Jack Rooke on the return of Big Boys: "Culture has derided a lot of working class women"
The creator and writer of the acclaimed Channel 4 comedy speaks to RadioTimes.com about its triumphant return.
**Warning: Contains major spoilers for Big Boys season 2.**
"In a life that's had some incredible lows, I do feel like I'm having some incredible highs at the moment, which is really lovely," said Jack Rooke, creator and writer of Channel 4's brilliantly bonkers and heartfelt comedy Big Boys.
When it first arrived on our screens in 2022, the series received glowing reviews and instantly gained a legion of adoring fans, including Russell T Davies – "He's been such a brilliant champion of the show" – and Kathy Burke.
"She's amazing," said Rooke. "I had a sleepover with Izuka Hoyle [who plays Corinne]. We woke up in bed together – we're friends, there's nothing going on, don't worry [laughs] – and I looked at my phone and it said Kathy Burke had tweeted me and honestly, I screamed. Izuka thought something awful had happened. And then we just took the rest of the day off and did a bit of shopping [laughs]."
The first season, which explored the unlikely friendship between Jack (Dylan Llewellyn), who is based on a version of Rooke, and Danny (Jon Pointing), who was inspired by an amalgamation of his real-life friends, as they took on their first year at Brent university in 2014, was also nominated for several BAFTAs, but was pipped to the post by fellow Channel 4 comedy Derry Girls.
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"I feel like it's a bit of a sister show to Big Boys in a way," said Rooke. "I don't think there would be Big Boys without Derry Girls. And Lisa [McGee, the creator and writer of Derry Girls] really has been a huge supporter of the show. I spent a lot of the last year of the awards season sat with Lisa and constantly losing to her – and rightfully so. If you're going to lose four BAFTAs, you might as well lose them to Lisa McGee. I'm very grateful to her."
But Rooke did pick up an award from the Writers' Guild of Great Britain, and with season 2 every bit as hilarious and wholesome as its first outing – possibly even exceeding its debut – more accolades are surely on the way for one of the best new comedies to come out of the UK in years.
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"I feel very lucky that the show was received by people exactly how I wanted it to be," he said. "People understood all the nuances. And I think viewers were surprised. I remember people seeing the season 1 trailer and asking, ‘What is it? Is it like The Inbetweeners?'
"I always wanted to make it so that you couldn't really guess what it was going to be so that the depths of the show and the depths of Danny, in particular, could then really surprise you."
When viewers were first introduced to Pointing's character, he appeared to be your typical Jack-the-lad: cock-sure and crude, with a penchant for polo shirts and The Pull. If you cut him open, he'd bleed Red Stripe. But beneath his bravado is a sensitive soul who cares – often too deeply – and proves to be just what Jack needs following the death of his dad while also navigating being an openly gay man for the first time in his life.
"That's often reflective of real life, especially when you're going to university," said Rooke. "You think that you know everyone and you think that everyone's a certain trope, and then you get to know people and you find that there's so much more, their own highs and lows, and their own demons and idiosyncrasies."
Jack and Danny's unlikely friendship is still very much a feature in season 2 – Britain would have rioted had they been torn apart – as they take on their second year of university, but Rooke has shifted the focus slightly, expanding on the route of Danny's mental health problems and giving the supporting characters, such as cousin Shannon, far more to do.
"Harriet Webb is one of my favourite actors of all time, she's brilliant in everything she's ever been in," said Rooke. "I wanted there to be one character in their 20s that didn't go to university but was still just as ambitious, still just wanted to have as much of a fully rounded life and start a family and have their own career. And she's a real classic Watford girl to me, and I wanted to celebrate that."
In another pair of hands, Shannon could be nothing more than a punching bag for cheap laughs – at the beginning of season 2 she finds out she's pregnant after a night of passion with her ASOS delivery driver. But Rooke only ever treats all of his characters with the utmost love and affection because for him, it's personal.
"I have spent my life being brought up by working class women, my aunties and my cousins," he said. "I'm from a very big matriarchal family. And I've seen how culture, especially in the last 20 years, has derided a lot of working class women. It's made them the butt of the joke, especially in comedy, and especially middle class comedians at the Fringe the five or six years I was coming up.
"So Big Boys to me, yeah there's still going to be silly jokes, Shannon's still going to say daft, outrageous things, but alongside that there's these moments of real emotional intelligence, being fully compassionate and leading with her heart on her sleeve. And you can sometimes mock those traits, but you can also mock and celebrate them all at once. And there's a kindness to that that I really wanted to lead with in the second season particularly."
Cousin Shannon is at the heart of season 2's most moving and powerful scene: the birth of her child. In an inspired move, Rooke chose to show that moment alongside the death of Jack's dad Laurie, cutting between his final moments in the hospital as Lawrensienna Milla Papadopoulou's life was just beginning.
"I watched The Royle Family Queen of Sheba episode over Christmas," said Rooke. "Caroline Aherne and Craig Cash wrote an incredible episode and that was definitely a huge inspiration to me. Caroline is my hero and I'm gutted every day that I'll never get to take her for a packet of crisps at the pub."
The decision to juxtapose the arrival of Shannon's baby with Laurie's goodbye as Nanny Bingo clings to him for the last time is breathtaking television, and not only the show's crowning glory, but a strong contender for the best scene of the year.
"I think it's my proudest achievement in my whole entire career," said Rooke. "I don't know if I'll ever feel like I've written the truth like that ever again. I've been writing about grief my whole career. I started doing really bad poems when I was like 18, 19 at comedy nights. And it's always been about that experience of losing someone. And I really felt like it's taken me 12 years to get to a point where I could write a scene like that.
"It's rooted in something truthful and optimistic, and to me that is the most crucial thing. I feel like I've watched so many things about grief that didn't leave me with a sense of life moves on and that's OK. Normally, it's life moves on, and that's scary. And that's true, but there's a real beauty in new people coming in and that cycle, which I know sounds quite on the nose, but I think I wanted to show that really directly, visually, one against each other, life and death, because I do think you forget when you're in the throes of grief that anything potentially new and beautiful could ever come. And quite often, it eventually does."
Rooke's first Edinburgh show Good Grief, an earlier iteration of Big Boys, came out 10 years ago, and that has largely been his focus ever since, which technically makes him "a bit of a one trick pony, but my trick is really good".
"I've tried out a lot of these jokes that are in the show in front of live audiences," he added. "I've workshopped the sitcom live on stage, and I'm really grateful, in a way, that I've been able to fail and experiment a lot. I've done some really s**t live shows, I've been crap quite a few before it got to Big Boys, so I'm proud of 23-year-old me who was just like, 'No, I'm sticking with this one thing, I know that I want to tell this story'.
"When you're a writer, actor, performer-y type person, you're constantly being asked what's your new thing, and everyone's expected to have five or six issues or stories they can tell, but I think there's merit sometimes in sticking to your guns."
Another character who features more prominently in season 2 is fashion icon Yemi, played by Olisa Odele, whose friendship with Danny, in particular, has deepened, resulting in one of the season's most important interactions: a conversation about chosen family.
It follows Danny's dad Dennis bringing his birthday party to a grinding halt after revealing his true intentions for reaching out to his estranged son, which further alienates Danny and leads to Jack uncharacteristically lamping him.
As a term that's often associated with the LGBTQ+ community, it can feel off limits to those who don't identify as such. But by having Yemi extend that to Danny, it's another example of the inclusivity that is at the heart of Big Boys, and key to its success.
"I don't know if this is the correct term, but there's a protectionism in Big Boys within the gay-straight friendships," said Rooke. "They've got each other's backs. There's a genuine allyship that doesn't need to be overly prescribed or talked about or shouted about. But for every moment that Danny has looked after Jack, I really wanted there to be moments where Jack and Yemi look after Danny. It's about saying we can be as inclusive as we possibly want, and that also includes the vulnerable, straight white guy [laughs]. And I felt like that sentiment is even more powerful when it's stretched beyond the queer community."
That conversation also led to Rooke himself appearing in the series, but only briefly.
"I was going to say all of that stuff to Danny, and then I suddenly thought this feels like something Yemi would say," he added. "He's one of the most popular people I know. I went to his birthday party and it was spilling out the door and I just thought, I bet Olisa connects with this bit of writing.
"And Yemi is also such a deadpan, sometimes quite cold character. He's a bit ruthless, and I just thought to have this moment of him intervening and him being so generous and loving towards Danny, I thought that would just be more impactful on screen."
And that's not the only time Rooke appears on screen. In the finale, he walks through the hospital in the final moments before climbing into a black cab, the door of which is being held by Laurie, as the melancholic yet hopeful Seasons by Future Islands plays out.
It should have felt trite or over-cooked, but instead it's a beautiful conclusion to one of the most affirming, sincere pieces of television I've ever watched.
"We filmed a few different endings and I thought if this is the final ever episode of Big Boys, if we don't do any more, then I wanted to end it on this moment where you're back in the cab, and the narrator and Laurie are like everyone's alright," said Rooke.
"And I do sometimes feel like I have that connection with my dad still. I still ask him questions in my mind and I still hear his voice, it's still very present to me. And so I just thought that was a really lovely way to end. And I'd love to do more Big Boys but if we don't, it feels like a really nice place to leave them."