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The First Team creators Iain Morris and Damon Beesley: From secret football meetings to The Inbetweeners learnings - how they made it
Iain Morris and Damon Beesley, creators of new BBC football comedy The First Team, talk about the influence that the success of The Inbetweeners has had on their new series.
Hit Play above to watch the creators of The First Team discuss the making of the show
What do you get when you mix the laddish misbehaviour of The Inbetweeners with the behind-the-scenes secrets of football as seen in Sunderland ‘Til I Die?
Well, you get The First Team - the brand new soccer sitcom from the creators of The Inbetweeners. If you liked the coming-of-age E4 comedy, and you’re (usually) glued to the Premier League, you’ll want to add The First Team to your watchlist.
Inbetweeners writers Iain Morris and Damon Beesley have created the brand new six-part comedy series for BBC Two that follows the off-the-pitch misadventures of three young Premier League footballers.
From lifting the lid on the world of football by speaking to everyone involved in the game, to using their Inbetweeners experience to shape the show, Iain and Damon reveal exclusively to BT.com how they made The First Team…
1. Writing together for the first time since The Inbetweeners
Iain and Damon put The Inbetweeners' story to bed with the second Inbetweeners film in 2014. They haven't worked together since, but the idea for The First Team actually came about 10 years ago - while The Inbetweeners was very much still in its prime.
Football fanatic Iain was on a flight to LA to visit his then-girlfriend, now-wife, where he was seated next to a professional footballer. Some 11 hours, 20 beers and a "fascinating, free-flowing" conversation later, he realised there was a whole lot about the world of football he didn't know as a life-long QPR fan.
"I've played and watched football all my life, I had season tickets to QPR, I loved football, then talking to him I realised there was so much about that world that I didn’t know," he recalls.
"It was incredible. I didn’t know how little time they spent training each day. I thought ‘There’s a world here that we can talk about’."
He got Damon on board to write a football comedy, but the pair got sidetracked by a number of TV and film projects including White Gold, and The Festival, before they sat down and started writing The First Team (formerly called Afternoons).
The pair had to manage co-writing while living on separate continents (Iain lives in the US, Damon in the UK). Dividing their time between their Nashville and London homes, they slipped back into being co-writers easily.
Damon admits: "If you can call sitting in a room for hours and hours, getting stressed, writing notes on Post-its and eating chocolate biscuits easy, then we did!"
One tradition that they did revive for The First Team was to retire to the pub after a long day's writing.
"I’ll tell you what I don’t do when I’m not writing with Damon is drink pints," says Iain.
"For some reason, we revert back to how it was 20 odd years ago, where we clock off and go for actual pints in the pub. Maybe that’s what helps us write about younger men is that we relive our younger years at the same time!"
2. Learning lessons from the success of The Inbetweeners
Damon and Iain have worked on successful films and TV shows before The Inbetweeners and since, but the coming-of-age comedy is still their most successful work to date.
Naturally, trying to follow up any hit show comes with a certain amount of pressure, but for Iain and Damon that pressure often lies with trying to make something that’s as funny - or funnier - than The Inbetweeners.
Although it only ran for only three seasons from 2008 to 2010, the show retains a cult appeal. "Nobody likes anything [we do] as much as The Inbetweeners, but that’s a good thing," Damon admits.
One of their first follow-up projects to draw comparisons with The Inbetweeners was the 2018 film The Festival, which Iain directed and Damon produced.
That was perhaps inevitable, as it starred The Inbetweeners' Simon, Joe Thomas, as a hapless festival-goer and featured many members of the sitcom's crew.
Iain argues that their work should be judged on its own merit and not always against The Inbetweeners.
"The Observer were like ‘It’s better than The Inbetweeners’ but everyone else was like ‘It’s good, but it’s not as good as The Inbetweeners’. Well, don’t use that as a yardstick!”, he implores.
"Judge it on how funny you think it is, then we’ll put The Inbetweeners to one side. That’s what I would prefer to happen. The Inbetweeners did exist, and we did do that, but have a go at this on its own merit to begin with."
The First Team is indeed very different to The Inbetweeners - and the comparisons will no doubt be fewer than The Festival, which did feel very similar in tone and style.
But one notable similarity is the exploration of male insecurity, which has been adapted into a workplace - rather than a school - setting, and features insecure footballers who face their own unique challenges, rather than Will, Simon, Jay and Neil, who were "generally scared of everything".
Damon explains: "We have a similar situation which is men who are driven in the first instance by a love of football, but then that catapults them into a world in which they’re really not equipped to deal with challenges.
"[These] young men who enter the world of football are expected to have sage-like views on everything, a social media presence, not make any mistakes, and live in the public eye, which continues for their whole career."
The pair also approached male insecurity in the older players, who have different worries to younger footballers. They've written a character in The First Team called Petey - played by The Inbetweeners Movie star Theo Barklem-Biggs - who's nervous about what the future holds for him when these younger players enter the squad.
Iain says: “That’s the idea of Petey in the show, he’s like ‘What is the point of me, when I finish playing, when from the age of six I’ve been told the only point of me is to play football, and I’ve still got another 30 years of working life to go?’”
3. Delving into the world of football - from ruthless PR experts to former players
The pair got stuck into the world of football to research the show, and reasised that as lifelong football fans there was still a lot they didn’t know.
They soaked up as much information as they could in order to make the fictional football world they were creating feel believable.
"We did an enormous amount of research actually, and spoke to everyone you could think of from the world of football - from kit men, current professional Premier League players, and ex-players, to managers, chairmen, the head of press at the clubs, to ex-doctors that worked with players," says Iain.
Iain and Damon were spoken to in confidence, so we'll never know who exactly lifted the lid on the behind-the-scenes secrets - but expect a lot of the storylines in The First Team to be rooted in some element of truth.
For example, in the first episode there's a scene where Mattie (played by Jake Short) has an introductory meeting with the team's PR expert Olivia (Inbetweeners star Tamla Kari). Olivia is totally ruthless, telling Mattie she'll look after him at all costs - but she will stab him in the back if she needs to, because ultimately her loyalties lie with the club.
This conversation was based on something an actual PR expert shared with Damon and Iain in the research process. "Somebody from the world of football who operates in a very similar role said that that’s the reality of the situation, that’s the job," Damon recalls.
“[They say] ‘I am here to do everything for you and to make sure that nothing goes wrong, but one day you have to understand that if we want to sell you, we might have to put a story in a newspaper saying you’ve refused a new contract’.
"We were like ‘Oh right OK, but you don’t tell them that when you first meet them though surely?’ and the answer was that they did do that!”
Someone who is named as a consultant on the show is footballer-turned-media commentator Matt Lawrence. The 45-year-old former Millwall player is part of an older generation of footballers and brings an interesting perspective to things.
“He still works in football, so [he talked about] how things have changed, and how the professionalism of the players is more pronounced now - partly because of social media and you can’t get away with as much,” Iain says.
“But also because the money in it has made them realise if they lock themselves down, and concentrate, they’re set up for life."
Another person who came on board to help was Tom Werner, who as well as being a TV producer on some of the biggest US comedies - including Roseanne, That '70s Show and 3rd Rock from the Sun - knows a thing or two about sport as chairman of Liverpool FC.
He'd worked with Iain a few years ago, so the pair approached him to ask if he'd like to come on board. Damon recalls: "He thought the idea about a comedy about football was long overdue. He’d seen our work before and enjoyed The Inbetweeners, so he was just really keen to get on board, let’s be honest, for fun, for pleasure. It’s been a dream."
4. Casting the show and those Inbetweeners cameos
Damon and Iain were both hugely involved with the casting of The First Team right from the start. Working with a casting director, the pair cast the net far and wide to find their leading and supporting actors.
Iain says: "Both Damon and I sort of love and hate casting. We’re in all the [casting] sessions and we like to sit and watch and chat to the actors and get to know them a bit."
The pair admit they find it 'heartbreaking' making a casting decision, and often ask their shortlist of actors back for a recall audition, when they can't decide who to give the part to.
This happened with their leading actors - Shaquille Ali-Yebuah (who plays Benji) was recalled 'five or six' times, and Jake Short (who plays Mattie) was recalled 'two or three' times.
Then there's Emmy-nominated actor Will Arnett, who was cast as the football team's American chairman, Mark Crane. He was a fan of Damon's previous work, so was keen to work with them both on The First Team.
Inbetweeners fans will spot some familiar faces in the show. Theo Barklem-Biggs appears at hard-man Petey - he previously appeared in The Inbetweeners Movie as Richard, who the gang bumped into in Malia. Tamla Kari plays the team's PR expert Olivia Talbot - she played Lucy, the love interest of Simon (Joe Thomas) in The Inbetweeners films.
Asked whether he was tempted to bring more of the original Inbetweeners cast on board, Damon confesses: "Well we have an internal rule which is you’re only allowed to have two actors from The Inbetweeners shows or films, so once we got Tamla and Theo…!"
Speaking about Theo’s casting as Petey, Damon says: "Theo's a fantastic actor, very funny, and incredibly ripped as it turns out. I just don’t think any of the other Inbetweeners would have been able to pull off a modern-day elite sportsperson. Maybe Joe Thomas, he’s still holding it together!"
Damon and Iain hadn't had a chance to work with Tamla since the second Inbetweeners film, so they were excited to work with her again. They think her performance in The First Team is one of the show’s best.
"She’s brilliant as Olivia. She’s almost my favourite character," says Damon.
"I’m excited to see how that goes with audiences. I think they’re really going to enjoy that character, that there’s somebody at a football club who has to deal with these imprisoned adolescents who just need everything done for them.”
5. Filming in football stadiums - and catching up with Raheem Sterling
You can't make a TV show about Premier League football without getting to film in a few football stadiums and training grounds. And while the pair weren't allowed to name the locations they visited, it sounds like they went on a tour of Premier League football stadiums across the UK.
As lifelong footie fans, they found the research quite surreal. "When we went to the first one, Damon said ‘God they’re like cathedrals’," Iain recalls.
"They’re almost more impressive when they’re empty. They’re amazing, beautiful places."
He continues: "Every day I had a mixture of ‘what have we got to do today?’ and then a moment of ‘Wow, this is the actual Premier League dressing room of an actual Premier League club’ or ‘This is the actual training complex where this Premier League player will be playing in a week's time’. It’s a dream-come-true job really."
They actually ended up getting a lot closer to Premier League footballers than just filming at the grounds, by meeting one of the country's biggest and best footballers during filming. And it all started with a story that they assumed one of the actors completely made up during their audition.
Damon recalls: "Shaq [who plays Benji] said during his audition ‘I hope you don’t mind, I’ve shown some of these [script] pages to a friend of mine who’s a footballer, and he really loved it’. So we were like ‘Go on then, who’s the footballer?’ and he said ‘Oh, it’s Raheem Sterling’.
"We were like ‘He’s not a footballer - he’s like the most famous footballer in the country!’"
They took Shaq's declaration with a pinch of salt, assuming he was trying to impress them. But during filming, Shaq kept saying that Raheem would pop by. As it happened, they ended up meeting the Manchester City and England striker by the back entrance of a CostCo in Chester.
"It was at the end of the day, we were just packing up, discussing what we’re going to do for the next day and one of the assistant directors said ‘Shaq would like you to come out the back and meet Raheem’," Damon explains.
"I remember at the time thinking ‘Now’s really not the time for pranks because we’re trying to get stuff sorted’ so I just said ‘Tell Shaq we’ll be out there when the grown-ups have finished’.
"And then five minutes later after we left, just around the corner who’d been waiting very patiently, were Raheem Sterling and Shaq. We were like ‘Oh my God, we’re so sorry, we didn’t mean to keep you waiting!’"
Totally starstruck, the pair chatted with the ‘incredibly charming’ footballer. Iain said some 'incredibly embarrassing things' about QPR, before they said their goodbyes. Not a usual day at the office.
Although Iain quips: "It was a funny place to meet him really, literally round the back of the goods entrance of CostCo in Chester. It does sound a bit dodgy!"
The whole episode demonstrated for Damon and Iain what they're trying to tap into in the show - that footballers have a lot of free time on their hands, and not a lot of options of what to do with it.
Damon concludes: "They can’t do much with their free time that would draw the attention of the press, and they can’t damage themselves, so they can’t play football.
"I wouldn’t drive from Manchester to Chester on a Sunday night just to stand out the back of a freezing cold CostCo just to say hello to one of my friends who I haven’t seen for a week, there’s no chance.
"But it was a brilliant demonstration of what we were trying to tap into."
The First Team premieres Thursday, May 28 on BBC Two.
Catch up on every episode with the BBC iPlayer app on BT TV.