30/03/2020

Skins Season One

Lockdown archive! As we're all spending more time at home during the lockdown- and because everyone's doing this - I thought I'd post some archive material from the vast vaults of This Way Up (it's an enormous golden pyramid in the garden) starting with this review of the iconic first season of Skins from 2007. Wonder what happened to this cast then.....


On the criminally overlooked third Thrills album, there’s a line “I harbour doubts I didn’t live my youth with sufficient recklessness” and you’ll probably feel the same after watching a few minutes of the fascinating series Skins. Before you clock a second though, it’s worth checking out Maxxie miming to the Chipmunks song on Youtube because it’s funny and because it reminds us that this is a series about teenagers enjoying themselves in whatever weird way that teenagers do. Don’t expect to understand why, just laugh because there’s an askew enjoyment to be had from seeing a modern character dancing to such an ancient cutesy song from decades back. Its only one of a series of internet treats lurking for fans hooked on the TV show- the most notable of these is the ten minute “digger party” episode that’s positively surreal. It’s a good preparation for a show which will climax with- yes- a song. 
 Launched first on the minority channel E4 before getting a repeat on proper Channel 4 and now available on DVD (series 2 starts soon on E4 if you’re one of the 27 people who has subscribed to it), Skins is one of those once-in-a decade telly shows about young people that gets Mrs Putey from Basingstoke irritated and critics rhapsodising about how it’s speaking to the young generation. Cleverly trailered with exactly the sort of crazy party that parents will shiver their timbers about, the show seems designed to upset anyone older than 16 while simultaneously giving the under 16s their own show. It bothers me that they watch Hollyoaks which is a plastic, gift wrapped portrait of adolescence which I refuse to believe mirrors anyone’s experience except for well off thritysomethings with wine bars and lofts and designer furniture. As they say in the fab Corsa adverts, Come On!!

Skins is the real deal, I’d wager, because it’s not moulded from designer aspirations, neither is it cynically inhabited by the most perfect cross section of `types` that we’re led to believe dwell in Chester these days. Course, I don’t actually know because I’m too busy in my wine loft lounging on my designer footstool or something. However, like politicians and parents and people who refuse to grow up, I like to think I know what `the kids` are into though I would still cross the road to avoid a gang of hoodies even at the risk of stepping on a Corsa chasing sock creature.
From Company Pictures, Skins follows the lives of nine Bristol based teenagers and debuted in January with impressive ratings of 2 million which surprised those of us who never imagined E4 even had that many subscribers. One of the series’ selling points is the average age of the writing team - 23 - ensuring the storylines are as authentic as possible though to some extent they are also very traditional. Whatever age you are, you’ll recognize similar rites of passage – the locale, the scenario and the language may be different but I guarantee you’ll see yourself in there somewhere. Amongst the writers are the Dawson brothers who penned Balls of Steel and Dirty Tricks, Jack Thorne (Shameless), Josie Long and one episode was penned by the redoubtable Simon Amstell better known as a presenter of Popworld and Never Mind The Buzzcocks. Skins is filmed in Bristol; the school scenes are all filmed at John Cabot Technical College and the whole thing is shot entirely in High Definition. With great importance placed on cinematography, the result is a beautifully shot programme using independent film as inspiration for its style and showing off the often picturesque environs of Bristol to great effect. Oh and the title? It may refer to rolling papers used for weed and cigarettes or it may be the different skins in which this diverse set of characters live.
Controversial  from the start, (though partly through the makers stoking their own controversies) the series even made global headlines for inspiring a teenage house party promoted as an "Unofficial Skins Party" with the subtitle "Let's trash the average family-sized house disco party"., needless to say it did just that accruing considerable damage in the process. Perhaps predictably – and no doubt as fully intended- the critics have acclaimed the series for its realistic treatment of today’s youth and relentlessly describing it as “edgy” yet it didn’t always go down as expected. Check out some message boards and you’ll find teenagers themselves complaining about exaggerated scenarios in the scripts and even that there is too much swearing!
Creator Bryan Elsley who was responsible for The Crow Road and 40 amongst other describes the characters as “sunny, optimistic kids who drop pills, pass exams, have sex, manage their parents and push boundaries like only teenagers can". Enabling this, the cast consists of mostly unknowns with the exception of Tony who is played by Nicholas Hoult – now rather older and less geeky than he was in About a Boy. There’s Tony's girlfriend Michelle (April Pearson) - the most beautiful girl in town, unconfident, vague virgin Sid (Mike Bailey), Cassie (Hannah Murray) a girl with issues and a sort of floaty, dippy personality. Chris (Joe Dempsie) is the party animal and Jal (Larissa Wilson), a talented musician. Then there’s Maxxie (Mitch Hewer) a very sweet gay character and Anwar (Dev Patel) a Muslim struggling with maintaining both his faith and his party lifestyle. All of the adults are played by well known actors and comedians including Morwenna Banks, Neil Morrissey, Arabella Weir and as Tonys Dad Harry Enfield who is as horrible as you might imagine a fortysomething Loadsamoney might be. Alongside the acting though, the series employs a barrage of television techniques, some of them in your face but others quite more unusual. So while you get lots of dizzying camerawork representing drug induced states there’s also accomplished pieces of imagery, such as the aftermath of a party where everyone has crashed out shot as it it’s a battlefield with ketchup and spilt drinks instead of blood.

Like all good series, the opening episode stacks up a raft of characters allowing you a glimpse of them, just enough to decide whether you think you like them or not. Tony comes across as smugly self confident, the type of kid his peers like and everyone else doesn’t. As he sets up a trip to a party at a posh girls school with the intention of getting his virgin friend Sid laid, we’re never sure of his reasons. Is this a genuine attempt to do his friend a favour or simply to boost the cool quotient of the people he hangs around with? His sarcastic answers and asides suggest it could be either and his motivations remain undefined throughout the episode. Sid is the sort of person whom girls always call “sweet” which is a put down when you’re that age yet you get a sense he’s torn between wanting to behave like Tony and being too reticent. There’s a fun scene where he’s verbally pulled apart by a weed dealer that’s an early sign Sid will turn out to be the character we root for. Overall the episode plays more conventionally than its reputation would lead you to suspect with some deft miniature character moments- Anwar’s Muslim duties interrupted by his mobile, Maxxie tap dancing! – as events surge on. The seemingly de rigeur modern telly drama opening- the main character phoning half a dozen people so we can have a snapshot of their lives- makes for a lively entrance and there’s only one rather unconvincing moment when the car they’re coming back from the party in falls into a canal.

After that electric start, the second episode is totally different in mood and on paper sounds as if it might be quite grim seeing how it focuses on Cassie’s eating disorder; however the woozy camerawork and servings of humour put a different slant on matters. We’re never sure how real some of the things we’re seeing are though; there’s an atypical taxi driver who is willing Cassie to eat and is so supportive he could easily be a figment of her imagination. Likewise the text messages she keeps seeing and even an odd scene where her friends are no help at all and drift away. All her scenes appear to bring to life her view of what’s happening; even to the point where the last moment sees her seemingly biting into a sandwich. The best scene starts with an amusing pot shot at Jamie Oliver’s healthy eating campaign (the grumpy dinner lady dressed as a fish is classic) and goes on to show Cassie demonstrating to Sid how she gives the impression she’s eating without actually doing so. On the one hand you wonder whether the writers should be offering such tips, on the other it seems sad that someone would go to all that effort. Sid’s predicament provides the other half of the episode’s plot; he is living in fear of his life (or at least his balls!) having failed to pay for the weed he scored last week from the memorably monikored Madison Twatter! There’s a moment of toe curling humour the rival of anything that was in The Office when Sid’s class is introduced to their new substitute teacher and guess who he is? Yep, the self same Mr Twatter!!
Hannah Murray and Mike Bailey are both terrific in this episode- Cassie’s hippy demeanour masking insecurities aplenty (just look at her expression as she watches her family eating) and Sid’s increasingly pained nervousness is both enjoyable and excruciating to watch. 

The third episode focuses on Jal’s aspirations of winning a young musician’s competition. An accomplished clarinettist, she seems unable to persuade either friends or family that it’s a worthwhile pursuit. Michelle, supposedly her best friend is too busy snogging Tony so Jal ends up dragging a hapless Sid, himself preoccupied with other matters, on a shopping trip. Her father, meanwhile, show far more interest in her two brothers’ less talented forays into rap. The script pits masculine and feminine priorities against each other- Jal’s mates only seem to pay her attention when she shows up at a party wearing a very low cut top and it takes a physical attack during which her clarinet is smashed for her Dad to stir himself into action. Even that consists of buying a new instrument and giving the attacker- of course, the infamous Madison – a pasting. This kind of thing seems to be a recurring theme of the series whether Tony’s nonchalant and self centred organising of everybody’s diaries or Cassie’s eating disorder being ignored or the lack of love and empathy in Jal’s life. For a bunch of friends they don’t really seem to like each other – or even pay attention to each other- that much.
Larissa Wilson plays the scenario well; her dialogue and demeanour refuse to be crushed by the situation and while she is battling for her father’s attention (he is too busy with his younger girlfriend) it soon becomes clear that really that’s all her brother is doing too. There’s plenty of humour of course; the rap sequences are deliberately awful while Mike Bailey continues to impress with his physical comedy. He doesn’t know where to look when in the changing cubicle with Jal and later is buffeted around the dance floor and is out of place entirely. Best of all though is the swearing music teacher Angie who while conducting `Rhaposdy In Blue` surely one of the most swooningly evocative pieces of music written peppers her direction with copious expletives culminating in the hilarious shout “fuck my donkey” which is enough to make the viewer fall of their chair with laughter.

If Sid’s had his share of mishaps then they are nothing after what happens to Chris in episode 4. His mum vanishes leaving a thousand quid which is soon frittered away on a stereo and a party after which Chris manages to get locked out of his own house while wearing no clothes and has to go to college au naturalle to get help! Pill popping party boy Chris has seemed a slight character till now, embracing the sort of behaviour people think the whole series is about but here we find out why. In a succinctly played series of events, his chaotic life is simply As It Is. Dazzling camerawork takes us through the party where he’s lost in the atmosphere and contrasts with the ordinary daylight scenes and a trip to his estranged father. There is much subtlety in what is a well worn story archetype and Jack Thorne’s script pulls surprisingly deft turns not least of which is the funniest moment involving a baby being dropped. In a later cemetery scene between Chris and Jal there’s a lot of exposition but it seems natural and pleasingly the episode ends on an up, mustn’t grumble note which is so English. Joe Demspie makes Chris funny, crazy and a bit sad all at once and you have to wonder again at the wonderful casting this programme has. Plus you get some tips on how not to look after a goldfish. Throughout Tony remains a punchable counterpoint to the others though I have a feeling that’s the point.

Two recurring features pop in episode 5; one is how Sid just wanders from one mishap to the next, the other the way that he is seemingly there for Tony’s amusement. If he were a cartoon character –and its easy to imagine it- Sid would save the world accidentally. This week he is once again subject to humiliation, assault and embarrassment as Tony’s manipulative behaviour is brought to the fore. Yet there is an interesting similarity between the two characters in that both are self centred and therefore fail to care about how their behaviour affects others. So while Tony plays with Michelle’s affections and Sid’s loyalty, the latter fails to notice the way Cassie behaves towards him. Tony and Sid both inhabit their own inclusive worlds. This episode is slower than its predecessors and sometimes less effective; Sid’s parents are overplayed caricatures (the sort of thing the series has avoided thus far) and there’s a crudely drawn girl gang who might have wandered in from The Catherine Tate Show. Yet the script still scores with some amusing interludes and the best `leave it till the last moment` school assignment that you could possibly get away with!


Episode 6 comes on like a youth centric Carry On escapade detailing the exploits of the gang during an unlikely educational trip to the back end of Russia. Billeted in dingy looking barracks in the middle of nowhere each of the characters get up to different things. Anwar drags long suffering Sid into helping rescue a Russian girl apparently being mistreated by her father, Chris takes his pursuit of teacher Angie further and she is only feebly trying to stop him while Michelle and Jal end up entertaining a company of Russian soldiers in the nearby small town. Hapless cool wannabe teacher Tom Barkley finds himself increasingly out of his depth as things happen despite him and the whole thing fires off into people hiding, running away or, in a brilliant sequence that pulls all the strands together guns are waved around in a stand off.
The main plot though concerns the sudden unraveling of Anwar and Maxxie’s friendship which has been an ever present background thing so far but which crumbles as soon as they attempt to discuss religion and sexuality. They’ve seemed such great mates that the disappointment felt by Maxxie in particular is felt by the viewer too especially when a promising attempt to patch things up doesn’t really happen. Tony, meanwhile, in his seemingly relentless fight against `boredom` keeps making suggestive suggestions to Maxxie which don’t really happen as you’d expect. Perhaps because it’s co-written by Simon Amstell, this part of the plot concludes unsatisfactorily. Maxxie is portrayed as such a flawless being- everyone likes him, he’s a brilliant artist, he appears to suffer no dilemmas about being gay nor any persecution because of it – that he ends up unrealistic. The devilish expressions of actor Mitch Hewer suggest a wickedness the script never allows as if the writers have decided the gay character must be perfect. Still it does kick start more people becoming fed up with Tony – Michelle sees the act – and a funny line from Maxxie about finally finding something Tony isn’t good at! Much of the episode is played for laughs and works well and if the Russian characters seem to be too stereotypical then the pay off is an unexpected coda that puts everything in a different light; a big laugh first time round though will change your perception of the episode on further viewings.
 

Focussing on Michelle, the seventh episode follows the ramifications of the trip and if you don’t hate Tony by now, then this should nail it thanks to his unpleasant plan to win back Michelle, who has found solace with a kid from another school. Michelle has come across as something of a superficial `about town` kind of girl but this script really gets inside her head showing how, remarkably, she really does love Tony. She can switch from confident to upset in a moment and it’s a sympathetic, well drawn performance from April Pearson. We get to see Michelle’s domestic life with her mother’s feckless young husband (Danny Dyer, typically cockney) who walks out. The script contrasts mother and daughter allowing the latter to take charge of things, persuading Dyer’s character to return even though she doesn’t really like him. This also highlights her differences from Tony; in a tense will-they-won’t-they scene she spurns his attempts to win her back even though she is unaware of his nasty tricks that had separated her from her new boyfriend.  She seems to have decided not to become a victim. Will it last? Probably not, though it’s worth it for the look on Tony’s face. Nicholas Hoult deserves plaudits for the way he’s shaped this character; you may not like him but worryingly he is quite realistic but in the remainder of the series he finds himself in increasingly choppy waters.

By episode 8 everybody seems to have fallen out with Tony and the seemingly well adjusted Josh, Michelle’s short lived boyfriend, proves himself to be positively psychotic in exacting his revenge. Drifting around this is the ongoing situation between Sid and Cassie. Jack Thorne’s script looks at loyalty and if we start out feeling that Tony deserves the treatment he gets, then our sympathy is soon roused by the terrible ordeal he is later put through. Some of the best, though not necessarily the wittiest, dialogue in the series features in this episode as Sid tries to deal with the conflicting demands of both Tony and Cassie and his eventual choice is interesting. There could be a risk- as happened with Maxxie - that making a character too `good` also loses realism but Sid is constantly making mistakes and bad decisions even if its for the best of reasons. Mike Bailey has proved to be the series’ most consistent performer and here even outshines the more experienced Nicholas Hoult, though the latter’s gradual descent is well played. The production standards on this episode are particularly strong with weird noises and surreal encounters giving a sense of heightened states.
 

Mind you if you think that’s odd, then wait till the final episode! Clearly filmed without the expectation of a second series (though one has been filmed) the plots conclude albeit not always happily. Anwar’s birthday party (complete with the most annoying uncle in the world!) is the fulcrum around which matters coalesce. With Sid locked up in the rehabilitation centre where a now departing Cassie stayed, Tony still ostracized and Michelle, Chris and Maxxie all feeling down for different reasons, you wonder whether they can all get together in time for the end. Consciously or not, the result is like the final act of one of those big romantic films full of missed meetings, misunderstandings, desperate races to be somewhere and even- yes- a big song at the end. And who do you reckon sings it? Only Sid! So, Tony does begin to change his ways – though there’s a shocker that suggests he may not even be in series 2- and without giving too much away Cassie and Sid come to an understanding and discover each other’s feelings. There’s a wonderfully scripted resolution of Anwar and Maxxie’s spat and a big confrontation involving most of the gang and Angie’s engagement ring (her hitherto unmentioned Australian fiancĂ©e has turned up much to Chris’ disgust). There are plenty of punch the air moments, a couple of lovely scenes that could almost have sprung from 1940s filmland and just enough unanswered questions for you to demand that second series now! Even the song, Cat Stevens’ `Wild World`, works surprisingly well leaving you unsure exactly what is happening yet creating an atmosphere nonetheless.
Best watched after each episode they concern there are the `unseen` Skins mini-episodes which are on the internet and feature on the DVD release too. So you can seem how the others get clothes for Chris on the day he arrives at college naked, Michelle and Jal comparing their friends to assorted animals, Sid playing one of his electronic games and how Chris gets cash to afford the Russian trip. The funniest is Jal’s brothers’ rap group trying to blag into a record company which has subtitles in posh English! Also each character has a video diary some of which are great fun like Maxxie’s aforementioned Chipmunks` routine, Michelle’s fashion guide and Chris’s attempts at obscure world records while others add something to the character – Tony’s in particular. Others are a bit too obscure; Cassie over eggs her kookiness to the nth degree while Effy burning toys in a dark room against a background Twin Peaks style voiceover is simply incomprehensible.
Skins comes loaded up with preconceptions its makers are happy to push because what self respecting teen would watch a series that revels in old fashioned values, that believes in and respects its characters, that takes both it’s comedic and dramatic cues from bygone eras and refuses to be issue led like today’s soaps? Well, lots of teens did watch it and liked it and the rest of us could hardly fail to be enraptured by such a superbly made slice of television.

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