Imagine Simon from The Inbetweeners at the till in Bhs sometime in the 1990s, ringing up your sale and asking if you want a store card. With a Britpop tune running along in his head, torn between diffidence, disinterest and politeness, his sales patter would have run like this:
“Do you want one of our store cards? I mean you can only spend it in this shop, so I don’t know why you would, but... you know…”
“I was really, really terrible at selling,” says Joe Thomas, who played schoolboy Simon Cooper in the sixth form sitcom, and once worked part time in the now defunct high street store. We’re talking salesmanship because the actor who is best known for the E4 school years sitcom and Channel 4 comedy drama series Fresh Meat is starring in White Gold, the BBC2 comedy about double glazing salesmen in 1983 Essex. Its launch this week sees Thomas recalling the only time he ever tried his hand at sales.
“A salesman should be able to make himself believe it’s a good product, or at least motivate himself so successfully he gets the job done, but it was a product I didn’t believe in. Basically, I didn’t make any alterations to my personality before trying to sell it, so it was just me, Joe. I wasn’t very good at my job, but I don’t think I was responsible for the collapse of the business.” He laughs.
A six-part series, White Gold was written by The Inbetweeners co-creator Damon Beesley, and sees Thomas reunite with Rudge Park Comprehensive’s James Buckley, who played Jay as well as Gossip Girl’s Ed Westwick.
Thomas is one of a trio of salesmen riding the double glazing boom of the 1980s, sparked by Margaret Thatcher’s championing of home ownership and council tenants’ right to buy. Westwick plays Vincent Swan, attractive and ambitious, who will do anything to get a sale, while Buckley plays Fitzpatrick, not so attractive but also willing to do anything to get a sale, and Thomas is Lavender, a failed musician who will do anything to get a sale as long as it doesn’t contradict his moral code.
“Honest, decent, well-educated... qualities which in our line of business are as much use as an aerated condom” is what team leader Vincent has to says of Lavender, while Fitzpatrick is “a wheezy f***er with terrible BO who can charm the life savings out of anyone”. Himself he describes as “the kind of wanker who is a show off, an I’m-better-than-you-type-of-f**k-everything-twice kind of wanker”, although he prefers “ambitious”.
After missing out on the big time as a musician, Lavender’s life hasn’t gone how he wanted and although he thinks the job is a bit immoral, he needs it. An everyman character, he’s the moral compass of the show, the one with whom viewers will identify as his colleagues charm and con their way to a bonus.
“He’s basically a fairly normal guy, but within this office, he’s like the outlier. He’s also not very good at it. He shouldn’t be a double glazing salesman but hasn’t quite found the thing he should do instead. He’s in limbo,” says Thomas.
“He’s a humorous character but there’s a poignancy because he doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life. He needs someone to grab him and take him out of there, but no-one’s going to do that.
“You’ve got characters who are absolutely driven by their ego and use that to justify the things they want, do and say ‘I should have this because I want it’ whereas he thinks ‘there are things I’d really like and I’d like to be successful but not at any cost’. He’s the character in the back of a car as Vincent and Fitzpatrick belt it down a road, looking out the rear window saying, ‘I think we just ran someone over’.”
Being born in Chelmsford, Essex in 1983, the year the show is set, makes Thomas perfectly cast for the role. But while he shares some of Lavender’s schoolboy and student characteristics, there’s a lot more to him – he’s 33, apart from anything else, and more thoughtful and interesting to talk to than a diffident teenager or student.
The child of teachers and the eldest of four boys he left school to study history at Pembroke College, Cambridge where he joined the Footlights which took him into acting as a career.
Of his parents he says, “They’re quite critical really. If they don’t think I’ve done a good job they’ll say. But I hope they like this one because it’s an era they remember.”
And no, his parents don’t have double glazing. “They definitely won’t be getting it now,” he laughs.
“I’m from Essex but I’m a child of the 1990s so 1980s Essex was kind of in the rearview mirror. The 1980s were interesting because they saw the emergence of Essex man, which had become a trope by the time I was alive.”
Although Thomas shares Lavender’s pleasant nature and ready laugh, he’s a little more thoughtful than the roles he’s played. Being a history graduate, he researched for the part by reaching for Graham Stewart’s Bang! A History of Britain in the 1980s.
“I was struck by how long ago 1979 seemed; a different country with large nationalised industries. The centre ground of politics has moved so much that things that weren’t massively radical then, are now. For example the Labour Party manifesto of 1979, the party that had been in power, would be extremely radical now.
“There’s been a big cultural, political shift and the 1980s was the engine of that to a large extent. That’s borne out by this show, with the sense that things are happening really quickly, people are really getting on with it no matter what.
“I think it was a period where in the south east of England there was quite a bit of optimism, a sense that why shouldn’t your life be really good, you sort of deserved it and if you worked for it, you shouldn’t feel guilty about having it. Because Lavender says maybe you shouldn’t have literally everything you want no matter what the consequences, he’s seen as basically a communist by the others.
“Graham Stewart’s book was good with a lot of the politics, but after a while I thought, well, actually, the show is really more about the culture of that time, the music and television, so I started watching things like Miami Vice and listening to 1980s music, thinking what would these guys be watching and listening to? I thought 1980s music was uncool growing up, soulless synth, the kind of thing with a driving beat I imagined stockbrokers fist pumping to, fitting with the drugs of the time, a lot of cocaine. Whereas I was of the Britpop era, the 1990s where things were a lot more baggy and about being more inward looking. But the music turned out to be a much broader church than I’d thought, and there’s some really good music in the show.”
While Thomas was forged in the crucible of Thatcher’s 1980s Essex, he remembers very little of it himself, turning to his parents for experience.
“They were formed by the 1980s and remembered Thatcherism. I would say that broadly speaking [he giggles at this point] they were not fans of what happened. They probably felt Thatcherism was a bit destructive and tore up some of the fabric of society, taking away a lot without necessarily putting much back in its place. Essex was in a bit of a bubble in some ways as things were quite good there, but elsewhere in the country, Thatcherism caused quite a bit of suffering.
“Nowadays we’ve kept some of the cruelty of that era, without the hope. That prevailing belief that the future is going to be better than the present has gone and that means people batten down the hatches and there’s nothing for anybody else until we’ve taken care of ourselves. So we’ve kept the bad elements, without the general optimism and opportunity of social mobility. I think that’s worrying.”
Serious stuff, but Thomas delivers his opinions with pleasant good humour, throwing in a laugh every now and then. He’s someone who’s interested in the world and how it works, that’s why he studied history.
“I wanted to do something that would allow me to think and read and … all of this sounds so self-indulgent, given that education is so expensive now, such a privilege, but I thought yeah, that’ll be fun, I’ll read some stuff I like and meet some people and do well enough so I don’t get kicked out.
“I think I was a frustrated English student so I ended up in the political thought area, writing a dissertation on George Orwell, one of my favourite writers ever – I would say 1984 is potentially the most important book of the 20th century – and I was very much an acolyte. I also did some stuff on Hobbes and had an amazing lecturer, the historian Quentin Skinner.
“Some of the teaching at Cambridge blew your mind, changed the way you saw yourself and your behaviour. But I reacted to this amazing teaching with just total flip, undergraduate arrogance, an annoying undergraduate attitude: ‘aw, this is boring, I’d rather do… comedy!”
And so Thomas joined the Footlights, met Simon Bird (Will McKenzie in The Inbetweeners) and his writing partner Jonny Sweet. Together with Sweet and Bird, he later wrote Chickens, a First World War TV satire about conscientious objectors, which aired in 2011.
Back when they were students, they trod the well-worn thespian path to the Edinburgh Fringe with All’s Well That Ends Well, and later with Sweet and their The Jonny and Joe Show.
“Yes, damn Edinburgh! Because it was so beautiful and it made it impossible to be in a bad mood, which I wanted to be because I was so stressed – I hated the performing a lot of the time, and didn’t want to flyer. But it’s such an evocative place with the optics and lighting and architecture, that it cheered me up.”
Despite Thomas’s preference for acting over academia at the time, he values his university education as something that was an enriching experience, and says he wouldn’t mind doing it all over again.
“Oh god yeah, but I would work harder. I actually wouldn’t do comedy at all because I feel terribly guilty about squandering that amazing teaching,” he says.
He goes on to elucidate on this bombshell by explaining that he didn’t see himself going into comedy as a child.
“I thought I was very serious when I was at school and I think my inclinations are quite serious. But then I realised how much I liked laughing and how much I liked people who were funny.
Childhood comedy favourites included Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer on Shooting Stars and Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s The Office.
“The Office was probably my formative show. Something that feels incredibly recognisable, that somebody could watch and think, ‘oh my god, other people think like I do’, and feel like you’re in the company of the personality who’s behind it. I watch a lot of American comedy now, but I think that moment in adolescence when things are fixed means that for me it’s a bit of Shooting Stars surrealism giving away to naturalistic, emotion-led comedy.”
Sometimes Thomas gets to combine the history and comedy themes, as in Drunk Histories, an American series that airs on Comedy Central UK. It’s the bits you missed at school, as recounted and embellished by drunk comedians such as Johnny Vegas, Russell Kane, and Thomas, who plays Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of yes, the telephone, but also the metal detector.
“He invented a machine to try and save the life of American president Andrew Garfield, who had been shot and still had the bullet stuck in him. The metal detector worked, but Garfield died. So... I can’t work out what the moral is, but the president being shot got Alexander Graham Bell off his arse, so in that sense it was justified…”
Had Thomas forsaken acting for more serious study, academia’s gain would be comedy’s loss as Thomas and co gave us The Inbetweeners, with its school years japes, sexual longing and gaucheness. Aired on E4 from 2008-2010, it was created and written by Damon Beesley and Iain Morris and won a BAFTA and a British Comedy Award in 2010 and another in 2011, leading to two successful big screen versions in 2011 and 2014. The first The Inbetweeners movie overtook Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason in terms of the most successful opening weekend for a comedy in the UK, and the second was the highest grossing British film in 2011. However, the socially awkward spotty teen formula was lost in translation crossing the pond and the show’s success wasn’t repeated in the US, with the MTV version running for one season and going down like a pair of jeans your mum had run up on her sewing machine for the sixth form rave.
After The Inbetweeners, which Thomas says is unlikely to have another outing, there was Fresh Meat, in which he moved on from playing a schoolboy to playing Kingsley Owen, a geology and former drama student, coincidently also from Essex.
Set in a shared flat, the Channel 4 series that also starred Greg McHugh (Gary Tank Commander) and Jack Whitehall ran from 2011-16 and followed the lives of six students throughout their years at the fictional Manchester Medlock University. Likeable and left of centre, Owen is another regular guy character who manages to mess up.
“I think my comedy does go in the direction of social awkwardness but you also need transgression and profanity, characters with a twinkle in their eye. Rudeness and naughtiness are attractive qualities as well. At school the kids you laughed at were the naughty ones. So it’s important to keep comedy not just about embarrassment but about unashamed profanity and transgression too.”
Thomas is likeable, polite, slightly better spoken than his various onscreen characters but still Essex, and a bit like his onscreen schoolboy/student counterpart, a sort of reasonable, reasonably moral good guy. He’s even just got engaged to fellow Inbetweener Hannah Tointon, who played Simon’s love interest in the show. They’ve dated since 2010 and moved into a flat in central London together in 2012.
“Yes, we’re engaged. Things are in train. Watch this space… Yeah, OK,” he stops, sounding slightly sheepish.
Next up for Thomas is another film, that he can’t talk about, but he reveals it’s with “some of The Inbetweeners people, the production side”, and he hopes there will be more White Gold.
“I very much hope there will be another series. And that I’ll be in it. As long as I’ve done well enough in this one,” he laughs. “I’m not on a zero hours contract or anything, so… hopefully I’ll get a call…”
And he’d like to play a villain somewhere down the line.
“I would really like to play somebody evil; they’re the more interesting characters if I’m honest. But I have a bit of a problem where sometimes when I try to be serious I end up looking more silly. But I’d like to do somebody bad, someone really, really bad...”
I’m waiting for the evil laugh, but he spoils it with a very courteous, “Well, it’s been very nice to talk to you, thank you very much.”
Joe Thomas, not someone who’s ever likely to try and sell you double glazing. Well, not unless you really want him to.
White Gold, episode 1 is repeated tomorrow on BBC2 at 10pm, then continues on Wednesdays, BBC2, 10pm, repeated Sundays.
It is available on the BBC iPlayer. The DVD will be released on 3 July