Where did the idea for Big Boys originate?
I took two shows up to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2015 and 2017 that were called Good Grief and Happy Hour. For my first hour I kind of blagged my way into a venue by turning up at their London offices and begging them to give me a slot with the tiny little budget I had crowdfunded.
I had no actual drama training or performance skills but I’d been doing open mics & bits of stand-up poetry, which was actually just reading out really silly lists to people who I hoped would laugh. Anyway, I wrote Good Grief when I was fresh out of uni, and my 85-year-old nan co-wrote it with me, and it was just all about losing my dad, and what it was like to be a British teenager going through that experience as well as an elderly mum. I had kept these diaries — well, they weren't really diaries in a traditional sense, because I don't think many people my age kept ‘diary’ diaries, but I had a Microsoft Word tab on my computer when I was a teenager and I just used to write stuff down, thoughts that I had. My dad died when I had just turned 15. It was right in the middle of my GCSEs, he hadn’t been poorly for too long so it was a huge shock and I suppose I just started writing about the awkwardness of it all. Then I found that there's a lot of humour in the awkwardness of grief and the awkwardness of death. The extreme lengths people would go to, to avoid talking about it I used to find almost quite amusing. So I wrote my first show, got it at Edinburgh and then I suppose I built a little following just talking about being in the dead dad club, essentially.
But I think Big Boys to me illustrates why the Edinburgh Fringe Festival can be an amazing place to go. I went there, nobody knew who I was, I was in the smallest room at one of the big venues at the Fringe, at the worst time slot. And by the end of it I'd had the whole BBC comedy team in; I’d had the New York Times in… it was just one of those Edinburgh sleeper hits that mean people in television start thinking, ‘How can we turn this into a basis for TV?’
How did you turn those stage shows into a TV series?
When writing my second show I met a guy called Jon Petrie, who is the producer behind People Just Do Nothing and Stath Lets Flats — a really amazing comedy genius. He just sat me down and explained how sitcoms work, taught me about character and plot. And it took ages! Thankfully we got a pilot commission quite quickly off the back of that second Edinburgh show in 2017 but then it was a case of me learning screenwriting from the very beginning. Some writers, especially actors who become writers, are at least familiar with the formats of scripts, the pacing of them, or even just the technical manifestation of them. Whereas I had always written everything on Microsoft Word, in really shit fonts that nobody could read. So I had to start from the bottom and learn my way up. Thankfully, I was given the time to really develop it. So I started writing in 2017 and it’s been five years of my life that have basically been spent just trying to constantly get it made, really. And now we’ve finally bloody filmed it!
What is Big Boys, then?
In my mind it’s a silly, sweet comedy about two boys from very different ends of the “spectrum of masculinity” who become best mates at uni. They quickly realise they actually do have a lot of stuff in common; they want to find themselves, have fun and properly figure out who they are, which I think you get to explore when you’re a fresher and you’re away from home and people who knew you when you were a snotty nosed little kid. It’s about that period of reinvention I suppose. And because in the series there is this narrative device of me narrating throughout, you're very aware you're watching a TV show set in the past but voiced from the future. It’s essentially showing viewers the dynamics of a friendship through a series of little memories. I even say out loud at the start that Dylan [Llewellyn] is playing me, because “if you can’t cast yourself as better looking then what’s the point?!?!” Am I right?!
What did you want Big Boys to be and what did you want it not to be?
Well, I'm a big fan of stuff that feels very rooted in the place it's from. It’s why I think Derry Girls and Gavin and Stacey are so brilliant: those shows that have a real set geography to them. I really wanted Big Boys to feel like one of those little campuses right on the furthest outskirts of London, in suburbia where all the young people can see the hustle and bustle of the big city but it’s fucking ages away in the distance and takes 2 hours to get to on a night bus. And I also wanted Big Boys to be very much rooted in working class British humour; or at least definitely show an environment that people could identify with. What sets Channel 4 apart from maybe other channels is that it's very much about substance and story rather than just the visual style of the show. It's not like Big Boys has ever had to look Americanised for wider appeal. It's there to feel very British in a way that can celebrate everything that being British is about that isn't exclusionary.
And I suppose the best thing about writing a campus comedy is that you can fill it with so many different types of people. There are a few varied regional accents in the show because uni is such a great melting pot in that sense. So I just really wanted it to feel very warm and accessible, rather than something that's very flashy. That said, Jim Archer, the director has made it look incredible. I mean, we’ve got some drone shots in there that I'm like, ‘God, it's like an episode of Countryfile or something. But set on a campus outside Watford.’
How much of the story comes from real people and real incidents?
I would say it's become more fictionalised as it's developed. And I think that's for two reasons. Firstly, because myself as a comedian and as somebody who's made a lot of autobiographical work, I am so sick to death of talking about myself and there is nothing more narcissistic than writing a sitcom about your own life! You have to immediately reconcile with the fact that you're asking people to watch you growing up. I like to think that I've made enough differences in the characters: when we were on set, the actors really got to know me because I'm exec-ing it so I was there every day, workshopping stuff and telling them random bits of backstory about their characters. The general consensus is that me as Narrator Jack is nothing like the character Dylan plays in the show. Dylan’s Jack is very shy and anxious and doesn't really know what's ahead for him. And everyone was like, ‘You're way more like… Yemi or Danny.’ So I guess they’re all a bit based on me.
And there are definitely a few lines that are taken from real stuff that’s been said to me. Especially Danny [Jon Pointing], who is based on three or four of my friends rolled into one. But I have tried to give myself the challenge of creating something that's loosely based on the truth but is ultimately a world and creation of its own. It’s too narcissistic otherwise; it's too much.
Was raking over your past and your feelings difficult?
Yeah, I think so. I mean, I didn't realise the project would take five years when I signed on to it! When I did Good Grief, my first Edinburgh show, I was only 21. It felt really cathartic — when you're 21, you want to get that final dose of teenage angst out, so you can start adulthood and become your own person. Whereas my work has pretty much always been about my years between 15 and 21 years old, which is an important time for most people and gives you that real coming of age narrative. But there are definitely times where I would love to write something that's set on a spaceship with aliens that run a bowling alley or something.
But it’s the sort of show where I feel like there'll be a lot of people who have suffered loss or have gone through mental health issues, particularly at uni where it can be a really difficult place and the amount of support differs at various campuses. So I hope there will be people who’ll really relate to it and resonate with the emotions in the show. I always try to contain the self-critical voice in me that's like, ‘Oh! it's so egotistical’, by hoping that actually Big Boys might help some other people.
Bereavement and mental health are not usually fertile grounds for comedy. How have you found humour in grief?
It's just like comedy and humour is sort of the remedy to it all. It is bleak and it is a bit shit. It's a fine line in Big Boys between never trying to make it too schmaltzy, because that would not be the show I'd want. But also not undercutting some of the drama when that naturally comes through. It's about finding that balance, because, comedy, in my mind, is the best way to tackle that heavier stuff.
I also think that there are so many moments where there’s natural humour in tragedy, because for me, laughing and crying are almost the same thing. They tread the same line. There’s a line on the show which is, ‘When I cry, it sounds like Jimmy Carr’s laugh,’ which perhaps one could argue proves this theory!
I'd like to think that Big Boys still allows people to sit in the silly moments. There’s so much daft, comic stuff that happens when you're young and wide eyed at uni that can run alongside the heavier moments of pathos — I think that’s much more reflective of real life when you're that age as well. There's a bit in episode one based on a diary entry of mine as a teenager where I was recounting trying to have a wank for the first time after my dad died and really struggling with it, because everyone was like, ‘Oh he's watching over you now, he'll always be there.’ And when you're 15, you’re like ‘is he?!’ And I was a little closeted gay so, I’d be like “well he knows now!!”
How did you find the casting process, putting faces to the characters you’d created?
Well, Jon Pointing who plays Danny was there from the very off. I first wrote the idea with him in mind because I'd just seen his Edinburgh 2017 show and I could just tell he’s one of the greats. He's so intuitively funny and smart - he elevates Danny constantly and really cares about getting it right because he knows how much that character means to me. Then I always wanted Camille Coduri to play my mum because she has got this super sweet manner but is also a fucking boss - a proper no shit matriarch. There's a moment in episode six where my mum has a cameo and my fake mum meets my real mum for a brief second. And they both sound EXACTLY the same. It's very bizarre but that sweetness, delivering these really sad, but then also really dirty, filthy sexy lines, is incredibly fun.
And then Dylan was one of the last people to be cast for the pilot: we couldn't really find anyone to play me. I first met Dylan through my best mate Nicola [Coughlan] who is pals with him from Derry Girls. She had seen my Edinburgh shows and was the one who knew Dylan. And he’s just so fantastically good at playing this shy, endearing boy who keeps messing up at trying to figure himself out.
And then the narrator idea stemmed from my live show Happy Hour, which was pretty much just me reading a letter to the audience who were referred to as ‘you’ the whole time. And so we wanted to use that device so you got a past and future for those characters. You meet Dylan's Jack and he's a bit of a dweeb, and then you hear narrator Jack, who’s a bit sharper and observant, and so you get a sense that there's going to be a bit of a journey with this character finding themself. And also it really helped that Dylan also has mad curly hair. Even as we speak I’m forcing him to grow it out.