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The Inbetweeners’ Damon Beesley on his dad, the Eighties, and his new show White Gold

Beesley’s new comedy explores a heady world of sex, drugs and insulating glass units.

Picture the scene. A local park. A group of lads playing football. A group of girls chatting. Four awkward teenage boys are playing frisbee, bickering about why on earth they’ve decided to engage in this pastime in the first place. Stone Roses floats from a radio across the grass, playing “Fool’s Gold”.

This draft was one of the first scenes of The Inbetweeners Damon Beesley ever wrote. If it sounds familiar, that’s because it is: the much-trailed clip was eventually used as the opening for the first series’ second episode, “Bunk Off”. But as the soundtrack suggests, The Inbetweeners started life in a very different time and place: originally set at the end of the Eighties, reflecting Beesley and co-writer Iain Morris’s own teenage years. While this period element was eventually scrapped (due to a combination of high costs and fears that setting a teen comedy 15 years in the past might make it less accessible), Beesley remained tempted by the idea of making an Eighties-set comedy.

Enter White Gold, Beesley’s new show coming to BBC2 this month. Starring Gossip Girl’s Ed Westwick and The Inbetweeners veterans Joe Thomas and James Buckley, it follows the crimes and misdemeanors of three double-glazing salesmen in Essex. Led by Westwick’s dangerously charismatic Vincent Swan, the show explores a heady world of sex, drugs and insulating glass units.

“We were trying to tap into this changing nature of British society,” Beesley explains. “At that time it was new opportunities, new careers, looking out for number one.” He credits Thatcher’s Right to Buy scheme with making white plastic windows a status symbol: “It was the policy of selling off council houses that actually created this huge boom in renovations in homes, so you’d buy your council house and then you’d think ‘How can I distinguish it from everyone else’s council house? I’ll get new windows.’”

Born in 1971, Beesley spent his formative years in Stanford-le-Hope in Essex. He was only nine when the Right to Buy scheme was introduced, so the nuances of Thatcherism at that time aren’t part of his major personal memories. What he does remember, though, are the piles of rubbish that accumulated on the streets after strikes in 1979, the stories of the miners’ strikes broadcast from every TV in the mid 1980s. He remembers hot summers, his town’s insatiable love for snooker and his nan’s crush on Cliff Thorburn. And, of course, he remembers his dad, the inspiration for White Gold’s magnetic Vincent Swan.

In the early 1980s, Beesley’s father lost his job the oil refinery where his mother before him, and indeed most of Standford-le-Hope, made their living. It was, in Beesley’s words, “a big moment”. “I didn’t understand,” he says, “but the atmosphere was really sombre and really serious.” But things changed dramatically when his dad got a job as a double glazing salesman - and discovered he was great at it. “We were minimum wage kids and all of a sudden my dad had a brand new sports car.” Though the hours were disruptive, Beesley began to see more of his dad than when he worked nights at the refinery, because he’d pop up all over town, charming his neighbours into buying new windows. “He was born to be a salesman. He had a good sense of style, he started driving the cars, he knew everyone, and he was very charismatic.” People bought from him often simply because they wanted to spend time with him. “It was like having Bruce Forsyth come to tea.”

Beesley insists that the extent of the unsavoury behaviour on show in White Gold is not based on stories about his dad, or his friends: “It isn’t my dad, and it isn’t my family, because this would be too weird for everyone involved.” But that sense of charisma pervades every scene. Ed Westwick wears his sex appeal as thickly as his hair pomade as he charms his way through every window frame in Essex: you feel he could suddenly start having sex with any character at any moment, no matter how inappropriate the context. (Beesley notes that he wanted to write a scene in which Swan experiments with gay sex, “And everyone just said, ‘Those are some serious father issues you’ve got there.’”)

“That’s part of [Swan’s] charisma: this very overt sexual aura,” Beesley explains. “I think that’s what selling is about.” He recalls a scene between Al Pacino and Jonathan Pryce in Glengarry Glen Ross, something he only watched recently, after comparisons abounded. “That’s exactly what Al Pacino’s doing. You start to think, are they going to have sex? And then at the end he whips out the brochure and signs him up.”

While the show itself never glamourizes the debauchery and dodgy dealing of the salesmen at its heart, instead showing them up as faintly ridiculous, there is a clear vein of nostalgia in the project. It wasn’t just his dad that captivated a young Beesley, who loved spending time in the double glazing showroom, inhaling its potent scent of cigarettes and coffee. “It was full of hi-jinks,” he says. “They were always mucking around and winding each other up. As a kid it’s pretty intoxicating, getting to hang out with these sharp-suited, young charismatic men.”

It seemed like the perfect material for a comedy show. “They were colourful characters. I really wanted to write something about salesmen. [I love] writing about men, and groups of men: I like that almost secret world of what they say to one another.” He spoke to several different salesmen for inspiration. Joe Thomas and James Buckley, who play Swan’s less successful colleagues Martin Lavender and Brian Fitzpatrick respectively, reprise their Inbetweeners dynamic with dialogue like: “I think you’re a massive prick,” “Oh yeah? Well I’ll show you a massive prick.” You can imagine what happens next. Inspired by audacious American comedies like Swingers and American Pie, Beesley insists, “Sometimes, just someone telling someone to fuck off is as funny as a beautifully sculpted joke.”

Beesley remembers asking his dad how he learned to sell. He told him, “Oh, I don’t remember anything from the training. What I used to do was: I’d go round there in the car, and I’d laugh and joke with them and we’d sit town and talk about people we knew in the town, and I’d let them drive my car, and after half an hour I’d say, ‘Now tell me. Why do you want these new windows?’” Beesley grins. “It’s sort of brilliant really, isn’t it?”

The first actor they saw for the role was Westwick, and Beesley says his audition “blew [him] away”. Did Westwick meet his father? “He would come down to set occasionally to have a look at everything,” he says, grinning. “He doesn’t really dress like he used to, but he’d get dressed up for it, and the car would all be polished, and he sort of waltzed around, and when he left, everyone would be like, ‘Was that the executive producer?’ And I’d be like, ‘No! That’s my dad!’”

As we’re having this conversation, Beesley’s phone buzzes. “That’s my dad calling now,” he tells me. I encourage him to answer, but he says with a rueful grin, “No, we better not…”

Windows are something of a recurring theme in Beesley’s life. He didn’t always work in television. After his mum suggested he wouldn’t be able to get a job, he stubbornly walked into the recruitment agency on Brook Street, and accepted the first thing they found him, spending three months working in a luggage shop in Piccadilly. After that, his step-dad helped him into trade publishing (another industry that features in White Gold), on titles like Building Products, Roofing, Cladding & Insulation and Window Trade News. Working his way up from editorial assistant, Beelsey found himself in his early twenties, editing Window Trade News and Glass and Glazing Products.

He had been the editor for a year when, standing in his mum’s kitchen, he ended up arguing over her windows: “She was moaning about [them], saying she needed a new sash window.” Beesley patiently explained that the window in question was not a sash window. His mother insisted it was. Unable to agree, Beesley went into work on Monday and looked up the precise definition of a sash window in order to prove her wrong. But when he did, he discovered his mother was right. It was, indeed, a sash window. “I literally had a little breakdown. I was like, ‘What am I doing with my life? I don’t care about this, do I?’ So I left.”

One £800 two-week TV journalism training course later, Beesley bagged jobs on The Big Breakfast (the Zig and Zag desk, to be precise), and The 11 O’ Clock Show, where he met Inbetweeners co-creator Iain Morris, and Ricky Gervais, who would later name two Extras characters after the future writing duo. (“My step-dad’s mum called up the next day and said ‘Oh, I saw Damon on the TV last night!’ They were like ‘...That wasn’t him, mum.’”)

Beesley has had a level of success in television that most people only dream of, with The Inbetweeners running for three internationally-acclaimed seasons and two enormous movies. I ask why he’s still so drawn to embarrassments and failures in his work when, from an outside perspective, he’s doing quite well. “On an absolutely routine basis I am constantly having these small failures,” he insists. “You can’t escape who you are, can you?”

Despite his previous collaborative success White Gold marks his first solo comedy writing project, and his first time directing his own show. He describes the transition from creative partnership to mostly working alone as “very difficult”. “It’s much more fun writing with Iain,” he says. “I think the scripts I write with Iain are funnier, to be honest, because there’s two of you, and I think he’s one of the funniest men I’ve ever met.

“When you’re doing it on your own it’s... all writing, I think, is quite difficult and quite an insular experience, but writing comedy can be soul-destroying because you’re like ‘... Is that funny?’”

Is he keen to revisit such an uncomfortable writing experience? There is one idea for White Gold he keeps coming back to. As his father outgrew his double glazing career, he moved to the south coast of Spain, in Beelsey’s words, “where the great salespeople all emigrated” to sell timeshare. There, “the world was even bigger, with higher stakes, even more amoral and illegal behaviour, greater rewards and more hedonism.”

“And it was all set in the sun.”

White Gold will air on BBC Two at 10pm on 24 May. The full series will be available on BBC iPlayer.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

Photo: Barry Lewis / Alamy
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Special Brew with George

My time in the gutter taught me how much the homeless deserve our compassion.

George begs beneath the NatWest cashpoint across the road from Stockwell Tube station. Sometimes you’ll see other people begging there, but mostly this is George’s pitch. He’s a wizened man with the weathered-walnut complexion of the long-term street sleeper and addict-alcoholic. George is small and very thin and has hardly any teeth; I rather like him.

His backstory will be familiar to anyone who has ever taken an interest in the homeless: his father a drug addict who died young; his mother an alcoholic who couldn’t cope. George and his sister were in and out of care throughout their early childhood and then vanished into the system.

I haven’t been able to get from George a straight account of the events that precipitated him into a gutter near me, but that is not surprising: alcoholics are usually pretty resentful people, and because they are so ill-used by their malady it is difficult for them to distinguish between the world’s bemerding and the shit they’ve got themselves into. George speaks of a young daughter’s untimely death and an estranged wife. Once he had both a home of his own and a decent trade – plastering – but now he gets plastered to forget about everything he’s lost.

I first began chatting to George in the autumn – chatting to him and giving him a pound or two. He’s good at begging, George: he keeps eye contact and speaks politely while maintaining an unthreatening demeanour. But anyway, I give money to homeless beggars: that’s my thing. I never ended up on the street myself, but 20 years of drug addiction will lead you down some crooked and filthy alleyways of human experience. I’ve begged for money in the street and got high with the homeless enough times not to shy away instinctively from their lowly estate. From time to time I’ll join them on their cardboard palliasses and take a swig of Special Brew.

Thomas Hobbes averred that charity exists solely in order to relieve the rich man of the burden of his conscience, but I’ve no wish to be so eased: I welcome the burden of my conscience, because it keeps my eyes down on the ground, where they are more likely to spot the Georges of this world, who are as deserving of our compassion as anyone.

I don’t consider giving money to homeless beggars to be an act of charity. I view it more as a redistribution of the tokens required for food, shelter and the warming overcoat of intoxication. I also prefer to give my money directly to people who need it, rather than having this act gussied up as something “fun” for me, or as a means of providing wealthy young people with ­careers in the charitable sector that give them a good conscience. Hence George and his predecessors – because usually, at any given time, I have a redistributive relationship with someone of his ilk.

The Big Issue vendors now wear fluorescent tabards that proclaim “A hand-up not a handout”, and of course I appreciate that many concerned people are working flat out trying to get the homeless off the streets and socially reintegrated; but as the years have passed, and all sorts of welfare provision have been pruned and cut and pruned some more, so the position of the Georges of this world – slumped beneath the vomitous cashpoints like so many personifications of the rising Gini coefficient – has come to seem altogether intractable.

***

As the winter nights drew in, I got to know George better, and as a consequence began giving him more money. After all, it may be easy to leave nameless hordes lying in the streets on frigid nights, but not people you actually know. If he was too obviously on the lash I’d proffer only a fiver or a tenner. Not because I’m judgemental, though – far from it. In my view, it’s perfectly reasonable to spend a tenner on booze or a bag of smack if you’re on the streets; it’s just that if George is bingeing he starts spinning yarns to hook in more drug money, and nobody likes being taken for a mug. However, if he was staying sober and going to AA meetings I’d dob George £15 for a night in a backpackers’ hostel.

Like many of the homeless, George avoids the free hostels, which can be veritable cesspits of abuse; he thinks he’s better off sleeping out, which may be true some of the time, but not in the cold and wet, because people die out there, they really do. The outreach workers do the rounds of our cities’ parks and wastelands every morning in the winter, shaking the figures bundled up in sleeping bags to check they’re still breathing.

At my instigation George got back in touch with the local authority’s services, because, along with the Big Issue’s hand-up, the only way for a street-sleeping alcoholic to clamber out of the gutter is for him to re-enter the system.

I live only three hundred yards from George’s pitch, and his bash (the rough sleepers’ term for an improvised shelter)is equidistant. On one faintly delirious occasion in December I was standing on the first-floor walkway of the former council block my flat’s in, talking to my Labour councillor about an unrelated local matter, when George crawled out from a concrete cranny off the courtyard below, where he had evidently spent the night. I observed to Councillor Bigham that we really should be doing more for the likes of George, and he agreed.

However, to me, George’s situation had begun to seem not so much a failure in social provision as a cosmic solecism. Since the resurgence of so-called Victorian values under the Thatcher regime, it’s become de rigueur to regard poverty as epithetic rather than environmental. The undeserving poor, it seems, are now all around us, victims of little besides their own bad character. But my feeling is that once a man or a woman is caught in the Kafka-like trap of homelessness, all bets are off: without a house you can’t get a job; without a job you certainly can’t get a house, and actually, it’s pretty bloody hard to get one even if you do have a job; of which more later.

A few days before Christmas George had a fit as a result of alcohol withdrawal and ended up in the nearby St Thomas’ Hospital for three nights. As soon as he was well enough to walk, he was pointed in the direction of the door. Then came some encouraging news: the local authority’s rough sleepers’ team had managed to secure George an inpatient detox. He’d have to wait a few weeks, but this time, after patching him up, they would also secure him some form of temporary accommodation, and then he’d have at least a hand on the ladder back into ordinary society. An ordinary society in which the bailiffs were already waiting for George with a view to collecting £4,000 in unpaid debts – because nowadays, no matter how stony broke someone is, the presumption remains that there’s blood to be squeezed from them.

On the day he went into the rehab facility I breathed a sigh of relief – but that evening I spotted the bowed and Buddhistic figure back under the cashpoint. Within hours of being admitted, George had got into a scrap with another client and been discharged, with the rider that he was not to be admitted to any London detox facility.

The good news is that today George does have another place secured at a facility; but now he’ll be heading to the West Country for a full three months of rehab – if, that is, he can hold out for another three weeks on the streets of Lambeth. This week, with my assistance, he’s gone to visit his sister in Liverpool – another child of the oxymoronic “care system” who, unsurprisingly, seems to have all the same issues as George, with this exception: she is at least housed. Why? Because she has a child, although, if George’s account is to be believed, she has some difficulties in looking after him. I get the impression that drink is often taken.

***

What does the sorry – and, some might say, drab – tale of George tell us? That the housing crisis in Britain is intractable seems a given, so long as planning policy is rigged, in effect, in favour of unscrupulous developers and the bourgeois buy-to-let bandits. The rising tide of neoliberalism in the past quarter-century (which I can’t help visualising as a vomitous tsunami coursing along London’s gutters) has had this psychic sequel: individuals no longer connect their dream of home ownership with anyone else’s.

We Britons are once-and-future Mr Wemmicks, firing our toy guns from our suburban battlements at anyone who dares to do anything in our backyards aimed at improving the commonwealth. Dickens wasn’t just the creator of the nimby avant la lettre; he also understood George’s predicament. In his celebrated long essay Night Walks, he describes a condition he terms “the Dry Rot in men”: a progressive deterioration in capabilities that leads inexorably to “houselessness” or the debtors’ prison. These are the Victorian values that contemporary Britain still vigorously upholds; yet it need not have been this way.

Reading The Autonomous City: a History of Urban Squatting, a new book by Alexander Vasudevan, put me back in touch with my youth during the 1970s and early 1980s, when to go equipped with a crowbar and a screwdriver in order to “open” a squat was regarded as the righteous contemporary equivalent of the Paris Commune or Mao’s Long March. The role of squatting in uniting those intent on pursuing what were then deemed “alternative lifestyles” (being gay, non-white or – gasp! – a feminist) with established working-class agitations for improved housing conditions was due for appraisal; Vasudevan observes that remarkably little has been published on the subject, but he makes good the deficiency with his carefully researched and discursive study.

Squatting has a long history – you could go back as far as Gerrard Winstanley and his 17th-century Diggers – but it is worth remembering that in the London of the mid-1970s there were at least 50,000 squatters and probably a great deal more. The squats could be terrifying and anarchic places; I remember them well. But they were also often havens for women and children fleeing domestic abuse and places where people afflicted with the Dickensian ‘‘Dry Rot’’ could at least find shelter. Moreover, as Vasudevan amply demonstrates, the squats were cynosures for experiments in autonomous living: hence the book’s title.

Squatting provided a buffer zone between the realm of commoditised place and space and utter houselessness, but over the past forty years this has been progressively encroached on, as squatters either made their peace with local authorities and were offered tenancies of one kind or another, or faced, in effect, criminalisation. A series of punitive measures, beginning in the 1970s, culminated in a law being passed in 2012 that for the first time made it an offence to squat in a residential building in the UK.

In This Is London: Life and Death in the World City, published last year, Ben Judah painted a compelling picture of the human crumbs being brushed from the stony skirts of the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street: with nowhere to squat any longer and space at a premium as never before, London’s houseless are being driven on to the streets, while migrant workers from eastern Europe “hot-bed” in Zone 5 dosshouses. Meanwhile I sit typing this in my one-bedroom ex-council flat, which I rent for the princely sum of £1,350 per month.

On my return to London from university in 1982, I – a single man, no less – was offered a council flat. Granted, this was on the old Greater London Council “mobility scheme”, which aimed to match not particularly deserving tenants with substandard housing stock, but there it was: an actual flat in a 22-storey, system-built block in Cubitt Town on the Isle of Dogs. The rent, as far as I can recall, was about £40 a month.

Now George begs beneath the NatWest cashpoint opposite Stockwell Tube, while my Cubitt Town flat is long gone, demolished to make way for the burgeoning Canary Wharf development and the multi­national financial services companies it now houses. Space and place have become so comprehensively monetised in contemporary London that a begging pitch can acquire a rental value.

I have never asked George if he pays for his pitch; I do hope not, because shortly before heading off to Liverpool he told me he had been served with an antisocial behaviour order, banning him from going within 200 metres of the cashpoint. I couldn’t make it up – and I’ve been publishing fiction for nigh on thirty years. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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