Tab Interview: Simon Bird

By on

Simon Bird talks to HOLLY STEVENSON about The Inbetweeners, Footlights and life since Cambridge.

Simon Bird, aka Will from The Inbetweeners and former Footlights president, imparted many pearls of wisdom about university life, writing and the comedy business to me. However, he gave me one nugget before he even picked up the phone: never, ever use his mobile network.

After hearing the electronically dulcet tones of ‘this phone is currently unavailable; please try again later,’ several times, I finally got through. I asked Simon which exotic location he was residing in, wondering whether he was in the middle of a desert or up a mountain. ‘No,’ he replied, ‘I’m in the middle of London. Apparently an Orange phone can’t handle that.’ Under instruction not to move a nanometre, I proceeded to question one of the biggest enigmas on the young comedy scene.

It’s hardly surprising that Simon Bird is a bit of a mystery beyond his cringe-inducing, hide-behind-the-sofa-in-embarrassment role as Will McKenzie in The Inbetweeners. An alumnus of the prestigious Royal Grammar School, Surrey, and of Queens’ College, Cambridge, his educational background speaks more of silver spoons and secret meetings at the Pitt Club than Rudge Park Comprehensive. However, his reticence is more to do with humility than any attempt at ‘cool’.

When asked why he never talks about his time in Cambridge, he said: ‘I think there’s a feeling, especially in the comedy world, that people might think if you go on and on about being in the Footlights that you feel in some way entitled to succeed in comedy. So a lot of recent graduates of Cambridge, and Footlights in particular, go out of their way to avoid mentioning it, so they don’t come across as smug.

The Inbetweeners Season 1 Episode 4

‘I imagine keeping the Cambridge thing under wraps started happening around the year after Peter Cook left (around 1960!); people didn’t want to feel like they were using other people’s success as a passport to their own. It’s also something I learnt from the generation of comedians to come from Footlights before me; people like Mark Watson. I really respect them.’

He also debunked the idea that Footlights is an elitist society: ‘Footlights is not something you are really in or out of. When I did my first show, there was such a range of people: Shakespearean actors, people who had never even done comedy before; it was simply the five people the director thought had the best audition. It was like any other student society.’

And, like any other comedy society, there were the inevitable grotty gigs. When I questioned him about May Balls, his shudder of revulsion was evident. ‘May Balls were always the most horrible, excruciating experience,’ he sputtered.  ‘People pay a lot to go to May Balls and the last thing they want is to sit down and watch some drunken, mediocre comedy, which is often what it was.’

So, Cambridge doesn’t guarantee you a fast track to success on a wave of Pimms and punt poles. For Simon, it was a proving ground, where week after week he tested his material and his acting skills on discerning, intelligent audiences who are well known for having a sense of humour failure (well, anyone would with three hours of labs and a dissertation due in the next day). Simon said that Footlights was ‘a brilliant place to learn about comedy, just because they do the most shows of all the university societies. If you are under pressure to write and perform every two weeks you are going to get better and better.’

This ubiquitous society was also where Simon met Joe Thomas (aka Simon from The Inbetweeners). After creating the comedy sketch group The House of Windsor, which had a run at the Edinburgh Fringe, they auditioned for the new sitcom. Neither had performed on TV before. ‘We were just trying to learn our lines and hit our marks,’ Simon recalled.

In the Stevenson household, it is the only programme our entire family will sit down and watch. We recently introduced my 80 year old grandma to the first series. She laughed so much she nearly fell out of her chair.

However, I always felt that the one place in which The Inbetweeners lacked flair was when it came to the girls. Carli and Charlotte are both blonde, popular and seem to move through Sixth Form with a consummate ease, entirely lacking when I was bumbling through my A-Levels. And when Chloe (Jay’s girlfriend in the second series) said ‘I’m sorry Jay, I think this is going too fast’ when he lays a tentative hand on her chest, I felt like shouting ‘Oh pur-lease!’ at the TV. Girls in The Inbetweeners don’t seem to have insecurities, lusts or even personalities in the same way as the boys.

I asked Simon why this was: ‘I don’t really know. The show was written by two men, so naturally the girls are given less time because the show is about these four boys. The boys just see the girls; it almost doesn’t matter who the girl is; the aim is the same. I think they’re more interested in female body parts than female minds, and I think that’s the case for most 16 year old boys.

‘However, I think there’s definitely room for a female Inbetweeners; one that can be written from the mindset of teenage girls instead of teenage boys. I think that would be really interesting. There was talk a few years ago of a female Peep Show, which would have been brilliant.’

When asked whether he agreed with Germaine Greer’s comment that women aren’t as funny as men, Simon replied, ‘I don’t agree with that. I think it’s very difficult in the comedy industry. Because there are fewer female writers, there are less shows from a female perspective, which is a massive shame.’

The Inbetweeners movie that is in the pipeline, said to be set in Magaluf, is probably not going to redress this balance. However, it does mean that we will get to see this young, reluctant Cantabrigian showcase his comedy talents on the big screen in a way that will be very different from his school days. And, my gran will get a cinema trip…

  • emad

    why would you be told not to move a nanometre if he was the one with patchy signal?

    • mike

      no read it again….. Simon bird's under instruction not to move. Always nay saying

  • Homertonian

    Did Simon get a 3rd like everyone I know?

  • Cuthbert Pleurisy

    Heaven for dickheads

  • Gaz Herbert

    This has to be the worst article I have read ever. I looked at the headline and already began to hate you are your opinion. Who do you think you are, you’re not going to get on Geordie Shore so behave with your cheesedick attitude and dweebish ways.

  • Lily

    obviously you went to some pussyboy girls’ school if you didn’t have fights and wear your skirt just covering your vagina. this is a really annoying article.

  • FlyKiller

    “no boys to look good for” … Sigh.

    • ThePotatoLady

      Sigh, found the feminist.

  • BDA

    So you’re not posh but you have a pool?

    • SARC

      i not sure but i think she may be taking the piss ?

  • S

    Couldn’t disagree more with some of this. The girls at my school wore more make-up and shorter skirts than anyone at the co-ed schools nearby. And fights?? Yes they did happen, a lot. Maybe northern girls schools are very different to southern ones!

  • pseudopsyche

    What even is this article

  • girlsschoolgirl

    hahahahaha this is amazing. so so true!

  • Mindful Human

    For a University with a nationally-recognised student media community, articles like this are nothing short of an utter disgrace. We’re sorry ‘The Tab’ but writing such as this which sensationalises homosexuality with the aim of selling your own national corporate brand is not “giving the students what we want’. In fact, as an educated person, I find it repulsive. Is this a driven team of journalists or the dregs that couldn’t quite hack our union-ratified and multi-award winning media societies? This will probably be censored, har har.

    • stopthesillycomments

      slightly ironic seeing as this guy contacted the tab wanting to write for them ^^

      • mindful human

        Thank god you took so long to follow up my inquisitive email or else I would have ended up writing for you. ^^

  • GFYSPoshHoe

    If you are from the south and say Barrth and Grarrs then you most certainly are posh.

Heard something newsworthy?

By on

Vote Now: Cambridge’s Best Bums 2015

All bums are equal, but some are more equal than others. Help us choose which ones.

By and on

The mafia is opening its ranks

The Tab is giving out free CV points.

By on

BREAKING: Oxford captain RULED OUT for Varsity match happening in 11 DAYS

With very little time to go, Cambridge gets a massive boost

By , Contributing Editor on

All things considered, doing DofE Gold is quite weird

So many blisters

By on

London’s plubs are the best thing about UK nightlife right now

(It’s a pub and a club mixed together)

By , Contributing Editor on

We asked guys whether they prefer thongs or french knickers

The finer things in life

By , Chief Reporter on

Your gluten free diet is killing the wheat industry

Bread just makes me bloat

By , Chief Reporter on

How to get into a Boiler Room DJ set

There are a few options

By , Head of Marketing on

There’s just something about girls who DJ

They exude coolness