Clique - series two

Jess Brittain’s seductive, university-set psychological thriller returns

Interview with Jess Brittain, writer, creator and executive producer

I maintain that university is absolutely terrifying! So the thriller stakes, whilst obviously heightened, reflect the intensity of feeling a lot of people have during that time.Jess Brittain
Date: 05.11.2018     Last updated: 06.11.2018 at 18.28

Can you describe Clique for us?
Clique series two remains a show about being an uncertain but ambitious young woman in an increasingly disorienting world, and the complexity of the female friendships that are central to that experience. It’s also about the grey areas of life at the moment - what we think, what we think we should think, what we should stand for and what we should fight against.

Holly is the personification of all these questions, caught between her innate morality and her more human fallibility. I’ve tried again to take what I think is a fairly common insecurity and conflict in young women and hang it out to be thought about. I maintain that university is absolutely terrifying! So the thriller stakes, whilst obviously heightened, reflect the intensity of feeling a lot of people have during that time.

Series one focused on female friendship and in series two there’s a band of brothers whom Holly finds herself pitted against. Tell us about that shift.
The shift to a male clique came out of watching and listening to some of the things that have happened in our country and in the States over the past couple of years. There has been such an upsurge of tribalism - between more traditionally left and more traditionally right approaches – but also between men and women. I’d noticed a kind of educated, progressive type of young man who was becoming frustrated with the narrative being told. Perhaps becoming a little less likely to listen, a little less likely to advocate. Obviously we are all aware of the scary, militant, misogynist version of this type of man, but I wanted to try to get under the skin of the more complex version. Young men who are standing for free speech, the questioning of authority, men’s rights. What happens when these men are put under scrutiny?

I knew that the free-speaking, free-thinking side of these characters would be massively appealing to Holly. The tension between her feminism and her desire to push her own boundaries was something that was very interesting to me.

What was your inspiration for the series?
The inspiration for the series always starts from conversations I’m having with myself and with friends and family. It’s very difficult to interrogate or question concepts publicly at the moment. I think that’s because women are pushing for real and decisive change - something I’m fully behind - and there’s a feeling that complicating the facts could hinder that fight. But drama’s job is to hang around in the muckier, less sure areas. Sometimes depicting difficult things makes you realise how much you disagree with them.

I also wanted to push the character of Holly out further. She struggled with her darker side in the first series – something which I think is true of all of us, whether the darkness is real or just something we worry is real. But to see her embrace that darkness, to turn to it as a possible answer to her problems is something I was really excited to depict.

Tell us about the characters?
As with the first series, new characters usually start from friends or acquaintances and then go on a process of becoming something entirely different in the writing and then again in the performances. The clique drew from guys I knew at university, and from reading around in places like Reddit. Ben Howard was born out of watching clips of some free-speech supporting academics. There was one in particular that I remember thinking was talking a lot of sense. But as I watched on I began to realise how subtly warped and dangerous the person was behind the highly educated articulacy.

Agnes Reid is similarly born out of a mixture of professional women in positions of power. Because there are fewer of them, we cling onto them to advocate for our rights and speak to our concerns. But of course, not all women are alike. Not all women share opinions or intentions. It seems like a madly obvious and reductive thing to say, but it’s something I think is sometimes lost.

Obviously I was massively excited to have Holly, Rachel and Louise back for the second series. The concept of Rachel being out as a psychopath, no longer needing to cover who she is, was a lot of fun. Louise was a character I loved in the first series but was woefully underexplored. I was excited to allow more space for her.

The themes in series two feel very topical and relevant to what’s going on in the world today. Was that topicality and relevance important to you and why?
Being topical is not something I set out to do. I have no answers to the difficult questions young people come up against in today’s world. Most of the time I feel confused, worried and a little scared about the things that are happening! I sit down and write and usually that ends up being coloured by the things that are going on around me.

When I was 19 it was shamefully easy to ignore some of the bigger questions. I don’t think that luxury exists for young people anymore. Clique never sets out to make a fundamental point about anything, simply because I realise the stuff going on in my head is contradictory, ever-changing, sometimes under-informed, sometimes over. But I think that’s true of a lot of people - so if Clique makes you think about something, or talk about it with someone else, then that’s a happy bonus to what is essentially me trying to make a show that’s enjoyable and interesting to watch.

Some of the storylines in the series are quite controversial. What are your reasons behind wanting to tackle such subjects?
Clique is a psychological thriller and as such, nothing is ever quite as it seems. There will definitely be moments in the series that will shock people - I’m not desperate to cause controversy but I do want to keep telling stories about three-dimensional characters who are capable of doing good, bad and terrible things with a multitude of motivations. I think it’s important to take drama to some very grey, very uncomfortable areas if we want it to get under the skin of anything, to be anything more than a well-meaning declaration of values.

But Clique’s not a political treatise, it’s an unfolding drama and I hope people will stick around for the twists and hairpin turns the story takes, and the amazing, layered performances from our incredible cast that have brought it to life.

How long was it from concept to filming?
Series two was not a quick re-commission. There’s an argument that the first series is a closed story - so a second series needed to essentially be a reset. It took a little while for me to come down to a story I wanted to tell. Once we were green-lit though, the process moved terrifyingly quickly. From first, vague ideas to it being released will be about a year.

What do you hope the audience will take away from the show?
I just hope people enjoy it. I’m not trying to leave the audience with any kind of message - it’s more about my confusion and fears than my surety and confidence. I hope people will enjoy seeing the next part of Holly’s journey - her new friendship with Louise, and finally the realisation of the Holly-Rachel double act. Holly and Rachel are the central relationship and their story is a two-series arc.

How did you start your journey to become a writer?
I studied English Lit at University for no better reason than I liked reading. I realised after a Creative Writing module that writing was probably what I wanted to do but, again, was slightly directionless in that aim. I come from a family of screenwriters who were writing Skins at the time and my Dad put my Uni creative writing piece in with the samples being considered for a Skins tie-in novel. Whilst researching the novel in the Skins Writers Room I failed to sit quietly and listen and the producer Neil Duncan noticed some potential. It was probably just about the only Writers Room at the time where clueless, green writers had a safe space to learn how to write a screenplay with close but non-prescriptive support. I was very, very lucky to have been part of it.

As a side note, Neil Duncan (Producer) gave me my very first screenwriting job on Skins. It was also Neil who commissioned a pilot episode of Clique whilst working at BBC Scotland, and now he has produced the second series. It’s been great to come full circle with him. I think working with people who get you is very important.

You wrote for Skins. Did that whet your appetite for writing - for TV in particular?
Definitely. I think a lot of us look back on that Writers Room now and realise how lucky we were. Skins was a show completely dedicated to its young writers. They trusted us to tell our stories and encouraged us to write from our own lives (the problems, the things that pissed us off and the things which made us excited). That's a lesson I definitely took with me.

Do you have any advice for writers making their way and wanting to write for TV?
Don't try to be perfect in your writing. Don't plan a script to death. If you're writing about something that fires you up, it'll show - regardless of whether your structure is perfect or your action sequence makes total sense. And don't be afraid to give yourself time to think and let ideas swirl around without writing. Sometimes you do your best work walking to the shop or hanging out your washing.

Don’t let it consume your personal life or threaten your mental health, because it can do both! Other than that, I’d say that no advice is ever going to be completely right! I’m not sure there is a correct or best way to be a writer. If there is I’d love someone to let me know.