‘The messy lives, loves, delirious highs and inevitable lows of a group of raucous teenage friends...’ that was how Channel 4 described the first series of its hit drama Skins. Little did they know then, that this would end up kick-starting another six series, two more generations, an American version (which was axed after one series) and many very successful acting careers. Of the first generation alone, Nicholas Hoult (Tony Stonem) is now a staple of big budget Hollywood movies such as the most recent X Men films and Bryan Singer’s Jack the Giant Slayer; Dev Patel (Anwar Kharral) was nominated for a Bafta for his role in Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, Joe Dempsie (Chris Miles) pops up all over TV land as Ned Hawkins in another Channel 4 production New Worlds and Gendry in Game of Thrones and Hannah Murray (Cassie Ainsworth) who has also featured in Game of Thrones. Cassie’s story was also returned to in one of the three two part stories that made up the seventh and final series called ‘Pure’.
This article will only consider the first season of Skins, as this was probably the strongest with the first generation, as it has always been my belief that the problems that plagued the later series were due to how good the first was, and how they used up most of the interesting ‘teenager’ related storylines. This is evident in the season 7 Cassie episode, which concerns itself mostly with Cassie being photographed by a stalker who she eventually ends up in a relationship with (the plot line’s stupidity being evident simply by summarising it in a sentence). This is not, fundamentally, what was so good about Skins, the series was at its best when it dealt with real teenaged issues that were really relevant, not strange fantastical scenario’s and conceits that, although perhaps a possibility, spoke to a very small number of the audience.
This is not to say that the ways in which the issues are approached are not, in some sense, prone to exaggeration. This has been the reason that I have always said, to be a reasonable interesting late teens/early twenties you want to be about half way on a spectrum between Skins and The Inbetweeners. This is not really problematic, and perhaps can said to be the prerogative of fiction in all its many forms. Its task is to draw attention to truths about human being; and not the use of the ‘broader brush’ can said to illuminate facts obscured and obfuscated in the sensory barrage of real life. There are, evident in this series although more so in later ones, that the extreme situation is used simply to shock rather than raise questions. This is found in the second generation in particular. The first season does, to my mind, seem to tread this fine line a little better. An example of this the second episode concerned with Cassie’s eating disorder. This seemed to me, although I do not have a great deal of experience with the subject, a very powerful and realistic portrayal of the situation of someone who has an eating disorder. The mechanisms for sustaining such a lifestyle, demonstrated when Cassie distracts Sid so he does know she isn’t eating, the lack of care of various figures that should be helping, be they parents or psychiatrists and yet all the time the niggling half-thought exclamation ‘Eat’ that Cassie has been imaging she has been sent as a message but is actually in her own head. A fairly predictable plot twist, but nonetheless effective for this.
This said there were a few plot lines that probably did stray too far into the strange/ unrealistic. One that jumps out at me in particular is the character of Tony Stonem. The characterisation of him as some sort of stereotyped young male aspiration: a womanising; Shakespeare quoting; socially savvy; Machiavellian genius. This would not be a problem for me if Skins was supposed to be a harmless piece of escapism, but the way in which the programme was presented and the way it dealt with many other teenager related issues makes it seem to me like something that shouldn’t be taken so lightly. Even so, the character almost seems believable; a testament to actor Nicholas Hoult’s considerable acting abilities. But still, to me, Tony would have been better played as maybe a womaniser and very intelligent, as he is currently characterised he is too good to be true.
This said, Skins strangeness, particularly in its sense of humour, was not always a problem. It certainly seemed, in its ridiculousness and dry irony to act as a wonderful counterpoint to the shows more serious points. The most amusing of these, in my opinion, was the school trip to Russia in the episode ‘Maxxie and Anwar’. Yes the episode did dredge up some truly dreadful stereotypes of Russian people, with the entire thing played as some modern version of ‘Carry on Russia’. All the usual suspects are present, the buxom young Russia girl, her lecherous older husband, the corrupt boarder officials, the Cossack hatted soldiers and the plump older Russian matron. It is, however, in the sheer ridiculousness of these stereotypes, combined with the ordinary tropes of the beguiled and foolish English people that seems to make the comparison to ‘Carry on’ not a criticism but instead an explanation as to why this is amusing, feeding as it does into a great British comic tradition of absurdity. This also highlights how, strange though it may sound, there is something very British about Skins, part kitchen sink drama and part Punch and Judy show.
It is the coincidence, or conscious marriages, of these many elements: the right actors, the right plot lines and the right sense of humour that made the first series of Skins such a fantastic programme. In spite of the poorer quality of the later series and the American version (perhaps because, in many ways, Skins is a very British programme) the first series will stand the test of time. The reason for this is inspite of the exaggeration and the strangeness, Skins says something about what it is like to be a teenager, what it is like to be human. And for this reason the first series will endure, maybe not quite like Shakespeare, but it will certainly be seen as an important influence for people of my generation. To paraphrase Tony Stonem, who was quoting Dawson’s Creek and not Shakespeare, ‘[the significance of]this world extends way beyond this little field of dreams we’re dancing in.’
Skins season one is available on DVD and on 4od.