In an interview just before Camping aired on Sky Atlantic in April 2016, Julia Davis (writer, director and star of the dark comedy) mentioned that she would soon be turning fifty. She admitted to being “a bit worried about that”, remarking “you read about people who really embrace it but I don’t feel like that”. She added that the topic of ageing would likely play a significant role in her next project. However it would seem that ageing was also on her mind whilst she was creating Camping, as youth, middle age and midlife crises are prominent themes throughout the six-part series.
For a start, the camping trip at the centre of the show is to celebrate a fiftieth birthday. Robin (the birthday boy, joking “where’s my zimmer frame?”, played by Steve Pemberton) is the first to arrive at the campsite with his young son Archie (Oaklee Pendergast) and uptight wife Fi (Vicki Pepperdine), who has planned the entire trip to the letter. They are joined by recovering alcoholic Adam (Jonathan Cake) and his mousey partner Kerry (Elizabeth Berrington), along with Adam’s teenage son, Davey (Shaun Aylward) – an unexpected addition that Fi makes it very clear she is not happy with. The party appears to be complete… that is until Tom (Rufus Jones) turns up with his new girlfriend Fay (Julia Davis), whom he proceeds to show off to all of his friends. What follows is a holiday from hell in which failing relationships, old tensions and bitter rivalries come to the fore.
Of the six middle-aged characters, Tom is the one most obviously having a midlife crisis. It has been just three weeks since he split up with his wife – or if you ask him it is “actually just shy of a month” – and he’s already adopted a new, youthful look complete with an attractive, younger girlfriend. Decked out in double denim from Topshop and claiming his hair has miraculously rejuvenated, he’s the epitome of mutton dressed as lamb. He also distances himself from his old life, which includes dodging calls from his children and claiming that he doesn’t miss his wife Anne (whom we hear about but never see) at all. When the group find out that Anne has fallen into a coma after taking an overdose, he dismissively refers to her as “a woman who is currently unconscious that I used to sleep with”. This blasé attitude shows that for Tom, his new life with Fay and his previous life with Anne and their children cannot co-exist. To pursue the former, he has rejected and numbed himself to the latter.
Tom is clearly delighted to be dating someone as cool as Fay and won’t stop telling anyone who’ll listen about how much she’s changed his life. Despite claiming “I don’t wanna rub my fun in your guys’ faces”, he does just that, taking every opportunity to boast and slobber all over her in public. He’ll do anything in an attempt to impress her, from smoking and responding “thanks mum” when Kerry outs him as a non-smoker, to taking drugs with enthusiasm. Towards the end of the series however, this desire to seem young becomes a desperation to not be lonely, as he proves willing to do whatever Fay asks (humiliating himself in the process) for fear that she will lose interest and leave him. He is visibly more upset by Fay saying that she is going off him than he is about his wife’s suicide attempt. After being introduced as a figure of fun – the archetypal middle-aged man who wants to be young – Tom is revealed to be deeply unhappy and frightened of being alone. His midlife crisis is shown to be about more than wanting to look and feel youthful; it’s also about a fear of death.
The ridiculousness of Tom’s youthful posturing is highlighted when the group leave the confines of the campsite and venture into a nearby town. Upon discovering that he and Fay will be walking around the town, rather than going on a fishing trip with the others, he becomes immediately uncomfortable with the outfit he’s wearing – a pair of tight, second-hand lederhosen that Fay assured him would look good. Whereas he evidently feels like a god at the campsite among his miserable middle-aged friends, in the ‘real world’ Tom finds himself being threatened by young men in a pub, whom Fay swiftly ditches him for, and mocked by teenagers in a skate park.
In complete contrast to Tom and Fay’s amorous relationship are Robin and Fi, who are trapped in a stale, joyless marriage. Their dysfunction is made clear from the moment we first see them, as she criticises his driving for no valid reason, he needlessly apologises, and she then leaves him to carry all of their suitcases to the campsite by himself. Fi’s neurotic, controlling nature is the centrepiece of the opening episode, setting her up as a risibly monstrous character. In addition to bullying her husband and ruling over the campsite like a dictator, which includes announcing that the kettle is “for an emergency situation only which we would have to define in the moment”, she smothers her son to a ludicrous extent. In the first episode alone, she commands him to play hide and seek “where we can see you” and mentions that she has banned him from eating what are in her eyes “homosexual foods” such as sundried tomatoes, polenta and baguettes. She also forces him to wear a large fishbowl helmet for reasons that are never fully made clear.
Fi is constantly dismissive of Robin, from rolling her eyes at his jokes to rejecting his sexual advances. Robin confesses to Tom that he and his highly strung wife have not had sex in seven years, despite his efforts, and this dynamic has obviously left him feeling weak and emasculated. He rarely asserts himself and spends much of the series bowing to Fi’s every whim, trying to avoid conflict, and playing with his son – often in a rather babyish voice that serves to emasculate him further. His predicament is perhaps most accurately described by a concerned Tom, who says that he is “running around like a castrated elf”. Tom’s sex life may be at the opposite end of the scale to Robin’s, but neither men are shown to be particularly happy. Although on the surface it would seem that Tom’s situation is preferable to Robin’s, his relationship with Fay proves to be superficial and unsustainable, meaning that whatever fun he has is short lived.
Initially, Adam and Kerry may appear to be the most stable couple of the three, but this notion falls apart as the series goes on. The first warning signs come early, as Kerry proudly announces that Adam is now two years sober, to virtually no reaction from him, and he visibly winces at the mention of a “boozy lunch”. The audience is soon able to recognise that he resents his partner for keeping him away from alcohol and has grown completely bored of her. This becomes most clear at the middle point of the series when his reaction to her falling off a boat is a frustrated “for Christ’s sake!”, not much different from his response when she previously asked him to open a jar, leaving his son to dive into the water and save her alone.
As soon as youthful, fun-loving Fay is introduced to the group, Adam is noticeably attracted to her and therefore jealous of Tom. Despite the superficiality of Tom and Fay’s relationship, Adam sees it as something to aspire to simply because Fay is younger and prettier than his own partner. The fact that Kerry has to call him away from staring at the couple kissing foreshadows his behaviour throughout the rest of the series. In comparison to the rather drippy Kerry, who to make matters even worse is suffering from a nasty cold, Fay excites Adam and gives him a new lease of life. This is succinctly conveyed in a moment when his face lights up at noticing that Fay has appeared, following an exchange with Kerry in which he tells her to stop sniffling and disgustedly asks her “have you brushed your teeth this morning?”. Similarly later on, he grins and giggles around Fay, dancing, engaging in a food fight, and generally seeming happier and more youthful than we’ve ever seen him before. When she fatefully hands him a beer, which he describes as setting him free, she is confirmed as the antithesis of Kerry, who takes his alcoholism so seriously that she says he needs to avoid homeopathy because “flower essences have alcohol in them”.
Adam’s desire for Fay inevitably leads to a rivalry with Tom, who appears to feel threatened by the more laddish, muscular man. The competitive feelings between them are especially palpable at the beach, as Fay asks Tom if he’s going to go in the sea and he instantly asks if Adam has gone in. Adam then proceeds to pull down Tom’s shorts and make fun of what he sees, leaving Tom looking wounded and wanting to go home. This is just one example of Adam undermining someone else to make himself look good, and he is even shown to compete for attention with his son Davey. When the teenager has drawn a small crowd on the beach by doing keepie-uppies, his dad unashamedly steals the limelight and takes the football to show off some tricks. Adam also gets noticeably annoyed when Fay innocently tells Davey that he is her new hero. Early in the series, when Tom is showing off, he briefly makes eye contact with Adam whilst kissing Fay. At the point when Adam finally kisses Fay, he taunts Tom by staring at him, smugly emphasising that the roles have been reversed and that he has won.
The penultimate episode of Camping sees Robin’s fiftieth birthday party take place, and things quickly begin to go wild. Adam gets drunk, aided and abetted by Fay, and tears into Tom before railing against his own life and everyone in it, from Kerry and Davey to his long deceased wife. Age once again proves to be a sore point, with Adam mocking Tom’s hair transplant and Fay commenting “old people think they can’t have fun anymore” as Kerry reluctantly takes drugs in a last-ditch attempt to save her relationship and keep up with the younger woman.
By the time the final episode starts, the birthday celebrations have completely spiralled out control and the light, jolly theme tune of the show has been replaced by hard dance music. The middle-aged couples’ camping trip, which Fi so meticulously planned, has descended into a desperate attempt at youthful hedonism. Fi, who initially stood out as the show’s biggest monster, is the only person not willingly involved in the ultimate chaos. Yet while the grownups are engaging in irresponsible and debauched activities, the two youngest members of the party, Archie and Davey, are notably subdued. After being constantly restricted and controlled by their parents, they can finally do whatever they want, and what they choose to do is comparatively innocent. Davey’s shy courtship of a girl stands in stark contrast to what his father and the others are getting up to just a few metres away, demonstrating that the sex, drugs and rock’n’roll idea of youth held by the adults is not consistent with reality.
As a fear of old age hangs over the series, the owners of the campsite are a literal reminder of it for the characters. Noel (played by David Bamber), who appears to be around ten years older than them, lives in a house next to the campsite with his elderly, infirm mother for whom he acts as a carer. The audience never meets his mother, and neither do the campers, but references to her conjure up nauseating imagery. Just in the opening episode, we’re told that she can’t eat solid food so “can only suck nowadays” and we witness Noel hosing down her bedpan and hanging her enormous, dirty underwear on the washing line. With such a stomach-turning representative of old age nearby, it’s no wonder that the middle-aged group try so hard to cling onto youth.
The morning after the final night of chaos, the group part ways – some of them probably forever due to their relationships being damaged beyond repair. The show concludes with shots of the now empty campsite, a broken window, and the lyric “I’m a self-destructive fool” as the theme tune plays and the credits roll. Whether it was Julia Davis’ intention or not, Camping provides a compelling exploration of middle age and midlife crises. Adults who try to be ‘down with the kids’ and/or fight against the natural ageing process are ripe for comedy, and often crop up as figures of fun on TV. Julia Davis puts these people centre stage in Camping, along with all of their insecurities, and ultimately punishes them for idolising youth.
 Sarah Hughes, ‘Julia Davis talks new show Camping and the future of comedy’, The Independent, 20 March 2016 – http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/features/comedian-julia-davis-says-the-future-of-comedy-is-scary-a6939086.html