“I’m choking up thinking about it. I suppose you never properly mark these things until you look back on them.” Charlotte Ritchie is eating toast and chatting over the phone about Fresh Meat, the milestone uni comedy from Peep Show creators Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, in which she co-starred for four and a half years. A decade ago this week, Channel 4 first introduced the world to Ritchie’s character Oregon (AKA Melissa), and her housemates Vod (Zawe Ashton), JP (Jack Whitehall), Josie (Kimberley Nixon), Howard (Greg McHugh) and Kingsley (Joe Thomas), a motley crew of students whose paths would have probably never crossed outside of their shambolic house share, but during the show’s four series became best of friends.
Speaking with the cast today, it quickly becomes apparent that their real-life relationships are as steadfast now as their characters’ were back then. During our afternoon Zoom session, Ashton shows NME their group WhatsApp photo: a collage of faces in which Nixon sits yearbook-style pretty, while Whitehall is pulling a comically wretched expression. “They’re always the first five people that I write down on any sort of events list,” she says fondly. “It remains one of the most joyful experiences of my life,” Whitehall concurs at the start of our phone call.
Fresh Meat was first conceived by Bain and Armstrong in the late ‘90s, a few years before they came up with Peep Show, inspired by their time together at Manchester uni. “We were drawn to writing the show because university is an intense time in your life,” Bain tells NME. “I felt like I was very young but in some ways quite mature, and learning about life. It could also be quite tough and lonely at times.”
The show began with the arrival of these six polar opposites at their shabby house share: punkish Vod, bohemian Oregon, toff JP, mother hen Josie, nerdy Howard and fedora-sporting Kingsley. However, the stereotypes quickly vanished, and Fresh Meat morphed into a painfully funny, emotionally rich ensemble show about the highs (young love, weekday benders) and rocky lows (debt, drug abuse) of student life.
“We got a bit obsessed with each other” – Kimberley Nixon
The collective energy of the cast (“we were basically like dirty, smelly Friends,” quips Ashton) paired with Bain and Armstrong’s cripplingly self-aware, heartfelt writing garnered a multigenerational audience of millions and multiple accolades (including Best TV Show at the 2012 and 2013 NME Awards). “There’s a tenderness to the show as well as the comedy,” says Bain, who is audibly touched when he learns of Ashton and co’s lasting love of Fresh Meat. “It meant that these characters could do terrible, terrible things, and you’d still like them. That was a large part of why Fresh Meat works. I have nothing but fond memories thinking back about it today.”
The casting process began in the months leading up to the shoot, which, true to Bain and Armstrong’s uni experience, took place in Manchester. “I think I auditioned seven times,” says Nixon over the phone from the very house where she learned she got the part. “Six of them were for Oregon, which is bizarre because Oregon is obviously Charlotte.”
Ashton, who auditioned six times for Vod, already knew Nixon as they shared an agent, although their friendship, it turned out, would take a little work. “I found out years later that she thought I was a douchebag,” she laughs. “She would say, ‘I would see you at photoshoots with your yoga mat eating a croissant, and I just thought you were a douchebag.’” Ashton would later read a poem at Nixon’s wedding.
Ritchie, fresh out of uni, had her final audition at the readthrough. “They wanted to see how I fit into the overall group; I don’t think I’ve ever felt more sick,” she remembers. Meanwhile Thomas, Whitehall and McHugh boarded the show amid burgeoning comedy careers, although Thomas, who joined Fresh Meat just ahead of The Inbetweeners Movie dropping, had some initial reservations about playing someone “not a million miles away” from Simon Cooper on the classic high school sitcom. “That was my only qualm, that they were a bit too similar,” he says of Fresh Meat‘s Kingsley during a long and animated afternoon phone chat. “On the other hand, though, I just didn’t care because Sam and Jesse are such good writers. It would’ve been ridiculous to turn down.”
“It would’ve been ridiculous to turn down” – Joe Thomas
Once the core cast was set, their student transformations could begin. For some, stepping into character was a more drastic process than others. “I put a lot of work into Howard as a performance, with the way that he walked and moved,” says McHugh, who has the oddball geology undergraduate’s sheep jumper framed in his home. “I look back now and I’m really proud of it.”
Ashton, meanwhile, underwent the most significant change in appearance, from her freshly shaved, dyed head to the punked up outfits: leather jacket, dummy necklace and graffitied, acid wash jeans. She saved several items of clothing from Vod’s wardrobe, including the jacket, although it nearly landed her in some serious hot water afterwards. “I took it on holiday with me, and on the way to the security check area [in the airport], I was checking my pockets and found a massive hole in one that had seven bags of fake weed in it.”
Next came a five-month stint over the summer in Manchester, where the cast lived and worked in the same building for 12-hour days. They quickly became inseparable, even after the cameras stopped rolling. “We got a bit obsessed with each other,” Nixon says.
That summer would be a formative one for all involved. There were “wholesome” breakfasts and girls’ nights out (or in). Evenings were spent having dinner along Canal Street or going to gigs in the city’s Northern Quarter. On hangover days, Whitehall would sneak off to a quiet corner for a quick nap – even when he was meant to be filming.
For our interview, Ritchie has found the diary that she kept and reads aloud an entry: “Had my dinner with Kim and Zawe, Greg came in after a bit. I watched Joe in The Inbetweeners… weird. Last night Jack and Joe kept having their autographs asked for. We were wondering if that might happen to us. It would be really nice in some ways, but also I might cringe out. Also, my friends would rip the piss out of me.”
“I wore Vod’s jacket to the airport – it had seven bags of fake weed in it” – Zawe Ashton
Perhaps the heaviest night of that summer fell on Ashton’s birthday when an honest attempt to go home to bed turned into an all-nighter at an early hours club called the Coconut Shy. “I have this brilliant memory of Joe drinking some colourful cocktail and us dancing in this basement to reggae music,” she says. The next day, the gang were shooting in a real hospital for an especially sombre sequence in which Vod is recovering from an accidental overdose. “We had a break where they were changing the camera setups, and an actually ill person asked if I was OK,” says Ashton gleefully. “It was hysterical.”
After the first series wrapped, everyone reluctantly parted ways, and angst about the series’ premiere began to set in. Now they felt that they owed the show being a success to themselves and each other. Then the first episode aired, and everything changed. Ashton recalls being in Cuba, a trip she went on to consciously distance herself from the show’s release. After the plane landed, she went to an internet cafe to check her emails and opened one to the whole group from Tony Gardner, who played Professor Shales in the show (and dad Brian on My Parents Are Aliens). It said: “This is so special. Be ready for your lives to change.”
Series one was a rave, with the cast indeed being recognised on the street and critics praising its hauntingly authentic depiction of uni life. “Sam and Jesse had written a very long document which became the Fresh Meat bible,” remembers Thomas. “At the top, it read: ‘This is a show about people who are pretending to be one thing but are really another.’” Throughout those four series, we would come to see a mixture of both. Bonds were strengthened, which allowed them to show moments of raw vulnerability, much rarer in TV writing at the time.
An early example of this came in the first series, when JP, high on acid and processing the news that his father is dying, has an emotional conversation with Oregon’s ailing horse. “I loved that scene. It terrified me in an exciting way,” says Whitehall. The actor, then known primarily as a rising standup, had felt especially challenged by the idea of doing something more emotionally driven. He says the reception he received for that scene was unforgettable: “It made me realise that I could get just as much satisfaction from being able to move an audience as making them laugh.”
“Zawe took me under her wing and showed me the ropes” – Charlotte Ritchie
For Ashton, the reception for Vod – which included a celebrity admirer in Noel Fielding – felt especially significant. “It felt bigger than me,” she said. “I grew up without a huge amount of people who look like me on television, certainly not in comedies. It felt joyful to belong to that.”
Channel 4 commissioned a second series in October 2011, just weeks after the first debuted. Over four summers, Ashton, Nixon, Whitehall, McHugh, Thomas and Ritchie would return to Manchester and the ever-evolving journeys of their characters. Along the way, they would celebrate key life changes together as well. McHugh remembers being on set when he got the call to say that his wife was about to have their first son. “We were in the Fresh Meat kitchen filming a big ensemble scene when my phone went off, and my wife told me she’d gone into labour,” he says. “I put the phone down, and everyone cheered because they just knew what had happened. I’ll never forget it.”
Each cast member recalls standout moments for their characters over the show’s lifespan. Both Nixon and Thomas talk warmly about their onscreen relationship, which culminates in a bittersweet breakup. “I remember being really sad because I’d got to do all these wonderful things with Joe, but also really proud of Josie because she made a good, selfless decision,” Nixon says, who lovingly describes Josie as “a runaway train” that she “got her jacket caught in and was being pulled along by.”
Ashton and Ritchie reminisce about the show’s other great partnership: their own. “I distinctly remember Zawe taking me under her wing and showing me the ropes in a way that never felt patronising. It was just so warm,” she says. “[Charlotte] is one of the funniest performers to me,” says Ashton. “I call her and Kim my comedy goddesses.”
“We were in the Fresh Meat kitchen when my phone went off, my wife had gone into labour” – Greg McHugh
The show ends with the group sitting on a hilltop, gazing out across the city together, before bidding farewell. “I remember there were a lot of tears on that day,” says Whitehall, who has a photo of the scene in his office. “It was unusual because usually, you can’t wait to be done with a series, but this certainly wasn’t the case.”
Since Fresh Meat wrapped in 2016, members of the cast have catapulted to stardom. Whitehall broke Hollywood opposite The Rock and Emily Blunt in Jungle Cruise, while Ashton i set to make her MCU debut in The Marvels next year. Bain and Armstrong have gone on to tackle some of the most prolific shows in America, including Veep and Succession.
Yet their friendship endures. When asked if they would reprise their roles, even just for one last time, everyone, Bain included, said that they would. “Unless the others all said no, in which case I am totally unavailable,” Whitehall jokes. It may be that there is still a story left to tell for this unruly group of wayward graduates, but if not, they will always have the memories of those Manchester summers and a time in their lives like no other.