Before we get into the cases “for” and “against” both the script reader and their report, let’s just remind ourselves what the script reader was reporting on!
If you’ve never heard of British TV comedy THE INBETWEENERS, you’re probably either not based in the UK or have been asleep for the past eight years.
The half-hour single-camera comedy about four teenage boys in Sixth Form (aka High School) dealing with girls, the school bully and a particularly sardonic teacher – as well as their by-turns awful, humiliating and embarrassingly gorgeous parents/siblings – was a huge hit and ran on E4 for three six-episode series between 2008 and 2010.
The general tone of the show is what is variously known as “gross-out”, “taboo-busting”, “scatological”, “juvenile” or simply “extremely funny when done right”.
The show also span-off two successful movies. In 2012, MTV screened a US remake THE INBETWEENERS, which was cancelled after a single twelve-episode run.
The script reader’s report in question is from way back in February 2007, and assesses the script “Bunk Off”, which is presented as Episode 1 of “Baggie Trousers”. Within fifteen months – and only minor changes – this would become Episode 2, Series One of THE INBETWEENERS, first broadcast on E4, May 1st 2008.
Firstly, let’s take a look at the script report itself.
In order to assess it with any kind of objectivity you’ll need to attempt to wipe your brain of the knowledge that the show was an enormous hit.
Try and picture the lowly reader, surrounded by great piles of printed (this was 2007!) scripts. They had doubtless been told to look out for scripts with a “point of difference”, or a “really original vision” or a “unique voice” – all common stock instructions from execs to script readers.
Anyway, have a read of the report below…
Title: BAGGY TROUSERS
Writer(s): Iain Morris & Damon Beesley
Episode: 1 – “Bunk Off”
Reader: Bobby Peru(!)
Four teenage boys bunk off school, get drunk, antagonise each other and cause trouble along the way.
In a park, four teenage boys – WILLIAN, SIMON, ROBIN and LEE – are playing frisbee. CARLY D’AMATO walks past and Simon gets nervous. By mistake they hit a girl in the face with the frisbee and are chased by the thuggish MARK LESTER and his gang.
The next day, Simon and Will have decided to bunk off school. Simon calls the school pretending to be his mother and screws things up – the head of sixth form, GILBERT, knows it’s Simon impersonating his mother. Will and Simon meet up with Lee and Robin outside the off-license.
Having easily bought some alcohol, the boys retreat to Robin’s house to drink it. Whilst drunk, the boys persuade Simon to tell Carly how he feels about her and ROBIN’S DAD reprimands them for being drunk round his house. They go to Carly’s house and Simon scrawls a love message in pen on her drive. Carly catches him in the act and, surprisingly, invites him over later that night.
Will and Simon drink all afternoon in preparation and turn up at Carly’s house extremely drunk. Simon tries it on with Carly, and then vomits everywhere.
The boys return to Will’s house where Robin’s Dad, WILL’S MUM, and SIMON’S MUM & DAD are waiting for them. They are reprimanded and Simon accuses Robin’s Dad of touching them inappropriately. This accusation is thrown out, however.
The next day at school Gilbert marches Simon and Will to the headmaster’s office…
BAGGY TROUSERS is an often amusing script that suffers from a lack of narrative drive, tension and invention but is certainly not without merit. The chief pleasure in this script comes in the form of the central four characters who are refreshingly unrepentant, and on reflection, actually quite shameless pieces of work.
There are no limits to what they will do, it seems, and this is best illustrated near the end, when Simon even has the gall to accuse Robin’s father of a truly taboo offence, merely in order to save himself a rollicking from his own parents. However, and this is crucial, they are also quite charming with it.
Their crude, laddish frankness manifests itself in a number of amusing one-liners and exchanges that will appeal to anyone with a juvenile sense of humour. The tone of the script is set as early as page 1: “Jugasaurus Rex, ten o’clock”, Lee observes, looking at Carly.
The crassness continues on page 15 as Lee (again) sees Carly’s Mum: “Oi!”, he shouts, “Simon wants to suck on your Carly’s tits!” Later on, in the script’s most cringingly amusing sequence, a paralytic Simon delivers a series of lead-balloon one-liners beginning with “you know why I’m here, and I know why I’m here, and you know why I’m here – give us a snog” and culminating in the social train-wreck that is: “just finger yourself in front of me”.
All this is, of course, hugely childish and a very acquired taste. Tonally it’s somewhere between FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF and AMERICAN PIE. However, what is holding BAGGY TROUSERS back is a lack of a strong premise. The script literally consists of a bunch of lads sitting around, getting drunk, and taking the piss out of each other whilst one of them tries to get laid. That’s it.
In contrast to something like FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF (in which there was a major force of antagonism in the shape of Ferris’ dogged teacher, Mr. Rooney), no obstacles of similar significance block the path to a good time for the lads. They take the day off school almost without hitch. They want alcohol despite being underage, and simply buy it.
They’re then caught drinking by Robin’s Dad, but no tension exists in this scene because the rascals simply verbally abuse the poor chap – Will calls him a “bumder” (a cross between a bummer and a bender). Simon wants a date with Carly, and gets it in a flash. These “quick fixes” result in a script lacking in tension and drive.
There are other problems: if Simon were really that keen on Carly (and the intimation is that he has been pursuing her for a while), would he really allow Will to get him into such an awful state before going round to see her?
This scene would be far more effective if we saw the boys tugging in different directions: Will, trying to desperately sober up for his big date, in one corner, and the others boys trying to get him as pissed as possible in the other. However as things stand Simon appears almost as keen to continue drinking as Will does.
However, the lack of conflict in this scene is typical of the script as a whole, and it’s an area the writer should really focus on improving in subsequent drafts.
Amusing one-liners and a raucous central quartet can’t save BAGGY TROUSERS from feeling slightly bland. What’s it about? Where’s the real narrative thrust? Where are the major conflicts?
And, most importantly, where is the original premise that could support and sustain a series? Pass, but definitely note the writers’ (admittedly juvenile) comic touch where dialogue is concerned…
** WARNING: Offensive language is included in the following clip – viewing for 18+ only **
ANALYSIS OF THE SCRIPT READER’S REPORT
Now we’ve set the scene, let’s lay out the charge and make the cases for and against. And along the way, let’s try to extrapolate something about what makes good comedy and what makes a franchise.
That in February 2007, said script reader, though clearly being of sound mind and displaying solid analysis skills, did wilfully, and without due forethought or prescience, gratuitously pass on one of the best teen comedies in British TV history.
This report is a great example of a script reader getting it half right (which in real terms is sadly as useful as being completely wrong). It’s clear from the report that the script reader is creatively perceptive, but it’s also obvious that they are lacking in commercial nous.
They also don’t have enough experience to understand this perennial fact of script development: that while brilliant writing can be developed into superb stories, a superb story can never be developed into brilliant writing.
And what makes it worse, is that it’s not as if the script reader couldn’t see the quality of the writing. It would perhaps be easier to forgive them if they simply had no taste, but it’s clear that they’ve recognized great writing (indeed, great comedy writing, which is a whole different level of rare) but then failed to grasp the entire point of their task.
It’s a script reader’s job not only to read what’s on the page in front of them, but to imagine, to extrapolate, to intuit, to fast-forward, to read inbetween the lines.
In this case the script reader, to their own detriment (and that of their employer) has resolutely stuck to what’s in front of them.
The script reader missed that the “story world” appears to be fully formed, with the school, teacher, home lives, parents and love interests all present and correct.
More crucially – and ironic that the script reader did notice this but without knowing just how unbelievably difficult it is to achieve – it’s clear from the report that the gross-out humour is leavened by considerable charm.
Charm being a quality so elusive and hard to pin down that when you see it as a script reader, you really should be running straight to your Head of Development/Commissioning Editor with your arms waving in the air shouting “Eureka!”.
Then there’s the set-piece moments: even without reading the screenplay as read by the script reader, it’s easy to visualise several of the stand-out comedy scenes:
Simon pretending to be his mum – you just know this is going to be funny: Simon on one end of the phone believing that he’s getting away with it, intercut with Mr. Gilbert obviously not buying it at all.
Simon vomiting when he’s desperately trying to get off with Carly.
Simon accusing Robin (Neil)’s dad of touching him – both queasily embarrassing and wonderfully transgressive (a combination that drives much of the comedy in everything from FAWLTY TOWERS to the Farrelly Brothers).
Simon drawing a message of love on Carly’s driveway – funny, touching and, once Carly arrives, squirm-inducing. Then cleverly and unexpectedly reversed when Carly proceeds to invites Simon to her house anyway.
Simon asking Carly to “just finger yourself in front of me” – a line so exquisitely awful that it eventually earnt a callback in Episode 6, Series One.
The script reader has also missed the point about Simon getting drunk before he meets Carly – it’s not because Simon actually thinks he’ll be at his best drunk; it’s because he’s totally unable to confront the terror of possibly getting what he wants sober. The conflict that the script reader desires arrives when it looks like Simon is going to get Carly after all, which is when he completely humiliates himself by vomiting everywhere.
A brilliantly delayed pay-off.
Perhaps the script reader’s worst crime of all is thinking that this “hugely childish” style of comedy is “a very acquired taste”, when the taboo-busting generations raised on the comedies of the Farrelly Brothers, Adam Herz, Judd Apatow and Seth Rogan have spent hundreds of millions of dollars at the theatrical box office (and now enjoy the delights of R-rated TV comedy on cable networks in the US, on E4 and BBC3 in the UK and streamed by online networks).
And, finally, the script reader was clearly unaware of this golden rule regarding comedies about teenagers: if they’re done right, they work just as well for an audience of “grown-ups” as they do for adolescents, because the core truth of teenage comedies is that though most of us at least pretend to be adults once we’ve “come of age”, we all – male and female – spend most of our lives in a state of severe arrested development: driven by primitive biological urges and anthropological drives that most of us never fully master (while some of us never even get close).
This truth – that everyone can see their own repressed feelings and desires in the behaviour of teenage characters – renders teenage comedy (when done well) one of the most watchable of all genres.
In the script reader’s defence, we could point out that by the time of broadcast, this episode had been moved to Episode 2, with a new Episode 1 that’s a classic fish-out-of-water set-up, complete with Voice Over.
In addition, this reader was certainly not the only one to Pass on the hit show, and she does at least identify the writers as worthy of tracking. Finally – does the show really offer that critical original voice or point-of-difference so beloved of TV execs?
That the title had been changed to THE INBETWEENERS, in two words nailing the show’s premise (it’s coming-of-age comedy, stupid – in other words it’s something everyone can relate to).
That exactly what the four of them were bunking-off from has now been perfectly sketched in the new first episode.
That while it looks like SIMON is the key protagonist of the series when reading “Bunking-Off” as Episode 1, the writers had decided to make specky geek Will the key protagonist by the time the show aired, thus giving the audience a wittily sarcastic and old-before-its years commentary on the action from the head-dwelling, ultra-articulate, ex-private school-going Will. This change being essential as a way to balance both the lovesick Simon and the continual preoccupation with sex evinced by both Lee (Jay) and Robin (Neil).
That the four main characters, Will, Simon, Lee (later Jay) and Robin (later Neil) still appear to be a long way from the fully-formed classic ensemble quartet of brain, heart, feelings and primitive instincts that provides the platform for the show’s success (the same four core character types that are at the centre of everything from the original STAR TREK to the original NEW TRICKS via the fully-crewed RED DWARF).
That by the time of broadcast, the Series One inner and outer needs/wants of all four characters had been pretty-much clearly defined by the end of the new Episode 1, thus enabling us fully to engage with all four of them from then on.
WILLIAM (unedited head) – outer: to be accepted; inner: to come of age by replacing the infantilising love of his gorgeous mother with that of someone his own age (the classic Freudian set-up).
SIMON (uncontained heart) – outer: to get with Carly; inner: to come of age by rejecting the smothering over-familiarity and over-sharing proclivities of his father.
JAY (unmediated feelings) – outer: to savour as much “clunge” as possible; inner: to come of age by gaining the self-respect so far denied him by his abusive (but horribly funny) father. The pin-sharp scene in Episode 6 where Jay opens-up to “Big” John before telling him to “fuck off” when he gets a better offer being an exemplar.
NEIL (unfiltered base instincts) – outer: to understand a world which appears to be utterly beyond his comprehension; inner: to come of age by learning that there’s more to life than being propelled by base instincts (from a comedy perspective, this character may never make it into “adulthood” at all, and if he does it will be down to having kids and being forced to grow-up, which ironically means that fingering and dry-humping will have to be replaced by actual, you know, intercourse).
Even taking all these points together, it still doesn’t really justify this reader passing on what would eventually become one of the very best British TV comedies of the past ten years, running for three series and managing to have not just one, but two successful spin-off movies.
And the reader did pass, even though what they had in front of them had both brilliant comedy-in-the-moment (transgression, humiliation, embarrassment, taboo-baiting and dramatic irony for comedic affect) but also the building blocks of a long-running and franchise-friendly narrative: a core ensemble, the coming-of-age genre and a ready-made story world, as well as subject matter that is both perennial and universal but told through a very specific milieu.
What’s your verdict then?
Would you have plucked The Inbetweeners from the ranks of projects?
Hindsight’s a wonderful thing – let us know in the COMMENTS below…
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