Having endured the various national lockdowns and sadly, now once more being upon us have inevitably led many people to become (re)acquainted with their homes, and even their cohabitees. From finishing the DIY projects that were never started, learning a new language to hitting the bottle, an endless list of indoor pursuits that have always been there suddenly become de rigueur to while away the hours, and wait for the government to get a handle on the novel coronavirus – which obviously might take some time yet.

For the less creative, and those who are weary of worry and of trying to master a skill they will likely forget about once life returns to whatever normality will consist of in the future, binge watching favourite shows or discovering those that have been there for a while gives some light relief to what is happening outside every doorstep in the UK. Much though like trying to reach the conclusion of an interminable ball of wool such an assault on the myriad entertainment options now available to us is itself without an end, and viewed in the context of a pandemic offers little but ephemeral pleasure. That though hasn’t stopped me from falling into this trap, that offers little but a feeling of ‘what next’ and of requiring more, even though such a bottomless pit of viewing can never satisfy the uneasy itch inside all of us during the latest Covid-19 restrictions.

Representing little more than keeping us out of harm’s way when even crossing the threshold could have deadly consequences, consuming media does at least get us through another day that we have successfully lived, but presents a danger of slipping into the realms of fantasy, as something better than the reality in which we are existing and in many cases, suffering. Being able to switch off from what is not real back to actuality might not be the desired effect of watching box sets, but will assist with staying resilient against the challenges that we are amid, and those yet to come. It is easy and completely understandable to slip into make-believe when times are hard, but being able to face down the cold realities of the day will in the end strengthen our resolve and represent a positive outcome of one of humanity’s darkest periods.

You might wonder where I am going with this; well, I will finally cut to the chase. Having overcome in April my own brush with the virus, my recovery returned me back to a previous hobby of listening to shortwave pirate ‘free’ radio, which included reconnecting with several contacts I had made during an on-off habit of listening spanning the last 30 years. As the restrictions from the first lockdown – what anyway is the collective noun of lockdowns, perhaps a Whitty or a Panic – loosened and my convalescence was complete, a watered down sense of normality and heavy dose of reality returned. Heck, I was even able to take a holiday, something unthinkable last springtime.

As though life has since taken unexpected turns to some, but highly predictable to others, we have flip flopped between tiered restrictions, relaxations, before finally returning once more, today, into full national lockdown. This time it feels to me that we are on the brink of a worldwide catastrophe that only an unprecedented vaccination programme can prevent. It is for others to write if we have brought this upon ourselves for failing to adhere to last year’s rules, and/or if governments, especially those in the UK and US, could and should have been stricter with elements of the population who continually flaunted their own ‘nobody will stop me doing what I want to do’ credo whilst others still insist that the virus is a hoax; nearly 80,000 people in the UK and their families will tell you otherwise.

I am though taking a long way around to saying that I began, 12 years after its initial release, to watch the Channel 4/E4 show, The Inbetweeners. Desperate times, etc! When the first of three series of six episodes was aired in 2008, indeed until its final fling that culminated on cinema screens in 2014, The Inbetweeners was a show that passed me by, partly by design, but also that I did not generally watch the channels on which it aired. My memory of contemporary television of its time is sketchy at best, but when the programme did cross my path I vehemently gave it a wide berth as the puerile, crude, and inappropriate waste of my time I assumed it to be. Now, these sentiments have hardly been assuaged since viewing its oeuvre, but having researched the impact that the dialogue, several memorable phrases and put downs, along with the main protagonists themselves had on society at the time, and to some degree continues to do so, I am amazed that I managed to avoid this dubious phenomenon for so long. This is to my credit, perhaps.

Based in a bog-standard comprehensive school, four similar but very different sixth formers embark on various escapades that are fated to end badly, often taking the most disgusting and aurally brutal route to achieve the inevitable end. Led by the foul-mouthed, borderline Tourette’s sufferer Jay Cartwright (played by James Buckley) the lads lurch from one failed attempt on what is construed to be standard mid to late teenage life to another, with barely any success of ‘pulling’ a female or even being able to get drunk in an archetypal manner.

The dialogue is as salty, no, more so, than any pub, nightclub, or football terrace that I have ever patronized. When I was last a sixth former, in 1995, I can honestly say that my fellow students never got anywhere near a scintilla of the filth that poured at one time or another from the mouths of Jay, Simon, Will, and Neil. Whilst living in a different era and a middle-class setting, I attended Years 12 and 13 with students who were there because they had chosen to, but most importantly the school had allowed them to because of previous academic prowess, and anticipated success. There is nothing to suggest, perhaps Will (played by Simon Bird) aside, of the quartet being in situ because of anything other than an extremely relaxed A-level’s admission policy.

The Inbetweeners usually worked better when the pursuit of unobtainable women was not the object of the exercise. This in truth was a scenario that rarely figured, with a default setting of attempting to pull what Jay would describe by using at least half a dozen foul terms for the female anatomy(including one that I had never heard before) being the staple, go-to diet of each episode. It should be noted that all the lads were much older than the characters they portrayed, with two of them, Bird and Joe Thomas(Simon) having graduated from Cambridge before taking on the roles of teenagers.

Archive material aptly highlights just how much of an imprint the foursome made on the nation, with many mainstream talks shows and celebrity-based programmes piggybacking on The Inbetweeners’ bandwagon. For a while I am sure this was grist to the mill for the protagonists, but being asked the same questions by the likes of Alan Carr, Lorraine Kelly, and Tim Lovejoy, et al, surely must have eventually grated with actors approaching or even by then being in their thirties. Cambridge-educated Bird and the impossibly youthful Thomas were obviously of greater intelligence than their two co-stars, and one wonders if the at times disgusting script railed against their sensibilities and educational upbringing. On the other hand it is not hard to imagine Buckley, the archetypal bloke many of a certain ilk would like to have a pint with, being as grotesque in real life. Harsh, maybe, but he and Blake Hamilton, the actor who played Neil, would seem to have little in common with Bird and Thomas until at least the two former Footlights got in character to descend into immature badinage and prurience.

After three series the format had run its course. There was in theory enough mileage to keep going indefinitely but again, it must be remembered these were four grown adults playing teenagers, something they couldn’t get away with forever. The logical next step was for the lads to head into their own respective sunsets, whether that be chronicled or imagined. The former approach prevailed, with two spin off films representing money in the bank for creators Iain Morris and Damon Beesley. It was inevitable that moving the characters on from mainstream education into the wider world was the only option to continue the theme, with popularity for the show translating into a financial smash at the box office. I recall at the time the first film was released of my absolute revulsion at even considering watching it at the cinema; the fact I instead chose Justin Timberlake’s Friends with Benefits is though not lost upon me.

As a rite of passage for many young men a no holds barred holiday in the sun before setting off for university or gainful employment was always going to be a winning format for where next to take Buckley, Bird, Thomas, and Harrison. As veritable kids in a candy shop far bigger than the limitations imposed upon them by unwilling female students and the dreariness of UK suburbia, cutting loose in a sea of flesh, cheap booze, and music without the prying eyes of parents or the sadistic interventions of head of sixth Mr. Gilbert(played by Greg Davies) would inevitably draw out the worst in the appetites of the callow quartet. Surely, even they could all ‘knock over a coconut’ in such unfettered, open goal-like conditions where even the most awkward and unworldly are not out of the game. And so it proved, sort of.

As Jay’s unsubstantiated boasts of conquests failed to convince his fellow travellers, it was to these so-called experiences that were needed to be drawn upon when the four encountered promising situations that they were ill-equipped to deal with. It was then obvious that Jay had neither the knowledge or experience to guide his friends into ‘scoring’ with the ladies; it was therefore fortunate that they quite by chance stumbled upon four receptive ladies in a deserted nightclub, one they had been duped into entering by a street ticket-seller more interested in commission than the lads themselves.

At odds with Jay’s make-believe back catalogue of stunners and models, the lady he latched upon, or who at least initially latched onto him, was someone who many would politely call ‘plus size’, or pejoratively labelled as ‘fat’. Jane(played by Lydia Rose Bewley) was though the star of the show and a real woman, exhibiting dangerous curves, a winsome, toothy smile, and a shock of fiery red hair to devastating effect. Despite being put off by the cliched opinions of the others, as well as some idiotic nocturnal beach bums, Jane got under Jay’s skin, and not just because she was one of the few women who in reality have given him the time of day. As all four lads and their squeezes did their best to ruin what at first seemed improbable but ultimately pleasing possibilities of romance, the film left viewers with an overwhelming feel-good factor that even four no-goods lacking in self-awareness could find meaningful love and happiness.

The first film’s finale showed four distraught lads crying as their now ladies headed back to their own UK lives, but with viewers left with the assumption that as the cameras stopped rolling the characters would all head happily into the sunset. Albeit from having to work backwards to a time when I neither knew anything of or cared for The Inbetweeners, the need for one film OR three was to me the approach that should have been followed by Morris and Beesley. One cinematic outing would have left viewers to assume the lads and Jane, Allison, Lucy, and Lisa had successfully paired off. The second could have caught up with how their respective couplings were fairing, perhaps even as each group once more headed off on vacation; a third might have shown the lads years later, which due to the disparity between actual age and that of their characters could have been filmed much sooner than the premise would suggest, depicting marriage, divorce, or the grey area in between. It must therefore have been highly frustrating for those who were fans of the show in real time that the writers’ brought down the curtain on the format after two films, especially after the way the second outing culminated.

Picking up the action this time in Australia, Jay’s imagined life of being a playboy and superstar DJ is as far removed from the reality of working in a nightclub toilet whilst living in a tent in Uncle Brian’s back yard. Enticed by Jay’s fantasy life to Oz to escape Will’s unsatisfactory life at university, Neil’s barely believable job in a bank and Simon’s increasingly deranged fiancee Lucy(from the first film) it soon became obvious that Jay’s and Jane’s hoped-for romance did not last, precipitated by Jane taking exception to Jay’s gift of a Nintendo Wii Fit. That Jane was also in Australia prompted Jay to go on a mission across the Outback to win back his lost love, which ultimately fell on very dusty ground. After further travels that took in some of the Far East’s ‘alternative’ attractions, the film ended with the four now long-haired protagonists arriving back in the UK looking chilled out, free, and single, at least until Will saw the rock on his mother’s finger given to her by arch nemesis Mr. Gilbert.

My observations of the second film generally centre upon the fact that it shouldn’t have been made if it was to be done so in that manner. After three series of bumbling, crass stupidity for the four lads to finally find some happiness in the first film only for it to fall apart for all of them was as sad as it was unnecessary. It was as if it was necessary for the producers to find a perverse pleasure in demolishing the feel-good factor for viewers and characters alike engendered by a heartening ending to the 2011 trip to Crete(albeit filmed in Majorca). The story should have been left there, offering full redemption for the quintet, or at least have fleshed out the relationships in the second film, with a ‘years later’ denouement to a theoretical trio of big screen outings. The way it was left was cruel, and offered few redeeming qualities for those who could and should have been seen to be more than the sum of their parts.

With such a formulaic plot starring in The Inbetweeners was never going to be the greatest platform to future success for the four leading lights, although each have gone on to carve out predictable but not wholly unsuccessful careers. Bird and Thomas have continued with similar comedic vehicles although Harrison has perhaps been the most successful, having undertaken a broader range of roles since The Inbetweeners drew to a close in 2014. Buckley has become more of a gun for hire, including ‘starring’ in an egregious advert for bookmakers Ladbrokes, and whilst he has for example starred with Thomas in White Gold, a comedy based in an 80’s double glazing company, the former kitchen fitter has resorted to sending at times obscene messages to punters willing to pay £40+ through third party website Cameo for the privilege. More interested in online computer gaming than acting, Buckley has used the lockdown to sequester himself away to work on Completed it, Mate, a YouTube channel dedicated to gaming and named after one of Jay’s unsubstantiated boasts. Furthermore, he and wife Clair have now started an At home with the Buckley’s YouTube channel for anyone they assume cares about the inconsequential machinations of their everyday lives. With the enduring appeal of Jay and The Inbetweeners in general, it is no surprise that both channels have snared hundreds of thousands of viewers, but the crassness of Jay’s character, if not already obvious within Buckley during his salad days, is now very much in evidence. One cannot imagine Bird or Thomas resorting to such vacuous ways to while away their days and make money, but the difference, in reality and character, is stark between the three, with Harrison somewhere in between(sorry).

A word, or paragraph, for Lydia Rose Bewley, the actress who looking back stole so many hearts(including mine) in her portrayal of Jane. Again, featuring in The Inbetweeners is no guarantee of future greatness and whilst it initially gained Bewley some incredible publicity, effectively being typecast as a larger lady, albeit an astonishing attractive one who jousted with a script as vulgar as can be imagined, has arguably not done the now 35-year-old many favours. Subsequent outings in Plebs and the horrendous Drifters ostensibly on the back of being Jane, Bewley has since slipped into relative obscurity, by design or otherwise. Motherhood will undoubtedly have reframed her priorities and ambitions, but I hope she will ultimately be remembered for more than just playing a love interest for Jay that he barely deserved. Being smitten by a character she played nearly ten years ago is a very strange emotion, but the decency of a woman who was not on holiday to simply notch as many conquests as possible but instead saw the vulnerable, insecure Jay underneath all the bluster and bombast was as laudable as again, arguably undeserved. Whilst anyone can slip in and out of character, Bewley represented a Pre-Raphaelite-type of beauty and attendant figure, which is infinitely preferable to a Botox pockmarked, Croydon-face lift identikit fake tanned female found in abundance throughout today’s UK. Bewley represented the type of woman I never met on holiday, of a kind who I didn’t even realize I actually liked until her portrayal of Jane. I think this sentiment was, and still will be, shared by many male viewers.

From someone who from the start dismissed the very thought of watching The Inbetweeners, I can from having watched the three series and two films see why I took an understandably puritanical stance. Its shock value, delivered through an incendiary script with an ability to vocalize what many think but dare not say struck a chord with a world already mired in Politically Correct protocols, but in the modern era be unacceptable coming from the mouths of grownup characters who would be playing by adults, just as the Rudge Park Comprehensive four already were.

As a modern cultural phenomenon there can be few other influences that have taken hold in the minds of so many that continue to do so more than a decade later but on balance, similar to advising children to never start drinking so to avoid the need to give it up in the future, I would advise those who are yet to view the The Inbetweeners not to do so. For a fictional, taboo-busting programme to get under the skin years after it had drawn to a close is a strange, unsettling emotion, but reflects how some of life’s worst aspects and stereotypes, notwithstanding the lovely Jane, can infect even the minds of those who would be shocked by its content, but nevertheless need to see it to persuade others not to follow suit.