Interviewing a couple of Inbetweeners without mentioning the hit comedy that gave them their big break is about as easy as pulling birds while holding a bus ticket and a briefcase, but I arrived at 2entertain’s London HQ to speak to Simon Bird, Joe Thomas and When Boris Met Dave‘s Jonny Sweet determined to do just that. Yet after hearing the premise for Chickens, the trio’s new sitcom which will be getting a showcase on C4 this Friday, an exceptionally difficult task was made nearly impossible…
Set during the First World War, the comedy tells the story of three rather feckless blokes who have managed to avoid being shipped off to the battlefields of Northern France and are subsequently the only men left in a village full of women. To make matters worse, the women in question are as disinterested in them as ever and seem to be getting along just fine on their own. “Essentially they’re three pathetic men who are struggling deal with the situation they find themselves in,” explains Simon Bird.
The comparison with the cult series which depicted four loserish sixth-formers is the obvious elephant in the room, but when I begrudgingly bring it up the lads explain that while there are some similarities, their new programme has the potential to grow beyond the ‘Inbetweeners in WWI’ tag that some have given it.
“Me and Simon are very proud of what we’ve done with Inbetweeners, but we wanted to try and write something for ourselves,” says Thomas. “This time rather than being surrounded by beautiful girls who don’t get that many lines, there’s a nice mix and there are some great female characters who we’d love to develop if the series gets the green-light.”
Bird goes on to make it clear that his comment about writing a ‘quasi-feminist’ piece in a recent interview was spoken in jest, but he’s adamant that the involvement of more female characters (if the series gets a full series) shows that despite the similarities, Chickens has the potential to be more than Inbetweeners for the 1910s. “We said that in the hope of deflecting criticism that the pilot was just another male-orientated comedy without any decent parts for women,” laughs Bird. “We wanted to write some funny parts for girls and we definitely will if we get the series.”
With names like Joanna Scanlan (The Thick Of It) and Felicity Montagu (best known as Alan Partridge’s long-suffering PA Lynn) on the roster, we don’t think this will be one of those comedy showcases which gets pulled *ahem*. “Obviously when we wrote it, we didn’t realise who would be playing those parts, but once they agreed to do it we were kind of like ‘Shit. We should have given them a few more lines!'” jokes Joe Thomas, who laments the fact that despite working with “the best writers in the business” (Inbetweeners scribes Damon Beesley and Iain Morris) the writing process was still as torturous as ever.
“First we need to come up with ideas, so it’s just us three sitting in a room for weeks on end,” says Jonny Sweet. “But for the writing the dialogue we actually work in two pairs. Joe and I write together and Joe and Simon write together.” – “We just don’t get along” jokes Bird beating me to the punch “This is the first time we’ve been in a room together” – “And by the end of that we have a lot of material and get together as a three and rewrite..” continues Sweet manfully as Bird and Thomas snigger away next to him.
The outsiders that the trio created in their various writing partnerships come in the form of Cecil, George and Bert – the only men left in the Kent village of Rittle-on-Sea, their peers having gone to fight for king and country. As the rest of the village’s menfolk are discovering that they probably won’t be home by Christmas (or ever..), unabashed coward Bert (Sweet) is trying to pull grieving widows, conscientious objector George (Thomas), a teacher, is ostracised for refusing to dish out corporal punishment at the local school and Cecil (Bird in another nerdy moral compass role?) laments the fact that he failed the army medical and was thus forced to stay home.
But while the lads recognise the seriousness of the subject matter, they seem determined not to let the sombre period get in the way of their fun. Indeed while the costumes and settings are worthy of the finest period drama (“Half the crew worked on The King’s Speech” says someone in the background..) I’m assured that viewers shouldn’t expect any Georgian bluster alá Stephen Fry in Blackadder Goes Forth. “For a start, I’d like to highlight that we aren’t comparing this to Blackadder, which is of course one of the finest sitcoms ever!” says Bird quickly after I mention the B word. “It’s very much a modern comedy set nearly a century ago. The dialogue isn’t really of that time, innately quite a silly idea.”
“The war and the period aren’t the main reason for us setting it during this time. We just wanted to take three antiheroes and put them in an exagerated outsider position.” says Jonny Sweet, before Joe Thomas jumps in.. “I suppose we’re trying to illustrate that although they’re often portrayed slightly differently people of that time weren’t any deeper, were as flawed and complicated as we all know we are today. The fact is that if these people were around now they’d be speaking as we do so we..”
I wonder what their word for clunge was back then?