Clunge. Bumder. Bus wanker.
For a certain generation of Brits, those words are as embedded in the lexicon as MILF was after American Pie and the phrase “jealous much?” was in the years following the release of Heathers. The success of a teen movie or TV series can be measured pretty reliably by its impact on the vocabulary of the people who consume it. A decade after The Inbetweeners first arrived on our screens and four years after the second movie provided a farewell for the characters, the impact of Damon Beesley and Iain Morris’ series is undeniable.
But why did a show about foul-mouthed, sex-obsessed sixth formers resonate as much as it did?
Much of the success of The Inbetweeners can be put down to how well it captured the mood of the nation’s teenagers at the time. Its arrival in 2008 coincided perfectly with the onset of the global financial crisis and one of the most devastating recessions in the history of the British economy, creating a sense of despondency around the future prospects of the nation’s youth – a feeling that is yet to dissipate a decade later. The recession turned us all into ‘inbetweeners’, looking around at our lives and deciding that, although things could be worse, they probably ought to be a lot better.
Away from its accidental political relevance, The Inbetweeners succeeded primarily because it is ferociously and fiercely funny. The characters crack that most difficult of codes in that the way they speak is immediately recognisable by its authenticity. All of the central characters swear like sailors, brag about their imagined sexual exploits and roast each other silly about their lack of actual conquests in the bedroom. Beesley and Morris did a perfect job of capturing the unique naffness of being a teenager just outside of the ‘in crowd’, feeling like you’re too good for the bottom of the social barrel, but also excluded from anything that could ever be considered cool. Nowhere is this clearer than in the show’s series two opener ‘The Field Trip’, in which the boys are savvy enough to score an illicit bottle of vodka, but not high enough up the hierarchy to be invited into a party to drink it.
It helps that the boys work as a cross-section of the kinds of people everyone has met during the course of their time at school. Will is nominally the protagonist of the show and, although he’s almost always a bit of an unlikeable presence, his fundamental quest is something with which we can all empathise. He’s a little pretentious but, above all else, he’s just desperate to fit in and climb the social ladder. His role is to use his irritating persistence to push the rest of the lads out of their ‘inbetweener’ funk.
His polar opposite is Neil. He’s the epitome of someone entirely relaxed in his existence and not at all bothered by the low social status of him and his mates. He dances as if no one is watching, speaks as if no one is listening and as a result lives his life in a state of perpetual happiness. The show gets constant comedic mileage from the fact that Neil, despite his apparent stupidity and ignorance, does much better with the ladies than his more uptight friends and the message is clear – Neil is comfortable in his skin, and that’s very attractive.
Simon, meanwhile, is the audience entry point and the character who hews closest to being an everyman. Joe Thomas delivers a performance that’s a little tragic, but always ultimately identifiable to the audience. Often, the way Simon acts is closest to how a real person would react. He’s a slave to the bigger personalities around him, but somehow he always ends up in the most difficult circumstances, whether it’s being accused of sexual assault after following Jay’s advice, puking on the love of his life’s brother after following Jay’s advice or going from the chance to lose his virginity to being naked, sexually frustrated and dumped in five minutes… after following Jay’s advice.
The common denominator in almost all of Simon’s mishaps is Jay, who is perhaps the most interesting and complex of the four protagonists. He’s the quintessential teller of tall tales, regaling the boys with entirely invented stories of his sexual prowess and life achievements. Every single one of his friends is completely aware that his stories are nonsensical, but they often simply let them pass. They recognise that Jay exists entirely on reputation and that his exaggerations fuel his self-esteem.
Jay’s intrigue, though, comes as a result of his more vulnerable moments. When something happens to snap him out of his constant stream of word vomit, it’s difficult not to empathise with his sadness and tears. He represents something everyone has experienced – the desire to remain strong rather than cry and show weakness in front of friends. Jay’s tears, from being dumped at the end of the second series to inadvertently causing the death of his beloved dog in season three and being rejected by Jane at the end of The Inbetweeners 2, are always the moments in which we see the real man behind the facade. James Buckley’s performance shines in these scenes and it’s clear that Beesley and Morris have real affection for the character, given the surprising depth they afford him.
Aside from its compelling central characters – and the brilliantly colourful array of supporting cast members – The Inbetweeners is memorable for its uncanny ability to capture a moment in British society and culture. These were characters that reflected the viewers, at their best and worst, and there was a refreshing simplicity to it all. The scenarios weren’t extravagant and overwrought – they were simple setups like field trips, school discos and a misguided night attempting to go clubbing in London. Everyone watching The Inbetweeners knew these people and knew these scenarios, so we were delighted to go along for the filthy, lavatorial ride.
The show was a true example of catching lightning in the bottle, and that’s worth its weight in gold – or clunge.