"The idea of sales being a seduction has kind of gone out the window..." hmv.com talks to the cast and creator of White Gold
Damon Beesley and Iain Morris created one of the most beloved and improbably successful comedies to emerge from British shores in years with The Inbetweeners, the show that introduced us to the comic acting talents of Simon Bird, Joe Thomas, James Buckley and Blake Harrison. The series also spawned two feature films, the first of which broke box office records and became the highest-grossing British comedy in history.
So it was with more than a little excitement that we greeted the news that Beesley, Thomas and Buckley would be reuniting for a new comedy series. White Gold sees Gossip Girl's Ed Westwick join forces with Thomas and Buckley in a comedy set in 1983 and following the nefarious exploits of three Essex-based double-glazing salesmen, seizing the opportunities created by the home-improvement boom that emerged during the early 1980s as a result of Margaret Thatcher's right-to-buy scheme.
With the first series having completed its run on BBC Two, White Gold arrives in store on Monday and just as the series was about to air, we sat down with Damon, Joe, Ed and James to talk about their new show...
Why double-glazing salesmen? Where did the idea come from?
Damon Beesley: “Well, back in the 1980s my dad was a double-glazing salesman, he was working traditional manual jobs and then this opportunity came up selling windows, which was a new thing at the time. But he was more suited to that, he was charismatic, flamboyant, a big personality who was very quickly making lots of money in an industry that had very few rules and regulations. And I saw the change that happened in the town that I lived in, off the back of Thatcherism and the policy to buy your own council house there was this huge boom in home improvements. People like my dad and lots of other companies were making lots and lots of money, the rewards were high, so the sales techniques they employed became more and more questionable.”
“So as I got older and I thought about it more, I realised that it was actually a really good way to tell the story of the 1980s, of the move from socialism to individualism and the effect that had on communities. There was all this 'I'm in it for me' and ideas of social mobility and moving upwards, but actually for double-glazing salesmen that often meant that you were literally ripping off your neighbours and friends. I think that's quite a good metaphor for what we've been through, from the 1980s up until now, really.”
You must have had this idea knocking around for a while then, when did you actually start writing?
DB: “I actually started about two years ago, when I started to put together the idea for a pilot, then after I'd written the script for that the BBC said they'd like to do a series. And then I got scared, because I was doing it without Iain [Morris], the co-creator of Inbetweeners and my best friend, so it was terrifying. But Joe, who is a brilliant writer and one of the funniest people I've ever met, was writing scripts for us anyway, so I asked Joe if he would write one of the episodes and help me develop the series ideas with another writer called Chris Niel.”
James Buckley: “Damon first told me about the idea about 10 years ago, then having mentioned it ages ago he eventually got round to making it last year, which I think says a lot about his work ethic, to be honest.”
DB: “I'd been thinking about it for years, I just didn't know how to tell the story. I was kind of scared that it was all too much, like people might be put off by the relentless bad behaviour and naked ambition. I thought as a drama it would have been fine, and we talked about doing it as a drama, then as a movie, but I think seeing The Wolf of Wall Street was the moment where I realised 'ah, that's how to do it, you lean into it.' You don't have to say anything about it or make a commentary, you just present it and let people enjoy the ride.”
So Joe, did you come on board as a writer at first?
Joe Thomas: “No, the acting came first. Originally, Damon said he wanted to cast me in the pilot, then once the series had been commissioned he asked me to write an episode.”
DB: “But he was involved in the storyline and shaping the series too. I mean, I wrote four episodes and then Joe and Chris did one each, but we all sat in a room for about a month talking about the 80s.”
JT: “Yeah it was basically them teaching me about the 80s.”
DB: “It was like 80s university.”
JT: “I think I had maybe three actual memories of the 1980s, and they're all these really Freudian memories, so I was like 'I can't really write about that time I fell over, cut my knee and saw blood for the first time, 'cause that's not really specific to the 80s'. So I tried to sort of read around it, I read Bang! A History of the 1980s by Graham Stewart, but after a while I started to think that was more about a cultural experience. It was like 'yeah, ok, it's quite interesting to know what was in the Labour Party's manifesto in 1979, but that's probably not going to make it into the script'.”
How did the rest of you get involved? Did you all join in with the writing side as well?
JB: “I'm not trusted with those sort of responsibilities. Joe has been a writer for a long, long time now and he's had series commissioned and things like that, so he's someone that Damon knows he can trust with writing duties. I can't imagine me getting involved would help. I mean, it's Damon's vision really, he knows everything about these characters and about this world that he's writing about, and having somebody like Joe as well to help with writing the odd episode is a good idea I think, but there's not many other people I would blindly follow. I didn't even read the script when Damon said he wanted me to do it, I just said yes.”
Ed Westwick: “I got sent a script, read it, and got asked to audition. It was just different from anything I'd been reading at that time, which was one of the things that really interested me, and it was definitely a different move for me, being a comedy. So I went along and I auditioned, and they obviously liked it 'cause they gave me the job!”
“After that we had a bit more of a discussion about it so I understood a bit more about his vision for the character and the show, and I thought 'this is going to be good, let's do it.'”
But no writing for you either?
EW: “No, I'm just there to help bring it to life and these guys are gifted at what they do, so I leave that to them!”
Ed, you're the newcomer on the set in the way, because the others have already worked together a lot. Were you a fan of The Inbetweeners?
EW: “Obviously I'd seen the show, but I hadn't seen a lot of it because I was out in the States doing Gossip Girl when it came out, and I was out there for about six years, pretty much, so nine months of the year we'd be shooting and I was probably only back in England a couple of weeks out of the year. This was before proper streaming services or anything like that, but I was aware of it and I'd catch an episode every now and then when I was back. But I knew everyone loved it, and from what I saw it was funny as f**k, so when I saw their names associated with this project, I was like 'ok, obviously these guys are well-liked, they're successful and they know how to pull it off', so I was very intrigued by it and I'm very, very happy to be a part of it.”
JB: “I guess people might think that because so many of us from The Inbetweeners were involved - not just the cast but the crew, Damon still writing and all that – that Ed was like a newcomer to the group, almost like the new boy at school. It wasn't like that at all. Ed turned up and we were all shuffling about like nervous wrecks going 'I wonder if Ed likes us?' We were all trying to impress him, like he was the cool new kid who turns up and you're all going 'can we be mates?'
Can you tell us a little bit about the characters you play in the new show? Ed, your character Vincent is a sort of ringleader for this band of salesmen isn't he?
EW: “Yeah, Vincent Swan, he's absolutely the ringleader and the driving force behind it. When we first meet him he's getting sacked from an oil refinery, it's not the job he wants to do, it's just the means to an end to provide for his family. Then he has a chance run-in with an old school friend who introduces him to the world of double-glazing sales, and the fact that they're basically just taking everyone for a ride. Through that, you're kind of introduced to the climate of the time, I guess. You know, the Thatcher government introducing the right-to-buy scheme and everyone doing up their houses, so it sets up that climate for how a man like Vincent can take advantage of this new opportunity.
“As for Vincent as a person, he's just an animal. He's got the gift of the gab, will get involved in any kind of ducking and diving or shenanigans to try and make as much money as he can, and he doesn't mind screwing over anyone along the way. He always finds a way to bend it or repackage it in a way that makes you think 'oh, maybe he's not that bad'. But he's a complete git.”
JB: “Fitzpatrick is one of the salesmen, he's a bit of a weasel, he's untrustworthy, he lies and he's morally corrupt, which as it turns out are all the qualities that make a really good salesman. There's a rivalry between the salesmen, it's a bit of a pissing contest. Joe's character, Lavender, while he's still involved in that rivalry and does want to sell windows, also has a bit of a conscience and because he's a sort of half-decent human being, he doesn't sell a lot of stuff.”
So Lavender is kind of the foil to the others' largesse?
JT: “I think to a large extent he is. Lavender is the one who notices that there is a consequence to that behaviour. I think the others, Vincent in particular, are only looking in one direction. He does remind me of a guy in a car who's always driving forward, whereas Lavender is the one looking out the back window going 'er, I think we just ran someone over'.”
“There's this sort of political dynamic where sometimes left-wing politics almost makes you feel a bit guilty about yourself, and right-wing politics goes 'why shouldn't you have what you want?'. So I think Lavender is kind of in the middle there, but with the rest of them being very ego and appetite-led he comes across as a whining lefty, even though he's not really.”
DB: "It's interesting because that character, Lavender, you can tell he's not really a pure-breed salesman, he does have a view on politics and the affairs of the day, whereas in my experience the ones that are really great, like Vincent, he's apolitical, he's amoral, he doesn't care if Labour or the Tories are good for business, he doesn't give a shit if people are rich or poor, he's non-judgemental because he's got some sort of narcissistic personality disorder and he doesn't care as long as he can make a buck out of it."
“I even toyed with the idea that he was asexual at one point, because you do get the sense that he's trying to seduce everyone in a way, even the audience, which was the whole point of having him talk to the camera, it's like a seduction class. That idea of sales being a seduction has kind of gone out the window, it's very professional now and very much about the numbers. In those days it was more like having an entertainer knock on your door and there was something weirdly pleasing about it, like 'wow, I didn't really need those windows but that guy was a force of nature.”
The period detail in the show is great, how did you go about creating the look and feel of the 1980s for the show? James, you're sporting an impressive moustache in the series, is it real?
JB: “It's not real. I bottled it. I didn't shave for about three or four months beforehand, and then about a week before we started filming, I just went 'can we just get a fake moustache?' Because you spend about two or three months making a show like this, and then you have to keep having that conversation: 'What's with the moustache?', 'It's for a show', 'Oh, tell us more about it', 'Well, I can't actually tell you more about it because in the industry I work in I'll end up getting sued'. So I just wanted avoid all that, it was just laziness on my part, to be honest.”
JT: “I think some of the locations we used are relatively...er... unchanged. I'm trying to be diplomatic! I'm not having a go at them, but sometimes it felt like you didn't have to do that much to get that 80s atmosphere.”
DB: "To be fair, we had a fantastic art team and they did do a lot, especially in the showroom where they'd really got into my head and created all those terrible design choices, but then yeah we had some brilliant locations that we left relatively untouched. We filmed in Corringham and Stanford Le Hope and the main employers in those towns were oil refineries that have now been decommissioned, so almost everybody either worked for Shell or Mobil and there are these working men's clubs.
“I used to go to these places when I was a kid, they're still there and the bar looks exactly the same! So we were really lucky, it did feel like the 80s because they've been maintained, they're privately owned now but rather than ripping everything out they've just given it a lick of paint every few years. So we did have some great locations to use and I think it really does add to the atmosphere in the show. The feel of it is very important and even things like the housing stock don't look the same in London”
EW: “Once it was finished and I saw it, for me the music is a major thing too. There are these iconic tunes from 1983 blasting all the way through the series and again I think it's a credit to how Damon has put it all together."
Damon, did you always have Joe and James in mind for this show?
DB: “Yeah I think I did really. At the very start I didn't really think about anyone in terms of casting, I was just kind of building the story around Vincent, but then there are other characters in the showroom and pretty quickly I started thinking that it would be really helpful as I write this, to make it funny, if I have characters who I feel like I could write the jokes for already. So I had Vincent's voice in my head already, I had a very clear idea of that, but for the other characters it did help with that.”
“Also, it's a comedy and I wanted brilliant comic actors in it, and I've worked with some brilliant comic actors, so I just wanted to work with them again. I don't like this idea that you have to keep using other ones, I mean the whole point of brilliance is that there are not that many of them, that's what makes them brilliant, so I wanted to work with people I knew and liked working with. So Joe and James came into my thoughts quite early and I'm glad I made that choice, because when you watch the show there's something sort of comforting about watching them go at it.”
It seems inevitable that people will compare it to The Inbetweeners, were you conscious of that? Was it something you deliberately tried to get away from?
DB: “I'd be lying if I said that I didn't have a few stress dreams about it, but that's mainly because I'm doing it on my own this time, in the sense that it's my name on it and Iain hasn't been around because he was working in America, and yeah I'm really terrified of it coming out and people hating it. I think that's why I chose something that was more story-driven and industry-driven.”
“I've tried to make it look and feel different in terms of the visual delivery, the camera glides around a lot more, I'm wearing the Martin Scorsese influences on my sleeve a bit here. Not just visually, but I think there are a lot of parallels with things like Goodfellas or Wolf of Wall Street in that they're all kind of about an industry, there's a lot of ground to cover and it's the things like the camaraderie in those films that I wanted to get across. So yes, it's a bit terrifying, I've compared it to the difference between being a stand-up comedian who is just starting out and one that's been established for years playing to the same audience, you're going to get two very different responses.”
JB: “There's no getting away from that really, there are times when it does feel a little bit like Inbetweeners just because there are so many of us involved. Every day we seem to get asked if we're doing any more and it just isn't possible, unfortunately, because we're all slowly working our way towards death. That's the bones of it, that's what getting old means, so I'm hoping that this new show will give those people a bit of a fix. I'd call it the methadone Inbetweeners.”
“But it is definitely a bit more grown-up, there was less pressure to just be funny constantly, making sure there was something funny happening every 30 seconds. There's some very dramatic parts of this and it's much more story-driven, which I really, really like. It does feel like the Inbetweeners have grown up, but only ever so slightly, there's still a lot of disgusting, puerile jokes. So it should please everyone.”
EW: “You can't really start worrying about all that, there's things that I've worked on that I thought would've been a hit and that don't turn out to be hits, then there's others where you think no-one's going to see it and people really love it. So you don't know, all you can do is do your work. We had a great time doing it, I feel like the standard is really high and I really enjoyed doing it, so all you can do is hope that other people enjoy it as well.”
Are there any plans at this stage for a second series? Would you all be up for doing more if it happens?
JB: “Of course, yeah, absolutely. I never usually say that, because you need to say no so that people pay you more, that's how it works. No but I'd love to, it's filmed up the road from where I live, I get to see my kids in the evening and have dinner at home, stuff like that, so it's literally the dream job.”
EW: “I'd love to explore it more, I think we can go anywhere with it and Damon's been riffing on what he would do if he were given the opportunity to make a second series. But I think they're fun characters, it's a fun world and I certainly had a lot of fun doing it so I'd definitely be up for doing more. I've been very lucky to be in great company with these guys, they've got that bond, they've got a kind of shorthand from working together on The Inbetweeners, and they clearly knew how to pull it off. So hopefully we don't f**k it up with this one!”
White Gold is available in hmv stores from Monday (July 3rd), you can also find it in our online store here.