Two magpies are fighting to the death outside Damon Beesley’s window. The violence is distracting him from the task in hand. “It’s just too much to ignore,” he tells Den of Geek, breaking off from an anecdote about the filming of new BBC football sitcom The First Team.
“Very Partridge that, by the way,” says his writing partner Iain Morris. “Super Partridge.”
Joining us on the call from LA, Morris doesn’t have to contend with magpies; he’s dealing with a more existential struggle. The idea for The First Team arrived in 2009. “A decade ago – oh God, I’m so old.” Back then, the pair were pondering their next move after the second season of The Inbetweeners, the E4 schoolboy comedy that grew into a massive hit and two successful movies.
Beesley and Morris had found a groove, they realised, “writing about male insecurity. That’s what drives a lot of the choices of the 16 to 18-year-old boys in The Inbetweeners.” Football felt like another arena to explore that, says Morris, whose chance encounter sitting next to a professional footballer on a long-haul flight planted the seed for the new show.
“We liked the insecurity not just of young people, but also of older players coming towards the end of their careers,” says Morris. “That’s the amazing thing about sport – at 35, you’re kind of lost. Whether you wanted to keep playing or not, you have to stop your career.”
That crisis is faced by captain Petey Brooks in The First Team. Played by Theo Barklem-Biggs, the character “rages against the dying of the light,” says Morris. Said rages find expression through frequent nudity and threats of violence towards his terrorised younger teammates.
Petey’s no mentor to the newly signed. One episode features a former teammate of his “bragging about their weird 90s hotel orgies to the younger players, and it just sounds horrific rather than lads-y banter or stories to be proud of,” says Beesley. “These elders are supposed to traditionally show you the way, but in our world, they’re not to be followed.”
“Petey’s coming apart at the seams,” Beesley continues. “He’s been a legend of the club and he’s being torn apart by the impending end of his career.” The character’s insecurity is down to the unstoppable progress of younger players rising through the ranks. “He sees everything as a threat to him. He’s very ‘toxic masculinity’ on the surface.”
“That was a new thing for us but it’s obvious now,” laughs Morris, noting an autobiographical parallel. “Writing about being a bit older and younger people coming in and replacing you? Wait a minute!”
Now in their mid-to-late forties, thanks to The Inbetweeners immortalising several of their toe-curling secondary school experiences on screen, Beesley and Morris will never really be able to shake off their teenage selves.
“We were not the coolest kids,” says Morris. “Well, obviously I was the coolest kid, Damon wasn’t,” he quips. “We weren’t the nerdiest kids either – Damon was the nerdiest kid – we were in that middle ground.” Hence the show’s title The Inbetweeners, inspired by the Cure song ‘In Between Days‘. Previous titles considered were Desperadoes, 1234, Legends and the unimprovable but tricky-to-market: Dickheads.
“It’s the same idea we’re looking for with these players, the idea of the middle ground, the people that are kind of in the public eye but more anonymous.” In The First Team, they’re Mattie, Benjy and Jack, a trio of newly signed footballers to a top-level team who rarely make the side, played by 20-somethings Jake Short, Shaquille Ali-Yebuah and Jack McMullen. “Three very nice young men,” Morris describes the actors, with a ring of proud aunt to his voice. The brilliant Chris Geere plays the team coach, with US star Will Arnett as the American chairman with no understanding of the game who calls fans ‘customers’.
The writer-directors have a different relationship with their cast this time around. “On The Inbetweeners, we were younger and had more time to muck around with the actors. I felt like these guys were my mates, my younger brothers. This time it felt a bit like being their dads,” says Morris. “They were having naughty little games behind our backs, which was fine by me but also… slightly killed me” he jokes. “There’s all sorts of stories [on set] that are alluded to and inside jokes that we just aren’t in, and it sort of breaks my heart, but I’m also glad because you can see they have a bond.”
Now both living with their wives and kids on different continents, the bond between these two is still clear. Morris affectionately addresses Beesley as ‘Beeswax’ throughout the call. When 1980s kids’ football TV show Jossy’s Giants comes up in conversation, both start singing the theme song on cue, Beesley gently correcting Morris on the lyrics [“Football’s just a brand of science?”, “Branch of science.”]
In press interviews, Jake Short has described the set of The First Team as a lot of fun, so long as the cast didn’t push the writer-directors’ buttons. “I think that’s very harsh,” laughs Morris. “One time. One time, we were very rushed in this location and I said ‘Can you just walk out please.’ It was a single wide shot, we couldn’t zoom out and they were corpsing so badly and I think I snapped at them once. Once in eight weeks is not so bad.”
Bonding, in-jokes and snapping under pressure are all topics for The First Team’s six episode series. Above all else, it’s a workplace comedy, says Morris. “What you’re looking for in workplace sitcoms really is pressure – external pressure, bosses and stuff. Even if you’re not a football fan, you get the idea of football clubs being competitive professional environments.”
“We didn’t want it to be about football really,” Morris goes on. “We thought about what we wanted to say that we thought was funny about men growing up, then it was a football environment second, rather than ‘let’s tackle football. What’s funny about football?’”
There have already been plenty of shows about teams, he continues. “We didn’t want to make it a scrappy underdogs ‘we’re going to get relegated’ thing. That’s why we made it a top-level club.”
Is it based on one club in particular? “We’re not telling you who they are, but if it’s a top level team then it’s about people within that workplace rather than ‘we’re going to win the cup!’”
There’s no point competing with the stature of real football, says Beesley. “They wring every ounce of drama out of it now. It’s endlessly reported on. Sports broadcasters are so sophisticated in how they approach the game, building narratives around clubs and players, it’s hard to compete with that on a purely dramatic level. We’ve got this neat trick of coming at it comedically. We want to explore the mundanity.”
Mundanity explains The First Team’s original title – Afternoons. That was based on the fact that for most of the year, professionally footballers train for an hour or two in the mornings and then are cut loose to drift through the rest of the day rudderless.
“When we wrote The Inbetweeners,” says Morris, “one of our guides on that was when we were 16 we had no money, so we wanted to do all these things like travel the world and have big parties and go to nightclubs, we just couldn’t afford it, so that closed down the world of The Inbetweeners immediately. In a similar way in this, you can do what you want except you can’t because you’re in the public eye.”
“You’ve only got to say the wrong thing on social media or do the wrong thing on the pitch and it can really snowball and all be over very quickly,” says Beesley. “We wanted to show that, why it’s a bit of a minefield.”
They emerged from their research period, which involved behind-the-scenes access to top clubs (in part courtesy of comedy producer and Liverpool F.C. Chairman Tom Werner), feeling broadly sympathetic towards footballers, they say. “Most young players are really diligently professional. They’re thrust into the spotlight.”
If they’d been in the same situation, so visibly in the public eye at that age, they both shudder to think of what would have happened – an odd reaction maybe for two people whose most cringeworthy youthful sexual encounters have already been watched, in fictionalised form, by millions.
“Time on your hands,” says Beesley, is what’s dangerous for young footballers, as a few recent tabloid lockdown stories have shown. Though both writers are missing live football under lockdown (Morris is a QPR fan, Beesley supports Arsenal) so many footballers being under-occupied in the current circumstances could prove a boon for potential series two inspiration.
“A little bit of time on their hands and they’ll create a whole new bank of stories for us,” says Beesley with a grin. “Fantastic.”
All episodes of The First Team are available to stream on BBC iPlayer now. Watch the trailer here.