Jack Rooke on Big Boys: "It's just the start of a whole lot of queer storytelling"
Derry Girls' Dylan Llewellyn stars in Rooke's Channel 4 comedy.
Despite sitting at opposite ends of the emotional spectrum, grief and humour are natural bedfellows, something Jack Rooke is well-versed in.
The comedian has taken the 'if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry' lens and applied it to the death of his dad Laurie, which happened unexpectedly when he was in the latter half of his teen years, and Laurie was just 56.
"I needed it to have that joy," he told RadioTimes.com. "I couldn't write a show about grief that was too bogged down in the sadness. It's joy combined with pathos combined with silly jokes about people drinking poppers and getting their hair caught in septum piercings.
"That's the only way I could write this and be able to enjoy it, if it's a bit bat sh*t mad."
Both of those incidents – the hair and the poppers – happen during freshers' week (talk about a baptism of fire).
"If anyone has a piercing and I am going anywhere near their face, I will somehow catch my hair on it, whether it's an eyebrow, septum, ear, whatever," he said. "My curls have an intention of their own."
For Rooke, writing and talking about his dad's death was a means of coming to terms with it in his own head and learning to co-exist with his grief, rather than allowing it to dictate the rest of his life. But telling his story was also an act of service to help those floundering under the weight of their own heartache.
"I wanted it to be depicted on-screen that young people who've been through those experiences will have something," explained. "It's the show I wish I'd had when I was going through that as a kid, of someone going through it and tackling it and still progressing in life and still finding happiness and still finding friends.
"When you go through a loss, like losing somebody as a teenager, it can often feel like, 'Oh, my life's f**ked up now. Why has this happened, at this age?' But actually, there's so much potential and possibility."
Having cut his teeth in stand-up comedy, Rooke knows a thing or two about jumping in at the deep end, which made adapting his work for the small-screen a less daunting proposition. But this new iteration did throw up one particular challenge.
"You're like, 'OK, how do I learn how to write characters that are different to me, that are made up of different genders, different races, different orientations. You feel the pressure all of a sudden. But I feel like as long as you approach all of that with honesty and you're aware of what you're doing, and you trust the actors, allow people to put their own stamp on those characters, it'll work."
His younger self is played beautifully by Dylan Llewellyn – that's "the wee English fella" from Derry Girls – who wears Rooke's grief convincingly.
"We share a lot of experiences that we've spoken about privately," said Rooke of his lead. "And I just felt like I could trust him to perform the character. We know he's a great comedy actor, but what I think he does in Big Boys is he carries a character who is immensely vulnerable, and who is going through a transitional period. And I feel like very few actors could pull that off, where you really believe the vulnerability.
"I'm really proud of him as a friend, and he's also one of the nicest people to work with."
University offers Jack, who has a poster of Eric Cantona on his bedroom wall despite zero interest in football, a fresh canvas to explore his sexuality. His mum winced when Todd Grimshaw kissed Nick Tilsley in Coronation Street, which quickly shut down any desire to confide that part of himself in her, or anyone, for that matter.
Because of that, dipping his toe into the multi-faceted and ever-changing gay scene is like something akin to Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole, Jack enchanted and anxious in equal measure as he endeavours to figure out where he fits into it all.
Running alongside that is his friendship with roommate Danny (Jon Pointing) who, on the surface, is your typical Jack the lad – he drinks Red Stripe, listens to Kasabian, only ever wears polo necks and is lazer-focused on "the pull". But he quickly quashes any preconceptions you might have had as their bond strengthens.
"I love having written something that has a gay-straight friendship at the core of it because I think that's so reflective of real life," said Rooke. "There are way more gay-straight best mates than there are not."
Externally, there's nothing that denotes Jack and Danny would share any common ground and yet, they have that rare alchemy that exists in the most durable of friendships.
They both also know a thing or two about emotional turbulence – Jack is taking medication for depression – which draws them together as they become one another's support network.
"Any good character is going to subvert your opinion of them," said Rooke. "With a lot of men I know, like him, there's the front and the bravado, and then there's the reality. And I've really enjoyed writing it, even though at times the reality of the experience has been quite painful. It's been quite painful to have friends go through depression and through other mental illnesses that really affected them and their self belief.
"I've also written the show for people who have been the friend of someone going through it. There are some points in the series when Jack doesn't know what to do and doesn't know whether to hug, and that's a valid struggle too, that people don't always know how to help.
"I hope that it's a testament to the power of friendship and the power of helping one another through those things."
Big Boys was initially snapped up by the BBC but the broadcaster took the decision not to press ahead, allowing Channel 4 to swoop in. Looking back, Rooke believes it all worked out as it was supposed to.
"Even when it was in development people at the BBC would say, 'This is a Channel 4 show.' And it feels like it's found its right home because Channel 4 has a proven history of shows that combine all of the elements that Big Boys has. It's a working class, warm story about a goofy teen; we're just outside of London; it's about an LGBTQ+ experience; it's about a straight person's experience, about mental health and loss. And I think Channel 4 has the best history of shows that have that breadth.
"It's not just a gay show. It's not just a grief show. And I feel like that's where it's managed to find its home so well."
The distinctly British humour that's threaded throughout Big Boys also ties into that, a feature of the show that Rooke is especially fond of.
"All the pop culture references in there are so British and proper working class, Love of Huns, Saturday night watching The X Factor vibe, which I don't see in any other TV shows. And I feel like that's what kind of sets it apart from some of those other programmes. It feels quite specific to a time and an era, and the class perspective on that experience."
But while Big Boys isn't just "a gay show", as Rooke notes, that is a key narrative strand. Thinking about the current phase of queer storytelling, which has delivered It's A Sin and Heartstopper, both of which have been met with a tidal wave of love and praise, how does Rooke feel about the future?
"I really do [have hope]," he said. "I think it's so cool that we've got this widened scope now. But I'm going to be honest, I still think there's more work to be done. I still think there's more diversity to be shown, more size diversity in particular. My dream is to write something that is about a fat, gay lead because it's different being a bigger gay person in a lot of those spaces.
"I'd love to work more with Olisa [Odele], who plays Yemi in delving into the experience of being a Black gay man in London and everything that comes with that. So for me, Big Boys is just the start of a whole lot of queer storytelling that I'd want to write or be involved in.
"I'm really encouraged by the success of It's A Sin and Heartstopper. I think it's amazing. But it's all a starting point. It's a new starting point for us to develop even more stories."
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