This week I got the chance to talk to Jess Brittain about her upcoming TV show Clique. She started out in the industry writing episodes for Skins, created by her father, Brian Elsley, and her brother, Jamie Brittain, but is now forging her own path with this new BBC Three thriller. Here’s what she had to say:
As Clique isn’t available until Sunday, could you give a brief description of the show’s premise?
Clique is about a couple of best friends in their first year at Edinburgh University who are having a crisis in their best friendship and then come across a group of very elite, very together, very adult-seeming women who are involved in a business and are doing incredibly well. The first episode will chart the intrigue and the competition between these best friends and whether or not they want to join the clique.
It feels very contemporary that you’re showing a harder side of university life – obviously with rising fees and student numbers it’s a very important topic that definitely isn’t tackled enough. Did current events influence you at all?
Yeah absolutely, I mean, I was definitely quite freaked out to realise how much stuff has changed. In the past five years even it seems to have become incredibly intense for young people. I mean, I graduated in 2010, when it was just starting to creep in, but it was a very different thing going to university then, and at the moment it’s incredibly expensive, pressurised and competitive. It seems to have completely changed from when I was there and I was worried by quite a lot of undergraduate experience I was coming across, in terms of being expected to perform in an incredibly adult way immediately from your first year, to have all your ducks in a row at all times. That definitely was quite shocking to me, so Clique kind of comes out of two things: firstly having a bit of a weird experience at university myself, and then realising that it’s surely going to become more common in young women due to the added pressure of what it’s like these days.
University-based shows usually emphasise a fun, carefree lifestyle, but since Clique has been marketed as a thriller it sounds like you’re taking things in a completely new and exciting direction. Could you explain why you decided to make it so dark?
I think university has always been seen as fodder for comedy, essentially a sort of fun, carefree, messy, hedonistic time which Clique doesn’t particularly reflect. Obviously, the depiction of university life in Clique is ramped up pretty high, it’s not attempting to be one hundred per cent realistic. It is a thriller, it is high-gloss, and it’s high-dynamic, so it’s not going to look exactly like most people’s undergraduate experience. But it’s not that hard to find stakes high enough in order to set a thriller, which is a good or a bad thing depending on how you look at it, but the stakes are incredibly high for young people – it does get intense pretty fast and things can go really wrong. So yes, I’ve exaggerated and intensified it a little bit but it was really quite easy to find thriller aspects to that lifestyle. That was a purposeful thing, in order to explore a little more and unpack what the worst things that can happen at university are if you let your imagination go wild.
“IT DOES GET INTENSE PRETTY FAST
AND THINGS CAN GO REALLY WRONG”
There’s lots of pressure at university, but Clique is led by a professor, Jude McDermid. It’s a very interesting take to have pressure coming from all sides, the professors as well as the peers. What inspired that?
It’s a weird one, I mean, I think that came out of just remembering how powerful and how important strong older women were in my formative years, I guess. I think it’s quite a common experience to have a teacher or a lecturer or even an older student who could be someone that you almost hate, but that you’re desperate for approval or affirmation from, who seems to know everything about the world. When you go to university I think there’s this sense of insecurity about who you are and what your place in the world is, what you’re going to do and how other people see you. So I wanted to bring in a character who, despite saying controversial and weird and terrible things, is completely unapologetic about that and seems so certain about the world, and that she’s right, and that she will be able to show them the way to be successful. That was really interesting to me, and obviously if you mix that with her being quite insane in her views on feminism, then you hopefully create some interesting talking points.
You’ve said in previous interviews that Jude presents a kind of feminism that you don’t necessarily agree with. Was creating debate the main reason behind that aspect of her character?
Yes, I suppose she comes from a place of almost-truth. There was a bit of a throwback pre-Trump to the kind of white middle-class feminism of my peers that had somehow got a little bit stymied and a little bit obsessed with being careful and being offensive. It was quite pedagogical and everyone was being very strict with each other in terms of making sure you were exactly on message at all times. So she comes from a slight truth in that she stands against that, but mine and Jude’s opinions completely diverge from then onwards because she’s taken a very extreme response to it. Obviously, the world has changed again in the past year and it’s quite a difficult and complicated time to be a woman so I’m aware that she’s going to possibly upset people or ruffle a few feathers, but I’m of the opinion that that’s drama’s job, to not set out a perfect idea but to hang a few things up for people to discuss. If she makes people have conversations then I think that’s a good thing.
As university is generally co-educational you’d expect it to be more balanced but I really like that you’ve focused the show on specifically female struggles. Is that for similar reasons?
It’s as simple as just being a woman, basically, I think it’s no more complex than that. I absolutely think that being a young bloke at university is just as complicated; it’s literally just because I’m a woman myself. I don’t think it’s more difficult to be a woman, and that’s probably a controversial thing to say as well, but I decided to focus it on women purely that I’m intrigued and I’m preoccupied and I have experience in that area. Also, the pure reason as well of being quite excited to put together an almost entirely female cast, which obviously you don’t often see on TV, so that got us all excited and created a fun atmosphere on set.
You’ve previously worked on Skins but that was as part of a writing team – how does it feel to be the actual creator of the show, making all these decisions yourself?
Pretty different. It’s been a big step up, obviously, and a big learning curve, but there’s good and bad. It’s a massive privilege to be able to put my head on the page and to be the person who’s making quite a lot of the decisions, but it also means you’re entirely responsible, so it’s both fantastic and terrifying at the same time.
With BBC Three being online now, Clique is not technically for television, it’s for an online audience. Did that change anything in the show’s process?
The move online happened halfway through the development process, so we initially weren’t entirely sure what that would mean, but it’s actually turned out to be a really great move. BBC Three have really put effort and money and time into making it an actual productive thing, so rather than them thinking “Oh, we have to be online now,” it was more like “Okay, so we’re moving online, let’s make that actually mean something.” They’ve really got behind pushing towards danger rather than away from it, which was obviously for Clique was a bit of a coup, because while it’s for a young audience it’s pretty dark, it’s pretty brutal, it’s pretty exposed. They’ve been really supportive, in fact I think it’s sort of freed us up to go for exactly the show we wanted to make, rather than to be careful in any way. So it’s actually been really great to be a part of that move online, it’s seems to have suited us well.
“IT’S PRETTY DARK,
IT’S PRETTY BRUTAL,
IT’S PRETTY EXPOSED”
Is Clique just a mini-series or are there likely to be more series at some point?
We’d love to tell more stories, definitely. Especially with this cast – we really were surprised by how well they all did. For some of these actors it was their first television role and we’d love to go again, but the official answer is we don’t know yet.
Do you have any plans for upcoming projects?
Not a clue, to be completely honest. I’ve been absolutely and completely consumed by this show, so right now it’s pretty much all Clique in my brain.
The first episode of Clique will be released on BBC iPlayer on March 5.