Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Skins, Series 4 preview, BFI

There's no way I should like Skins. Whenever I'm stuck on a bus with some patois-spitting little Herbert playing shit music out of his mobile, I often think my quality of life would improve immeasurably if they were all shunted off to secure offshore rearing units until the age of 21.

Anyway, when it kicked its way noisily onto the box in 2007, I thought – as a keen student of TV drama – that I'd give it a fair crack of the whip. And while I rolled my eyes a bit at the idea that yoot behaving badly is a 21st-century invention, some of the show's subtlety intrigued me.

By the end of the first episode, I was sure I'd missed something. "What?" I spluttered through my late-night gorgonzola. "We're supposed to *like* Tony?!" But, of course, we weren't. Well, we were a bit. Weren't we? But how much?

Sure he was gorgeous, funny and clever – just how we would have wanted to view ourselves at that age. But he was also a selfish, manipulative and cruel wanker. And the ambivalence fuelled by that depth of characterisation was what fuelled the first two series much more powerfully than the shock horror sex-and-drugs stuff.

For me, it was the second episode – 'Cassie' – that really drew me in. Bryan Elsley's script, Paul Gay's direction and Hannah Murray's luminous performance combined to immerse the viewer in Cassie's world of anorexia and dissociation. It was suddenly apparent that there was going to be more to the show than destructive house parties.

Anyway, the other night we saw a preview of the first episode of series four, at the BFI. And it was excellent. I won't give much away, but it focuses on Thomas (Merveille Lukeba), who is thrown into a bit of a personal crisis when something nasty happens at the club night he puts on. It's darker in tone than the previous series openers, but script, direction, performances and editing all come together beautifully.

There was a Q&A after the screening, featuring writers Bryan Elsley and Jamie Brittain, director Neil Biswas, Merv Lukeba and Lily Loveless (who plays Naomi). It was well moderated by Heat magazine's Boyd Hilton, and while most of the questions were directed at the cast members, there were a few bits of interest from a writing perspective.

* When questioned about the apparent darker tone of 4.1, JB and BE said that one of the things that defines Skins is the fact that its tone can shift around at ease, from intense drama to knockabout comedy and back again. They always seek to open the series with a spectacle, which just happens to be darker this time round. However, the events will continue to have reverberations throughout the series.

* Neil Biswas said he didn't have to fit into a fixed Skins style when he joined the show. Everyone was relaxed about him bringing his own interpretation, and the series is characterised by a lot of collaboration and conversation.

* Bryan Elsley said that he devised the show's writing method because he realised before starting that to make a show about teens he needed to involve teens. As things came together, he became increasingly aware of the talents of the young people he was working with, and wanted to create an atmosphere where they could develop and learn by making mistakes in a safe environment.

* He also responded to claims that the series depicted teens in a bad way by saying again that the show uses the full range of tone - both dark and light - and that it reflects not just teenage life but also a wider range of experience, which is why grown-ups watch the show too. He added that characters like JJ and Pandora also show the very best in human nature.

* Finally, he said that he was happy to have a niche audience of 1.5m-2m who are really engaged with the show; he wants the show to have an audience it can have a relationship with. He was also full of praise for the support the show receives from Channel 4.

I'll watch series four with interest. I remember giving a sudden mental gasp in series two when Cassie suddenly turned up in New York and it became apparent that there was no way we'd be able to second-guess how the series was going to end. I hope the same free-wheeling creativity holds sway as the second generation of Skins heads towards its conclusion.

(And here's what I wrote about last year's series opener. It's looking much better this time round - maybe that's going to be a side-effect of the two-year character cycle?)

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