Being a student today is no laughing matter

New campus-comedy Fresh Meat takes an amusing cudgel to the rites of passage of cotton-wool kids.

David Bowden

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For those who don’t regularly encounter young people, coming face to face with them can be quite a shock. With our perceptions skewed by the notorious casting in American TV and cinema of late-twentysomethings as teen characters, and with the fawning over youth by adults with an increasingly confused sense of maturity, it’s easy to forget what kids are actually like.

This ignorance of the actuality of young people is not helped by TV’s obsession with issues-led teen dramas. On-screen teens and young adults are hyper-sexualised and hyper-articulate proto-adults grappling with all manner of complex sexual/emotional tumult. In truth, as stepping into any sixth-form classroom will reveal, most teenage boys could generally do with a good wash, and teenage girls could use a solid grounding in reality.

The same rule is particularly pronounced when it comes to university students. Despite the phenomenal shifts within higher education over the past 25 years, on TV students still only come in two varieties: effete and repressed Brideshead-style Oxbridge types, or the wastrel bedsit radicals of The Young Ones. Even the two most successful shows appealing to student lifestyle, the drama This Life and the comedy Spaced, did not feature actual students. The ‘campus novel’ may have become one of the most exhausted of literary tropes as the university experience became more commonplace. Yet, other than the ‘frat-house’ brand of US comedy (seen most recently in E4’s Glory Daze, set in the Eighties) nothing much has changed about student life according to the shows and literature portraying it. It is striking that some of the most successful and surprising hit foreign films of recent years – Alfonso Cuaron’s Y Tu Mama Tambien, exchange-student comedy L’Auberge Espagnole, and even (at a push) Ostalgie flick Good Bye Lenin! – have been about, or aimed at, that same studenty demographic.

Perhaps the absence of actual students from our screens reflects a very British ambivalence towards the university. Preserving academic life in aspic rather suits everyone involved in the higher echelons of public life: those on the right can get misty-eyed and nostalgic about the intellectual elitism represented by Oxbridge in its Brideshead heyday, while those on the left can hate all the social elitism and its attendant prejudices. Those on the right can paint the contemporary campus as a hotbed of Young Ones-style pseudo-revolutionary foment leeching off the taxpayer; the left can pretend university campuses are still hotbeds of radical thought and politics being affectionately satirised. Importantly, no one has to spare much thought about what it means to be a student, or what a university actually is, today. I think lads’ mag Zoo at least acknowledged the changing face of academia by replacing its feature ‘Club Strip’ with the largely similar ‘Student Strip’, but it was hardly a helpful contribution.

Channel 4’s recent attempt at putting a modern twist on the genre, with the riotously unfunny Campus, was a powerful reminder of why the contemporary university is generally avoided. So adverts for new series Fresh Meat, seemingly offering more of the same but with the added bonus of starring hateful posh stand-up Jack Whitehall, did not exactly get the juices flowing. Discovering that it came from the pen of Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain – who can claim at least partial credit for most of the best British comedy of the Noughties (Peep Show, Four Lions and In The Loop) – made it worthy of attention. But anyone who caught their dire flop The Old Guys could be forgiven for feeling a little apprehensive.

As it was, the first episode of Fresh Meat was a pleasant surprise. Whitehall was perfectly cast as a public schoolboy who makes up for in entitlement what he lacks in self-awareness, already forming a believably obnoxious relationship with that other university staple, Greg McHugh’s oddball and aimless mature student Howard. The awkwardness of freshers-week conversations and other university rites of passage (including heroically regrettable, if not traumatic and life-destroying, drunken hook-ups) was agonisingly credible.

Moreover, given the increasingly dark nature of Peep Show, there was a surprising sweetness to proceedings. This was helped, no doubt, by the casting of The Inbetweeners’ Joe Thomas in a leading part. Bain and Armstrong’s observational one-liners lost none of their topical sharpness: one character was reduced to pleading with his ‘starter lay’ to remove her femidom given he was wearing a condom, since the ‘double-bagging’ wasn’t very environmentally conscious; Kingsley tries to convince an unwanted housemate to leave by telling him, ‘The thing is, mate, we’re more Hufflepuff and you’re more Slytherin’. Forget student radicals: this is as accurate a portrayal of the ‘cotton-wool kid’ generation turning themselves into adults as you’re ever going to find.

The one bum-note was struck when we finally met an actual adult: a foul-mouthed and contemptuous English lecturer who threw his students’ work in the bin and spent his brief tutorial insulting the ignorance of his students. It’s difficult to imagine in the modern university environment, dedicated to offering the full student experience (education optional), any academic being given that level of freedom with the students. You suspect that was the one nostalgic throwback to the writers’ student days. Crap tutors seems like a curious thing to get misty-eyed about, but compared to the nervous wrecks currently with academic careers, you can’t help but feel something’s been lost.

Whether Fresh Meat will last beyond its first term is debatable – it was sweet and charming rather than hilarious. But, for a change, this was a student comedy at least grounded in today rather than the distant past.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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