Jack’s mum, Peggy, is busy in his university accommodation, reproducing his bedroom at home as best she can. She got the idea from Paul O’Grady’s programme about rehoming animals from Battersea Dogs & Cats Home. This is Jack’s second attempt at student life and they are hoping he will manage to stay the course this time.
Jack Rooke’s new six-part comedy, Big Boys (Channel 4), based on his autobiographical stage shows, centres on – yes – a character called Jack (Derry Girls’ Dylan Llewellyn), who as a teenager is facing a devastating loss. “It’s shit,” says the narrator, voiced by Rooke, “when he’s 57 and it’s your dad and he’s the only one.” The opening minutes of the first episode are a collage of those surreal early days of bereavement. The odd thoughts, the lasagnes and platitudes offered by kind people who don’t quite know what to say, the comfort telly and the comfort eating. Jack and Peggy (Camille Coduri, whose tearfully caught breath at one point nearly undid me) see each other through. “We’d stuck together during dad’s illness like Phillip Schofield and Holly Willoughby. But, really, we were sad. Like Eamonn and Ruth.”
Then it is time for Jack to go to university. It coincides with the first anniversary of his dad’s death and, away from the props he had gathered around him, he becomes so depressed that he has to come home.
It is a setup that, in keeping with the careful, tender tone of the show, takes its time introducing shy, closeted Jack to viewers and filling in his grief-stricken but loving world. It is warm and funny, but with a melancholic undertow that fades in and out as the episode – and the series – goes on, but never disappears entirely.
Jack tries again at Brent University the following year. The meat of the series is about him – cowed, nervy and nerdy – establishing himself, coming out and making friends, particularly with Danny (Jon Pointing), a lairy lads’ lad who accepts Jack, but is keen to see him maximise the social and sexual opportunities offered by freshers’ week and beyond, as Danny himself intends to. Danny, at 25, is a mature student, and whether his delayed start has something to do with the antidepressants he is covertly taking is not clear.
The growing friendship between the two young men, in a genre and world when such things are seldom showcased or made part of the cultural narrative, is genuinely uplifting. “Beers?” says Danny, pleased, as his roommate comes in carrying cans. “No, ravioli,” says Jack. They move on. Danny assumes from Jack’s Eric Cantona poster that he is a football fan. “I only really know him as an actor,” says Jack, adding in with voiceover for the audience that Eric “gets his willy out in You and the Night. It’s very artistic”. They move on.
Other friends and characters accrue. Katy Wix gives a tremendous turn as effortfully fun-loving Jules, a thirtysomething student union rep for whom university was, is and will be for as long as she can cling on to it the best time of her life. Among the students proper there is hot girl Mad Debs (Rhiannon Clements), who burns bright but briefly. Corinne (Izuka Hoyle) is there to work, but may yet come to see that there is more to university than lectures, and that some of it may involve Danny. Rounding out the gang – or perhaps he is more like a mother duck leading a brood of misfit ducklings to water – is confident, worldly-wise Yemi (Olisa Odele), who is too cool for school, but not too cool to help the flailing freshers.
Although it is gentler and less frenetic, Big Boys’ combination of frankness, heart and wit – and the seriousness with which it treats young people and the problems they face – evokes the mighty Sex Education. At the same time, Rooke makes it entirely its own thing – and one that can pierce your heart when you least expect it (“Proud always, Dad,” his father signs off at the end of a letter than until then has been played for laughs). It still feels a rare and precious thing to be in the company of a show’s characters (especially young male characters) who get along, who are funny without endless snark, and who are intent on building each other up rather than tearing each other down. More power to their elbows, even if it will still largely be spent for masturbating. Some things don’t change.