Chris Lilley: The New King of Mockumentary

After enduring the hardships of Summer Heights High, television’s most toxic schoolgirl is back. And it’s all thanks to our favourite Australian, the brilliant Chris Lilley. 

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With his superbly observed and darkly hilarious mockumentaries Summer Heights High (2008) and Angry Boys, (2011) Aussie character comedian Chris Lilley introduced us to a family of perfectly observed personalities, each pitched somewhere between the grotesque and the pathetic.

To mark his return this week, with alpha-female schoolgirl Ja’mie King in Ja’mie: Private School Girl, he tells us how some favourites came to life.

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1 | JA’MIE KING

Who? Bitchy, manipulative, spoilt rich kid, School Captain at Sydney’s Hillford Girls Grammar. After featuring in Lilley’s series We Can Be Heroes and Summer Heights High, she now has her own show.

Typical quote: “Erin Walker is this boarder and she is seriously, no offence, such a dumb bitch.”

Chris Lilley says: “After Angry Boys, I really missed Ja’mie and I wanted to explore more of her home life and get into dating boys – take her up a notch.

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In Summer Heights High, she was on a school exchange and I thought it would be so good this time to see her back on top.

She’s just fascinating to watch. She thinks she’s pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes, including the documentary-makers, but it’s great to expose her all the time.

There’s a couple of little moments where you almost feel for her but then she turns around and does exactly what you hope she’s going to do. She’s just awful, but not that far off from the girls I met when I went to a private boys school in Sydney. I was in an area with a lot of those schools, but that type, who’s young and stupid and thinks she knows everything, they’re not specific to private school or even Australia.”

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2 | JONAH TAKALUA

Who? Tongan FOB (“Fresh Off the Boat”) and aspirant breakdancer, last seen being expelled from Summer Heights High, his fourth school in 18 months.

Typical quote: “How do you spell ‘Fuck him up’?”

Chris Lilley says: “I’m just finishing a series about Jonah now. It kicks off when he gets sent back to Tonga to live with his uncle but all sorts of things happen and he’s all over the place.

A lot of people interpreted him as just a naughty kid, but this time you’re more aware of the culture he’s from and how those kind of kids fit into school in Australia. I think it’s going to be more controversial, but I like a bit of controversy – the current affairs shows here always do something about how terrible I am.

It’s quite different from Ja’mie, where the young white girls are very conscious of how this is all going to end up looking on television. With Jonah, the Pacific Islander, people aren’t interested. They’re probably not even going to watch the show and it’s a little more genuine for that.”

WATCH CLIP:

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3 | MR G

Who? Terminally egotistical drama teacher of Summer Heights High, creator of Mr G: The Musical

Typical quote: “From time to time I perform for the whole lesson just to give them a benchmark of how things are done.”

Chris Lilley says: “Mr G was more improvised than others. He was filmed in a real school where they just brought in 30 kids and said, ‘Right, you’re on.’

When we introduced his teaching methods, for example, most of it came trying to kill time because we hadn’t scheduled enough stuff. We just did more games with all this stuff I found in the room – I found some rubber meat so I chased one of the kids round and called it Slap The Butcher.

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I didn’t know what I was talking about but there’s some improvisation with all the characters. Ja’mie is always going off on tangents. The girls have scripted lines, which they’re so good at slipping in and making seem real, but then I start expanding on things that are in the script and it all flows from there.

A lot of my time is spent finding young people who can handle that.”

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4 | GRAN

Who? Casually racist mother-hen warder at Garingal Juvenile Justice Centre in Angry Boys. Likes guinea pigs and her colleague Penny.

Typical quote: “Did your mum’s heroin habit during pregnancy affect your coordination?”

Chris Lilley says: “Gran was certainly designed to be shocking and confrontational but I’ve since seen documentaries where people in her position have said exactly that stuff.

I wanted her to be this scary tyrant at first but by the end you see that she really cares about these boys and she’s dedicated her whole life to looking after them. It wasn’t a real prison we filmed in, but some of the boys we cast from the local high school ended up going to juvenile detention centres – we picked the right ones.

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Gran does this big speech at the end of the series and I’m sure many of the kids thought it was aimed at them. You can see one of the kids is a little bit teary and that was totally genuine. Somehow they do believe in the characters onset, even when I’m dressed as a woman.”

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5 | NATHAN & DANIEL SIMS

Who? Twin teenage brothers (both played by Lilley, in Angry Boys), one deaf, the other just stupid. Fraternal love well disguised by constant fighting and abuse.

Typical quote: “Mum, Nath’s just pissed on me!”

Chris Lilley says: “They’re just bogan Aussie kids, living in a remote town but with the internet and television.

People have said that, of all the characters, I’m most like one of them. If I go out in public people often come up and ask me, ‘Why are you dressed as Nathan?’

Growing up, we had a farm we spent weekends at and the brother rivalry stuff, a lot of it is based on my older brother Tim and my middle brother, Richard, who’s a little bit Nathan. I was the younger one –  they both beat up.

There’s a bit when Daniel’s spitting from above onto his little brother and then sucking the spit back in – that’s direct from my life. And the farting in a bottle.”

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Ja’mie: Private School Girl begins on BBC Three on 6 February, 10pm

This article appears in the new edition of Esquire Weekly, our exclusive iPad edition, along with an exclusive interview with Matthew McConaughey, a preview of the Danny Boyle cop drama and much more besides. Published every Thursday on the Apple Newsstand.

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