Simon Bird and Joe Thomas are swapping their school uniforms for Edwardian collars and daft facial hair in Chickens. Emily Phillips joins them in the comedy trenches
It’s break time in a small village school. Robins chirp in the bushes as children run amok in tweed knickerbockers and long skirts. It’s 1914, and the fathers have all gone to war. A plane rumbles through the clear blue sky, but it’s not a Bristol Scout going to the front. It’s an easyJet flight out of Heathrow. Simon Bird twiddles his moustache by the monitor, fuming.
Another take. Joe Thomas (playing pomade-headed teacher George) enters the schoolyard, chasing after his fiancée Winky, who ignores him. They exchange strained pleasantries... and another plane flies by. “Cut,” yells a crew member. Thomas looks ready to launch himself into the hedge.
We’re only an hour into the shooting day, a chilly morning in April, but despite the sleepiness of this enclave in Hertfordshire’s Chorleywood, there is still too much modern noise for the sensibilities of the Puffa-swaddled Bird. He’s warm, and the only nod to the period setting is his curly hair tamed into a side-parting. “One of the jokes of The Inbetweeners is how boring and drab suburban life is,” Bird tells me. “So to do this where you have costumes and loads of sets is definitely different.” His fellow Inbetweener, meanwhile, is succumbing to mortal numbness in a light Edwardian suit, as take after take are ruined.
“This is what I have always wanted to do,” admits a calmed Thomas later. “So if it’s not going perfectly, I feel I’m letting the whole universe down.” But, while fluffing your lines because of intermittent lawnmower-thrums is no cataclysmic event, there is a sense that things could have been a lot easier had his reunion with Bird and Cambridge Footlights buddy Jonny Sweet occurred in the present, rather than during the First World War. Despite citing The Office, not Blackadder, as their main influence, they sensed a lack of originality in writing another modern flat-share sitcom, and that there was “a bit more space in the past”.
“There is just something funny about the Edwardians: the Brylcreem, the etiquette and that sort of Englishness,” continues Thomas, revealing that they initially talked about setting it in the English Civil War. Journeying to Blitz-era Britain, however, was never an option. “I don’t think it’s funny to have people that aren’t fighting the Nazis.”
Not to say commissioners were crying out for a comedy set a century ago. “The vibe was very much ‘You can’t do a historical sitcom’,” Sweet recounts. “We had to work to persuade people.” So when the pilot, made for Channel 4’s 2011 Comedy Showcase, didn’t get picked up, the trio went back to the drawing board to refine the concept as a six-part series for Sky 1 instead.
Chickens focuses on George, Cecil (Bird) and Bert (Sweet), the only remaining young men in a village where everyone else has enlisted to serve on the frontline. History graduate Thomas keenly notes that the series is set in 1914, before conscription was introduced, so the group are not breaking the law in hanging back. “It was just against the moral code.” And the town’s womenfolk remind them so.
“We were drawn to this idea of England being bereft of men,” explains Bird. “There’s this weird situation where, by being a man, you’re automatically hated.” Thomas agrees: “They’re antiheroes.” Anti is the operative word, as the trio are denied female conversation, common courtesy and even clean water while dogs defecate on their doorstep, and their clothes are used to dress the Guy for the village bonfire. In fact, they could be the great-grandfathers of Thomas and Bird’s Inbetweeners incarnations.
“We thought about not doing the parts that came most naturally to us,” says Bird. “But we wanted to make the show as good as it could be, and the parts we were naturally drawn to are what we would be best at.”
Dedicated pacifist schoolmaster George is the mother hen. “I played him how I imagine a Sixties housewife was. He just wants someone to say, ‘That dinner was delicious.’”
It’s a thankless task, living with flat-footed excuse-monger Cecil and renegade ladies’ man Bert in a cottage decorated with abusive Edwardian graffiti. “The only time he gets angry is when someone insults his vol-au-vents,” Thomas remembers. “He should be angry, because his fianceé clearly doesn’t fancy him, his friends are exploiting him and he’s hated by everyone else.”
“I’m just the moustache of the group,” Sweet (perhaps best known for his turn as a young David Cameron in More 4’s When Boris Met Dave) claims, of his gullible yet gutsy lothario, Bert. But he’s more likely to score than his friends, Thomas points out. “Agnes, Cecil’s sister, is the object of Bert’s lust. They have a sort of frisson. Maybe she likes him, though she knows she shouldn’t.”
Cecil, meanwhile, tried to enlist, but an apparent podiatric condition kept him away from the front. “Cecil’s sort of weak, so would have gone off to fight if he could,” says Bird. “This is not to say all people who fought in the First World War were sheep.”
But Bird is anything but weak on set. Sweet labels him the “good parent” to Thomas and his “feckless, pathetic” kids. It’s no surprise to hear rumblings that he’s eyeing life behind the camera.
“I think Simon will probably direct one day,” Sweet says, a smile creeping under his natty pencil ’tache as we crouch behind the scenes on tiny primary school chairs. “He’s like a football manager that kicks every ball.” Bird interjects: “I’m just an annoyance to the real director. It would be a mind-f*ck to do everything at once.” But he is leading the charge with his notes on set, eyes on the monitors, while Thomas scuttles to read a book.
There’s a balanced democracy when it comes to the business of writing, though. Self-confessed “drama demon” Thomas explains that he concerns himself with character motivations, while Bird is all about “big storyline stuff”, and Sweet is chief jokesmith. The scripts have been a year in the making thanks to Thomas’s Fresh Meat schedule, Bird’s work on Friday Night Dinner and Sweet’s stand-up stints. Sweet recounts a quiet slog where each presented their work on each scene at the end of a shift to pick whose was king. “We had long, passive-aggressive discussions where I would go, ‘It’s weird that you like that, because I prefer the one I wrote. It’s hilarious.’”
Now, putting their words into action is the fun part – Bird and Sweet are messing around between making their writerly additions. Thomas however, always hilariously self-effacing, wears the concerned expression of a man sent into battle. Raging mothers storm the gates. Freckled cherubs kick up gravel with their booties. “Those kids make it seem easy, doing it impeccably each time. So where does that leave me, who can’t seem to do it well even once?” You can’t accuse him of not channeling his character’s neurotic twitchiness. Thankfully, he nails it.
And the sky, mercifully, stays free of planes.
Chickens starts on 22 August at 9.30pm on Sky 1 HD