where ShortList is standing, it’s got some decidedly manky potatoes. There’s even a familiar musty smell hanging in the air.
In fact, the only things providing a clue that this is actually the meticulously dressed Manchester set for Series 2 of Bafta nominated comedy drama Fresh Meat are the baking-hot studio lights and lurking cameras. Well, that and the fact that Jack Whitehall (AKA nightmarish posh boy JP) is, for cleverly contrived reasons we won’t spoil here, about to mime swigging his own, um, product for the sixth time today.
“Can you just show us the eye-line for the sp*nk drink?” asks an assistant director, matter-of-factly as cameras are moved and make-up is re-touched. The principal cast including Whitehall, Joe Thomas (neurotic geology student Kingsley), Charlotte Ritchie (surreptitiously loaded compulsive liar Oregon), Kimberley Nixon (deceptively naive dentistry student Josie) and Zawe Ashton (plain-speaking hedonist Vod) shuffle into position.
The iPhones are tucked back into pockets, newspapers are put away and conversations about England’s imminent Euro 2012 match against Sweden are halted. “Quiet please,” yells another AD, as we’re ushered off-set and to a seat in front of a nearby monitor. Whitehall stares down another cup of murky liquid and we’re off. It’s the university experience but not quite as most of us remember it.
TOP OF THE CLASS
That Fresh Meat was commissioned for a second series (before the first’s run had even finished, let’s not forget) was hardly surprising. Devised by Peep Show creators Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, it survived some tepid early reviews to score strong ratings, claim gongs including Best Scripted Comedy at the Royal Television Society Awards – and add the culinary concept of ‘vegetable munge’ to the popular lexicon.
It’s grown into the sort of comedy phenomenon people incorrectly quote in workplaces up and down the country. But even the cast had their concerns before it aired.
“I was very worried about taking the role,” says Whitehall, sheltering from an inevitable Mancunian rainstorm during another quick break from his gross-out scene. “JP was such an unsympathetic character that I thought everyone would think of me as being a bastard.”
This prediction was only partly true. JP (described to us earlier that morning by series writer Tony Roche as a “lovable monster”) has become an icon. What’s more, Whitehall’s portrayal has been such a revelation that the actor is routinely accosted by chino-wearing fans struggling to separate fact from fiction.
“I get lots of public school boys coming up to me thinking I went to Stowe,” he says with a smile. “And I’ve had people in nightclubs going, ‘You’re giving Stowe a bad name.’ And I’m like, ‘Mate, you’re the one giving it a bad name by wearing burgundy trousers and spraying champagne on women.’”
It’s not the only extreme example of the show’s cultural reach. Greg McHugh (who plays bespectacled house weirdo Howard) has been routinely besieged by tweets about his character’s famously horrid jumpers.
“I got hundreds of people asking where they could buy one once,” he tells us between takes. “Howard could probably have his own Kate Moss-style fashion range.”
Joe Thomas even met some people who told him they wanted to call their unborn baby Kingsley. “That was a funny one,” he says, lounging in his trailer.
The main reason for the show’s success? Well, it helps that, as well as being funny and naggingly poignant, Fresh Meat is also recognisably authentic. And we don’t just mean the overflowing ashtrays and spent beer cans on the set. Cartoonish, Young Ones-style depictions of students on TV inevitably look stale by comparison.
“The writers basically meet up and talk about stories,” says Roche, explaining the attentive script process. “I mean, the vegetable munge thing came from the fact I knew a girl at college who used to cook that. Another thing I stole this year was a friend who told me about someone who invented a whole new backstory and nickname for themselves. Kingsley’s done a bit of that this term. He’s gone away and come back a bit cooler. In his mind, at least.”
The use of ‘term’ rather than ‘year’ isn’t a misprint. Rather than nudge action to the second year at Manchester Medlock, Bain and Armstrong have decided to set Series 2 just four weeks after Series 1. “We had a long conversation about it, but felt there was more to be mined from them still being newbies,” says Roche. “The first year at uni is such a formative time and we wanted to milk it.”
And milk it they have. Conversations with members of the cast and crew reveal storylines this year include a disastrous geology field trip and a group excursion to JP’s country pile. Oh, and as McHugh ruefully informs us, Howard gets his backside out again. “That’s once a series so far,” he laughs. “I might put an arse shot on my CV.”
Then there’s Kingsley’s new persona. A development that means Joe Thomas, a man who did his fair share of time in the embarrassment trenches on The Inbetweeners, is currently sporting a soul patch.
“I can’t wait to get rid of it,” he chuckles, ripping open a chocolate bar. “I can’t explain why I’ve grown it to everyone so they just think I’m having a bit of a mental breakdown. Greg Davies [Mr Gilbert in The Inbetweeners] saw me with it and assumed I’d basically become a d*ck.”
Thomas’s facial fuzz isn’t the only new addition this year. Kingsley (to Josie’s visible annoyance) has a seemingly perfect new girlfriend called Heather, played by Sophie Wu. Plus there’s a new housemate in the shape of gloriously humourless Dutch student Sabine (Jelka Van Houten).
“She’s a great character,” explains Thomas. “She’s got these Aspergic traits, but she’s not mean and she’s really fair. However, there’s something about her [the housemates] can’t help but find annoying.” He’s not kidding. Back on set to watch more filming we hear a bit of dialogue where JP refers to her as “Robin Van Persie”. The insult comes just before Whitehall has to take another glug of the yoghurt-and-water mix standing in for his, erm, you-know-what.
It’s a pretty outrageous bit of Farrelly brothers-grade farce (“This is basically the closest I’ll ever come to doing porn,” jokes Whitehall later), but it nods to the confident position Fresh Meat is in. And the sharp gags – at one point Vod calls JP’s drink a “DNA frappe” – are still eliciting stifled giggles from everyone off-set, hours later.
Which makes you wonder how long it will last. Will they have to do a Skins-style cull once the cast become second-years in Series 3? “At the moment, no,” says Roche. “We’ve left it in a really interesting place so it’s going to be fascinating if we get to do another series.”
On the evidence of what we’ve seen today there won’t be any cause to get the Marigolds out and give that kitchen a clean for quite some time. Thomas is hopeful about the future too but, given the new timeframe, has one concern. “If we carry on at this rate we could do nine series,” he laughs. “So I’m going to be quite old by the time we get there. ‘This guy’s nearly 40, why’s he still doing his BA? Surely he should have failed by now?’”
Fresh Meat Series 2 starts on Channel 4, 9 October at 10pm