Credit McLean Stephens

An ode to Channel 4’s Fresh Meat

By Niamh Flanagan

Fresh Meat is a weird and wonderful insight into student life in the UK: but just how accurate is it?

In the run up to the return to campus this September, I was struck by the massive underrepresentation of university life and student culture in British television and film. This becomes particularly apparent when compared to the oversaturation of TV shows portraying the British high school experience, such as the comedically improbable plotlines of Waterloo Road, the somewhat surreal depiction of British high schools in Sex Education, and the actually rather worrying precedent set by Skins. This discrepancy doesn’t really make sense to me. While the idealistic and technicolour overtones of Sex Education certainly makes for entertaining watching, you’d be hard pressed to find a UK high school student who feels the antics of Otis, Maeve and Eric resonate with the grey concrete-tinged memories of maths lessons, Monday period 5.

University years, by contrast, hold much more potential to inspire funny, eventful, and engaging TV that is somewhat true to life. I’d wager that if you observed a group of freshers over the course of a year, attempting to enter the world of adulthood armed with student loans and newfound freedom, you could do away with a scriptwriter altogether: the TV would write itself. And that’s where Fresh Meat enters the conversation, standing alone as the only British TV show to successfully capitalise on this treasure chest of comedy gold and realism in recent years.

Behind Fresh Meat are Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain, who also created Peep Show. You can feel the painfully honest but utterly hilarious observational comedy influences in Fresh Meat that made Peep Show such a beloved UK comedy classic. The show centres on six students at a fictional Manchester university, who all move into a house share in first year having failed to secure a place at halls. Fresh Meat is genius in its stereotypical depiction of all of the characters you meet in first year as they clumsily try to reinvent themselves. They are each uniquely familiar: the compulsive liar Oregon cosplaying as a much more interesting, working-class version of herself. The pretentious, emotionally repressed music snob Kingsley, desperately trying to conceal an embarrassing lack of life experience. Vod, who is perpetually skint and never sober, life and soul of the party but dangerously close to failing her degree. Josie, small town girl next door who quickly becomes overwhelmed by the pressures of university living. Howard, the eccentric geology student who hangs dead animals in the living room. And last but not least, JP, a ridiculously wealthy and horrifically entitled private school boy who manages to somehow induce a level of endearment.

Do these not sound like archetypes of a wide cast of characters you inevitably encounter throughout your time at university? I certainly feel I can categorise most people I have met at university by their proximity to each of the characters: a painful smoking area conversation with an ‘Oregon’ recalling anecdotes from her life-changing ‘gap-yah’; my reclusive, hostile ‘Howard’ of a flat mate in halls; and the obnoxious, pint downing, rugby-playing ‘JPs’ of Beer Bar, for example. These characters – and the wide spectrum of life experiences, socio-economic backgrounds, character types and interests they encompass – perfectly encapsulate what it is to be thrown into a living situation at such a young age with such a random group of peers.

I first watched Fresh Meat before I came to university, and then found myself rewatching it in the first month of my first year at Glasgow. With that second rewatch, it took on a new quality: I had loved it the first-time round, but as a backdrop to the quieter moments of fresher’s madness, it became a comforting reflection of my own experience in real time. I don’t mean that I was writing plays for student theatre that featured my own housemates as poorly disguised characters, or dropping acid just before taking a long road trip across the country as my friend’s dad was dying (although none of these more interesting plot points are beyond the realm of possibility of things I have witnessed and heard about at university). What I could relate to was Vod’s incredulity and disappointment at submitting an impassioned and opinionated English literature essay, expecting high praise, only to be met with an abysmal grade and told her work lacked an academic voice. I related to Josie’s feeling of dislocation from her hometown, as a fundamental desire to break free from its restrictiveness battled with overarching homesickness. I was comforted, in the chaos of losing my passport and bank card during freshers’ week, that at least I wasn’t Josie leaving her key in the back door before a night out and allowing the house to be robbed. Throughout the rewatch that inspired this piece, I was struck by the poignancy of the later seasons, with the show once more providing points of resonance as I enter my final year. I was struck particularly by Howard’s desperation to string out the university experience, to cling on to the friend-family he has created.

Fresh Meat is a perfect reminder for any student, incoming or otherwise, that this is an imperfect, messy time, but also the most, most, fun. It’s a reminder that the most unlikely candidates can form the best of friends, and to make the most of every moment – because it really is over before you know it. 


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