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In 2008 our silver screens were graced with awkward adolescent comedy The Inbetweeners, which today is a stalwart depiction of what we now affectionately term ‘LAD culture’. Despite the script rendering itself incapable of going a single sentence without a homophobic slur of some description, the rampant misogyny, and atrocious mid-2000s fashion, ten years on The Inbetweeners holds a candle to the days of awkward adolescence.
Sixth-formers Will, Simon, Neil and Jay are, in essence, everything about toxic masculinity we love to hate. The worst thing any of these characters could be, as far as each other is concerned, is homosexual. Showing emotion or any sort of affection towards each other, or even to a partner, is utterly frowned upon and dismissed as being ‘bent’. In spite of this, the depiction has weathered the years well.
Will, played by Simon Bird, is a former private-schooler with absolute notions and a self-confidence that is not befitting of his actual abilities. Simon (Joe Thomas) is desperately in lust with the girl next door, believes himself to be the most capable of obtaining a girlfriend out of the four, and is an absolute monstrous git towards his family, demonstrating the emotional range of a turnip at times. Neil (Blake Harrison), depicted as the least intelligent of the four, engages in childish banter and a total lack of self-awareness. Rounding out the piteous band, James Buckley as Jay demonstrates deep-seated insecurity by dishing out compulsively-told lies – most notably, the ‘completed it mate’ scene from Season 3 Episode 3 which ultimately prompted Buckley to start his own YouTube gaming channel called, you guessed it, Completed It Mate.
At the core of The Inbetweeners is an exploration of heteronormative coming-of-age attitudes to sex, relationships, and love. Simon’s unbearable infatuation with his next-door-neighbour Carly is broken repeatedly by brief dalliances, including my favourite episode, Season 3 Episode 2 ‘The Gig and the Girlfriend’, where Simon famously attempts to impress a girl by calling his mum a ‘stupid bitch’. Despite repeated rejections, or Carly’s ever-apparent unwillingness to become available to him, Simon manages to maintain his infatuation for the entirely of the show, insisting that they are, somehow, meant to be together. Look mate, you vomited on her kid brother. It’s not going to happen.
Meanwhile, Will often expresses an interest in girls who are, to say the least, infinitely cooler than he is – something unaided by his mother not-so-gently suggesting he should ‘go for the plainer girls’ in an effort to not be hurt. He spends the entirety of his time at Rudge Park Comprehensive believing he is entitled to date (or at the very least, have sex with) whoever he wants, and despairs of anyone suggesting that the contrary is true.
While Neil has no issue in meeting girls – though they often turn out to be middle-aged women – Jay puts on a machismo show, often claiming to have had wildly improbable sexual relations that do not match his dorky persona. His friends are all too aware of his propensity to bullshit. Yet, for the most part, it remains unchallenged. On the surface, this is not great. Yet, on a social scale, The Inbetweeners is a reflection of the messages society often feeds young men. Entitlement, a fear of anything that may be deemed ‘feminine’ behaviour, and an assumption that sex is a rite of passage that must be conducted with the nearest, most available willing female to hand.
Watching this back in the day, about two years after the original release, I had assumed Phil Gilbert, the head of Sixth Form (Greg Davies) was, for want of a better phrase, a bit of a dick. However, watching it again 10 years on, he is the surrogate audience hero we don’t deserve. Davies excellently portrays the exasperated, no-bullshit role of a secondary school teacher-slash-misanthrope who has literally had his fill of schoolboy antics, and throughout the three seasons has a number of notable moments that show the show’s self-awareness. He has approximately zero time for undue parental concern and seems to delight in making things as difficult for our protagonists as possible.
While Mr. Gilbert fails to in any way rehabilitate the attitudes of the protagonists or remotely address their miscreant behaviour aside from dishing out repeated detentions, he does serve as the one dissenting voice present throughout the three seasons. While Will, Simon, Jay and Neil get into varying degrees of bother on a regular basis, their parents forgive them a host of behaviours that Mr. Gilbert refuses to let them away with anything short of exemplary conduct, dishing out detentions left right and centre.
If you were unfamiliar with the show, it may sound an almost unflinching, albeit outdated, rendition of secondary school life. Yet, set in a south-west London comprehensive school, The Inbetweeners is often painfully accurate and offers viewers a regular dose of second-hand embarrassment. While I don’t for a moment imagine that at the time the show offered anything by way of educating young people on how not to be like our protagonists, I do believe it has a purpose.
Perhaps that purpose is simply laughing at the things we teach young men, and hoping for a better future. Perhaps that purpose is to appreciate the bitter cynicism Mr. Gilbert has to offer and be glad that Davies brought to life the sort of teacher I would probably find myself being should I have chosen to enter into the education sector. Without a doubt, Mr. Gilbert holds a mirror of terrifyingly large proportions up to the inbetweeners, and while they don’t seem to see themselves reflected back in it, it’s certainly funny to behold.
And to that I’d like to say, in the words of Will: Thank you, Mr. Gilbert.