Following the channel’s success with Thirteen last year, BBC Three’s focus is staying very much on female-centric, young adult content with Clique – a new psychological thriller from writer Jess Brittain that digs into the modern experience of women at university.
The first episode follows first-year student Holly (Synnove Karsen), who feels a distance growing between her and childhood best friend Georgia (Aisling Franciosi; The Fall) when they are invited in the seductive world of Jude McDermid (Louise Brealey; Sherlock) and her clan of glamorous interns. Soon, Holly starts to uncover the sinister underbelly of the girls’ lives, and becomes increasingly worried about her friend.
Brittain’s previous work includes Skins, a similarly heightened account of teenage life, yet the focus here is on female talent both in front of and behind the screen. Kirstie Swain and Milly Thomas join Brittain in the writers’ room, and the central cast is made up almost exclusively of women from the central girls to the women who occupy the world they’re so fascinated by.
“The thing we were excited for when we were first greenlit was being able to cast all women, and to get really stuck into that and be really unapologetic about it,” she told Den of Geek. “That really is the focus of the show, to explore as many types of female relationships as we can. You don’t get the opportunity to do that very often. You don’t get to tell women’s stories from women’s point of view.”
The idea of digging into a strong female friendship as it’s tested by extreme circumstances came before any of the show’s mystery aspects, she said, and that remains at the series’ heart.
“It definitely started from wanting to explore university and wanting to explore a best friendship in crisis, but then when looking at what young people are up against in university it was weirdly easy to find the stakes high enough to set up a psychological thriller. You only had to ramp up a few notches to get a situation where it becomes a thriller. It’s quite a hard time to be a young woman.”
On what drew her to the role, star Synnove Karlsen – for whom this is her TV debut – added: “I think it fundamentally comes down to the relationships between women and how they’re tried and tested in really high pressure environments – how you support those women or go up against them. I think that’s what’s interesting, especially when it became about two best friends in that scenario.”
Clique is in the interesting position of having been put in development before BBC Three’s move online, and Brittain calls the shift a “blessing in disguise” in terms of the channel’s commitment to having the show push boundaries and depict some the darker elements of women’s experiences at university.
“Ambition’s sometimes this weird thing for young women,” she continued. “That’s definitely a theme of the show, playing around with accepting your own ambition, and then obviously this is a thriller on TV so we take it the very ends of the type of terrible things that can happen when that ambition goes wrong. That’s not particularly reality but it’s a great opportunity to really push that out and have fun with it.”
One moment in the premiere sees Brealey’s professor declare strong, perhaps controversial opinions about feminism’s role in business, something the actress found difficult to reconcile as a self-described “rabid feminist”, but Brittain has equally strong feelings on how the show should provoke debate amongst its audience rather than lecture them on her own views.
She said: “It’s very difficult to be out there with views on feminism at the moment, and it’s become much more difficult with recent events in mind. So to be so out there is a big risk… I don’t really believe that drama should reflect my personal views on feminism, I think it should be hanging some things out there to rile up and make people have conversations.”
As the series progresses we will see more of the enticing, dangerous world at the centre of Clique, and for this Brittain took inspiration from glossy dramas made in the US but perhaps lacking for UK audiences.
“We definitely wanted to be unapologetic about leaning towards that high-gloss world,” she said. “America does it very well but we’re a bit more reticent about it in the UK, we feel a bit embarrassed. I was very clear on that. Gossip Girl was very a show that did that very well, and then I think UK comedy like Fleabag, Catastrophe and Chewing Gum is doing it very well in terms of female-centric shows.”
She continued: “I really love writing for a younger audience. They’re an incredibly discerning audience and they have very high standards – they don’t bullshit you about what they think about your work. I still think that young adult drama is really important and it does seem to be in a bit of a lull recently. I’m hoping that I’m going to be one of many that goes back towards it.”
Clique premieres on BBC Three on Sunday the 5th of March.