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.