Tell people you hail from the East Midlands, and they will probably struggle to place any city in the region, let alone name any TV shows set there.
When it comes to coming-of-age tales on TV, Bristol has Skins, Hackney has Top Boy, but what about those of us who grew up in sleepy market towns smack bang in the middle of the country?
Enter Newark, Newark, the delightfully silly sitcom from comedy writer Nathan Foad, an ode to what he terms the ‘very specific, bizarre town’ where he grew up in Nottinghamshire. The three-part series, which aired on Gold, stars the superb newcomer Jai Hollis as Leslie, a gay teenager on a journey of self-discovery in a town that could not be less bothered by his melodramatics.
The debutant stars alongside Morgana Robinson, who plays Leslie’s newly single mum Maxine, a fiery, no-nonsense chip shop manager trying to keep her lippy son out of trouble, and Mathew Horne as Maxine’s desperate ex-husband Terry.
The series is loosely based on Foad’s own teenage experiences in Newark-On-Trent. Much like Leslie, Foad’s mum ran a chip shop for 21 years and he got his first job there at 16. He also came out to his family in the summer between GCSE’s and A-Levels, “and no one gave a shit,” Foad laughs.
Foad likens his wistful adolescence in rural England to being marooned ‘on an island in the middle of the ocean’.
“Newark is about as in-the-middle of the country as you can get, so I always felt like the rest of the country was out of my reach somehow,” he explains. For a gay teenage boy with arty inclinations, the small town was not the easiest place to come of age.
“Growing up there in the 90s and early 2000s, it wasn't exactly a place that embraced difference. I was such a weird little goober of a thing growing up, I was chubby and effeminate,” he says. “But I’m grateful for it. I think it made me funny, because when you grow up feeling like a bit of a weirdo, it kind of forces you to make the jokes so no one else can make them about you.”
Having honed his comedic chops at local theatre groups, Foad won a scholarship place to study acting at drama school at eighteen. As one of only a handful of working-class students in his year, the transition proved to be more difficult than he expected.
"the best thing I learned from drama school is how to unlearn everything I’ve learnt at drama school"
“I didn't have the best time,” he confesses. “There's a certain kind of middle-class straight, white dude that does very well at drama school and is very rewarded. And then for me, it was just about taking everything that made me uniquely myself, and stripping all of that away. You do feel like your shine gets dulled a little bit.
“I’m very grateful that it taught me discipline and hard work. And I met some of my best friends there. But the best thing I learned from drama school is how to unlearn everything I’ve learned at drama school,” he says emphatically.
Newark, Newark announces Foad’s arrival as an exciting, authentic new voice in comedy, and it’s fitting that his first commission has taken him back to the place that shaped his acerbic wit. The series was filmed on location and used residents as extras. With Foad’s offbeat dialogue brimming with Newark-specific slang, from ‘mush’ and ‘mucker’ to ‘na then duck’, the series’ celebration of the market town’s hilarious idiosyncrasies is a far cry from comedies of old, bent on punching down and mocking their working-class subjects.
Foad was initially nervous that the show’s producers would ask him to pare down the local vernacular, but instead found that UKTV only joyfully embraced it during the development process.
“I was like a psycho at the beginning, everyone had to have the Newark accent. I was trying to do my little Shane Meadows moment,” Foad jokes. The writer was fortunately in safe hands, with established impressionist Robinson nailing the distinct midlands drawl in just six days, while local Nottinghamshire lad Horne was able to revert to the natural accent of his youth.
“I remember being so nervous for the first read through because I was like, ‘I love all of this cast individually, what if it doesn't work? What if the chemistry isn’t there?’ And from the very first read through sparks flew,” Foad says of his stellar cast. “You can write as many great jokes as you want but without the talent on the screen it's kind of worthless.”
“It’s Taika Waititi, you know? Leslie Jones and Fred Armisen from SNL are in the show. Trying to hold your own against those heavyweights was really tough"
Indeed, with a role in the hit HBO Max comedy Our Flag Means Death, Foad is sure to become part of the next generation of on-screen talent in high demand himself. Casting off the draconian doctrines that made him fall out of love with acting at drama school, Foad is forging a path for himself in comedy by leaning into his unique authorial voice, and has won fans on Twitter through his hilariously specific character videos, from the one gay intern on Noah’s Ark, ‘Scorpions?! Heaven forfend’, to the browbeaten renter attending a house viewing in ‘the fettered insides of a bin’.
One such fan was the famed director Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok) who, upon seeing one of Foad’s viral videos online, invited him to audition for his pirate comedy series. Having never been to America, the Newark lad suddenly found himself filming for four months on a huge Warner Brothers lot in LA.
“It was a real culture shock. I can't pretend like all of it was amazing, it was really scary,” he explains. “It’s Taika Waititi, you know? Leslie Jones and Fred Armisen from SNL are in the show. Trying to hold your own against those heavyweights was really tough, but I had the best time.”
His character Lucius, a scribe on the Revenge ship tasked with keeping a record of its adventures, has since become one of the show’s most beloved characters, with the internet bursting with fan art of the favourite ‘gay icon’. While the series is not yet available to watch in the UK (at least, “not legally,” Foad winks, with a cheeky suggestion to pirate the pirate show), the rapturous response to Our Flag Means Death across the pond bodes well for its arrival on our shores.
As for Foad’s next steps, for now he’s finding time to process the whirlwind past year. “It’s as if someone was like 'There you go, all your dreams have come true. So you better think of some other dreams now',” he laughs. “It was really bizarre in the space of like, eight months, I was like, ‘Oh my God, I've done everything I've ever wanted to do’. So now I just very selfishly want to do more of it.” Here’s hoping he does.
Newark, Newark is now available to watch on NowTV.