How Two Pints of Lager broke comedy’s class ceiling: ‘There was no one like us in the BBC canteen’

Will Mellor, Natalie Casey, Sheridan Smith, Ralf Little and Kathryn Drysdale
Will Mellor, Natalie Casey, Sheridan Smith, Ralf Little and Kathryn Drysdale

It was a broad, warm and gag-packed Noughties sitcom about working-class characters who lived refreshingly far from the metropolitan bubble. It was a niche commission that unexpectedly became a mainstream hit. Its cast would go on to star in many of our best-loved dramas.

This wasn’t the critically adored Royle Family or Gavin & Stacey, although it did share cast members with both. No, we’re talking about the much maligned Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps. And it turns 20 today. The anniversary won’t just make a generation suddenly feel scarily old but provides the ideal opportunity to reappraise a comedy that never got its dues.

Despite being critically panned, TPOLAAPOC (as literally nobody called it) proved popular enough to run for a staggering nine series and still be on rotation today. It became the launchpad for all five of it stars’ varied and startlingly successful careers - spanning from Bridgerton to Broadchurch, from West End stardom to Bafta wins. Not bad for a sex and alcohol-fuelled farce, written by a rookie undergraduate and set in the unglamorous environs of Runcorn.

Billed as “an up north remix of Friends” or “the worst programme on TV”, depending on your tastes, Two Pints was created by Susan Nickson while still in her teens. This screenwriting prodigy bashed out the scripts in between her university English essays, using the communal computer in her hall of residence. She borrowed the show’s unwieldy title from 1980 novelty punk song Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps Please by Splodgenessabounds. Just be thankful she didn’t name it after the band.

Two Pints, as it was swiftly nicknamed, debuted on February 26, 2001. The opening episode's title, Fags, Shags & Kebabs, provided a handy clue as to its content. Against all odds, this raucous, ribald student favourite would stay on-air for a decade, becoming one of the longest-running homegrown comedies of the modern era.

Writer Susan Nickson - Howard Barlow
Writer Susan Nickson - Howard Barlow

Remarkably, Nickson wrote 63 of the 80 episodes herself. Former cast member Ralf Little - now 41 and playing the lead role in sun-soaked BBC detective drama Death in Paradise - firmly believes her achievements are undervalued. “If Susan had been American, they would’ve thrown awards and money at her,” he says. “She’d still be talked about as one of the greatest talents of her generation. It’s about time we came around to recognising that too. It’s incredible, what she did. Unheard of. She did it all on her own and was just a gag machine.”

Set in Nickson’s Cheshire hometown, Two Pints followed the lives of five twentysomethings: loved-up couple Jonny and Janet (played by Royle Family alumni Little and Sheridan Smith), laddish mechanic Gaz and his lippy girlfriend Donna (Hollyoaks duo Will Mellor and Natalie Casey), plus their hilariously needy, Sylvanian Families-fixated friend Louise (relative novice Kathryn Drysdale).

Laughter, love triangles and endless pop culture references ensued. The quintet navigated the pleasures and pitfalls of early adulthood while subsisting on a diet of curry, pies, pasties, Jammie Dodger biscuits and the budget end of the booze menu at local pub The Archer. Small wonder there were so many references to vomit and flatulence.

Will Mellor and Natalie Casey played couple Gaz and Donna - MATT SQUIRE
Will Mellor and Natalie Casey played couple Gaz and Donna - MATT SQUIRE

Now 40, Casey is a musical theatre star and narrator of ITV’s Dinner Date. “It’s literally half a lifetime ago but my main memory is the camaraderie,” she recalls. “We’d record on a Friday night, have drinks in the green room, then go out on the town and have a lovely old time. None of us were Londoners, so we were exploring the city. It was an era of absolute joy - like university, except with money.”

“It must have been awful for the producers, keeping us in line,” chuckles Little. “We were aged 19 to 24, suddenly in a hit show and all we did was make each other laugh - all day, every day. We immediately became firm friends and formed a tight-knit gang.”

This reflected the show’s main theme. “What we tried to distil into each episode was that sense of a close, cohesive group,” says Casey. “They might have been broke and without prospects but they were a proper gang. It’s full of affection and love. A lot of that comes from how well the five of us got on. You can’t fake that chemistry. Watching Two Pints now, it might have an air of ladette culture and combat trousers but the themes are timeless. Being in a mixed friendship group - growing close, falling out, sleeping with each other - those dynamics don’t change.”

For Casey, social class was another key factor. “We were working-class Northern kids, filming a comedy at Television Centre,” she says. “There was no one like us at the time - certainly not in the BBC canteen. Nobody on TV spoke like me, unless it was a charwoman. The show simultaneously reinforced and obliterated class stereotypes. So many reviews said it was crass, crude or lowest common denominator. Half the time it was middle-class critics who didn’t get it. It got written off as just sex and booze but that’s what it was to be young. Nowadays everybody’s vegan and doesn’t drink. People tell me now that their 14-year-old daughter watches it and I say ‘I can only apologise’.”

Little and Mellor remain great friends
Little and Mellor remain great friends

“I always felt Two Pints arrived at the wrong time,” says Little. “The fashion during the early Noughties was for low-key, naturalistic comedy. I can’t complain because it was partly my fault. The Royle Family had changed the tone of British comedy, closely followed by The Office. Unfortunately, that meant a more traditional sitcom like Two Pints looked slightly out of step. But the fans loved it, so it didn’t matter. You don’t make TV for critics, you make it for viewers.”

Scatalogical gags and fruity language flowed thick and fast - except for the F-word which was uttered only once per series, always during the last episode. “It was always a big deal in the rehearsal room when you knew it was coming,” recalls Casey. “Who’s gonna get it? Everybody did in the end. It was terribly egalitarian.” “I was lucky enough to get the first one,” adds Little. “It became a lovely little tradition and an Easter Egg for the fans.”

Nickson’s scripts were stuffed with quickfire wordplay and one-liners. See: “They can't do you for it once you've robbed it - it’s called Double Geoffrey.” Or: “You have perfect arms, like a work of art. Like the Venus de Milo.” Or Louise, sniffing a card from a mystery admirer: “Ooh, who do I know who smells of paper?” Or this exchange: “It's not a cult.” “That's what the Britannia Music Club said.”

Funny was always its first priority but Two Pints borrowed tricks from drama: cliffhangers, plot twists, will-they-or-won’t-they romances and serious (or semi-serious) storylines about pregnancy, cancer and disability. Its characters were rounded, relatable and surprisingly sweet. Take the adorable wedding dress episode - never was Two Pints more like Gavin & Stacey. It also included this bridalwear gem from Jonny: “All I'm saying is, if you pay a bomb for something, it needs to be used and used and used again until it breaks. Like Gareth Gates.”

Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps - MATT SQUIRE
Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps - MATT SQUIRE

Naughty but nice and narratively addictive, Two Pints steadily gathered a fiercely devoted fanbase. Hundreds, sometimes thousands, would queue up outside the live Friday night recordings and return week after week.

“The funny thing was that for the first series, nobody knew what the show was, so the audience were all pensioners,” says Little. “They thought they were coming to watch Countdown but were confronted with this comedy about shagging. It was mortifying. Nobody was laughing, so you could hear the clacking of knitting needles and false teeth. But when it took off, the right audience piled in and they’d go crazy. We’d be introduced by the warm-up guy - who was Jason Manford, by the way - and get cheered like rock stars. People waved home-made banners and everything.”

It initially aired on late-night BBC Two but was soon moved to BBC Three (back when it was still called BBC Choice). Alongside Little Britain and EastEnders repeats, Two Pints became a cornerstone of the nascent youth channel. “It really struck a chord and had such loyal fans,” says Casey. “They still come up to me and quote lines. People regularly tell me, ‘I moved to England and learned the language by watching Two Pints.’”

The show has fans in all corners of the globes. “The Farrelly Brothers called me in for a meeting off the back of them loving it, which was so cool,” says Little. “My biggest ever TikTok video by far was a half-arsed gag about Jammie Dodgers - that’s the legacy of Two Pints. It’s still the thing I get recognised for most. I went to Cape Canaveral recently and this family of Brits came up to me to talk about Two Pints, virtually barging an astronaut out of the way. Sorry, mate.”

The show was far more adventurous than it’s given credit for. It broke new ground with interactive storylines, where viewers could vote on characters’ fates via text. This came more than a decade before Black Mirror’s ooh-how-modern Bandersnatch. There were stagey two-hander episodes and even a live episode in 2008.

“The live show was a big deal,” recalls Casey. “It was a high-pressure exercise and we were s***ting it - partly because we knew that if we swore, that’d be us done.” They watched their language, all went to plan and drew record ratings of 1.3m.

For Little, the highlight was musical instalment When Janet Met Jonny. It was told in flashback and spoofed pop videos from the period, including Marilyn Manson, Coldplay, S Club 7, Robbie Williams, Moulin Rouge and Eminem. “The ambition was astonishing,” he says. “We did it all in two weeks on a budget of 27 pence. My sister watched that episode recently and it’s her favourite thing I’ve ever done - forget the multiple award-winning Royle Family. The Homeless and Horny episode has become iconic, too. I can’t possibly think why, although it might have something to do with Sheridan Smith wearing nothing but a bikini made from cheese and onion pasties.”

As years passed and the cast began to eye other roles, the gang gradually broke up. Little departed after series six - in a knowingly meta touch, his character Jonny died off-screen after winning a competition to go shark-jumping in Hawaii. Smith, Drysdale and writer Nickson followed two years later. Last orders were finally called in 2011, with the sneakily emotional finale built around Gaz’s 30th birthday.

The Two Pints team continue to thrive. Former pasty-wearer Sheridan Smith has gone on to become one of our best-loved actresses, winning acclaim for such dramas as Cilla, Mrs Biggs and The Moorside. Kathryn Drysdale put aside her precious Sylvanians to play Meghan Markle in royal sitcom The Windsors. She’s currently relishing her role as sultry high-society dressmaker Genevieve Delacroix in Netflix smash Bridgerton, arguably the biggest TV show in the world right now.

Will Mellor appeared in prestige dramas Line Of Duty, No Offence and Broadchurch, and has just been cast in Coronation Street as a villainous drug dealer called Harvey. Last year, he reunited with Little to make pub-themed podcast Two Pints With Will & Ralf, which became a lockdown hit.

“Susan Nickson got in touch and as a treat for fans, we’ve put together a little surprise for the anniversary itself on Friday,” says Little. “We’re doing it as Gaz and Jonny, not ourselves. It’s written by Susan, so it can be considered Two Pints canon. It’s officially part of the Two Pints Cinematic Universe.” The five-minute skit sees Jonny rise from the dead, Gaz confess his multiple marriage troubles and a cameo for a certain brand of biscuit.

"This little sketch seemed a simple way of resetting the show," says Nickson. "I do miss working with them all. I get a bit nostalgic about what an unorthodox little family we were. Mainly, though, I get letters STILL about having killed off Jonny so I wanted those to stop."

The cast might be all grown up but thirst for Two Pints has never faded. “Fans still come to it late,” says Little. “It’s repeated over and over again, and new people keep discovering it. I think it’s become a sleeper hit with critics too. With a bit of distance, they can appreciate how good it actually was. No, it’s not The Office but it was never meant to be and there’s room for both.”

The BBC put every episode back on iPlayer last summer to amuse viewers during lockdown and it became the catch-up service's most requested comedy. When GOLD subsequently aired nightly reruns, fans began calling for a proper reunion special. After all, it worked for Gavin & Stacey and Cold Feet. “Never say never,” says Little. “I think we’d all be up for it in theory, if we can get the gang back together. It was like herding cats when we were 20 and getting us all in the same room now would be like herding cats again. But there’s certainly interest in it and appetite for it.”

Two Pints of Lager - Stuart Wood
Two Pints of Lager - Stuart Wood

“We’re all still in touch, which in itself is quite miraculous in this business after 20 years,” says Casey. “There would be a market for a reunion, I think, but let’s leave that to the wind. And Susan Nickson.” Where would her character Donna be now, does she reckon? “She’d be CEO of her own Fortune 500 company. No children, fabulous house and a succession of lovers coming in through the front door and leaving out the back door. That’s not a euphemism.”

Would Nickson be happy to bring the show back? "Certainly. I think at the point it was cancelled, the BBC made the right decision. It left without any diminishment of audience and everybody's gone on to do really fun, popular, wonderful things. Clearly it still has a huge place in people's hearts. And I had a brilliant time with the boys on this sketch. So for sure - if the appetite is there, then why wouldn't we do more?"

For now, it’s happy 20th anniversary, Two Pints. Perhaps tonight, it can treat itself to Two Bottles of Prosecco and a Packet of Kettle Chips.