‘We didn’t set out for it to be a treatise on masculinity’: Liam Williams on Ladhood

The actor and writer mined his teenage years to write the hit comedy. As it returns for its final series, he and the cast discuss masculinity, boredom … and Noel Edmonds

When Liam Williams was encouraged to apply for Cambridge University, he thought nothing of it. The process barely punctured his daily routine. “I filled in my application watching Deal Or No Deal with a spliff,” he recalls. “We got stoned and watched it every afternoon – it was bliss. The Cambridge form was kind of secondary.”

Despite the dedicated focus to weed and Noel Edmonds, he was accepted. The ensuing transition of manically studying to get top grades, along with preparing to leave behind his friends and old life, is at the core of the third and final series of Ladhood – the semi-autobiographical sitcom set in his home town of Garforth, near Leeds.

The series is built around a split narrative: one strand follows Williams navigating a bleak existence of broken relationships, excessive drinking, self-destructive behaviour and a proclivity for kicking bins. (“I don’t need therapy, I’m just from the north,” he proclaimed in the first series.) The counter narrative is based around the “existentially disillusioned” teenage version of Williams (Oscar Kennedy) and his friends Craggy (Shaun Thomas), Addy (Aqib Khan) and Ralph (Samuel Bottomley) navigating years of booze, school, parties, girls, fights, smoking and showing off.

In the same way that Derry Girls tapped into a specific time and place, garnering widespread appeal through the relatability of its teenage characters, Ladhood does the same for mid-00s West Yorkshire – a world of weed smoke, tracksuits and local hardcases. “The point is to find universal experiences,” Williams says. “To say: this is a place that seems so commonplace, the people so familiar they’re almost not worthy of remark or portrayal, and then find the nuance, depth and richness in their daily experience.”

The etymology and evolution of the term “lad” is something Williams, now 34, has thought about a lot. “Growing up in Yorkshire, ‘lad’ was like a term of endearment,” he says. “Then you had 90s lad culture that became a cultural identity. At uni there were posh people calling each other ‘lad’; the whole ‘uni lad’ thing as a status in being a particular kind of dickhead. I was thinking: what is toxic male behaviour? What is lad identity?”

Subsequently, masculinity became a theme, from teenage foolishness to emotionally repressed men. “We didn’t set out for it to be a treatise on masculinity,” says Williams. “But it became apparent the show has something to do with masculinity and self-reflection.”

Khan says of the show: “It shows how screwed up young men are.” Although Kennedy feels it offers a positive. “What’s great about Ladhood is it shows it’s OK for young men to talk about issues,” he says. “It’s important to show young men can speak up about it.”

Liam Williams in Ladhood.
Liam Williams in Ladhood. Photograph: Natalie Seery/BBC

By the end of series three, the deep bond of friendship and its impact on the formative years seems to be a stronger focus than what laddism looked like in the mid-00s compared with now. “We already know teenage boys are like that,” Williams says. “But what else are they like? What else do they have about them?”

While the show tackles such weighty subjects, it also celebrates the mundanities of day-to-day teenage life and how they serve as pivotal moments during those years. “You sit there thinking: ‘Nothing’s changing – I’m bored and frustrated,’” Williams says. “Then that moment is over in a heartbeat and suddenly everything’s different and you’re getting older.”

Despite fundamentally being about the naivety, camaraderie and escapades of teenage boys, from overdoing it on space cakes to wearing your dead uncle’s suit to try to buy booze underage, there’s also a subtle political punch. The latest series touches on the plight of renters trapped by callous landlords, and the predatory behaviour of the gambling industry.

“I write about what I’m obsessing over,” says Williams. “I was really fucking pissed off with my landlord and flat situation at that time. With gambling, it makes me sick to think of the profiteering from people’s addictions; there’s a deep immorality to it.” There’s often a not-so-subtle punch, too. In series two, Williams discovered his new 10k-running, prune juice-drinking pals are Tories. Cut to two minutes later and he’s in a flying rage, screaming they have “the blood of 130,000 people on their hands” due to austerity.

Williams’s adult life in the show is not especially fulfilled, but he is keen to point out that he’s not that miserable in reality. “There’s not much affection between him and his friends,” he says. “He never seems to enjoy anything. There’s no passion. Everyone’s just walking around being fake. If I said my own life had been like that it would be a tragedy and also, thankfully, an egregious lie. It’s a very selective portrayal. In the grand scheme of things, if it were the trauma Olympics, I wouldn’t even qualify.”

The dual narrative creates the show’s spark. Living with the cynical, misanthropic adult version of Williams highlights the carefree, joyous, optimistic essence of teenage life. “It’s a necessary contrast to the teenage story where there’s a lot more heart and warmth,” he says. “Maybe that’s a reason he goes back into his memory so much – that’s when he felt fully alive and he doesn’t any more.”

Given Williams’s longstanding preoccupation with exploring his teen years, is this nostalgic outlook something he can relate to? “I definitely experienced something like that,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s just getting older, or the way society and culture is changing, but I do find myself thinking that I used to really feel something. I used to really believe in things. I used to really get excited by life, and that’s a lot harder now. Maybe the experience of getting older is that you trade emotional intensity for stability.”

Williams’s own teenage experience of going to Cambridge seems of little interest beyond a plot point. “I don’t want to pretend it was a remarkable life experience,” he says. “It’s not some rags-to-riches story or some rare and valuable story of social upheaval.” But get him on the subject of another aspect of his adolescence, the Streets – who feature prominently on the soundtrack – and you get a clearer portal into his teenage world and Williams’s early gravitation towards extracting beauty from banal suburbia.

From left: Oscar Kennedy, Shaun Thomas and Aqib Khan.
From left: Oscar Kennedy, Shaun Thomas and Aqib Khan. Photograph: Jack Barnes/BBC

Original Pirate Material was an album that opened the world for me,” he says. “It spoke to who I wanted to be. Mike Skinner talks about where he’s from by saying he’s Barratt class, saying something like: ‘We weren’t rich, there wasn’t much money about, but we weren’t poor. It was fucking boring, basically.’ That was the basis for life that I was perceiving as a teenager. The Streets were like a blueprint. Not just a reflection, but a set of instructions as to how to deal with that, and to make life meaningful, playful, exciting and creative.”

Having spent the last few years writing for generation-Z actors, playing out the teenage years of millennials, Williams concludes that “they seem spirited, reckless and chaotic like teenagers should be, but maybe more decent, tolerant, thoughtful and politically minded than my generation was.” Are his cast connecting with the previous generation’s teenage years of PlayStation 2s, the Cribs and Nokia phones? “My mates get it,” says Bottomley, who is 21. “It’s rare to see lads mucking about the way they do in real life. We saw it with The Inbetweeners but that was polished. They’re not smoking spliffs, are they?”

For the cast, three of the four being from nearby Bradford, it has been important to have such a northern story celebrated. “I’m extremely proud,” says Khan. “We want people to understand our accents, our culture, and how we are.”

Thomas echoes this, adding: “There’s a lot of talent in the north. Ladhood has given us Bradford lads an opportunity to showcase what we can do. Hopefully that inspires young kids from up north to get into acting.”

Series three of Ladhood will air on BBC One and BBC iPlayer in September.


Daniel Dylan Wray

The GuardianTramp

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