Skins–the party’s over

“Everything’s ending. And it’s fucking scary.”

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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)
Sid 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.

Cassie Ainsworth (Hannah Murray)
CassieFlaky, bright and cursed with a variety of mental issues like depression and eating disorders, Cassie was the perfect love interest for Sid.

Chris Miles (Joe Dempsie)
ChrisBecause 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)
NaomiIncredibly 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)
FreddieBecause 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)
KieranNaomi’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)
RichAloTogether 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.

Shelley McGuinness (Clare Grogan)
ShelleyBecause it’s always great to see the real Kochanski out of Red Dwarf in anything. Grogan was brilliantly feisty as Mini’s take-no-prisoners mum.

Alex Henley (Sam Jackson)
AlexActually Alex was a bit annoying, with his pretentious dice-decision-making affectation and shallow sex life. But my goodness, I could look at him all day.

So fare thee well boys and girls – till we meet again…

The Fades, Episode 4

“I’m not important. I’m dead.”

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So, in this week’s slice of teen fantasy horror adventure, Paul got to see things from the other side – literally. After being quite graphically hit by a truck last week, Paul was lying in a hospital bed, and the news didn’t look good as the doctor informed his distraught family that he was brain dead, and the only things keeping him alive were the machines. The viewer was way ahead of them though, as we’d already seen a perfectly normal looking Paul hanging around the hospital corridors. The conclusion was obvious – Paul was now a Fade himself. The question was, how would his superpowers inevitably save him?

After noting last week that writer Jack Thorne is obviously influenced by comics, the premise of Paul’s disembodied spirit hanging around the hospital where he lay in a coma was inescapably reminiscent of recent Hellblazer story, Pandaemonium, in which John Constantine finds himself in a similar position. Indeed, the whole of The Fades has more than a whiff of Hellblazer about it among its other noticeable influences. The mingling of life in an ordinary British town (and where is it set, incidentally?) with supernatural events of great consequence has been a Hellblazer stock in trade since the comic began in 1988. I’ve always fancied the idea of a TV show based on Hellblazer, particularly after the horribly botched movie adaptation Constantine. Perhaps as well as being Skins meets Century Falls via Moondial, The Fades can also be Hellblazer Junior

It’s certainly gruesome enough.  “Disturbing scenes from the outset,” said the BBC announcer, and he wasn’t kidding. Probably he was referring to a naked Joe Dempsie bludgeoning a well-meaning local to death with a rock, but for my money it was still more horrible to see, again, Paul’s interface with a Ford Transit in Mac’s “Previously on…” recap! Elsewhere in an even darker than usual episode, there was suicide, blood drinking, masses of vomited green goo, and plenty of flesh eating from characters good and bad.

Most of the flesh eating was done by Joe Dempsie’s revitalised Fade leader, ’John’. A belated look at the show’s website last week informed me that this character does actually have a name, which I’ve managed to consistently miss – Polus. As he croakingly relearned how to speak in his new body though, ‘John’ was the name he blurted out.  But who knows, perhaps Polus is a surname and John really is his given name.

Along with plenty of events and plot twists, much of this episode was devoted to John revealing his story, his methods and his motivations. In a lot of shows – particularly the recent Torchwood: Miracle Day – the plot would have ground to a halt while one of the characters explained everything. Jack Thorne, however, has the knack of blending exposition into action so that neither seems intrusive, and as a result, we learned a lot more about the Fades and the Angelics this week without having to put the action on hold.

So we followed John as he stumbled naked through the woods then drank from a handy cow trough. This sequence filled us in on how corporeal existence works for a still-dead former Fade – it hurts when he steps on barbed wire, he’s terribly thirsty, and like the reincarnated Master in Doctor Who story The End of Time, he has an insatiable appetite. Also like the Master, it seems that his appetite is best slaked with human flesh, a fact reinforced when John bludgeoned a passerby and was then seen to be wearing his clothes while licking blood from his lips.

And he was just the first of several unwilling clothes-and-flesh donors to John throughout the episode, as he ran rampant through whatever provincial town the show is set in to reach Paul at the hospital. From my perspective, it was rather a shame that he had to put on clothes at all, as Joe Dempsie is looking even nicer these days than he used to in Skins. But even in this world an (admittedly hot) naked man would get a lot of attention, so clothes it was to be, and his second set was nicked from his next victim, Anna’s irritating boyfriend Steve. I doubt she’ll miss him too much though – a choice quote was from the voicemail she left him, “”Remember when you blew raspberries in my twat and I didn’t speak to you for a week? This is worse.”

John’s quest through the town continued to fill in how ‘life’ works for him now, without having to resort to clumsy exposition. He’s tried eating ordinary food, but it just seems to result in him vomiting gallons of green goo while people look away in disgust. In fact, his speech is often punctuated by weird, hoarse swallowing, as though he’s trying to choke vomit down at all times. He’s had to haltingly relearn how to speak (so how exactly did he order that burger?) and he doesn’t mind stealing little kids’ toys.

Paul too was learning about life (or death) as a Fade. He can’t open doors because he can’t touch anything – though if Fades are so incorporeal why can’t they just walk through them? But unlike other Fades, he’s shown running right through a mortal without disintegrating into ashes. Plainly, even as a Fade, Paul is special.

Obviously Fade-Paul and John would encounter each other at some point, and this happened via a chase to the roof of the hospital, where John explained how it all started. He’d died as a young man in 1943, found himself unable to ascend, and hung around his wife as his Fade aged. When she slit her wrists rather than die from cancer, he noticed that the blood dripping onto him left patches that could feel and touch. And so the quest for juicy human flesh began.

Again, all this exposition could have slowed things down a lot, but it was cleverly framed within John’s plot to get Paul to lead him to the Angelics. Now up on the roof, Paul couldn’t get back down unless John opened the door for him. Not only that, but John cleverly began to sow seeds of distrust in Paul by revealing that the Angelics were not quite the good guys we’d previously thought. Paul found this only too plausible, as he’d already left in disgust when Neil started to torture the captured Natalie.

As I suspected last week, the Angelics can be pretty nasty if they want to be. As Fade-Sarah remarks to Neil, “You’re a principled wanker who gets confused sometimes.” The Angelics had a bit of a bad time this week; not only did Neil’s methods cause two of them to leave in disgust, the other two ended up as Fade food when John turned up to rescue Natalie, having been led to their hideout by the overly trusting Paul. And yet if John is to be believed (though that’s debatable), they have a hand in causing all this in the first place. They chose not to help when the ascension process started to fail, instead casting themselves as prison guards for the dead trapped on earth.

This was meaty stuff. The good guys aren’t as good as we thought, and the bad guys possibly not as bad. With all that going on, however, we still managed to get the usual depth in the regular characters; particularly Mac, whose self-inflicted guilt about Paul’s accident was hardly helped by Neil commenting, “Sounds like it was his fault.” Daniel Kaluuya was again the highlight of the episode, his performance genuinely heartbreaking as he watched his best friend die and wept about how much he loved him and needed him. It’s cleverly done insofar as it sidesteps the obvious innuendo about whether there’s a sexual aspect to their friendship; I suppose that may yet turn out to be the case, but from where I’m sitting, you really believe that these are two lifelong friends who simply mean the world to each other.

Anna too was developing well this week, with Lily Loveless making the most of her transformation from thoughtless uber-bitch to caring sister. She’s as abrasive as ever, but it seems like realistic sibling relationships that when the chips are down, she’ll be there for her brother. And as a number of people have suspected, she may have some powers of her own that she’s yet to find out about. Certainly she was surprisingly willing to go along with the plan that Mac formulated with the “wizards” from the Angelics: “I’ve found the exhaust port!”

Fade-Sarah also got do some soul-searching this week. As I mentioned last time, it hardly seems healthy for either of them that she’s spending her afterlife hanging around her husband all the time, a fact he underlined himself when he, basically, told her to sod off. Lesson learned, it seems, but as she runs back to Neil she’s starting to come apart; her hair’s coming out in clumps and her fingernails are falling off. But she’s back in the fray, and it seems she’s willing to help out by being the Angelics’ “man on the inside”. Trouble is, she’ll need to eat some flesh to qualify. Luckily, there’s those two dead Angelics lying conveniently on the floor. Ewww…

It wasn’t much of a surprise that the episode climaxed with Paul’s miraculous resurrection. As previously mentioned, it’s unlikely that your superpowered hero will stay dead for long in a story like this – another testament to Jack Thorne’s comic book influences, probably. After a pretty cool looking ritual involving “soul donation” from Anna singularly failed to work, Paul managed to use his healing power in the nick of time just as his machines were switched off. Given that we knew about his healing power already, that wasn’t much of a surprise either, but really, how else could it have been done? And it was an excellent set piece as his body started to twitch, then the expected live moths began to crawl out of his mouth. But this was going to need a lot of healing, so as he sat upright an entire swarm of butterflies spewed out of him, fluttering eerily around the room. It’s a lovely, imaginative touch in a series that’s already shown itself to be full of them. As Paul gasps the first breath of his new life, he reacts, I think, exactly as we all would: “Fuck…”

Another excellent episode, in a series that hardly seems to pause for breath and yet never sacrifices the integrity and believability of its characters among all the supernatural weirdness. The pop culture references are as much fun as ever (“nanoo nanoo”), and the regular cast continue to put in superb performances. Joining them this week, Joe Dempsie too is great. His performance as the much loved Chris in Skins was so effective that it made the character’s death genuinely upsetting, and here we see that he can go to quite the other extreme and play an absolutely evil bastard. While still looking incredibly attractive…

Next week: with only two more episodes to go, I expect the action’s really going to ramp up. Paul’s superpowers must be getting to be pretty common knowledge by now, and John’s victims this week add to a mounting death toll that’s pretty unusual for… wherever this is. The police are still baffled, the Angelics are seriously down in numbers, and there’s still an apocalypse to avert. Can Jack Thorne pull all this together to give the story a great ending? Let’s hope so…

The Fades, Episode 3

“The things that scare you about me… Imagine I’m Stevenage. Some things have changed about me, but fundamentally I’m just ordinary. I’m Stevenage.”

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Things continue to rattle along at an extraordinary pace in this week’s episode of The Fades, both in the supernatural thriller and ordinary suburban life aspects of the plot. It’s a testament to the quality of Jack Thorne’s writing that he’s able to pack so much incident into one hour of television and still retain so much character depth without that pace ever dragging (yet).

The style continues to be a combination of Skins-like teen drama crossed with classic children’s fantasy, in the most enjoyable of ways. After having decided to try and live a double life in his capacities of normal teenage nerd and Chosen Being of Destiny, teenage hero Paul falls at almost the first hurdle in a classic secret identity fail. What with last week’s references to Clark Kent, Peter Parker and Alan Moore, and this week’s to Neil Gaiman, it’s becoming clear that another of Jack Thorne’s influences is comic books, and every superhero, in comics and films, must at some point face the plotline of people finding out who they really are.

For Paul, this happens at comically inconvenient times, as he begins to discover new aspects of his powers. We first encounter him this week indulging in the normal practice of most teenage boys – having a wank, while fantasising about his sister’s best friend Jay. For most teenagers, this would end by reaching to the nightstand for the Kleenex, but for Paul, his climax results in him suddenly growing a huge pair of angel wings, which might have been even harder to explain if his mum had caught him at it.

This led to one of the best lines in the episode, as Jay asked whether she should know anything about him: “When I ejaculate I grow wings.” It’s a sign of Paul’s nascent confidence with girls that he can mention ejaculation, but Jay obviously takes the “growing wings” part as a surreal gag. She soon learns better when Paul’s reliably bitchy sister Anna and her truculent Scouse boyfriend find Paul and Jay snogging. Finally driven to uncontrollable anger at Anna’s fairly horrible sniping, Paul unintentionally wields his glowing-palm power to literally seal her mouth shut.

So the cat’s out of the bag, and pretty early on too. Paul manages to reverse the trick – though we aren’t shown how – but three more people now know that he’s not quite the normal teenage nerd he seems. This scene is classic wish-fulfilment stuff, familiar to every downtrodden teenage geek who reads fantastic stories; the moment when the wimpy hero finally stands up to the bullies by displaying his superpowers. But Thorne wrongfoots the comic fan here by actually going on to humanise his bully, as we start to learn that Anna is so nasty to Paul simply because she feels excluded by him in their family. Finally given some depth to play with in her character, Lily Loveless excels this week, showing more of the undoubted talent we saw in Skins.

What with his powers out of control and beginning to have his first sexual experiences, Paul is pretty neglectful of his best friend Mac, continuing the thread we saw last week. This week, it’s Mac’s birthday, but nobody’s remembered. His mum hasn’t sent a card, his policeman dad is totally preoccupied with the mysterious disappearances and murders clogging his casebook, and now even his best friend is too busy to be there for him.

Daniel Kaluuya continues to be the best thing in the show in his funny, sensitive and heartfelt performance as Mac, with his constant stream of pop culture references. The relationship between him and Paul is a beautifully portrayed teenage friendship, of the kind that is never as intense again after one of the friends discovers girls. A later scene with Paul spells out the sort of feelings we all had at that age, which we never really recaptured: “You know, whatever happens with Jay, you know you’ll always be more important to me.” Of course Mac mocks him by asking if they’re in love, “cause I’m flattered, but…”, but their relationship is convincingly real and intense, and beautifully played by both actors.

With Paul having finally remembered Mac’s birthday (a day late) and made apologetic amends, Mac repays the favour by helping him win back the (understandably) freaked out Jay, in a scene which is an unashamed but enjoyable ripoff of Cyrano de Bergerac (though Mac probably thinks of it as 1987 movie Roxanne). Perched up a tree, Paul follows the hidden Mac’s prompts to charm Jay by comparing himself to a space probe; perfectly in keeping with what we know about both boys.

It probably helps that the tree magically blossoms purely as a result of Paul sitting in it; what girl could fail to be charmed by that? Obviously Jay is, as within a few scenes she’s in Paul’s bed and taking his virginity, in a depiction of first time sex that’s both sweet and funny. And luckily for Paul, this time wings don’t shoot out at the all-important moment. Mind you, it’s an echo of Skins once again that they’ve gone from Paul’s first kiss a couple of nights beforehand to full on sex so quickly – but as Jay comments, “it’s not 1955… people don’t have to wait any more.”

What with Paul having a fairly eventful teenager’s life, he doesn’t find much time to pick the phone up to Neil. Which is unfortunate, because over in the supernatural part of the plot, things aren’t going too well for the Angelics. Neil wasn’t actually killed by the hungry gang of Fades last week (and there’s still a question as to why), but his stomach’s been pretty nastily mauled. Being the tough hardcase he is, he eschews hospital in favour of sewing up his own guts in the back of his pickup, an inadvisable medical technique for anyone.

Fortunately, when he inevitably collapses, Paul has turned up, and it’s time for him to exercise the healing power we discovered he had last week. Not only does he manage to heal Neil’s wounds, he also sorts out the eye that was damaged in episode 1’s Fade attack. Fade-Helen is impressed – “He’s done more than I ever could” – and advises him to just let it come when the inevitable live moth crawls out of his mouth: “Tickles, doesn’t it?” Daniela Nardini as Helen has been a highlight of the show for me, as I used to love her as Anna in This Life, so when she finally ‘ascended’ it felt like rather a shame. Whatever the show’s take on the afterlife is, it’s pretty definitive that there’s no coming back from that. Johnny Harris too played that scene beautifully, tearing up as Neil revealed that he didn’t feel strong enough to deal with things without her.

Indeed, Neil’s been humanised quite a bit from the initial armed supernatural warrior we first met. This week, he also tries to sort things out for Fade-Sarah and her distraught husband Mark, by first convincing Mark that his dead wife is hanging around him then acting as translator so they can have a chat. Whatever Neil’s conscience might be telling him, it’s hard to disagree with Fade-Helen that this might not be the best course of action. Mark now knows that his wife’s ghost is hanging around him unseen at all times, which is hardly going to help him move on!

Neil’s also decided that he can’t handle everything by himself, and summoned “the rest of the Angelics”, which is just as well as it’s hard to be a secret society all by yourself. As it turns out, “the rest of the Angelics” is only another four people, but hey, every bit of reinforcement helps. They’ve hatched a plan to try and interrogate one of the weaker Fades by capturing it, and inevitably it’s Neil’s ex Natalie that they grab. Interrogation is possible because the Fades’ consumption of human flesh has not only given them corporeal bodies, they can now talk too – or, in Natalie’s case, scream. One wonders whether next week’s interrogation will show the Angelics as not being the all-out good guys we thought they were…

That may not be foremost on Paul’s mind, though. In a moment that was genuinely shocking, while horseplaying with Mac, Paul absently wandered onto a road and was hit by a truck for his inattention. Coming so abruptly after a heart to heart two-handed scene with his best friend, this was a real jolt that made you realise how likeable Paul is, and how much I at least had emotionally invested in the character. It’s also a mark of how well this series mixes the supernatural and the mundane that the Chosen Hero, marked for death as an Angelic, is seriously injured by something as normal as not paying attention to the traffic.

The throw-forward to next week is deliberately cagey about Paul’s chances, as it should be. There are a couple of shots of him unconscious in a hospital bed, but no more. Of course, as the hero of the show, and a superpowered one to boot, I think we can safely say that he’ll be back in action before long. But it’s a measure of how well the show does suspense that I had to think a moment to remember that.

If and when he’s back on his feet, though, he’s going to have more problems than he expects. His dreams of the ash-covered apocalypse have come back, with the added detail of a mysterious young man who tells him that, “it’s all inevitable, you know.” Meanwhile, the bald, emaciated Fade who’s been so terrifying in leading the attacks has been spending this episode actually pupating, hanging in a slimy cocoon from the roof of a tunnel.

The episode climaxed as the cocoon hatched, and out slid a rather sexy nude man, seen only from behind. With Paul on the verge of death, my first thought was to wonder if he’d somehow switched places with the Fade leader. But no, as I perhaps should have guessed (and might have if I’d recognised him in Paul’s vision), it’s yet another member of the Skins cast! Yes, through some process as yet unclear, the Fade leader has remoulded himself as a rather buff looking Joe Dempsie. Joe has never looked so good – and as he turns and snarls at the camera, his eyes turning yellow, he’s never looked so scary either.

Three episodes in, and The Fades has become must-watch TV, for me at least. Its irresistible combination of teenage soap, Being Human-like supernatural drama and classical children’s quest story make it one of the most enjoyable shows around at the moment. And the concepts continue to get screwier and more imaginative each week. I’m really looking forward to finding out what happens next; and whatever it is, I’m sure it won’t be easily predictable!

The Fades–he sees dead people

“Why do people assume death is fair? It’s totally random – just like life.”

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Dead birds are falling from the skies. In the dark night streets, a woman is attacked by a weird grey skeletal figure with yellow eyes. A teenage boy awakes from nightmares of the end of the world, wetting his bed, and sees grey cadaverous shades of the dead everywhere he looks. The recently dead roam a forest, light blaring from their torsos, seeking one of the few places left to ascend since man invented concrete.

Welcome to the world of The Fades, trailered so cryptically and effectively on BBC3 recently. “That looks cool, “ I remember thinking of the hyperdramatic but undetailed trailers, set my Tivo to record it and promptly forgot it existed. Yesterday I found my recording, watched it, and realised that this has the potential to actually be rather interesting.

Much has been made of this as a new ‘cult’ youth drama, much in the vein of Misfits and actually from the same channel that produced the sleeper hit Being Human. The Fades certainly does have this kind of potential, but it’s aiming at a far younger ‘youth’ audience than either of those shows. While the heroes of Misfits are young, they’re clearly older than school age; and the vampires and werewolves of Being Human must be pushing thirty (or far older if they’re vampires, whatever age they look). By contrast, The Fades has a hero who’s still in the sixth form, presumably between 17 and 18 years of age. The result is that, with its supernatural weirdness and teenage hero, this feels like nothing so much as one of those classic spooky children’s dramas that both BBC and ITV did so well in the 70s and 80s, updated to include swearing, sex references and some genuine horror.

That post-watershed slot might sadly lose it some of the teenage viewers it might otherwise have got; but in these days of Sky Plus and iPlayer, I doubt that. The fact that what seems ostensibly like a teenage show has so much in it that could be deemed ‘adult’ is presumably down to the writer. Jack Thorne is a playwright who cut his TV writing teeth on Skins, another show that tries to show a realistic portrait of British youth, then graduated onto working with Shane Meadows on the excellent This is England 86.

Those influences show; while 80s teenage dramas were all about gritty portrayals of joblessness (hello, Tucker’s Luck), and Skins is all about hedonistic fun laced with social reality, The Fades brings precisely those approaches to a typically freaky, Children’s BBC-like tale. Nominal hero Paul (Iain de Caestecker) is a believable and likeable teenage nerd; witness his hilarious attempts to smoke in a vain attempt to impress the friend of his sister he has such an obvious crush on. Or his convincingly irritating family – his mum smirks at his frustrated assertion that he’s “trying to be a man”, and his sister (Lily Loveless, worlds away from the lesbian earth mother type she played in, yes, Skins) is a constant source of patronising embarrassment.

Again as in classic children’s spook shows, Paul is accompanied by a wisecracking best friend whose primary function is to be the comic relief. Mac (played brilliantly by Daniel Kaluuya out of, guess what, Skins) is a horror fanatic whose pop culture musings on Nightmare on Elm Street and The Sixth Sense, delivered in a marvellously deadpan way, counterpoint a real horror story happening to his best mate that he can’t even see.

As in many classic children’s spook shows, our heroes become involved while messing about. An unwilling Paul has been dragged into an abandoned underground shopping mall by Mac, desperate to find ‘”weird objects” for a horror film he wants to make. Tumbling down an unforeseen escalator, Paul finds himself in the middle of a mysterious confrontation between gun toting nutter Neil (Johnny Harris, previously terrifying as Lol’s rapey stepdad in This is England 86) and the terrifying skeletal figure we saw attacking Natalie Dormer in the pre-credits sequence. Dormer is somehow involved; her character, Sarah, is already dead by this point. But she’s got top billing, she played Anne Boleyn in The Tudors, and anyway this is the sort of show where death isn’t really a handicap to further appearances.

Like any sensible teenage nerd, Paul is terrified and runs away. But he can’t escape, as he begins to suffer the same scary dream visions Sarah used to have – visions of the end of the world, with him as a lone survivor in a corpsescape where ashes rain down thick and fast. From here it just gets madder and madder; Neil turns up unannounced in Paul’s bedroom to act as a sort of Obi Wan Kenobi mentor, as Paul begins to see the shades of the dead on street corners. Some of the dead, Neil explains, can’t ‘ascend’, and linger on Earth; this makes them act “shitty”. They disintegrate into ashes if a living person ‘passes through’ them; we see this happen as Paul stumbles through one in in an underground subway, and she crumbles into precisely the kind of ashes that have been haunting his dreams.

Paul, it seems, has some kind of ‘purpose’; perhaps he’s the Muad’Dib. Later, Neil shows him hordes of the dead trying to ascend, but it looks like Sarah’s just missed the boat. She can still talk, it seems – for now. But only Neil and Paul will be able to see her. But she’s not the one they have to worry about; that scary skeletal grey thing that killed her – and nearly sucked out Neil’s eye with its green tongue – is “something new” that has the potential to end the world. It’s already killed not just Sarah, but Neil’s other sidekick – a welcome return for This Life’s Daniela Nardini, as a pistol-packing, faith healing Scottish vicar, and I hope she’s not dead for good!

All of this is great stuff in itself, though as of part one, who knows what it can all mean? It’s reminiscent of so many classic children’s spook dramas, from King of the Castle through Moondial to Century Falls. But what makes it even better is the Skins-like sense of realism about what it’s like to be a teenager, that presumably gave it its post-watershed slot. Aside from the swearing, and sex references (when Paul starts telling Mac about his dreams, Mac automatically leaps to the conclusion that they’re of the wet variety), there is plenty of wince-making accuracy to Paul’s position as the school’s introverted nerd. “Nobody even notices us,”comments the more excitable Mac, shortly before a slightly comic bit of business ends up with them hiding in a cubicle of the girls’ toilet while a girl does her business next door. “That’s probably the most sexual thing that’s ever happened to me,” notes Mac. Elsewhere, Paul is in therapy because of his bedwetting, but is understandably unkeen to reveal what’s been happening to his therapist, and he has a massive, possibly requited crush on his sister’s best friend, much to his sister’s malicious amusement.

This blend of classy supernatural drama with teenage realism makes The Fades like the sort of drama I would have killed to have seen on Children’s BBC when I was a teenager. It’s all very well having your hero as a teenage boy but if those central teenage boy things like sexual frustration, swearing and wet dreams don’t get mentioned, how much can you truly believe in the character? This has all that in spades, plus some genuinely witty dialogue, taut direction and scary special effects. It’s only part one of the first series, so who knows how good it’ll be, but I thoroughly enjoyed this, and if there’s any justice, BBC3 will have another Being Human-style hit on its hands. Not sure yet if I’ll blog on this episode by episode, but if the next one is as good, I very probably will.

The Shock of the New

This week, I have been mostly surrounded by sex.

No, I’m not living in some hedonistic fantasy of nonstop orgies – but my television is. At least that’s what it seems like, as the new TV season gets underway with the return of some old favourites and some distinctly dubious new ones.

To start with, historical rumpy pumpy fest The Tudors is back for its final season. In the mists of time, when this purportedly “85% accurate” portrayal of Henry VIII’s court first started, I theorised that it would have to end when the historical figures in it stopped looking photogenic. Not so – in its increasingly tenuous relationship with actual history, the series has taken the approach of, basically, letting the characters not age at all.

THE TUDORS - Season 4

Henry by now should be grossly overweight and diseased; in the show he still looks like, well, Jonathan Rhys Meyers. Which is pretty good for a bloke in the 16th century who’s over 50 years old. Granted, they’ve let Jonathan grow his hair a bit longer and have a slightly bushier beard, but that’s it as far as aging goes. And as to the gross obesity, this Henry still appears to go to the Tudor equivalent of the gym every day, judging by his still frequent sex scenes.

The aforementioned sex is now with wife number 5, Catherine Howard. As portrayed by Tamzin Merchant, Catherine, it seems, was some kind of a giggling imbecile. All right, I know she really was only 17 years old, but she can’t have been this dense, surely? Meanwhile, she’s been getting flirty looks from pretty young courtier Thomas Culpeper (hobbies: rape and murder). This already doesn’t look like it’s going to end well – and since we’ve got one more wife to cram in by the end of the season, even if you don’t know the real facts you can probably work out that it’s not if Catherine’s going to end up on the block, it’s when.

Meanwhile, the Seymour clan is now entirely represented by ex cast members of Hollyoaks – namely Max Brown and Andy McNair as Edward and Thomas Seymour. Henry Cavill, gamely sporting a bigger beard than Henry’s, is still around as Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk. But for my money, the cheesy drama lacks something cast wise compared with previous years when we had the likes of Sam Neill, Jeremy Northam, Peter O’Toole and Max von Sydow hamming it up as caricatures of real historical figures. Still, it remains watchable, and will hopefully remain close enough to real history for Henry to actually die on schedule – rather than, say, living on to steal a Nazi Enigma machine for Winston Churchill.

Fortunately for fans of realism, Skins was back too. Oh, all right, not actual realism – the show’s defenders refer to it being a “hyper-real” portrait of contemporary teenage life. Nonetheless, in the past it’s had endearing characters and veered unstably from genuinely moving drama to ill-considered base comedy. But it’s always been watchable, and the gimmick of changing the entire cast every two years – when the teenagers finish their A Levels and move off into the real world – has kept it pretty fresh.

So, this year, we get to meet teenage gang number 3 – and a pretty likeable bunch they are on first impressions. I’m sure they’ll end up having just as much naughty fun as the previous gangs, but in a week of naughtiness, this was a surprisingly low key season opener. Eschewing the full on shagging, drug use and, er, bottom tattoos of previous cast introductions, this first episode focussed mainly on androgynous misfit Franky Fitzgerald, engagingly incarnated by Dakota Blue Richards out of that dull Philip Pullman film. Franky has just moved to Bristol after a traumatic time in Oxford; unwisely, she makes an enemy of the nastiest girl in school, and soon enough unflattering Facebook pictures are popping up all over the walls. Franky doesn’t like this, so she’s off to have some fun with her gun…

Skins-year-5-cast

The new guys…

It’s actually nice that it looks like this season’s going to focus a bit more on the misfits rather than the implausibly good-looking, anarchic heroes of previous casts – remember Nicholas Hoult’s Tony, or Jack O’Connell’s Cook? There’s an oddball guy who spouts pretentious nonsense at Franky while she’s trying to concentrate on shooting things, and he’s nice to look at but on limited evidence not the best of actors. But this first episode mostly served to introduce Franky, who eventually ended up doing a bit of moonlit swimming with fellow misfits Rich, Alo and Grace. Rich is an old-fashioned metalhead – I didn’t know there were any of those left – who I look forward to seeing a bit more of, while Alo is an engaging, if distinctly unattractive redhead boy who seems to live in a van with some weed and a stack of porn. Grace was less of a misfit, but is obviously going to be faced with the dilemma of choosing between the cool girls and the oddballs she actually likes.

As a season opener, it’s not going to grab viewers like the previous ones did – the very first episode in particular springs to mind, which had droolworthy shots of Nicholas Hoult in his underpants, copious drug usage, a house trashing party and ultimately a stolen Mercedes sliding into a Bristol lake. But I already like this new gang more than the second cast, who never engaged me as much as the first. With parental/teacher guest appearances already from the likes of Gordon Kennedy and John Sessions, this year looks promising.

But if you’re aching with nostalgia for the original characters and that very first episode, you can have a look at MTV’s virtual shot for shot remake of it, relocated to “somewhere on the North American continent”. Oh all right, it’s Vancouver again, but as usual they’re pretending it’s somewhere in the United States.

Actually, the American Skins is a little hard to fathom – as it seems to have pretty much just recycled the script of the British one, the reasons for remaking it seem sketchy at best.  Still, I remember thinking the same about the American Queer as Folk, until it ran out of British episodes to remake and became an entity of its own – at that point it became a genuinely good drama, and maybe this will too, when it finds its own identity.

Skins1 BritSkins1 US

 Spot the difference – Brits (left), Americans (right).

It hasn’t yet though, and for anyone familiar with the British version, it’s hard to shake your memories of the ‘real’ cast. Tony is now the somewhat less likeable James Newman, Sid (called Stanley in this version) is played by shaggy haired Daniel Flaherty, who lacks Mike Bailey’s gauche charm, and worst of all Maxxie has been replaced by a lesbian cheerleader, Tea, who has implausibly retained most of the same lines.

That last change is symptomatic of the apparently watered down approach of the US version – is it because even progressive American teenagers find a gay woman less threatening than a gay man? And the swearing’s been watered down too – there were two uses of the word ‘fuck’, but each was bleeped (although I gather some networks leave the dialogue uncensored).

Because we’re so used to seeing slews of light drama shows from the US featuring groups of angst-ridden, implausibly good-looking teenagers – the very thing the original Skins was trying to be the antithesis of – what this ends up feeling like is a slightly more risque version of The OC, with worse weather. But it’s still too near the knuckle for US moral guardians the Parents’ Television Council (a group who make Mary Whitehouse look like Linda Lovelace). As soon as the first episode was finished (and quite possibly without actually watching it), they were attacking MTV for the exploitative nature of the drama, and actually tried to file charges of child pornography with the Department of Justice. Which should help the ratings no end, I imagine. Heaven knows what they’d have made of the British version.

And Heaven knows what they’d make of Channel 4’s new advice/documentary show, The Joy of Teen Sex. Shakily walking a tightrope between information and exploitation, this purports to be an investigation into what British teenagers are really doing sexually, interspersed with practical sexual advice from the likes of James Corden’s sister. So, this week, we got an expose of the practice of “vagazzling” (sticking fake jewellery around one’s shaven vagina, for reasons that are hard to fathom), some eye watering close up photos of sexually transmitted diseases (to encourage the use of contraception, naturally), and a queue of sexually dysfunctional kids seeking advice.

A girl and her mother dropped in for an encounter session to try and curb the girl’s promiscuity, which of course ended in much crying and hugging. Meanwhile, a teenage drag queen tried to conquer his fear of being the receiver of anal sex, leading to very anatomically detailed descriptions of how exactly that works – though for some reason, nobody asked if he’d just considered being a top instead. And an inexperienced lesbian had some questions about the best ways to pleasure another girl.

As sage advice was given out, and the teenagers looked suitably appreciative, said advice was shown in reconstruction by various (far better looking) actors. Anyone getting their jollies from this, however, would soon be put off when the next close up of a disease popped up – this week, a very close look at a visibly uncomfortable young man with a bump in his scrotum.

It’s hard to know what to make of The Joy of Teen Sex. Is it information, or titillation? It seems to have the best intentions, but this kind of show always attracts viewers for quite the wrong reasons. And it’s made with the kind of earnest, patronising tone that TV producers always seem to come up with when trying to get “down with the kids”. With only four episodes, it’s unlikely to be around long enough for anyone to take too much offence. I expect somebody will, though.

Still, one show that wasn’t reeking with hormones this week was the return of BBC3’s sublime Being Human. Well, unless said hormones were the result of masses of violence being perpetrated by vampires or werewolves.

PICTURES SHOWS:  RUSSELL TOVEY AS GEORGE , SINEAD KEENAN AS NINA, , AND AIDAN TURNER AS MITCHELL AND LENORA CRICHLOW AS ANNIE

Being Human has, like Misfits, now been saddled with the burden of being a cult hit, with all the expectations that that comes with. So the third season has a lot of work to do, particularly to try and recapture the nice balance of humour and horror that the first season had and the second season rather lost.

It’s hard to say, from the first episode, whether it has. A move from Bristol to Barry Island has certainly changed the feel of the show’s locations, and the gang’s new digs – an old B & B – seem like a down at heel version of Angel’s Hyperion Hotel. And there was plenty of darkness in the subplot of a group of insalubrious vampires (led by a bleach haired and rather terrifying Paul Kaye) kidnapping werewolves for gladiatorial fights with humans. Oddly, they were defeated by stern werewolf patriarch Robson Green and his son – played by This Is England’s Michael Socha, who looks disconcertingly like a male version of his sister Lauren, who plays Kelly in Misfits.

michaelsochaMisfits

Spot the difference 2 – Michael (left), Lauren (right)

But there was fun to be had, as George, looking for an unobtrusive forest glade in which to transform into a wolf, inadvertently got himself arrested for dogging (oddly appropriate, that). The presence of Torchwood’s Kai Owen as the genial swinger in charge of the whole thing led to a certain amount of confusion as to which cult show I was actually watching, but the subplot led to a funny resolution as Nina turned up to extricate George from the cells before he transformed and ripped Kai to shreds. “He’s got a medical condition”, she stammered, trying to resist her own transformation and generally looking as mental as she claimed George to be. Apparently somewhat unperceptive, the cops took her at her word.

But the heart of this season opener was Mitchell’s quest into the afterlife to retrieve Annie, condemned to limbo at the end of the last season. This ended up as a sort of quest for redemption, as mysterious spirit Lia (a sublime Lacey Turner) took Mitchell on an extended tour of some of his greatest hits of wrongdoing since he became a vampire.

I’m not sure that continually exploring the mythos of the show does it any favours – the tantalising hints as to the nature of the afterlife in previous episodes are better left for the viewer to imagine, rather than being actually shown to us. And Mitchell’s homicidal past might also be best left to the imagination – nothing visual is likely to live up to what we’ve imagined.

Be that as it may, though, Annie’s back and the gang is back together. And Mitchell’s trip left us with some intriguing hints as to where the show’s going this year – it looks like he’s going to end up romantically linked with Annie ( I’m finding it hard to keep track of whether she’s corporeal enough to touch things, but she can still make tea). And there’s obviously some vampire/werewolf hostilities on the horizon. Could be good, and hopefully better than the similarly themed Underworld.

With all that sex and violence filling the small screen, the return of Top Gear actually seemed to inject some sanity into the week.  Sanity in the sense of dropping a VW Beetle out of a plane from a mile up, to see if a Porsche 911 GT can beat it to the impact point from a mile away on the ground. It was business as usual for Jeremy, Richard and James, although James had the unusual duty of test driving a very fast car – in this case the new V8 Ariel Atom. Top Gear has become as comfortably familiar as a pair of old slippers, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

With such a glut of new shows, it looks like I’m going to be spending more time in watching the telly for the next couple of months – hopefully I’ll get to write on this blog a bit more frequently! In the mean time, if you’re after yet more sex, apparently Channel 5 have adopted the not at all gimmicky approach of asking former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith to investigate the world of pornography (presumably not on expenses). The mind boggles…