In the decidedly un-macho tea room of a London members’ club, Liam Williams is chronicling the evolution of that most contentious of contemporary archetypes: the modern lad. First came the humble variety: “a Yorkshire or a Shropshire lad, there was an innocence and a pluckiness to it.” Yet during the comedian’s school days, lairy 1990s “new lad” culture meant “there was already something a bit troublesome about it. And by the time I got to university there was the uni lad. It wasn’t so anchored to pride in a working-class identity any more; it was much more about obnoxious masculinity. And then in the last 10 years, we’ve had the sad lad subcultures, the irony lad.”
Now, Williams argues, the lad is rearing his ugly head in the political classes, with both Donald Trump and Boris Johnson practising “that laddish recklessness and fecklessness. Something close to laddish idiocy is dominating global politics.”
The lad is something Williams has been thinking about a lot lately. That’s because the comedian is about to debut his new BBC Three comedy, Ladhood, a meditation on modern manhood adapted from his Radio 4 series of the same name. The show traces the impact of the teenage Liam’s boyish scrapes in mid-00s Garforth (the Leeds suburb where he grew up) on his present-day life in London, where he says he remains coated in a “residue of laddishness, for better or worse. Largely for worse.”
At once a 00s nostalgia trip (the soundtrack features the likes of Lumidee’s Never Leave You, while Williams put much effort into ensuring the characters’ tracksuit bottoms had an authentic fit) and a serious examination of what it means to be a 21st-century man, Ladhood’s voiceover also provides a chance to luxuriate in Williams’s trademark droll lyricism. The result is akin to The Inbetweeners as narrated by Philip Larkin.
Previously, Williams has channelled this voice – incarnated in sanded-down, dourly sonorous Yorkshire tones – into the sublimely meta sketch trio Sheeps, his Bafta-nominated YouTuber satire Pls Like and his erudite, indignant standup, for which he earned two Edinburgh comedy award nominations in his mid-20s. Despite the hype, Williams has largely retired from the latter. What started out as a means of escape from “having to do a job that seemed like the absolute worst outcome for a life”, turned into a slog – the late nights, the drinking and the post-gig dopamine spikes proving detrimental to his health. His angry young man shtick came with its own issues. Being “a white man with a microphone shouting at a room, I was like: ‘What am I doing? This doesn’t feel very good.’”
Truculent blokeishness may be less ubiquitous in standup these days, but that quality is still evident in certain quarters of the industry. “That sort of bearpit thing produces a very narrow kind of comedy,” Williams says. It wasn’t a context in which he thrived: he recalls an unsuccessful support slot for Micky Flanagan, after which the stadium-courting comic informed him he’d “caught them wrong”.
“More often than not in a club environment I would ‘catch [the crowd] wrong’,” he admits. “That sort of volatility is something that some people now say comedy shouldn’t be, but maybe those settings are a bit more exemplary of the working-class roots of the artform.”
Masculinity may be Ladhood’s dominant theme, but class is the series’ other preoccupation. It is a concept treated with a peculiarly British intricacy: in the opening episode, Liam and his Garforth mates are intimidated by more fearsome boys from Micklefield, AKA Mickie, a neighbouring town with a slightly grittier reputation. Growing up, Williams had a keen appreciation of the subtleties of status. “My parents were civil servants – not wealthy but [they] had middle-class, artistic sensibilities, so that made me feel different to a lot of my mates.”
In general, he identifies himself and the Ladhood universe as belonging to a “suburban” class. “There’s a Mike Skinner quote where he talks about being ‘Barratt class’, as in from a Barratt housing estate. Not exactly rich but not poor, either. Life was OK but it was boring as fuck.” There have been few more fertile backdrops for British comedy than this oppressive mediocrity, and in aesthetic terms Ladhood is euphorically ordinary. “The director Jonathan [Schey] overused this phrase to such an extent that it’s become a joke, but he describes his sensibility for this show as ‘gloriously normal’,” says Williams.
As real as Ladhood feels, the process of turning memories into sitcom scenes did call for some simplification. Compared to his gormless peers, the Liam of Ladhood is a sensitive intellectual – a boy from Mickie christens him “word-poof” – but the reality was slightly messier. Williams was a literature enthusiast, but his mates also thought “I was disgusting. I had lower hygienic standards at school, like I’d smoke a cigarette off the floor, I’d eat chips off the floor.” He still does have slightly renegade tendencies: the last time I interviewed him he had broken both his heels while attempting to break into his own home.
The radio version of Ladhood follows Liam to uni at Cambridge, where his background becomes a cause of anxiety – as it did in real life. “Getting to uni I was suddenly aware of my accent. People would in a good-natured way be a bit mocking, and I would play up to that – that’s my identity: I’m a gritty northerner.” Eventually, Williams would transcend his new persona and join the famed comedy society Footlights, despite initially being “so intimidated by the prospect of it that I didn’t even dare go sit in the audience; I was too scared to watch the show. I felt very provincial and nervous.”
Out of his Footlights stint came Sheeps, in which Williams still performs alongside Daran Johnson and Al Roberts. Despite the trio co-creating beloved BBC sketch show pilot (yes, even a pilot can be beloved) People Time in 2015, Sheeps have never properly reached the small screen. It seems unjust but Williams is sanguine on the subject. “There’s that thing of sketch comedy being dead and even if it’s not, it’s understandable that you wouldn’t go to three ex-Footlights guys on their own to do it on TV.”
In any case, Williams has quite enough on his plate for now. He is currently scouring social media for more Pls Like material (“These boxing fights are huge so we’ll maybe do something around that, and a YouTuber with a baby”) and preparing for the publication of his debut novel, Homes & Experiences, a fictionalised account of a trip he took around Europe a few years ago. Between that and Ladhood, Williams is now a dab hand at extracting comedy from his real-life experiences, an exercise he describes as both an organic process and a fine art. “What is it that’s in the yeast of a sourdough?” he thinks. “A starter! You take a starter from real life and you just see what bread grows out of it.”
A fitting analogy, albeit one that you suspect might tank on the moderately mean streets of mid-00s Garforth.
The full series of Ladhood is available on BBC iPlayer from Sunday 24 November