Five go travelling in E4’s globetrotting comedy-drama Gap Year. DQ chats to stars Anders Hayward and Tim Key, creator Tom Basden and Carrie Stein of producer Entertainment One.
When Andrew Davies spoke about writing BBC drama War & Peace, he would always joke that he’d read Leo Tolstoy’s epic saga so that the audience wouldn’t have to.
The same sentiment could now apply to Gap Year, the E4 comedy-drama that gives viewers who missed out on backpacking around the world the chance to see the sights and sounds of Asia from the comfort of their own home.
The eight-part series – which will be shown in Cannes on April 2 as part of the MipDrama Screenings – follows five people as they first meet in Chinese capital Beijing and decide to team up on a tour that takes in ancient rainforests, full-moon beach parties, mega-cities and remote monasteries in Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand and Nepal.
Dylan (Anders Hayward) and Sean (Ade Oyefeso) head to Beijing with plans to backpack across China. But once they cross paths with relentlessly upbeat Greg (Tim Key), Chinese-American May (Alice Lee), who wants to reconnect with her long-lost family, and party animal Ashley (Brittney Wilson), together they end up taking on the whole continent.
Co-stars include Janeane Garofolo as a jaded American travel writer, Aisling Bea and Trystan Gravelle as a pair of bickering honeymooners, Scott Adsit as the American owner of a Vietnamese orphanage and Rachel Redford as Dylan’s ex-girlfriend.
Gap Year, currently airing in the UK, marks the first acting job for model Hayward, who trained as a dancer and was subsequently spotted by two acting agents, leading to an audition for the role of Dylan and a four-and-a-half month shoot across Asia.
“I was only signed in November 2015 and managed to get this last April. It was a very quick turnaround and I did not expect this,” he admits. “I thought I’d be auditioning for a while before I got anything but it just sort of happened out of the blue. It’s just mindblowing! It’s the most phenomenal experience I’ve ever had.”
When Dylan and Sean first arrive in Beijing, a ‘chance’ encounter with Dylan’s ex-girlfriend Lauren (Redford) reveals that he may not have been entirely truthful about his motives for the trip – a revelation that infuriates his best friend.
“He’s in his own world – he’s a romantic and he thinks he’s this Casanova, that he knows more of what’s happening in the world because he studies philosophy,” Hayward says of his character. “And then when he gets out there and actually experiences it, he quickly realises he actually is quite ignorant and a bit arrogant. But he’s a total hopeless romantic. He’s torn and lost, and there’s something quite endearing about this kid. That’s what keeps the audience on his side. That naivety is quite endearing and keeps him engaging.”
In contrast to Dylan is Greg, the oldest member of the gang who in one episode describes himself as the Fonzie of the group, comparing himself to Henry Winkler’s legendary Happy Days character considered to be a big brother to those around him.
“He feels genuinely young and anything where he’d be called out for being the old guy hanging with the young people would leave him feeling completely confused!” explains Key, who is best known for starring as Alan Partridge’s radio sidekick in Mid Morning Matters and the Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa movie. “He sees the group as five young people travelling around Asia and they see it as a guy who’s travelling with them.”
Comedy writer Key originally started out in the writers room as the show was pieced together, and was assigned to write episode six alongside Jonny Sweet. It was then that he was cast as Greg, meaning he wasn’t able to continue writing duties.
“In the writers room, the character was growing and was constantly called Greg, constantly 37 years old and there was a looming impression that he was being written with me in mind.” the actor says. “He starts off and maintains this status quo of being a guy who is loveable and hopelessly optimistic but has more problems lurking behind it all.”
Both Hayward and Key recall a strong bond between the five leading actors, which was boosted by the supportive crew as they made their way around multiple locations throughout Asia.
“There was a great support network between everyone and a really good rapport between us,” Hayward says. “We also had great chemistry off camera, which helped us massively in terms of getting through the process of seeing each other every day and travelling to all these different places and doing these new things. It could have spiralled out of control if we didn’t have this chemistry. It would have been a totally different show.
“It was really exhilarating to go to these exotic locations. I found it quite weird at times pretending to be just among normal people going about their day. One moment I particularly remember was when we were in Ho Chi Minh City [in Vietnam] and we were just plugging away, walking and talking, and getting heckles and people wanting to be in the show – but none of them were locals. They were the people we were playing, it was hilarious! But it was really exciting and we were discovering new things every day. The biggest surprise for me was Beijing. It was so fascinating and I didn’t expect it to be what it was and how really bonkers it was.”
Key adds: “Most places had something about them but Beijing was really good. It was so Chinese! It was really good, really friendly. That’s when we were at our most cultural, we did a lot of sight-seeing. But Ho Chi Minh City was good. It came at a good time because we hadn’t been anywhere wild. Up until that point, we’d done an episode in Langkawi, an island in Malaysia, and then in Kuala Lumpur set in an orphanage and an episode in a jungle so I think we were ready to go somewhere mad, and Ho Chi Minh City delivered.”
Series creator Tom Basden (Fresh Meat) had been developing the series alongside producer Eleven’s Jamie Campbell and Joel Wilson since 2013, but reveals he had written a similar script 10 years ago, though then it was more sitcom than comedy-drama.
“It’s one of those ideas where you think, ‘I can’t believe this hasn’t been done as a TV show,’” he says. “It really lends itself to different episodes in different places and the gang making their way through a continent over a season. It’s been brewing for a long time.
“The dramatic side we wanted to hone in on comes from making sure it’s a story about coming of age and people changing and characters getting themselves into funny and amusing situations but also learning about themselves and each other. There’s not as much need to make the sitcom version of this – you know what that is. It would be a bit of a cliché. The comedy-drama version is one where you care about the characters a bit more and it feels a bit more truthful and it makes you really feel like you’re there.”
Key to the success of the series are the five central characters and the relationships they share on their travels, something on which Basden was particularly focused to ensure they each had a reason for travelling and something they wanted to get out of it.
“It’s really about a group of people who are going out of their way to get something. They’re searching for something and want some kind of breakthrough for themselves, and we’re giving it to them in ways they don’t expect at all,” he explains. “So from that point of view, we had to do a huge amount of work on the characters and make sure at every stage they have places to go and have things they hadn’t realised about themselves.”
It was also a deliberate move to open episode one with a focus on best friends Dylan and Sean, before introducing Greg, and then May and Ashley.
“It mimics what happens when you travel and the way friendships form,” Basden adds. “Although Dylan and Sean are our way into it, that was a decision we made to let the audience follow them and find the other characters.”
The series was produced in partnership with global studio Entertainment One (eOne), which also distributes it internationally. Carrie Stein, eOne Television’s exec VP of global productions, admits she loved the concept of Gap Year from the start and was instantly convinced it would have worldwide appeal.
“The thing about travelling is that it’s this great opportunity to just let down your guard and contemplate your life. What we love about the show is each character has a clear emotional journey,” Stein says. “They each have a story – why they’re there and what they left behind, where they think they’re headed, how they change over the course of travelling and how this group they hang out with impacts where they might be headed. Tom’s done an amazing job of really enriching each of these characters with a strong dramatic story.”
Once on location, one of the many challenges the creative team faced was deciding when they would exert a level of control over their surroundings and when they would simply let the camera capture the actors naturally in the setting, as if making a documentary.
“That was the push and pull,” Basden says. “There were times when we had to say this location, like the orphanage in Vietnam, we’re just going to make ourselves and control every element of it. But when Greg goes to the full-moon party or Sean makes his way through Beijing, we decided just to shoot and see what happened.
“That was the thing that was the most exciting and the most difficult to judge because you’ve got to allow for the freedom to just be there and see what happens. But you can’t do that too much or you have no idea what you’re going to get.”
Stein picks up: “Certainly the production was ambitious but we had tremendous faith in Jamie, Joel and Tom. There were some scary moments, like receiving a phone call telling us we didn’t have permission to shoot in China. That was crazy.
“It was also a juggling act for Tom because he had certainly written a lot and had a writers room but, once you start location scouting, you find out about different things in particular places that you want to make part of the story. So then there’s rejigging. It’s one of those pieces that evolves as you’re in pre-production and then you’re playing catch-up on the script side.”
Basden continues: “That kind of makes it really fun as well. Although it didn’t feel like it at the time, one of the benefits of being on set and doing rewrites and changing things is you really can adapt to what you’re learning about the cast and the locations. That gives it a slightly organic chemistry when you’re doing it, even though I was shut up in a hotel room for most of it. I was hardly on the set at all, but I can’t complain. I got to hang out in some lovely cafes!”
While now enjoying a well-earned break, Basden says there’s definitely scope for a second season, which he imagines would see many of the same cast return for another trip along with a broader range of international characters.
“It’s so fucking hard – that’s what we’ve all learned from it,” he concludes. “It’s really difficult dramatically to make an exciting story about people travelling. That, from the script point of view, was the hardest thing – and then the logistics of it without faking it and doing some kind of backlot shoot, that is really tricky.
“Because you’re not using the same locations, it’s harder to build because every episode is a mini film. So it’s not like a sitcom where you reuse locations and characters. There’s not really a formula for this show but, for the viewer, that’s great because you don’t know where you’re going to be every episode. From a writing point of view, it means you start the next episode where anything could happen.”