Clique creator Jess Brittain: I’m still shellshocked by my uni years

The former Skins writer on why she's delved into the darkness of university life in her six-part BBC3 thriller, now set to air on BBC1

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Jess Brittain is preoccupied with how difficult it is to be young. The now 27-year-old was one of the writers of teen drama Skins, which told beautifully the experiences of a group of sixth formers. For fans of the show, it was a genuinely new and thrilling look at teen life, just how Lena Dunham’s Girls has since been a revelation for so many 20-somethings.  Jess has now created Clique, a new six-part BBC3 drama set at a university. Holly (Synnove Karlsen) and Georgia (The Fall actress Aisling Franciosi) have just started the so-called best years of their lives at Edinburgh University but  are soon drawn into an elite clique of alpha girls led by lecturer Jude McDermid (Louise Brealey as a much scarier character than Molly Hooper in Sherlock…). It’s a glossy, genuinely intriguing drama which hooks you in with its beautiful, strange, secretive characters. 

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It’s about identity, ambition and fractured friendships – and like Skins, it’s very dark. Youth, with its good looks and energy and freedom, is fetishised in society-  it’s what those who have lost it strive for and what adverts tell everyone they should want. So why is Jess – young and talented- so drawn to writing about the terrifying aspect of growing up? RadioTimes.com spoke to the writer about why she wrote this uni thriller…

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Why are you so interested in writing about the problems of youth?

“Because I’m still not over them. I still feel vaguely quite shell shocked by how hard I found uni. Those years were so important and torrid, it’s given me the opportunity to unpack it a bit and finally look at it with a bit mote objectivity. It just feels like the most important things that have happened to me in my life have been at that age. That’s where the preoccupation comes from.”

In Clique, Holly and Georgia are confused about what they want and who they really are. That’s part of the difficulty of growing up, isn’t it?

“Definitely. Trying to sort out who you are, what you stand for and how other people perceive you is hard. I don’t think those things go away necessarily but to be able to depict those feelings on TV and play around with them and think about different scenarios has been so good.”

Clique is very much about friendship being put under huge strain. Do you think that’s under-explored in TV?

“I think that female friendships weren’t something I saw explored a lot and I felt very strongly it was such a central part of my younger years. It feels like women’s first intimacies are with other female friends and it’s central to that time in your life. You quite often see women falling out of having sex with each other’s boyfriends but in terms of how much female friendships can affect you and form you – I hadn’t seen that much on TV.

Fighting with your best friend can actually be really all-consuming can’t it?

“Things going wrong with your best friend are quite often more devastating and destructive than anything to do with a boyfriend or girlfriend. The female friendship is deemed to be the number one most important thing. That became slightly less so in my latter 20s but there was a time where problems in my best friendships were life shattering.”

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There’s a lot of focus in Clique on how much pressure is put on young women to succeed.

“Yes, absolutely. I’m shocked that this pressure on young people was getting so much worse. I was a bit of a naval gazer about how difficult we had it and how difficult it was to combat pressures. Social media crept in at the very end of my uni years but for Clique I started talking to slightly younger women and undergrads and it’s a different level of pressure. And now you leave with so much debt, it’s incredibly high stakes these days and that was definitely a driving force in the show. It’s a psychological thriller but that immense strain is felt by a lot of young women.”

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There are some wonderfully dark, popular university-based TV shows and books around. Did anything in particular influence you while writing Clique?

“Gossip Girl was definitely an influence, we wanted to be unashamed of heading towards that high gloss and high dynamic look because that’s kind of how it looked and felt, weirdly to me at uni, watching the women who had it together. I was exaggerating it in my mind I’m sure but it didn’t feel that far away from that. Also, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History was around a lot in my mind. This is fiction but some of this felt really real to me when I was at university. Writing Clique has been cathartic.”

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Clique is available to watch in full on BBC iPlayer, and is repeated on BBC1 this Saturday 20 May at 10.10pm