“Everything’s ending. And it’s fucking scary.”
So farewell then Skins, which wound to a largely unheralded end on E4 last night. It’s not completely the end – there’ll be a coda of three ‘mini movies’ next year which promise to catch us up with the doings of some of the shows previous characters since they left. But Skins as we know it, the teen drama/comedy composed of hour long episodes which changes its cast every two years, really is over.
When it began, Skins was in many ways a groundbreaking show. Its unconventional approach was to tell a teen drama story with none of the compromises that usually bedevil such a show; swearing was allowed, and sex, and enjoyable, consequence-free drug use. In short, it treated teen drama like adult drama, which was reflected in its late night timeslot.
It also took the unconventional approach of employing actors who really were teenagers, unlike so many US teen dramas where the high schoolers are plainly in their twenties. And it went further, with teen writers added into the mix along with series creators Bryan Elsley and Jamie Brittain. Consistent with its cutting edge ‘yoof’ approach was an aggressive online marketing campaign on the likes of Facebook and Twitter, with the characters receiving their own pages and interacting with the show’s fans.
It seems old hat now, but back in 2007 this all felt startlingly fresh. The result was a teen drama (with a lot of comedy) that purported to be a truly realistic depiction of what modern teenagers get up to. In this it did itself something of a disservice; given that episode one featured the gang trashing a posh house party, stealing a Mercedes and then crashing it into a river causing the loss of a huge bag of weed, it’s fair to say that its portrayal of teenage life was more than a little exaggerated.
This aspect of the show has always polarised opinion among viewers, whether they be teens or not. Some (noticeably those from large cities) tend to say, “yes, things like that have happened to me”, while others (seemingly from suburban and provincial towns) think it’s glamorised wish fulfilment. A common criticism in latter years has been that teen comedy The Inbetweeners, with its hopelessly awkward quartet of teenage boys, was a far more accurate representation of teenage life past and present than Skins with its impossibly good looking cast, hedonistic sexuality and mad, drug-fuelled parties.
And yet Skins did catch some of that feeling of what it’s like to be a teenager. All the way through, there’s that air of self-doubt, insecurity masquerading as confidence and a mixture of anticipation and fear about what the future holds as you begin to move into the ‘real world’. For me, it always caught that atmosphere really accurately; certainly well enough for me to forgive the show its many other excesses.
And excessive it certainly seemed, at the beginning. It was trailed with some well-remembered promo shoots of an insane party at which gorgeous, scantily clad teenagers shagged, boozed and did drugs while trashing what looked like an ordinary house. This led to a minor craze of ‘Skins parties’ publicised on Facebook and later by the Daily Mail as they invariably led to the near-destruction of whichever hapless teenager’s house they were held at.
Initially, I expected the show to be like that all the time. I must admit, I tuned in initially out of titillation; those were some very nice looking boys I’d seen in the trails for the show, and it looked like they wouldn’t be wearing much. But I stayed because I got sucked into the drama and became emotionally attached to the characters, even when (as in the Russian school trip episode) the comedy was sometimes so puerile as to be a turnoff.
And it really surprised me with its second series, as much of the comedy was toned down and it became one of the most thoughtful, perceptive dramas around at that point. This was best exemplified by Nicholas Hoult’s beautiful but manipulative and unlikeable Tony Stonem, who basically spent the entire first series having his selfish cockiness demolished until he was ultimately run over by a bus. For him, the second series was all about rebuilding his life, and he became so much more likeable as a result.
The other characters too spent the second series dealing with the consequences of the events in the first. Geeky Sid (Mike Bailey) abandoned his on-off relationship with flaky but fun Cassie (Hannah Murray) to fulfil his longstanding crush on Tony’s girlfriend Michelle (April Pearson). Anwar (Dev Patel) was having a hard job reconciling his Muslim faith with his best friend Maxxie’s homosexuality. All of this was written and acted with amazing sensitivity. For me, the emotional high point was the death of Sid’s dad (a terrific sweary turn from Peter Capaldi), and his final reconciliation with his former best friend Tony; as both embraced, weeping, it was hard to keep a dry eye. Though running it a close second was the unexpected death of loveable party animal Chris (Joe Dempsie).
At the end of that second year, fans were surprised to learn of the bold but logical decision that the entire cast were to be replaced by a new gang of sixth formers at the college. This was a risky step but made sense; when a group of friends finish their A Levels, they do tend to go off into the world in their own separate ways, and keeping the gang together would have been ridiculously contrived. The loss of characters the audience had come to love was offset by the freshness of a bunch of new ones – it was like Grange Hill without the casts overlapping (much).
Each successive ‘generation’ followed the two-series template laid down by the first. Their initial series would be comparatively light, but with the drama ratcheting up throughout; the next series would be much heavier stuff, usually involving the shock death of one of the major characters.
The problem with this approach was that, by the just-departed third generation, it had come to seem pretty formulaic. And the heightened drama was becoming increasingly implausible, even for Skins; the nadir, most fans agree, was the bizarre ending to the second generation’s time as Effy’s (Kaya Scodelario) love-crazed psychiatrist beat her boyfriend Freddie (Luke Pasqualino) to death with a baseball bat.
And while (some of) the later characters were undoubtedly likeable, for me they never quite reached the level of emotional investment I got from the first gang. Generation 2’s love story between emergent lesbians Naomi (Lily Loveless) and Emily (Kathryn Prescott) was heartwarming and touching; but the tedious love triangle between Effy, Freddie and the charismatic but obnoxious Cook (Jack O’Connell) quickly became annoying. It also recalled, unnecessarily, the love triangle between Tony, Michelle and Sid from the first generation, and the fact that this plotline recently got yet another rerun with the third crew was perhaps one of the clearest signs that the show really had run its course.
The third generation at least toned down some of the increased madness of the previous plotlines with some much more low key drama. More than ever before, it focussed on the misfits; with androgynous Frankie (Dakota Blue Richards) as its lead character, and even its seemingly brainless ‘popular’ characters like Mini (Freya Mavor) and Nick (Sean Teale) being unravelled to become more complex and insecure than they at first seemed.
But it’s difficult to keep something so immediate and vital fresh for long, and the show was starting to look tired with its formulaic approach. It didn’t help that its undoubtedly deep influence on youth drama was spawning fresher competitors; it’s probably fair to say that without Skins, we wouldn’t have Misfits or The Fades, which take the Skins formula and graft elements of the fantastic onto it. It was no real surprise then to learn that this third generation would be the last. Skins, once so original, was now old hat, and was being retired.
It’s always been patchy, but never less than compellingly watchable; for me anyway. And along the way, its casting technique of mixing professionals with untried members of the public has launched the careers of some terrific young actors. Nicholas Hoult has gone on to use those gorgeous cheekbones in movies like A Single Man and X Men: First Class; Dev Patel did rather well with Slumdog Millionaire; Jack O’Connell has been in acclaimed TV dramas like Dive and United; and recent superb BBC3 fantasy The Fades boasted no less than three Skins alumni: Daniel Kaluuya, Lily Loveless and Joe Dempsie.
It also had a peculiar but successful stunt casting approach to the adults, with most of them being played by comedians or comic actors. As a result, we’ve seen some surprisingly good performances from the likes of Harry Enfield, Morwenna Banks, John Bishop, Ronni Ancona, Ardal O’Hanlon, Chris Addison, and even, amazingly, Danny Dyer. Enfield even went on to direct two episodes, including the excellent, hallucinatory second series one with the convalescing Tony attending a surreal opening day at a university.
Last night’s finale, unlike the previous two generations, felt like a proper ending. Frankie, thankfully decided that she wanted neither of the two insipid brothers who’d been chasing her all year, who then reconciled their rivalry. Mini settled down to have her baby with unexpected love interest Alo. And sweet-natured metalhead Rich finally seemed at peace with the death of his beloved Grace. It all climaxed, in true Skins style, at a big, hedonistic party; but it was as the party wound down that it ended. And the series finished with Rich, for me the most likeable of this bunch, looking straight up to the camera and simply saying, “bye”. Ostensibly it was to the now departed Grace; but also, perhaps cheesily, it felt like it was to all of us too. And I couldn’t help but well up a bit. It’s been a great party, with some good people, but now it’s over.
And now, in memoriam, I’m going to indulgently list my fave characters through the years:
Sid Jenkins (Mike Bailey)
Obviously. I have a huge thing about cute, geeky guys with glasses. But Sid was also sweet, insecure, and the voice of reason. In many ways he was the heart and soul of Skins’ first generation.
Chris Miles (Joe Dempsie)
Because you can’t not like Chris. Unflappably cheerful and likeable even when his world is falling down around him, you have to feel for him as every decision he makes ends up disastrous. Sleeping with his teacher: mistake. Opening his house to a party full of destructive strangers: mistake. Attempting to pee while still dosed up on Viagra: big mistake!
Naomi Campbell (Lily Loveless)
Incredibly smart but seemingly humourless at first, Naomi was the dry wit of the second generation. It helped that Lily Loveless is an incredibly charismatic screen presence. Her blooming relationship with Emily was the best plot that gang had.
Freddie McLair (Luke Pasqualino)
Because I also have a thing about skater boys and stoners. Freddie was the sweet, sensitive one of the second generation boys, and I liked his insecurity despite being incredibly good looking.
Kieran MacFoeinaiugh (Ardal O’Hanlon)
Naomi’s ‘mentor’ at Roundview College. Initially almost unrecognisable as the guy who was Father Dougal, O’Hanlon made Kieran funny, fallible but still somehow profound.
Rich Hardbeck (Alexander Arnold) and Alo Creevey (Will Merrick)
Together because they’re basically a double act. These two music loving potheads and outcasts were the most likeable of the boys in the third generation. Rich’s metal snobbery and Alo’s bizarrely tasteless outfits were highlights for me.
So fare thee well boys and girls – till we meet again…