By Tom Basden
Objective Productions and Lime Pictures for Channel 4
Monday, 25th November 2013 (advance 4oD premier)
This fourth episode of the new series of Manchester University-based Fresh Meat is written by Tom ‘Lord’ Basden (one quarter of the sketch act Cowards).* It contains three main subplots: Kingsley, Josie, and JP (Jack Whitehall) are taking part in a pharmaceutical drug trial during which JP hopes to get back in with Sam, and Kingsley to spill the beans to Josie about his overlapping relationship with Heather (now in Hong Kong); Oregon has written an autobiographical play, the production of which turns into a way for her and Vod to attack each other through fictionalised versions of themselves; and Howard goes to the library in search of Petrology of the Ultramafic and Gabbroic Rocks of the Brady Glacier Nickel-Copper Deposit, Fairweather Range, Southeastern Alaska by Glen R. Himmelberg and Robert A. Loney, but someone has already taken it out.†
As is the case with all the best episodes of Fresh Meat, this one demonstrates the truth of the axiom that the devil has all the best tunes (i.e. JP has all the best lines). In the first scene he’s talking to the doctor whose job it is to screen him for the trial. ‘How do you feel in yourself?’ asks the doc. JP replies, ‘Does that mean the same as how do you feel?’ This is unusual, in that JP is the teller rather than the butt of the joke. But that doesn’t last long: ‘Actually,’ he says, ‘I am feeling a bit un…pumped. There’s this girl [Sam] who I, like, like.’
Unpumped he may be, but Basden gives JP a series of well-pumped lines. Talking to Kingsley about Heather’s absence, he refers unironically to ‘Honkers’, and then responds to Kingsley’s advice that ‘A check a day keeps testicular cancer at bay’, by asking sincerely, ‘Is that an official rhyme?’‡ His privileged upbringing has instilled in him a proprietous faith in what is official. (This is why Ann Barr and Peter York’s tongue-in-cheek ‘Guide to What Really Matters’ is The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook.)
It’s at the trial that Basden’s feel for the character and Whitehall’s pitch-perfect performance really come into their own. JP approaches an assembled group (including Sam), with a pile of board games, and asks ‘Wanna start with Risk? It could be fun.’ Sam replies scathingly, ‘Or it could be really dull and take hours.’ ‘That’s why it’s called Risk,’ returns JP.§
It could be really dull and take hours. That’s why it’s called Risk.
The group were in the middle of listening to one of their number talk about her gap year, so they don’t play Risk; but that doesn’t mean they forego facsimiled imperialism, because JP joins in with his own ‘gap year ’dotes’. The first one goes down very well:
So, me and Max Parr went swimming in a waterfall in South Africa, and when we got back we found a leach in his arse, so he tried to get rid of it by sitting on a ferrule that we’d covered in salt […] and he accidentally pressed the button which opened the umbrella whilst it was in his arsehole.‖
However, the second story goes down, as JP afterwards laments, more like ‘spunk soup’:
So, we were on Max’s dad’s boat off the coast of Durban, and we were muchos masheoed. We’d taken like three bongs with us. Anyway, we were doing some scuba-diving in pairs. My partner was this proper fatty called Ed. He’s like this huge whale of a guy. Such a bell. And it was hilarious, right, because he was scuba-diving whilst we were getting our bong on. So the boat didn’t have its anchor down, so it drifted like two miles, and he couldn’t find us. He got sunstroke and shat himself and nearly died!
This boat ’dote is greeted by a tumbleweedy silence from all, and no amount of protest – ‘There are several boys at Stowe who refer to that story as el classico’ – can reverse the damage. Later that night, with the trial over, JP goes to Sam’s window to beg her forgiveness, but the presence in her room of a muscular rival gives him his answer, and he is reduced to calling out, pathetically, ‘You have my blessing!’ We feel sorry for JP and unsympathetic towards the other guy, even though JP is a posho and the object of the satire; and this is why I compared him above to the devil.
Blake famously said of Milton that he ‘was a true Poet and of the Devils party without knowing it’, neatly summarising Romanticism’s fascination with the rhetoric and poetry of Satan in Paradise Lost: even though theologically we can’t sympathise with or feel drawn towards Satan, the way Milton writes him forces us to do both. Similarly, the ‘theology’ of a youth-orientated, 2013 Channel 4 sitcom doesn’t allow us to like the public school toff whose name is an allusion to a bank, but the exuberance with which he is written forces us to do so.
Writing that is, in this sense, of the devil’s party, is at one with the times. Whitehall has been on the telly quite a lot this week. On Have I Got News for You he read out John Major’s debate-sparking quote:
In every single sphere of British influence, the upper echelons of power in 2013 are held overwhelmingly by the privately educated or the affluent middle class. To me from my background, I find that truly shocking.
‘To me, from my background,’ Whitehall said, ‘I find it hilarious.’ And on the first episode of Backchat, his father, Michael, tells him that he’s a ‘a good old-fashioned Tory’. Although in both cases an acceptable theology was maintained by means of qualification – respectively, ‘I don’t’ and ‘I’m not! Stop outing me as a Tory!’ – the jokes were nevertheless generously indulged.
Yeah, politics… But anyway, Fresh Meat is really good.
* Manchester is Whitehall’s own unalma mater (he studied History of Art there for two terms).
† He needn’t have worried, however, as it is (thankfully for the rest of us) available online here.
‡ Honkers: ‘A nickname for Hong Kong current among British expatriates from the 1920s’ (Brewer’s Dictionary of Modern Phrase & Fable), and ‘perh. subliminally influenced by honkers adjective [meaning drunk]’ (Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang).
§ Possibly an example of Basden writing, a fortiori, above JP’s own ability as a comic.
‖ ‘Max Parr and I’, shurley? as per Michael Whitehall’s correction in the Backchat trailer.