Fresh Meat: bleak truths and knob gags

Fresh Meat’s characters have been doomed from day one. It’s right there in the title. Ushering in his new seminar group in the first episode, the studiously irreverent Professor Shales calls, “Send in the fresh meat for the grinder”.

It might be the line of a try-hard iconoclast (Shales’ next move is the classic shock-Doc act of binning their essays. Take that, convention), but the words tell a truth never far from Fresh Meat’s cringe comedy. That, as the hapless products of an industrial process that leaves them indebted and scrabbling for ever-distant opportunity, today’s graduates are being shafted.

“There’s compassion for students in the writing,” says Joe Thomas, who plays indie kid undergrad Kingsley. “Particularly in this series, there’s a sense that they were saying ‘This is genuinely very difficult. This is now something that is both expensive and useless.’”

When Fresh Meat’s creators, Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, were in their characters’ position, it was a different story. Student grants hadn’t yet been abolished and means-tested tuition fees were still to be introduced. Banks were recklessly inflating a property bubble that would later burst all over young people’s prospects of affordably buying or even renting homes.

Back then, fresh from their own University of Manchester experience, Bain and Armstrong first pitched a TV series about students. Had the BBC picked it up at the time, you could imagine it featuring the same archetypes as Fresh Meat (the loner, the posho, the neurotic, the hedonist, the nice guy and the party girl-next-door) but not necessarily extending them the same sympathy.

That’s the rare quality that makes Fresh Meat not just good comedy, but also good drama: its paternally fond stance on its characters. During the two-decade gap between Bain and Armstrong’s student experience and that of Vod, Oregon, JP, Howard, Kingsley and Josie, compassion grew.

And with it, a sense of simmering anger.

“It is a bit of a nasty thing to do to your youngest generation, if you’re running a country” continues Thomas, “‘Give us loads of money, and by the way, there’s no jobs!’. His cast-mates (minus an absent Greg McHugh) laugh, but the point’s a serious one.

Fresh Meat is very good at doing that,” says Jack Whitehall, who plays overgrown public schoolboy JP. “The writers are very good at blending the comedy with the drama. This series, I’d describe as bleak with knob gags.”

Next to the snapped ‘banjo strings’ and cheek-drilling, Fresh Meat does deal with serious business, using comedy to transform the tension around grief, debt, stress, or memorably in a series three episode written by Penelope Skinner, sexual objectification.

“It’s taking heart-breaking moments and wrapping them in ridiculousness”, says Kimberley Nixon, who plays Josie. “It comes through in the best way though,” adds Charlotte Ritchie, highly strung overachiever Oregon. “It’s not worthy or preachy. It’s all couched in a joke, so it gets you. You’re not sitting there thinking ‘stop lecturing me’.”

Series four finds the residents of 28 Hartnell Avenue in their last term before graduation, with the real world looming. After revision, finals and graduation, uncertainty is in the air.

“Weirdly, the graduation isn’t the main event in this series,” says Zawe Ashton, who plays Vod. “It’s not like ‘oh, and then they graduated’. Roll credits. Everyone’s still got a lot of questions about where they’re going to end up after uni. Was it just a joke? Was it a waste of time? Was it fun? Are these really my friends? Who am I? It’s more questions than answers in series four.”

And Vod’s future has more question marks hanging over it than most. After shirking work and partying throughout her undergraduate career, she’s left facing bottomless debt and no prospects. Can Ashton imagine where Vod might end up years down the line? “Unemployed” jumps in Whitehall. And JP? “JP will be in the city masterminding another financial crisis through being reckless.”

“Vod is a lot more aware of the stakes of her life, basically her own mortality,” says Ashton. “She hasn’t had much of a sense of her own future and suddenly she’s worrying”.

Vod’s utter lack of anxiety about her future is part of what’s made her such an irresistible character until now. If the threat of the real world has taken a chunk out of even that carapace, how are the rest of them going to cope?

JP, for one, has his answer. His older brother’s arrival in series four brings with it some depressing truths, both for him and us. Despite having showed the same dedication to fucking it all off as Vod over the last three years, and in the words of his brother, being a “clinical moron”, thanks to the safety net of privilege, he’s going to be fine, if unfulfilled.

Whitehall’s character generates a surprising amount of warmth and pity in the very funny series four opener. They all do, loveable idiots to a one. It’s their pathetic youth that does it. Now third years, the Fresh Meat characters might see themselves as veterans who’ve done it all, but their affected worldliness just reveals how green they still are. Like kids counting their age by the half-year.

“When you leave university you’re still very young, really,” says Joe Thomas, “but I think there’s a pressure to feel that you’re meant to be really wise. The show reflects that. At the graduation ceremony, you’re treated like you’re a kind of ancient member of the House of Lords or something, like you’re really really wise now, you know so much, think of what you know, you’ve lived so long! And actually it’s just still basically some children who are a bit more damaged than they were when they arrived.”