2. But that isn’t all that the boys are up to.
3. Chickens is the new project from writers and actors Simon Bird and Joe Thompson, along with friend Jonny Sweet. And it’s a sitcom set in the First World War.
This might seem a risky setting for comedy. But as they explained when launching the series, Chickens is not really about the war at all.
“One reason is that the three of us are men, sort of,” said Bird. “And we wanted the other main parts in the show to be female. It seemed like a funny idea, three men in a world of women.”
The wartime setting then, came about from trying to find a situation where these three characters were the only men in their community. It’s 1914 and in the village of Rittle On Sea, most of the menfolk have gone off to fight… apart from these three.
Cecil (Bird) actually tried to sign up, but was rejected on account of his flat feet, which was a real thing at the time because it meant you couldn’t march properly.
George (Thompson), a local schoolteacher, has opted out for pacifist reasons, while hedonist Bert believes that the lack of other men in the village will do wonders for his sex life.
“We wanted them to be anti-heroes, because I think we associate with the losers of society,” said Sweet. “We were thinking of ways of doing three people who were somehow failing, in a dramatic and spectacular way. Just in the process of walking around and having a sandwich, being failures and a disgrace.”
5. Sir Barry Humphries stars in a recurring role as the lecherous headmaster at George’s school.
This was quite the coup for the group, as the Dame Edna star is not usually in the business of guesting in other people’s shows. The writers say they never believed that he would say yes.
The comic legend said that the script impressed him. “I thought it was extremely well written and I didn’t for a moment feel like a frustrated comic being given someone else’s material,” he said. The whole promise of the thing impressed me.”
6. Emerald Fennell plays Agnes, Cecil’s sister.
Manipulative Agnes delights in watching the three men squirm. But, says Bird: “The challenge with Agnes was keeping the levity to it and not just somebody being haughty all the time.”
Fennell said: “It’s definitely the funniest script I’ve ever read, by a mile. It’s one of those where immediately I just thought, ‘I so want to do this’. It’s not just standing there, popping your top off The worst script I’ve ever read? I did once have to do an audition where I was being raped by a swarm of bacteria…”
7. The other female lead is Winky, played by Sarah Daykin.
Winky is the reluctant fiancée of George – reluctant because he is persona non grata and she wants to keep her social status. The first episode sees her rope George into helping her write erotic letters to sexually arouse the men on the front line.
“We were really lucky with the casting of Winky and Agnes because they’re hard parts,” said Thompson. “They’re harder than our parts. Winky’s difficult because she behaves in a very contradictory way a lot of the time. There was method to our madness, in that we were trying to show that she loved George but as soon as someone said to her ‘you’re not still with George are you?’ she’d say ‘No’. That made it a very difficult part.”
8. Still, there are going to be some concerns about setting a sitcom in the First World War.
“We thought that if we did the Second World War for example, it would be harder to sympathise with these three as much,” said Sweet. “Because there was a clearer enemy, and you’d have to say evil, probably. The First World War it’s not so clear.”
Bird continued: “We were very wary and I think tasteful about trying not to make it too crass. They’re in their own little bubble, they don’t really know what’s going on over there.”
9. The show was first piloted by Channel 4, who passed on the project before Sky picked it up.
Said Bird: “I think the reason was because The Inbetweeners was on constant rotation on Channel 4, I was doing Friday Night Dinner and they’d commissioned another series, Joe was in Fresh Meat and they’d commissioned another series, so at that point they were looking at having four shows with us in them. And none with Jonny in them!”
10. Early criticism was that this was just The Inbetweeners in period costume.
And that isn’t a problem that the first episodes completely solve, even though the shows have different writing teams. There’s variation in the characters, but most of the jokes are broadly sexual and involve the three guys blundering into excruciating and embarrassing situations.
But that’s a generous comparison, Chickens stands up well next to its iconic predecessor, and actually it’s Sweet that steals the show as the dreadful, libidinous toff Bert. Chickens is very, very funny, and later episodes push things to teeth-grinding levels of painfulness.
This is worth sticking with. You can judge for for yourself on August 22 at 9pm on Sky1. It’s available exclusively to Sky customers from August 16 through On Demand.
11. Big Bad World starring Blake Harrison is a lot more different from The Inbetweeners.
Harrison’s character couldn’t be more different from stupid Neil with his robot dance. He plays Ben, who’s just graduated with a degree in Norse Literature who realises there is literally nothing he can do with his degree. He’s forced to move back to Great Yarmouth with his parents, and his old schoolfriends. Writers Joe Tucker and Lloyd Woolf said: “We wanted to write about that time in your life when allegedly the world’s your oyster but in reality it can feel quite the opposite.”
12. It’s topical and it has a lot of heart.
Big Bad World doesn’t have the same belly laughs as Chickens, but the soapier set-up means it might end up being the show you invest in. “Ben is romantically delusional,” said Harrison. “Any opportunity he has to turn a rejection into something more hopeful, he’ll take. Even when an ex-girlfriend is clearly happy with a better-looking, employed and more ambitious man, Ben will find a way of convincing himself that he has a chance.”
And haven’t we all been there? But it’s also painfully topical at the moment. “Dealing with a lack of opportunities when you have a university degree is something that more and more graduates are unfortunately familiar with. The relationships are also very strong and relatable. I think that always helps when making a comedy.”
13. The guest cast is fantastic.
With Caroline Quentin (Men Behaving Badly) and James Fleet (The Vicar Of Dibley) as Ben’s parents, Big Bad World has bagged sitcom royalty. Fleet is especially great as the world’s most embarrassing Dad. The scene with the condoms is unbearable. “I won’t say I’m like Neil but I do wear exactly the same clothes,” he said. “That’s where the similarity ends. He watches Top Gear and reads road atlases and has insane schemes for making money. I would very much like to see Neil on Dragon’s Den asking Hilary Devey for £50,000. He’s probably invented a device for heating up sausage rolls in the garden.”
Big Bad World starts on August 21 at 9pm on Comedy Central.
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