Simon Bird talks to HOLLY STEVENSON about The Inbetweeners, Footlights and life since Cambridge.
Simon Bird, aka Will from The Inbetweeners and former Footlights president, imparted many pearls of wisdom about university life, writing and the comedy business to me. However, he gave me one nugget before he even picked up the phone: never, ever use his mobile network.
After hearing the electronically dulcet tones of ‘this phone is currently unavailable; please try again later,’ several times, I finally got through. I asked Simon which exotic location he was residing in, wondering whether he was in the middle of a desert or up a mountain. ‘No,’ he replied, ‘I’m in the middle of London. Apparently an Orange phone can’t handle that.’ Under instruction not to move a nanometre, I proceeded to question one of the biggest enigmas on the young comedy scene.
It’s hardly surprising that Simon Bird is a bit of a mystery beyond his cringe-inducing, hide-behind-the-sofa-in-embarrassment role as Will McKenzie in The Inbetweeners. An alumnus of the prestigious Royal Grammar School, Surrey, and of Queens’ College, Cambridge, his educational background speaks more of silver spoons and secret meetings at the Pitt Club than Rudge Park Comprehensive. However, his reticence is more to do with humility than any attempt at ‘cool’.
When asked why he never talks about his time in Cambridge, he said: ‘I think there’s a feeling, especially in the comedy world, that people might think if you go on and on about being in the Footlights that you feel in some way entitled to succeed in comedy. So a lot of recent graduates of Cambridge, and Footlights in particular, go out of their way to avoid mentioning it, so they don’t come across as smug.
‘I imagine keeping the Cambridge thing under wraps started happening around the year after Peter Cook left (around 1960!); people didn’t want to feel like they were using other people’s success as a passport to their own. It’s also something I learnt from the generation of comedians to come from Footlights before me; people like Mark Watson. I really respect them.’
He also debunked the idea that Footlights is an elitist society: ‘Footlights is not something you are really in or out of. When I did my first show, there was such a range of people: Shakespearean actors, people who had never even done comedy before; it was simply the five people the director thought had the best audition. It was like any other student society.’
And, like any other comedy society, there were the inevitable grotty gigs. When I questioned him about May Balls, his shudder of revulsion was evident. ‘May Balls were always the most horrible, excruciating experience,’ he sputtered. ‘People pay a lot to go to May Balls and the last thing they want is to sit down and watch some drunken, mediocre comedy, which is often what it was.’
So, Cambridge doesn’t guarantee you a fast track to success on a wave of Pimms and punt poles. For Simon, it was a proving ground, where week after week he tested his material and his acting skills on discerning, intelligent audiences who are well known for having a sense of humour failure (well, anyone would with three hours of labs and a dissertation due in the next day). Simon said that Footlights was ‘a brilliant place to learn about comedy, just because they do the most shows of all the university societies. If you are under pressure to write and perform every two weeks you are going to get better and better.’
This ubiquitous society was also where Simon met Joe Thomas (aka Simon from The Inbetweeners). After creating the comedy sketch group The House of Windsor, which had a run at the Edinburgh Fringe, they auditioned for the new sitcom. Neither had performed on TV before. ‘We were just trying to learn our lines and hit our marks,’ Simon recalled.
In the Stevenson household, it is the only programme our entire family will sit down and watch. We recently introduced my 80 year old grandma to the first series. She laughed so much she nearly fell out of her chair.
However, I always felt that the one place in which The Inbetweeners lacked flair was when it came to the girls. Carli and Charlotte are both blonde, popular and seem to move through Sixth Form with a consummate ease, entirely lacking when I was bumbling through my A-Levels. And when Chloe (Jay’s girlfriend in the second series) said ‘I’m sorry Jay, I think this is going too fast’ when he lays a tentative hand on her chest, I felt like shouting ‘Oh pur-lease!’ at the TV. Girls in The Inbetweeners don’t seem to have insecurities, lusts or even personalities in the same way as the boys.
I asked Simon why this was: ‘I don’t really know. The show was written by two men, so naturally the girls are given less time because the show is about these four boys. The boys just see the girls; it almost doesn’t matter who the girl is; the aim is the same. I think they’re more interested in female body parts than female minds, and I think that’s the case for most 16 year old boys.
‘However, I think there’s definitely room for a female Inbetweeners; one that can be written from the mindset of teenage girls instead of teenage boys. I think that would be really interesting. There was talk a few years ago of a female Peep Show, which would have been brilliant.’
When asked whether he agreed with Germaine Greer’s comment that women aren’t as funny as men, Simon replied, ‘I don’t agree with that. I think it’s very difficult in the comedy industry. Because there are fewer female writers, there are less shows from a female perspective, which is a massive shame.’
The Inbetweeners movie that is in the pipeline, said to be set in Magaluf, is probably not going to redress this balance. However, it does mean that we will get to see this young, reluctant Cantabrigian showcase his comedy talents on the big screen in a way that will be very different from his school days. And, my gran will get a cinema trip…