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Interview with James Buckley

The Inbetweeners - James Buckley

We in the Regtransfers editorial office like to think that we have a finger firmly on the cultural pulse of the nation, that our little group is a valid and representative sample of the population. If that is, indeed, the case then the British viewing public, like our office, is split in two by the award-winning E4 sitcom The Inbetweeners. There is a faction that finds the show hilarious; there is a slightly smaller faction that considers it crass and idiotic. Interestingly, the latter faction appears to be made up of people who have formed their opinion without actually having watched the show.

For those of you who find themselves in the second group – the group that has never viewed The Inbetweeners – perhaps a summary might be helpful. The sitcom features four young men, comprehensive school pupils. The comedy derives from their general misadventures and their tragic lack of romantic and sexual fulfillment. The necessary dramatic conflict and tension are supplied by teachers, bullies and hormones. Your humble scribe should, in the interests of full disclosure, confess that he had never seen an episode of The Inbetweeners before researching this article. He had prejudged it, as outlined above, to be crass and idiotic. Having watched it, he was forced to revise his opinion and, grudgingly, to add “funny” to that list of adjectives.

The show ran for three seasons and, by the time it ended, The Inbetweeners was consistently attracting more than 3.5 million viewers, making it the most watched show on E4. It also generated two successful spin-off movies, The Inbetweeners Movie and The Inbetweeners 2.

One of the stars of the series and the movies is James Buckley who played Jay Cartwright. Jay was possibly the crudest and least respectable of the four main characters and no doubt that is largely why he was so popular with viewers. Regtransfers caught up with James at the premises of Yiannimize, a company specialising in vehicle wrapping, customisation and conversion. Since Yianni Charalambous and his team carried out extensive work on James’s car (of which more later), the Enfield HQ has exerted something of a hypnotic influence on Buckley.

“I love coming here,” he says. “I’m going to find an excuse to keep coming back. In fact, I’m probably going to break my car on purpose just for an excuse to come back. Every time you come here there’s something exciting happening, there’s a cool car or something. If you like cars I’d suggest just coming here to have a little nose around. He will suck you in, tell you all the stuff he can do – which is literally anything. If you want anything done to a car then Yianni will do it. It makes you go, ‘Yeah, I want that!’. That’s how it works.”

Generous praise for the abilities of those around him seems to be a James Buckley trait. When we get on to the subject of The Inbetweeners, the show that brought him significant fame, his respect for those who worked on the show is evident.

“Most of the writing is down to the two guys Iain Morris and Damon Beesley, who are both sort of geniuses. They know comedy inside and out and between them, they’ve worked pretty much every job in comedy. They both had cushy jobs at Channel 4: Iain Morris was one of the youngest comedy commissioners ever and he had that job at the age of about 28 or something, which was amazing. They both quit their jobs and started a production company at a time when the economy was melting down and no one was starting companies. They really took a chance and I think it’s very commendable that they did that, that they had the guts to do it because they believed in something.

“They’d worked on shows before. Iain started out as a runner for Baddiel and Skinner on their Fantasy Football League TV show back in the 1990s. Then they worked on the 11 O’Clock Show and worked with Ricky Gervais on a show called Meet Ricky Gervais before he did The Office. So they sort of worked their way up from making cups of tea to doing just about every job in TV comedy. They were from a really good pedigree, knew exactly what they needed to do to make a good comedy and just went for it.”

The show created by Beesley and Morris turned out to be the perfect vehicle to take James’s own career to the next level.

“I started in West End shows, in musicals and things, which was fun. It was a hobby really, just something I enjoyed doing. I never, ever thought that it would become a career but for some reason, I was just lucky to be involved in something or other from the age of 11. My school were very good about it. I think they could tell that I would probably benefit more from going on film sets and doing that rather than being in a maths class. That was amazing really. You probably wouldn’t get away with it nowadays but I did have to have quite a lot of time off from school.

“Once I left school I just carried on doing it. I thought, Why not? Why can’t I just do this for a living? People do, don’t they? There are professional actors. Then I started to move more into comedy: I did a sitcom with Johnny Vaughan; I did the last series of a comedy-drama called Teachers on Channel 4 and then I auditioned for The Inbetweeners, which obviously was the one that really took off. That was great. If The Inbetweeners hadn’t come along I’d still be auditioning and trying to find a break.

“I was 19 when it first came out and I was in the pilot as well, which was the year before that so I was 18. It’s been about nine years of my life.”

“Obviously we’ve been on this little journey together. We were all just pretty much starting out in one way or another when we first did The Inbetweeners. I think when you go through something like that together I think you’ll always be pretty close. We’re very much like siblings. Whenever we meet up we just click back into that gear and just carry on. If we haven’t seen each other for six or seven weeks or whatever, we still just pick up right where we left off. We’re always in touch. We have email threads that are like four years old but which we just keep going. It’s really just us taking the p*** out of each other, in-jokes and the like. If we weren’t so close and weren’t such good friends then I think The Inbetweeners would probably have stopped after one or two series. I don’t think it would have worked because we wouldn’t have wanted to carry on.”

As well as enjoying the company of his co-stars, James has become fond of his character. He admits that there is probably quite a bit of James in the character of Jay, and quite a bit of Jay in James. These aspects manifest when the four Inbetweeners lads get together.

“Oh, yeah. We definitely revert to that kind of childish, teenage thing. I think every guy does. If you get a group of guys together and they’re on their own… It doesn’t matter how old – they could be in a pub, they could be at school, they could be at work – they’ll behave in the same way they have since they were 13. Playing Jay is great for someone like that. You get to say things and behave in the most outrageous way. There’s stuff I wouldn’t dream of saying in real life. And also when people sort of know you as the character it gives you a bit of license to behave like that in real life.”

But now The Inbetweeners is over: the last series was indeed the last series and The Inbetweeners 2 the last movie. While that show has dominated James’s career for most of his working life, his immersion in comedy goes much deeper and he seems to have no trouble recognising the direction in which he now wishes to move. Although he made a horror movie, Pyramid, that was released in 2014, comedy remains James’s primary focus.

“As well as Inbetweeners, I did the spin-off from Only Fools and Horses, a prequel called Rock and Chips, and it was an amazing opportunity. Playing such an iconic character [a young Del Boy Trotter] was a dream come true, you know. I really relished that challenge and totally enjoyed it, loved doing it.

“At the moment I’m writing a sitcom for the guys who made The Inbetweeners. I’m also writing a film. I’m probably going to spend the next year of my life at home, writing. That really suits me right now. I can take the time to do whatever I want. With the writing, I can do it at home with my kids.

“I’d never really considered writing before. It’s only been the last year or so that I started getting these ideas that I thought were funny and that people would like. Also, I’m getting more and more cynical as I get older and there’s a lot of comedy at the moment that I don’t find particularly funny or very good. That was sort of what spurred me on – not because I thought that I could do better than that, but more because I thought, Well, if they get away with writing this stuff then I can probably write a terrible sitcom too! That was it really. If other people can bring out any old crap then I can do that too. That gave me a little bit of confidence to give it a go.

“It’s one of those things I’d like to get better at as well. What’s difficult is actually getting a chance to get better. You see, I think sitcoms especially need more than one series. They need a first series to find their feet, where some things might not work. That happens so you make changes and then you come back and the next series is better. I think that people were more patient years ago and they gave sitcoms more time. Take Blackadder for example. I love Blackadder and it’s one of my favourite series. The first series I thought was great but there was a lot of stuff that didn’t work. For the second series, they completely changed the Edmund Blackadder character into something amazing. Then there were the following two series that we would never have seen if Blackadder had stopped because of what didn’t work in the first series. If Blackadder’s first series had been made these days I think the TV network would have said that there was a lot wrong with it and wouldn’t have bothered going on. You really need to give things a bit of time like that. That’s what E4 did right with The Inbetweeners because not many people watched the first series but then it sort of spread through word of mouth. They repeated it and loads more people watched the repeat than watched it when it first came out. It was just a case of giving The Inbetweeners that second chance to show that there would be interest, that it could be funny and that people would like it. Obviously, it went on to make two huge British comedy films. I think it’s always right to give things a chance and that’s all I’ll be asking for.”

James is clearly confident that he has the necessary experience and contextual frames of reference to make his writing work.

“Between us, me and the other boys, we seem to have this sort of encyclopedic knowledge of the history of British comedy. It’s just a passion, you know, like people who love football and know all the crazy stats about football and about who scored what in the 1972 FA Cup final. Well, we have similar knowledge about British sitcoms. A lot of American as well, come to think of it.”

James is far from sanguine about the current state of British comedy and much of his inspiration is drawn from the previous generation.

“Steve Coogan is my hero; he’s just amazing. Not just in comedy, I think he’s generally an amazing actor and performer. But then there’s also Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. The Office was a very, very important sitcom for all of us in The Inbetweeners. It came out, I think, when I was in my last year at school and I was at a real formative age, you know, and it changed comedy. When The Office came out it moved comedy up a notch. That seemed to trickle down then to a lot of the other comedies around that time and a lot of those were really great as well. But it’s been a long time since The Office and I think that British comedy has sort of gone the other way now and there isn’t that really great sitcom out at the moment, I don’t think.”

Who knows? The show that Buckley is currently writing may just be that next, really great sitcom. Time will tell.

Of course, no Regtransfers celebrity story would be complete without a car and a number plate. Happily, James Buckley’s car really is something special.

James is a Mini enthusiast but he wanted something more than just an old Mini with all its limitations, or a new Mini with its non-traditional vibe. What he wanted just wasn’t available so James found a suitable old-style vehicle to act as a foundation for his vision, then took it to Enfield-based customisation specialist Yiannimize. When we visited James to deliver his new personal number plates, we met him at the Yiannimize workshop where James and custom car wizard Yianni told us all about the unique Mini.

“It was a huge job,” James admits. “I turned up at Yianni’s earlier this year with an old envelope that had a sketch that I drew on it. There was a long list of all these things I’d dreamt up. Basically, what Yianni has built for me is the car I’ve wanted since I was 17 years old. It’s a dream come true, it really is. He took this very badly drawn sketch and scribbled list and made them into reality.

“There were a lot of challenges because, you know, there’s no room in a mini. This one has basically got the centre console and the dashboard of a Range Rover, and somehow he’s put that into a Mini! It’s got all the sort of mod cons and comforts you get from a luxury car and Yianni’s managed to fit it all into this tiny space. I think that was the biggest challenge really, wasn’t it?”

Yianni laughs. “Yeah, it was very difficult. When James turned up and we had the meeting we were like, ‘Ok, so we’re used to doing Vianos, Rolls-Royces, big cars,’ and he’s like, ‘I want to have state of the art stuff in this Mini.’ We went, ‘Great, but where are we supposed to put everything?’ In the end, we literally built a whole new dashboard to fit everything in. We did all up-to-date buttons and different handles. Outside we painted everything, redid it and basically brought the whole thing back to life. To see it now you’d think it was a 2013 or 2014 custom Mini but with the old school, Italian Job feel, the old shape. Everything’s up to date now: it’s got iPod, it’s got Bluetooth, it’s got DAB, it’s got CD, DVD. Everything is in this car now but it still looks classic.”

“I’ve had new Minis as well,” James says. “I just love Minis, especially the old, classic style. When I saw it after it had all been finished I was absolutely speechless. I had no words good enough to describe it. It’s been in my head for the last decade, that car. Like I was saying to Yianni, I don’t want to sound overly dramatic but what they do here is make dreams come true. That’s what they do for people. I love coming here.”

Recollections vary regarding exactly how long this epic restoration and customisation job actually took.

“It took… I think it was three months, maybe four months,” says Yianni.

James, on the other hand, suggests, “I think it was more like six.”

“No way was it that long!” Yianni pauses, running through the project timeline in his head. “Barry was away. Barry is my main custom builder and he was away for like three to four weeks in Cyprus, so literally, that build came to a stop while I was waiting for my main guy but… Well, yeah, I suppose it could have been five months, maybe. But then, to be fair, James was changing things as we were going along. We’d get him down every two or three weeks and he’d be like, ‘I like this but change this. I like that but change that’. I was like, [sighs] ‘Ok.’ So literally we had to just redesign whatever James decided. It was cool though.”

When the Regtransfers team visited Yianni’s HQ on a previous occasion, James’s car was just an empty metal shell.

“Oh, do you remember that?” asks Yianni. “It had no doors, no interior, no wheels, it had nothing.”

“A lot of the work was preparation,” James recalls.

“And wiring,” adds Yianni. “Wiring takes a long time. Barry did probably two weeks of wiring. The amount of wires in that car is unreal. You can’t see because obviously they’re hidden but… yeah.”

“There’s little things that you take for granted every day,” James enthuses, “but if you’re a Mini owner you think they’re amazing – like central locking, electric windows, stuff like that. These are luxuries that you don’t normally have in an old Mini. It’s all fantastic. It’s absolutely brilliant. Oh, and speakers in the front. Usually in a Mini you have two speakers in the parcel shelf, rattling about. I’ve got a sub in the boot.”

“It sounds like a disco,” says Yianni. “It is loud. It’s amazing.”

“So,” says James, “the whole shell is completely soundproofed because Minis are dead noisy as well. It’s nice and quiet in the car and you can really hear whatever you’re listening to. I listen to a lot of podcasts and a lot of stand-up audio podcasts, so it’s really good to be able to hear spoken word in a Mini.”

How did the projects come about initially?

“Well, my wife gave me permission to go out and do it,” James says with a smile. “I sort of mentioned it to her, that I really wanted to do this. I’d been saying it for years and years and years. I found a Mini online that I thought would work and then I sent a tweet out asking if anybody knew someone who could do what I wanted for my car. I had about 50 replies telling me to go and see Yianni, and Yianni himself tweeted me saying to bring it round for him to have a look. That was on a Friday and I was literally there on the Monday”

“Yeah,” adds Yianni, “and the Monday was a bank holiday and I was supposed to be shut! I’d only opened because I had a few people coming down, and then James turns up.”

Despite the tongue-in-cheek grumble, Yianni is really not complaining. “Listen,” he says earnestly, “we do work with Ferraris, Lambos, Bentleys, all day long. This was a fun project. Even Barry was like, ‘Now this is going to be interesting’. We can do Range Rovers, we can do Vianos, we do them all day long and it’s our bread and butter. This was different.

“When we’d finished the car we had to take it to a Mini specialist because we needed something checked: an issue with one of the lights, I think it was. Well, obviously we’re not Mini people so we took it to this specialist. Anyway, when we got there, like everyone came out of this Mini specialist place and they’re all like, ‘Oh, my god. It’s just the best Mini.’ And these are Mini fanatics. These people are on all the groups… All they know is Minis. They’ve come out, they’ve looked at this Mini and they’re like, ‘It’s the best Mini we’ve ever seen. We can’t believe you’ve done it and you’re not Mini people.’ So, yeah, it was crazy.”

“Because I’ve got kids I need another car too,” says James. “I’ve got a really nice Range Rover and it’s all kitted out as well, and that’s a lovely car, but that [indicating the Mini] actually turns heads and people come up and say ‘Love your car,’ and I’m like, ‘Thank you!’ It’s kind of a real spectacle.”

Oddly, to us, even though he owns the ultimate, unique Mini, James had never really considered purchasing a private number plate until he’s spoken to Regtransfers.

“No, I’d never really thought about it. Although I have a plate on my Range Rover that says ‘MOD’, but that’s a bit boring.”

The plate we delivered to James was CL11 NGE. Regular viewers of The Inbetweeners will immediately see why James would choose that. To the uninitiated, we extend our apologies for declining to explain in a family-safe magazine, and respectfully suggest that they do a little research. It really won’t take long.

“Yeah, there was one stand-out number that I thought I had to grasp, which obviously was CL11 NGE. I couldn’t say no to that. It’s more wacky and unusual than the one on the Range Rover, and obviously, it fits in well with The Inbetweeners. The childish person inside me – the Jay inside me, I guess – just fell in love with it.”

Interview: Angela Banh

Story: Rick Cadger

Location photography: Stan Thompson

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