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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.

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Bertie Carvel's diary: What would the French think about infidelity to Doctor Foster?

The joy of debuting a new series, Rupert Murdoch's squeamishness and a sting in the tail.

According to the adage, the first thing an actor does when he gets a job is to go on holiday. And so, having finished our sold-out run of James Graham’s Ink at the Almeida and with the show (in which I play a young Rupert Murdoch) about to transfer into the West End, I’m packing my bags.

But before I can skip town, I’ve one more professional engagement: the press launch of series two of the BBC drama Doctor Foster, which we finished filming at Christmas. I’ve now seen the final cut of all five episodes, and I’m excited to share it with an audience. There’s no substitute for seeing other people’s reactions at first hand, especially with a show that got people talking so much first time around, and it’s electric to sit in a cinema full of expectant journalists and commentators and feel the room respond. Nothing beats this: to put so much into making a thing and then experience an audience’s unmediated, reflexive reaction. When it goes well, you feel that you’ve shared something, that you’ve all recognised something together about how things are. It’s a unifying feeling. A sort of bond.

Cheating spouses

Handling the interviews has been tricky, when there’s so little one can say without giving the plot away. (The first series began with Suranne Jones’s character Gemma, a GP, suspecting her husband Simon of having an affair.) What’s more, lots of the questions invite moral judgements that I’ve tried my best to avoid; I always think it’s really important not to judge the characters I play from outside, but simply to work out how they feel about themselves, to zero in on their point of view. There’s a sort of moral bloodlust around this show: it’s extraordinary. People seem to want to hear that I’ve been pilloried in the street, or expect me to put distance between myself and my character, to hang him out to dry as a pariah.

While I’m not in the business of defending Simon Foster any more than I’m in the business of attacking him, I am intrigued by this queer mixture of sensationalism and prurience that seems to surface again and again.

Shock horror

Oddly enough, it’s something that comes up in Ink: many people have been surprised to find that, in a story about the re-launch of the Sun newspaper in 1969 as a buccaneering tabloid, it’s the proprietor who considers dropping anchor when the spirit of free enterprise threatens to set his moral compass spinning.

I’ve never given it much thought before, but I suppose that sensationalism relies on a fairly rigid worldview for its oxygen – the SHOCKERS! that scream at us in tabloid headlines are deviations from a conventional idea of the norm. But what’s behind the appetite for this sort of story? Do we tell tales of transgression to reinforce our collective boundaries or to challenge them?

For me there’s a close kinship between good journalism and good drama. I’m reminded of the words of John Galsworthy, who wrote Strife, the play I directed last summer, and who felt that the writer should aim “to set before the public no cut-and-dried codes, but the phenomena of life and character, selected and combined, but not distorted, by the dramatist’s outlook, set down without fear, favour, or prejudice, leaving the public to draw such poor moral as nature may afford”.

So when it comes to promoting the thing we’ve made, I’m faced with a real conundrum: on the one hand I want it to reach a wide audience, and I’m flattered that there’s an appetite to hear about my contribution to the process of making it; but on the other hand I think the really interesting thing about the work is contained in the work itself. I’m always struck, in art galleries, by how much more time people spend reading the notes next to the paintings than looking at the paintings themselves. I’m sure that’s the wrong way around.

Insouciant remake

En route to the airport the next morning I read that Doctor Foster is to be adapted into a new French version. It’s a cliché verging on racism, but I can’t help wondering whether the French will have a different attitude to a story about marital infidelity, and whether the tone of the press coverage will differ. I wonder, too, whether, in the home of Roland Barthes, there is as much space given to artists to talk about what they’ve made – in his 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author”, Barthes wrote that “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”.

No stone unturned

Touring the villages of Gigondas, Sablet and Séguret later that evening, I’m struck by the provision of espaces culturels in seemingly every commune, however small. The French certainly give space to the work itself. But I also notice a sign warning of a chat lunatique, so decide to beat a hasty retreat. Arriving at the house where I’m staying, I’ve been told that the key will be under a flowerpot. Lifting each tub in turn, and finally a large flat stone by the door, I find a small scorpion, but no key. I’m writing this at a table less than a yard away so let’s hope there won’t be a sting in this tale.

Ink opens at the Duke of York Theatre, London, on 9 September. More details: almeida.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear