Teenage kicks: It's sex, drugs and double maths as Skins returns

E4's Skins, the must-watch show for teens, is back with a brand-new cast. It's still the same glossy fantasy that bears no more than a passing resemblance to reality, but does that really matter, asks Deborah Orr
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The Independent Culture

The innocent fan, sitting down next week to the first episode in the third series of E4's teenage comedy drama Skins, is in for a shock. All the carefully developed young characters that they have become involved with over series one and two are gone – no more Tony, no more Cassie, no more Sid. No more any of them. Skins, pretty much, is starting all over again. The show's creators always promised that they would take risks. This strategy certainly sounds like a risk.

Except that no Skins fan is innocent. Ask any enthusiast why they like the show and they'll admit that it is almost compulsory to like it. For teenagers today, Skins offers what television used to offer to the entire nation – a communal view-and-discuss experience.

But the collective interest isn't just about sitting down to watch the show on the night and then talking about it the next day. Among its many innovations, Skins has established itself as the television programme that really knows how to exploit the internet. They may not actually exist, but that doesn't stop the characters in Skins from having their own blogs. Any young people in Britain who don't already know that this series has an entirely new cast are either scarily highbrow or frighteningly isolated.

Oddly, though, this scorched-earth policy isn't quite the wild creative gamble it might appear to be. If anything, it's a reminder that Skins isn't quite as fresh and unique as the hype around it claims. The logic behind the innovation, after all, is dictated by something rather mundane. For all its weirdness, outrageousness and power to shock, Skins, like Grange Hill before it, is essentially a drama about school. The school in question is a Bristol sixth-form college, Roundview, and students only stay at a sixth-form college for two years. The antics the pupils indulge in, it is true, are more 21st-century St Trinian's than 20th-century Grange Hill. But the fact remains that no matter how long Skins ends up running, it'll only really feature people at precisely that brief stage of their lives.

The young writers of Skins are neither brave nor stupid enough, however, to abandon continuity completely, even if the continuity they offer comes close to self-parody. The first episode of series one introduced us to Tony Stonem as he negotiated his way through a demanding early morning, picking up his gang – including nerdy Sid and trouble-magnet Chris – as he headed into Roundview, organising that night's party – and the drugs for it – as he went. The new series features a similar trope, only this time it is Freddie Mclair who negotiates his trip to college on a skateboard, leaving chaos in his wake, and meeting his best mates – nerdy JJ and trouble-magnet Cook – for a beer and a spliff before class.

The soothing balm of the familiar is further injected into this opening scenario with the appearance first of Effy Stonem, who is the sister of Tony, and next of Jim Stonem, who is their father. Effy, it is quickly established, is now as charismatic, sexually voracious and manipulative as her brother once was. The new series of Skins may feature different characters, but it is apparently just as hung up on keeping it in the family as the next person.

Further, those first few minutes reassure young viewers that some of the hallmark features of Skins will remain. The drug use, and plenty of it, will still be prominent, and casual. The sex, and plenty of it, will still be prominent and casual. Not for nothing is Skins the first British-made teen series to go out after the watershed. Not for nothing does the official website, one suspects rather pointlessly, warn that its content is suitable only for over-eighteens. Needless to say, Skins has attracted much disapprobation because of its racy content, and the moral implications of that are certainly worth discussing. But it is important to have that discussion within the context of the positive achievements of the show.

It is hard to find anyone within the television industry who is entirely dismissive of the programme and its significance. Skins is generally considered by professionals to be a landmark production, not least because of the explosion of talent it unleashed.

Dev Patel, for example, is unlikely to argue that the show is "bad" for teenagers. It provided him, alongside many others, with his first proper acting job, playing Anwar Kharral. It also provided him with fantastic exposure – so fantastic that when the film director Danny Boyle was looking for someone to play the lead in Slumdog Millionaire, which has won four Golden Globes, his daughter Caitlin, 17, advised him to look no further than Skins, and Patel.

Likewise, Jack Thorne has been helped along hugely by his involvement in writing for the show. He had already had some success as a playwright before Skins, but the association and the experience most definitely helped him to raise interest in his first film script, The Scouting Book for Boys, which V C will be released later this year. Others who have worked on the programme, including the stand-up comedian Josie Long, have found that the Skins effect propels them forward with great alacrity. For both actors and writers, the freedom offered by the show's no-holds-barred approach confers opportunities to shine that typically are hard for young people to access.

This liberation has come about because of the inversion of the usual conventions that frame teen drama. Generally, teen drama is written by older people, and with short, pre-watershed time slots in mind. The big problem with this is that, with the exception of the soaps, children aged about 14 and over just aren't interested in watching this stuff, in which they feel, with some justification, written down to. Instead, they want to watch adult television drama, or films.

Skins, by contrast, is written by young people (including Jamie Brittain, the son of the show's originator and producer, Bryan Elsley) and with hour-long post-watershed slots in mind. Once you have created these conditions, it's hard to justify why writers should censor themselves any more than they would if they were writing for adults, especially when such adult material as Russell T Davies's Queer As Folk, which featured a gay teenager, attracted such a large teenage audience anyway.

Having won the opportunity to write at length, after the watershed, the creators of the programme were particularly keen to back away from any of the conventions that trammel the people who write for the soaps. The latter capitulated years ago to the influence of the Australian soap imports and beefed up their young person count. Within their limitations, they have tackled young people and drugs, and young people and sex – but always within a context that demands a moral framing and, usually, a post-show helpline. It's part of the reason why they are now all so dreary.

Shows like Skins actually make better sense, in theory anyway. What, really, is the point of pushing at the limitations of the watershed (thereby upsetting many people who want to watch telly at that time with the whole family) when there is plenty of airtime later in which to dramatise risky behaviour within a time-frame that can offer much deeper character development?

I do think that adults watching too voraciously must probably be a bit weird. But I watch when my own teenage step-daughter is around, because she loves it, and I'm always interested in hearing what the people who do watch the programme think about it. Mostly, they watch it in exactly the way that older people watched This Life or Sex and the City. They know it can offer insights into the workings of real life, but they also know that the connection is tenuous.

Isabel Adomako Young, who has just turned 16, started watching Skins halfway through the first series, simply because she wanted to take part in the discussions that her friends were having. She really enjoys it, but admits that at first she found its "psychedelic atmosphere a bit scary".

"It's not really realistic," she says. "It's not like average teenage life. It's just what things are like in TV world, just as a hospital drama bears hardly any resemblance to the routine in a real hospital." She was bothered at first by the way none of the students ever seemed to do any work, and none of their parents ever asked where they were going, and when they would be back. But she quickly decided that it was just entertainment, a hyper-real, ultra-dramatised fantasy, exaggerated out of all proportion for laughs, and staged in a world where dumb behaviour didn't have many consequences.

Not all teenagers are willing to accept this, though. My stepson, now 18, took an instant dislike to the series. He says he would prefer something "less pretty and more gritty" and suggests that the show is branded as "alternative and cool, appealing to the indie scene, when in fact companies actually fall over themselves to offer their clothes to the show for product placement, because it is such a commercial vehicle".

Neither of these opinions is wrong, or even contradictory. One viewer embraces the fact that the show is an outrageous confection, just as melodramatic as any other successful episodic drama, and finds it all very funny and entertaining. The other is unwilling to suspend disbelief and be drawn into something that he sees as bearing little or no resemblance to his own world. Pure entertainment – and Skins has no pretensions to being anything else – is usually shallow, though. What both of them are agreed on, for good or ill, is that Skins does not like real life.

Anyway, I do think that Skins does have one important piece of moral framing, one that is so subtle and natural that it is simply part of the joke. Adomako Young put her finger on it when she questioned why none of the parents ever asked where their children were going or what they were doing. In Skins, the teenagers may be the apotheosis of all that adults fear young people might be. That embrace and caricature of the stereotype is the biggest conceptual gag in the show.

But no matter how messed up, irresponsible, badly behaved, callous or profane the behaviour of the students is, the adults who feature – whether they are parents, teachers, drug dealers or creepy adult lovers – have to shoulder some of the blame. Skins may not portray the real world that teenagers live in but, like the real world, it is still made for them by their elders.

Getting under our skin: The new cast

(From left to right in main image)

1. Thomas

Merveille Lukeba

Thomas arrives at Roundview College, Bristol from the Congo and takes a while to find his feet. Polite, reliable and kind but probably not immune from some kind of trouble – it is 'Skins', after all. Lukeba has appeared on 'The Bill' and played a child soldier in the film 'Ezra'.

2. JJ

Ollie Barbieri

Aka Jonah Jeremiah Jones. He is the brains of the operation, the child-like visionary behind the gang's schemes. A little bashful, he uses magic tricks to disguise his social awkwardness.

3. Naomi

Lily Loveless

Passionate, political and principled, the deliciously named Naomi Campbell likes to start arguments with her friends. The fiery one.

4. Freddie

Luke Pasqualino

Cook's laid-back wingman. Freddie likes skateboarding, smoking weed and staying cool. Bound to be popular.

5. Effy

Kaya Scodelario

The only main character to survive the cull after series two, Effy is Tony's little sister. Once shy and retiring, she's become queen bee of the gang and the school sweetheart.

6. Cook

Jack O'Connell

The leader of the boys. Irresponsible, irresistible and bound, one imagines, for an affair with Effy. O'Connell is the most experienced actor on the new 'Skins' slate, having played Pukey in 'This Is England' and starred in the Brit horror film 'Eden Lake'.

7. Pandora

Lisa Backwell

Effy's loyal best friend, rather sweet and naive. Think Cassie Mark 2 – but a little less weird.

8, 9. Katie and Emily

Megan and Kathryn Prescott

Ooh, twins. Katie and Emily are yin and yang. Katie's desperate to shed her double and make her way in the world (and is going out with a footballer); Emily is shy and desperate to hang on to her sister. Watch out for Katie's growing rivalry with Effy.

10. Karen

Klariza Clayton

Freddie's older sister. Karen wants to be a star and is scarily focused on her goal. A bit of a brat, really.

And what happened to the old cast?

Mike Bailey (Sid)

Leaving behind the role of school loser, Bailey has wrapped filming on the new epic Channel 4 drama, '1066: The War for Middle Earth', screening in February.

Hannah Murray (Cassie)

Last year Cassie fans gathered to see Murray's West End debut in 'That Face', opposite the new Doctor Who Matt Smith.

Dev Patel (Anwar)

Since playing the randy, not-so-strict Muslim Anwar in 'Skins', Patel has won awards – a BIFA and a Critics Choice so far – for his lead role in 'Slumdog Millionaire'.

Nicholas Hoult (Tony)

Hoult has starred in the BBC's 'Wallender' and next month makes his West End debut in 'New Boy'. He's been cast with Colin Firth in Hollywood film, 'A Single Man'.

Joseph Dempsie (Chris)

In a frequent narcotic stupor as Chris, Joe Dempsie, the eldest 'Skins' graduate at 21, has popped up in 'Doctor Who' and 'Merlin'. Next he plays Duncan McKenzie in the Peter Morgan film 'The Damned United'.

Larissa Wilson(Jal)

Since leaving her role as Jal, school swot and musician, Wilson has featured in 'Tormented' with fellow 'Skins' alumna, April Pearson and 'Holby City'.

Mitch Hewer (Maxxie)

As the flamboyantly gay Maxxie, Hewer has already built up a considerable fan base. He has since starred in 'Britannia High', ITV's showy stage-school drama, playing Danny Miller.

April Pearson (Michelle)

The erstwhile girlfriend of Tony, Pearson, 19, has landed her first feature film role in 'Tormented', a Brit horror about a bullied teenager who seeks vengeance from beyond the grave.

'Skins' starts on E4 on 22 January at 10pm

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