Students union

With the eagerly awaited second series of Fresh Meat just underway, three of the cast of the Manchester student comedy talk to Richard Smirke

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To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, life often imitates art and for the main cast members of Channel 4 student sitcom Fresh Meat that maxim can certainly be said to apply.

For those so far unfamiliar with the show, Fresh Meat is an award-winning Manchester-set comedy drama from Peep Show creators Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, in which six endearingly foolish, occasionally immoral, often drunk but ultimately well-meaning students are thrown together in a fetid off-campus terrace house as they navigate their way together through university life.

Highlights from its first series, which aired last year to strong reviews, are too numerous to detail in full but include: Vod, an effortlessly cool indie-punk rebel, played by Zawe Ashton, embarking on a catastrophic zeppelin-sized bender; preening public school boy JP (stand-up comedian Jack Whitehall) getting caught up in a student riot; Scottish eccentric Howard (Greg McHugh) forging a disturbing bromance with an equally weird, bouffant-haired oddball; the charmingly insecure Kingsley (The Inbetweeners star Joe Thomas) losing his virginity twice on the same day; swottish Oregon (Charlotte Ritchie) beginning a seedy affair with her tutor; and diligent Welsh dentistry student Josie (Kimberley Nixon) accepting her long-term boyfriend’s marriage proposal, having just slept with two of her housemates.

Filming of the first series was an equally riotous experience that often saw the lines blur between their characters and real life selves – like their fictional counterparts, the six leading cast members all relocated to Manchester and lived close to one another throughout production. “I basically had the normal university experience condensed from three years to three months because we all behaved like students. It was really disgusting,” says Kimberley Nixon, who, prior to landing the role of Josie previously starred in BBC costume drama Cranford.

“We all morphed into our characters, which was awful for Manchester basically.”

“It was such an eye-opener for me,” she continues, laughing. “I was quite a goody two-shoes at drama school and at first the other guys led me astray. When you’re playing somebody for 12 hours a day, every day, it just becomes easier to be that person all the time, and that’s what happened to us. We all morphed into our characters, which was really awful for Manchester basically.”

Filming of the eagerly awaited second series – the first episode was broadcast last week – took place again in Manchester but was a relatively calmer affair, says McHugh. The 32-year-old does however concede that the lives of a professional actor and full-time student are similar in at least one respect. “When you’re a student, you go to a few lectures and go: ‘God, I’ve done so much work today. I deserve to go out and get really drunk.’ It’s no different being an actor. You feel somehow that you’ve achieved a hell of a lot if you’ve been in two scenes and said four lines.”

The cast are tight-lipped about what we can expect from the second series, although McHugh will disclose that “Howard has got a hell of a journey ahead of him”, including the likely prospect of some bedroom action of his own. Vod, arguably the show’s most vividly drawn character, even falls in love, reveals Ashton, who admits to being terrified prior to the first series about how the character would be received.

“I expected to have to buy a wig just to avoid abuse in the street,” states the 28-year-old London-born actor and writer, who studied in Manchester and formerly held a young writer’s residency at the city’s Contact Theatre. “I really wasn’t sure how people would take to Vod so the biggest surprise to me was audiences really taking her to their hearts. She is not a kiss and cuddle person. She has got a spiky exterior.”

Josie’s second term at the fictional Manchester Medlock University promises to be no less eventful than her first. “This series she really goes off the rails,” says 27-year-old Nixon. “She’s always drunk or hungover. She looks like shit a lot.”

“Even more so this year, you’ll see a turnaround in the characters,” elaborates McHugh. “You’ll see some characters that you’d think would be stronger collapsing and others coming together and sticking up for each other.”

He credits Fresh Meat’s creators and writers for the show’s popularity and says that its appeal lies in “well-constructed, three-dimensional characters that you can easily emphasise with”.

“This is probably one of the strongest bonds between cast members that I have ever known,”

“The danger when you do a student sitcom is that you make every character very broad. It would be very easy to make JP just a big posh arsehole. But what people love about JP, and what Jack did with his performance, is make him very vulnerable. Oregon projects that she is in total control but actually she’s desperate for people to like her. Josie likes to appear in charge but really she’s crumbling.” Howard, he deadpans, is “obviously just amazing”.

As befits a show set at university, one of the most accelerated periods of development in young people’s lives, the making of Fresh Meat coincided with a highly productive, creatively fertile period for its main actors. Nixon will shortly be appearing alongside Vic Reeves and stand-up Chris Ramsey in the BBC2 sitcom Hebburn. McHugh is currently starring in the third series of his self-penned BBC show Gary: Tank Commander. The Jack Whitehall written and led Bad Education made its TV debut earlier this year with a second series of the school-set comedy already commissioned. Ashton directly credits playing Vod with further fuelling her own dramatic and scriptwriting ambitions. In addition to having several projects in development she plans to direct a short film in the near future. But all cast members I speak to say that they would jump at the chance to make another series of Fresh Meat.

“This is probably one of the strongest bonds between cast members that I have ever known,” says Ashton.

Nixon ads: “I remember just before the first series went out we were worrying: ‘Is this actually funny or is it just funny to us?’ So when people actually liked it and the show was getting nominated for awards, honestly it was just the best experience. If we get anywhere near that this year it would be magical.”

Nixon does though confess to having a few worries about her character’s future. “I don’t know how much more Josie can take. Once you’ve seen the whole of the second series you’ll understand. She does a really bad thing in a dentistry exam. A really bad thing.”

Fresh Meat is on Tuesdays at 10pm on Channel 4 

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