“I really let everyone down by resorting to a stunt cock”

The Inbetweeners press conference is being held in a fairly salubrious and respectable hotel across the road from the Sherlock Holmes pub in London, but it’s otherwise anonymous. I’m already dangerously close to running late, after an afternoon pint with an old friend turned into into several pints… and a lot of whiskey. But when I show up at the hotel’s front desk, amazingly, I’m the first there. The receptionist is a little sceptical that a young blonde chap in old skinny jeans and a leather jacket will be attending  the press conference (in my defence, there was a shirt and tie underneath) but I suppose being sceptical is part of her job. She points me to a bellboy who then takes me upstairs, punching the elevator buttons on my behalf, and deposits me outside a “function room” on the third floor. My first impression is that, surely, there aren’t many function rooms out there designated for student journos that have chandeliers.

That’s a recurring theme of my brief but productive interview with the Inbetweeners at the press conference – at once understated and ostentatious. When I crash into the silent, almost empty conference room I’m shocked to see not endless uniform rows of uncomfortable chairs, but three smallish circular tables. A waiter asks for my order. Tragically, there is no beer. He serves me a coke
in a dazzling, polished glass instead. He explains the conference will be “round table” and we can talk to the cast face to face on a rota.

Finally some national newspapermen, several locals London papers, and a couple of bloggers pile into the conference. We are divided into three tables, with the nationals on the far left, and the rest us descending in importance until the right-hand table. Obviously, I was on the furthermost right hand table. After a few minutes of awkward small talk (the women opposite me refuses to acknowledge my presence and keeps glancing nervously at her Dictaphone) The Stars themselves emerge, seemingly out of nowhere, and split up amongst the tables: Will, Jay, Neil and Simon. But they’d much prefer it if you called them Simon Bird, James Buckley, Blake Harrisson and Joe Thomas – in that order, of course.

Joe Thomas is particularly well dressed and his air of confidence makes you forget instantaneously that you’re speaking to the man behind one of British comedy’s most lovable bumbling awkward teenagers. I ask Joe if this is the end for the Inbetweeners.

“There’s as much closure as there would be realistic for these boys, to happen” he says, “we were talking earlier about how they don’t learn very much quickly and I think in this film there is a sense that they – something about the environment, and reality sort of biting – that they have to accept, halfway through the film that they’re not going to be having the holiday they wanted. But this time, there’s no get-out.”

“They’ve got no Dad to pick them up, no teacher to help them out,” James chips in.

“So, they can’t sustain the myth. They have to confront the fact that the myth, the myth that they were owed a brilliant holiday, is not going to happen and so that kind of theme is something we just wouldn’t have time to explore in an episode. By the end of the film, I think they’ve perhaps become aware that they need each other just a little bit.”

“It didn’t really dawn on me that it was a film until I watched it,” James says pensively, “as it felt in some ways just like a normal episode, because it was the same crew.”

“I think the writers wanted to keep the….the…” he hesitates, laughs, “the uh…vibe, which is not a word I try to use often,” he grins broadly, “of the programme…I mean, there’s lot of gross elements in there, like in the programme, but I think there’s a sense of restraint. Let’s remember – these boys are nothing special, they’re not going to have spectacular experiences, they’re going to haves the
ones that real people on holidays would actually have.”

It’s time for a question from my end. The hard-nosed lunatic opposite the table had interrupted me at the last awkward-break-where-you-can-slip-in-a-question and I’d be damned if that was going to happen again. I tell the cast that my memories of sixth form are still very raw and painful. They laugh. I wonder where the hell I’m going with this. I convey to them the sentiment of a lot of avid fans of the Inbetweeners – namely that they watch an episode, they identify with it, they laugh and they laugh hard at it, but then they practically want to cry. Its brutally critical eye strikes very close to home indeed.

“The film and the show, they’ve been written by guys who have had quite a long time to reflect o the past and find it funny. I don’t think the Inbetweeners could have ever been written by someone of that age – it would be totally heartbreaking, considering the limitations of a teenager when it’s still raw,” says Joe, who is quickly becoming the sagely mouthpiece of the cast.

“I mean, I still want to believe that the band I was in, in sixth form was a good band” he laughs, “but the time will come to accept that…you get the idea. But really, it takes a lot of time before you can look back and laugh at that sort of experience.”

“Most people see a holiday as a break, whereas these guys, they see the “Lad’s holiday” as an opportunity for there to be no authority, at this age you’re so used to authority and all you want to do is kick: if only it wasn’t there, if you your parents weren’t there, if only your teachers weren’t there, if only you were allowed to do what you wanted – then you’d be happy.”

“I actually had that moment at University, when I realised life without any structure, without any limits, is really difficult because I’m not enjoying myself, I need limits and structures but I don’t know where they’re going to come from. I have to invent them myself.

“Yeah,” James adds, nodding aggressively.

They name “Patrick” as the unsung hero of the mysterious and invisible network of employees in the background of the film: “When I’m on set, I basically don’t know what’s going on, or what I’m doing, but Patrick’s got to know about every single thing. I don’t know how people on set do it; it’s amazing, my brain would just go to pieces if I had that job. And he’s a lovely, lovely man to boot.”

“And that’s why he’s my hero as well”!

It may have been fun and games most of the time, but James did have to back out of one particularly sordid scene, which necessitated what he called a stunt cock.

“That scene, where Jay gets his swimming shorts pulled down…”James says hesitantly, “I…just wasn’t up for it. I was too embarrassed and didn’t want to do it.”

“So I got the…” he trails off and stares into the distance, “I got the…I think the technical term really is a stunt cock. But, because I resorted to getting a stunt cock, I think people were a bit annoyed and thought I wasn’t a team player. The shot basically ended up as a kind of special effect, where I had a man’s, uh, parts superimposed onto my body. And that actually cost quite a bit to do.”

“It’s quite depressing,” Joe says, “that we blew the special effects budget on recreating something completely normal.”

I draw Joe’s attention to one episode in the series where his left testicle is unwittingly exposed during a gruesome carnival of a fashion parade at their sixth form college. Was there an element of one-upmanship amongst the cast in terms of exposing themselves?

“Yeah,” James says “I really let everyone down by resorting to a stunt cock.”

It’s during this interlude, in which all the other journalists fall into a pensive silence, presumably thinking about stunt cocks, that someone asks the hitherto fairly reserved Blake for some advice about getting into acting.

“Well, personally,” he says, “I can only speak from personal experience, and I went to drama school, something I would definitely recommend, it’s a great way to learn how to construct a character. But the real problem is that something drama schools perhaps don’t cover enough, it’s television and specifically comedy. So that can be a particularly difficult area to get in and one in which we’re all
quite ambitious. I would say always be persistent, and you will take a knocks – lots of knocks – but you just have to push on and some day you will get there.”

For Simon Bird and Joe Thomas, the route into adolescent stardom was slightly different, both having been prominent Cambridge footlights stars before joining the show. I fight back the overwhelming urge to heckle them with some witty quip about the superiority of the Oxford Revue, but fortunately my rational side leaps in to tells me that such a claim would be little more than a baseless fancy.

“A lot of the comedy we were involved in before the Inbetweeners was a lot more experimental,” Simon says, “and I think both of us saw doing this show in the first place as a big, big change in terms of the creative direction we were taking.”

“So you were doing a lot of existential comedy, then?” One of the other journalists asks eagerly, but we’re out of time. Neil and Simon are ushered away through one of the enormous glass doors to rejoin the rest of the cast and all the journalists begin to fiddle with Dictaphones and mobile phones and cigarette rolling papers. We’re led out of the hotel a lot more promptly than we were ushered
in. Two hours later my friend and I stumble across the premiere and I catch Simon Bird’s eye across the top of the baying crowds. He doesn’t recognise me. It’s probably for the best.