In between comedy and nostalgia

The secret of the success of The Inbetweeners – the anti-Skins – is that it’s both hilarious and old-fashioned.

Tim Black

Tim Black
Columnist

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That evening, after a coffee and ProPlus-induced accident during his exams, A-level student Will turns up at the pub with his freshly soiled uniform in a plastic bag. His friend Simon is not exactly sympathetic. ‘I can’t believe he’s actually brought a bag of shit to the pub with him’, he notes, incredulous. ‘No one brings a bag of shit to the pub.’ Their friend Jay turns to Simon and says: ‘Your dad does.’ ‘Oh does he?’ asks Simon. Jay: ‘Yeah, your mum.’

Welcome to the gloriously insulting teenage universe of The Inbetweeners, a sitcom centred upon the lives and wanks of four British schoolmates, Will, Simon, Jay and Neil, the third series of which came to an end on E4 this week. Neither really popular nor really unpopular, the boys are, as the title suggests, somewhere inbetween. That is, they’re meant to be average, normal, unexceptional.

Luckily, they are also exceptionally funny. Will, an exiled public schoolboy and the semi-narrator, is afflicted with the curse of the socially superior: pomposity. Jay, a native comp schoolboy, is constantly puncturing it. Simon suffers the most from teen angst and its physical source: an often visible need to have sex. Ideally with someone he loves, but not necessarily. And Neil is dopey in a good way. ‘What is Swansea? Is it an animal?’

Basking in the ingenuity of teenage banter, the exchanges between the four characters are quick and rude. Memorable lines don’t simply end conversations, they pop up in the middle of them. Often without you quite noticing. Glorious puerility rubs shoulders with the often surreal tales/lies of bullshitter-in-chief, Jay. ‘On holiday in Spain one year, me and my mate took a pedalo out and we went to Africa!’ he announces to his friends as they sit stranded aboard a rowing boat during an ill-fated Geography field trip.

Of course it’s immature. But then again, teenagers are immature. No more so than when it comes to the possibility of actually having proper sex with someone. In an attempt at some ‘dirty talk’, Simon ventures to a shortlived girlfriend: ‘I’d like to kiss your boobs.’ Enjoying this, she pushes him to say more. ‘My penis is really hard for you’, he says, clearly feeling the strain. Not quite happy with this effort she demands more, something more seductive. Simon is struggling. ‘I’m gonna fuck your fucking fanny off, you twat!’, he blurts. Their relationship eventually ends with the object of his ‘affections’ looking on in horror as a frustrated, crying Simon, fresh from having a pre-coital hand shandy, bashes away at his lifeless member, shouting ‘please just work you ugly cunt!’.

But it’s not just British Pie. There’s the portrait of school life, from the enjoyable resentment of weary, kid-hating head of sixth form, Mr Gilbert, to the ever-present rumours that such and such is a pervert. And it’s also touching, no more so than in relation to brash Jay, whose endless, completely untrue boasts are undercut by his sheer neediness. Despite everything, they are friends. That is, The Inbetweeners resonates.

When the show was first aired on E4 a couple years ago, around 300,000 watched it. By this, the third and final series, received the channel’s largest ever audience figures – around 2.6million. Compare that to Skins, the yoof-conscious channel’s flagship teen drama. In its fourth series, viewing figures rarely ventured much above one million.

Like The Inbetweeners, Skins centres upon the lives of a group of teenagers. Unlike The Inbetweeners, however, they are beautiful, take drugs and explore their sexuality beyond the confines of their right hand. It says: this is edgy drama, this is brave drama. It really says: this is utterly disingenuous. It’s a programme born of thirtysomethings’ fantasies of youth.

The Inbetweeners, meanwhile, appears to draw on the realities of being a teenager. And compared to programmes like Skins, it does indeed seem more authentic. But the anti-Skins sentiment can go too far. Because The Inbetweeners is, in its own way, equally as inauthentic. It is almost a kind of hyper-nostalgia, a school greatest hits package compiled from the anecdotes we all remember best: the embarrassing flirtation, the brilliant but cruel putdowns, the insecurity, and of course the friends. What it forgets, what it omits, is the boredom of being a teenager and the longing for something a bit more exciting instead. It rekindles the glow of being young with none of the gloom.

And the nostalgic appeal of The Inbetweeners goes deeper than that. As a show it lacks the ironic distance of many post-Office/Friends Like These comedies. In these, one is encouraged to view the characters at several removes, to cringe at their inappropriateness, even sometimes to sneer at their delusions. The Inbetweeners is an altogether warmer affair. You don’t judge the characters, you like them, even if they did spend far too much time during the third series being sick. Despite its seeming novelty, despite the very contemporary crudeness, it belongs in fact to an older tradition of British sitcom.

It is almost old-fashioned. Jay and Neil, for instance, could be straight out of shows like The Likely Lads or even early Only Fools and Horses. Not for nothing did James Buckley, who plays cocky cockernee Jay, appear as a young Del Boy in the recent prequel to Only Fools and Horses. Neil, meanwhile, is pure Rodney. Will, as the middle-class aspirant, the character who thinks he’s better than his companions, is a British sitcom staple, with precedents in Rising Damp’s Rigsby and more recently Hyacinth Bucket in Keeping Up Appearances. The winking and nudging innuendo, even when it collapses into something more explicit, has a Carry On quality to it.

Perhaps, then, The Inbetweeners’ appeal lies not just in the school-days nostalgia but also in its comedy nostalgia. However, unlike the legion of great British comedy made into crap British films, from Dad’s Army to Kevin and Perry Go Large, The Inbetweeners lacks that one comedy staple of old that left the big screen versions feeling a bit flat: canned laughter.

Tim Black is senior writer of spiked.

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