The Student
The Student talks to Jess Brittain, writer of TV series Clique
by Ruby Walsh, 8/03/17

Murder by baseball bat, kidnapping for ransom, and fights with Russian gangsters. If this was writer Jess Brittain’s first serving on Skins, who knows what she has in store for us in her new series, Clique.

The BBC Three show, premiering on Sunday, March 5, follows students Holly and Georgia through their tumultuous first year at university in Edinburgh. Though attached at the hip in their first weeks, the pair becomes divided once Georgia begins spending time with an elite girl group led by lecturer Jude McDermid. The clique beckons Georgia into an elusive world of alpha women: a high-intensity environment which transfixes and transforms her. Georgia’s ascension into the upper echelons of Edinburgh’s business society leaves Holly excluded and struggling for a place in their clique. The Student got the chance to talk to creator, writer and producer Jess Brittain about her view of Edinburgh, the struggles of university students, and her vision for the series.

Billed as a psychological thriller, Clique promises to explore dark territory akin to Brittain’s previous show. Brittain addressed the Skins comparison from the outset. Despite the starkly different premises, she asserts that the show will be stylistically similar. The Clique team is “heading into danger rather than away from it… aiming to tell relatable stories and not shy away from things that are a little bit controversial.”

Even before premiering, Clique has ruffled feathers. Social media websites lit up this week in response to the promo for the series, with some condemning the teaser as problematic. “You’re a woman. That means nothing” says Jude McDermid, played by Louise Brealey, at the open of the promo. She goes on to introduce the Solasta Women’s Initiative, the elite group of female university students pushing an alternative vision of ‘feminism’ which requires the girls to “man up” in order to join. Her voice is layered over snapshots from the series: girls in shimmering dresses dancing in a club, a man pushing a girl against a wall, a girl crying in a bathtub. “Have what it takes? Show me.” McDermid commands, alluding to the dark depths which she will push the women to in the series.

When asked about the aims of the promo, Brittain said that they matched her intentions for the show itself: to provoke conversation. She describes how “There was a feeling at Clique that sometimes the difficult, the offensive, the triggering conversations can be a good thing… something which beneficial stuff can come out of”. Brittain’s team intends to tackle taboo topics head on.

For Brittain, Edinburgh is emblematic of the societal tensions that Clique seeks to explore. In an interview for the National Student, she called it a “city of dichotomies”, pointing to the divides between the “old and new, monied and not, tourist and local, beautiful and scary”. Edinburgh, according to Brittain, has a mysterious, disorienting quality that serves as a vivid geographic analogue for the “insecurity and discombobulation” that Clique tries to capture.

Notably, Brittain sees the class divide in the University of Edinburgh’s student population as “key to the piece”. This dynamic is by no means exclusive to the University of Edinburgh, she argued, but there is a clear split present between the privileged, monied groups and those who don’t share that background.  

However, despite Brittain’s interest in the dichotomy, the show is firmly grounded in the world of the elites.

Brittain shared her support for the push for diversity in television, but stated: “I am a middle white class woman… I’m writing from that perspective so there is going to be a large element of that in my work”.  Similar feminist alpha ‘cliques’ have recently entered the mainstream, as seen both in life by Taylor Swift’s ‘gang of girlfriends’ and on screen in Lena Dunham’s group on Girls. This emerging brand of Hollywood-propagated feminism has been met with denunciation, with critics often arguing that the ‘cliques’ only elevate affluent white women. When asked if she was commenting on this trend, Brittain asserted that she doesn’t want the show to be didactic: “I try not to be emblematic in my work… what I aim to do is not put forward the ‘right’ depiction of femininity or the ‘right’ depiction of being a young person, I just want to hold up something to be discussed.

“Clique is less preoccupied with literal wealth” claimed Brittain. According to her, the girls of the clique are from a variety of backgrounds. The show primarily centres around their shared “opportunity in Edinburgh’s business world to be high flying”.

Alhough Clique represents only one niche of the University population, Brittain is keenly aware of the struggles that the wider student body faces. While researching for Clique Brittain met with many Edinburgh students, observing afterwards that “It is a much harder world to be a young person in these days… [University] upped its stakes, it’s much more intense, it’s much more inaccessible”.

Brittain’s own struggles as a student at the University of Leeds have informed her writing on the show. The creation of Jude McDermid, for example, was a product of her reflection on the “significance of strong women in authority positions” which she would “simultaneously hate” while “desperately wanting to impress”.

Of course, the ‘clique of mean girls’ is a television trope which has been done to death. Nearly every television program about young women features the stock type: glamorous and cruel, often seen terrorising an underdog lead. But, in Clique the girl group does not simply play the role of antagoniser. By focusing on Holly and Georgia’s fraught relationship with the group, the series delves into more complicated territory, blurring the lines between good and evil. Not to mention, audiences may be used to seeing shows about cliques, but rarely is the Queen Bee of the group an adult, let alone a lecturer. The series invokes age-old tropes and plot points, but it explores them from a new perspective, potentially finding new insights in an old format.

It is unlikely that the day-to-day banality of university life – the nights spent in the library, the trudging to and from lectures, eating soup for dinner several nights in a row – will be featured on the show. Looking around at the hanging laundry in my flat, I see an abundance of ratty jumpers hanging up, but there is not a single slinky sequined dress in sight. So, they may not look like us, and their lives may hardly match up. “[Clique] is upped, it’s very glossy and that is not representative of a lot of University experience,” says Brittain. But, she argues that this will not necessarily prevent students from enjoying the series, as she believes that the “high dynamic… gives you the opportunity to tell stories which resonate on some level with people”.

Clique, like Skins, edits out the mundane aspects of life, presenting instead a heightened, distilled version of youth. The drug-fueled adventures, endless love affairs, and climactic deaths of Skins are certainly not commonplace for the average British teen. Yet, the immense popularity of the series was due to these elements; some even praised Skins for its gritty realism.

Clique is slickly packaged, creating a glossy depiction of student life that, for many, will seem a far cry from reality. But, with their fresh take on an old trope, the series may be worth watching. Considering that I spent the whole of today writing this article in pyjamas, I’m not convinced that a realistic take on university life would be all that entertaining anyway.

Image Credit: BBC/ Balloon/ Phil Fisk

This article was amended on 9 March 2017. An earlier version referred to to “students at the University of Edinburgh” where “students at university in Edinburgh” was meant.