Simon Bird: “My career depends on escaping Will from ‘The Inbetweeners'”

His early work defined a generation, but the briefcase-toting Rudge Park graduate is focused firmly on the future. He tells us why directing is more his bag now

Simon Bird has just told NME that he and his former co-stars in British comedy phenomenon The Inbetweeners have a WhatsApp group. What Simon won’t tell us is what the WhatsApp group is called.

“No. I’m sorry, I can’t tell you that…”

Oh purleeease! Go on, we say.

“I can’t! I think it’s really quite rude!”

We remind Simon that we’re talking about a WhatsApp group containing the four core members of The Inbetweeners cast. Simon aside, that would be Joe Thomas (sensitive Simon Cooper), Blake Harrison (dopey Neil Sutherland) and James Buckley (bants-loving Jay Cartwright). We’d hope it was rude, at the bare minimum.

Simon Bird
Credit: Xavier Mas

“Hang on, let me just remind myself…”

Simon pulls out his phone. He looks at it. Then he winces.

“No, I’m not at liberty to discuss…”

Please?

“No, I can’t!”

This, reader, is journalism. Sometimes you can see the scoop, smell it even… though it remains tantalisingly out of reach.

The Inbetweeners
‘The Inbetweeners’ defined an era of teenagers. Credit: Channel 4

It’s not surprising that Simon, now a respectable 36-years old, wants to keep a bit back. That he wants authorship of his career to belong to him and not to Will McKenzie, the snotty teenager whose school blazer once served as his second skin. The Inbetweeners remains ubiquitous on television – they say you’re never more than 6ft from a rat, but you’re even closer to a repeat of The Inbetweeners on E4. It’s surprising to remember that, despite the high profile the show enjoys even today, Simon appeared on the Channel 4 series for just three seasons – 18 episodes in two years, between 2008 and 2010. Two films followed – 2011’s The Inbetweeners Movie and, three years later, The Inbetweeners 2.

And yet the truth is, The Inbetweeners has defined Simon Bird’s career to date. He’s had other roles – he’s played Adam Goodman in the consistently good British middle-class Jewish sitcom Friday Night Dinner for the last 10 years (“I’ve been amazingly lucky that’s ran so long”). He’s had other projects, co-creating, writing and starring in the excellent Chickens, a short series about three men left in the UK during the First World War (“We were desperate to do more. It’s dead now. Very much so”). And he’s had misfires, creating the universally panned BBC Three panel show The King Is Dead. A sample segment saw the late Peaches Geldof being quizzed over who she preferred, ‘Stalin or Mugabe?’ (“I think it’s fair to say, on reflection, that the show wasn’t my finest hour…”)

“‘The Inbetweeners’ cast feel like family. We go out. We have dinner. We get drunk”

And yet the clamour for more Inbetweeners has never really gone away. They’re all still friends – “They feel like family,” says Simon. “We go out. We have dinner. We get drunk” – but generally speaking, the cast have repelled professional requests, despite briefly reuniting on screen for 2019’s Fwends Reunited, a listless 10th anniversary special, that confused fans by being, not a new episode, but a spectacularly unfunny chat show, hosted by Jimmy Carr. Wounded by the overwhelmingly negative response to the show, James Buckley even took to Twitter the day after broadcast to apologise.

“My career [depends on] being able to wriggle free of being Will from The Inbetweeners. I’ve been trying to escape his shadow,” says Simon. “The need to [escape our characters] has become apparent to all four of us [in The Inbetweeners] over time. When the films came out and they were hits, we all hoped they would lead to new opportunities for us. The reality is there’s not much comedy made in this country. If you’re associated with a big role, I can understand why the makers of other series wouldn’t want you. You’re bringing baggage with you and they’re trying to create new characters. It makes total sense…”

Simon Bird
Credit: Xavier Mas

Do they get offers for another season?

“You’re talking to the wrong guy” he says. “It’s all down to Iain [Morris] and Damon [Beesley], who are the writers. We obviously would never – and legally, could never – do it without them. They, quite rightly, feel that the whole point of the show was that these idiots are kids going through a phase of their life. The dynamic of having the four of them back together as men would be so different that it would no longer be The Inbetweeners. I think a lot of people would be disappointed.”

Simon says that he doesn’t consider his Inbetweeners fame a “huge burden”. He’s keen to make that clear. “At every stage, it felt like we were doing something new. Nobody had watched the first series. I think Channel 4 were seriously considering cancelling it, so the second season felt like a bonus. Then doing the film felt absolutely ridiculous. It felt like a joke that we were allowed to keep doing it. It never felt like we were outstaying our welcome.”

“I don’t think that you need to be offensive to be funny”

He’s also aware that were The Inbetweeners to be made now and not over a decade ago, it would be a different show. It’s a series authentic to the experiences of teenage boys, whether they’re Victorian chimney sweeps or comprehensive-schooled dweebs, but Simon agrees that there are other voices that need to be heard now. That, generally speaking, comedy is trying to punch up more than we punch down.

“I’m always slightly confused by those discussions [about comedy being sanitised],” he says. “Maybe that’s just not my sense of humour. But I don’t think that you need to be offensive to anyone or any group, or in any way, to be funny.”

Simon Bird
Credit: Xavier Mas

He pauses and considers what he wants to say next. “It was an honour being in The Inbetweeners,” he says. “The reason any of us go into this industry is to make shows that people love. It’s so nice to be in a show that people still quote, still talk about endlessly and still rewatch. That was always the aim. I just think it happened for all four of us a lot earlier in our career than we expected. The question is… what next?”

For Simon, what’s next has increasingly been his retreat behind the camera. He made his directorial debut with last summer’s excellent coming of age movie, Days Of The Bagnold Summer. Based on the 2012 graphic novel of the same name by Joff Winterhart, adapted for the screen by Bird’s wife Lisa Owens, and with a score written by Belle & Sebastian, the movie tells the story of teenage metalhead Daniel (Earl Cave, son of Nick), who lives with his single mother Sue (Monica Dolan). “I want to celebrate the suburbs,” said Simon at the time – a running theme throughout his career (if you can claim The Inbetweeners ‘celebrated’ the suburbs…)

Simon Bird
Simon Bird made his directorial debut with indie drama ‘Days of the Bagnold Summer’ last year. Credit: Alamy

Now, he’s stepped into the shoes of the departing Tom Kingsley – in demand after his work on superb BBC sitcom Ghosts – directing the third season of BBC Three’s bite-sized comedy Pls Like. Written by comedian Liam Williams – who also plays the cynical 30-something the show’s central premise hangs around – the new episodes landed on iPlayer last week. Where the first two seasons affectionately spoofed the YouTuber industry, this time round Pls Like takes aim at the cult of social media influencers. For Simon, the appeal of directing is twofold.

The comparative anonymity is the main draw. Perhaps surprisingly for a man propelled to fame on the back of bad Yoda impressions, there isn’t a huge desire to be especially known – only to “create good things”. He doesn’t do social media. “I don’t think I get anything from people swearing at me and telling me I’m shit,” he says. And, despite performing stand-up while at Cambridge University, as part of lauded comedy troupe Footlights – even placing as runner-up in the Chortle Student Comedy Award in 2008 with a routine mocking his previously unsuccessful entries – he’s not a comedian who especially craves the glare of the comedy club lights. “I’d be open to doing it again,” he says. “Stand-up is such a buzz when it goes well. You want to go back and try again. And when it doesn’t? It’s distressing. Paralysing. You want to die.”

“I’ve worked for bad directors… I don’t want to make the same mistakes”

He’s excited about the state of British comedy. “I love James Acaster’s stand-up, I love Tim Key, obviously Daniel Kitson and Stuart Lee, Kieran Hodgson is a brilliant sort of stand-up storyteller. On telly I love Stath Lets Flats and I’m excited to see [cast members] Ellie and Natasia’s new sketch show…” Comedy then, is still Simon’s first love. And yet his post-Will McKenzie-plan is to combine acting and directing. It’s just, right now, the latter is taking precedence. It might even be his favourite of the two.

“I think acting is like a short, sharp hit,” he muses. “It’s so much fun. The day-to-day of being on set, mucking around making a comedy series is pure joy. Whereas directing can suck the joy out of the filming process because you’re constantly having to make decisions and there’s so much more responsibility. You can’t muck around because you’ve got a schedule to keep. But the flip side of that is that the satisfaction and the creative buzz that you get from it is, for me, stronger. The feeling you get when you finish a project, and you know that you’re the person that’s been there, from day one right to the very end when you push the button to send it off to the channel… that’s really satisfying.”

He takes his cues in his new role from the aforementioned Beesley and Morris, though Ben Palmer – director of The Inbetweeners season two, three and the first film, as well as Chickens – has had a lasting influence. “He’s just a lovely man,” says Simon. “Everyone who works for him would walk through a wall for him. Everyone knows directing can be a very stressful job, but he always tried not to bring that stress on set. His method was to create a relaxed, informal atmosphere where people could try stuff out. That’s what I’ve tried to do in the instances that I’ve been directing.”

Have you worked for any bad directors, Simon?

A pause. Then, “yes”.

And what makes a bad director?

‘The Inbetweeners’ WhatsApp group name is too rude to tell you”

“Well, the opposite, I guess,” he says. “Passing that onto the actors, I think, is a pretty disastrous move. But I think it can show that you’re not fully invested heart and soul in a project. It takes a lot of hours to get something made and I think if anyone on the crew suspects that you’re not in it for the right reasons, that can start a domino effect of people feeling that they themselves shouldn’t necessarily be fully invested in it. During my first hour as a director on set, I was very aware of not making those same mistakes”

A significant number of scenes in Pls Like are filmed outside, in locales such as Shoreditch and Hoxton, in east London. Despite more time being spent behind the camera, Simon remains one of UK comedy’s most recognisable faces. Does he ever get anyone screaming “briefcase wanker” at him when he’s trying to line up a shot?

Simon Bird
Credit: Xavier Mas

“I definitely still get it a bit,” he says, frowning slightly. “But I try and dress like a director. I have my hood up and my scarf. I try to hide as much as possible. I watch a lot of documentaries, so I just try to copy what the people directing them are wearing really. [Oscar-winning documentarian] Hal Ashby. That’s my vibe.”

Speaking of vibes, what’s the name of The Inbetweeners WhatsApp group?

“No, I couldn’t. I can’t. I think it would undermine my entire argument about comedy not needing to be offensive…”

Simon Bird
Credit: Xavier Mas

Okay, well can you confirm whether there are any emojis in the group name. Some of the emojis are quite rude.

“Let me check…”

Simon pulls out his phone. He looks at it.

“There’s no emojis.”

And that, reader, is what you call a scoop!

BBC Three’s ‘Pls Like’ series three is available now on BBC iPlayer