Teen dramas: Down with the kids

Most teen dramas are a far cry from the real-life issues facing adolescents. But 'Skins' promises to tell it like it is. Liz Hoggard meets the team behind it

'Seventeen-year-olds have deep and complex lives. They have just as much right to a complicated structure to their emotions as Dame Judi Dench does," says writer/producer Bryan Elsley. "But so often you don't see that represented in TV drama."

I'm sitting in on a script workshop for Skins, the new nine-part comedy drama that will go out on E4 early next year. Focusing on the lives of a group of 16- to 17-year-old friends, it's made by Company Pictures (who brought us Shameless), so you can expect a realistic portrayal of drinking, socialising and shagging. But the drama also aims to portray the complex emotions of people on the brink of adulthood.

How many great teen TV dramas have there been in the last 10 years? The OC, Buffy, Sugar Rush? The majority are full of impossibly pretty people leading impossibly perfect lives. It's not surprising you hear teenagers complain "There's nothing on TV for me!". The MySpace generation is more likely to spend time online or watching DVDs.

But hopefully Skins will do for teenagers what This Life did for twentysomethings. "I hope it will feel as authentic because it's genuinely inspired by, driven by, and directed by young people," says the head of E4, Danny Cohen.

Many teen dramas fail because they're written by jaded fortysomethings. But Company Pictures has brought in a youthful team of contributors. In the room with me are stand-ups Simon Amstell (Popworld) and Josie Long (awarded best newcomer at the Edinburgh Fringe this summer), the Dawson Brothers (Balls of Steel, Dirty Tricks), and Jack Thorne, whose play When You Cure Me was performed at the Bush last year, and who has also written for Shameless. Three real-life teenagers are on hand to make sure the dialogue is spot on and, overseeing it all is Elsley (The Young Person's Guide to Becoming a Rock Star, 40, The Crow Road).

Everyone is keen to avoid the clichés of teen programming. This will not be a show full of beautiful people firing off smart one-liners. Rather, the writers want to convey the raw emotion of teen life, the sense of making it up as you go along. "Teenagers aren't especially articulate," says Jack Thorne, "so a lot of the humour is physical." "What differentiates our show from Hollyoaks is that there is a subtext," says Elsley, "and the camera action is where you communicate that subtext."

The writers have established Dogma-style rules for Skins; no flashbacks, no fantasy sequences, no funny camera moves. "No pumping soundtracks," adds Amstell. And unusually for a teen drama, cinematography is crucial. "The problem with Dawson's Creek is that they talk out all their issues and everything gets solved. But what we're trying to do is address these problems televisually," says Elsley, "without talking everything out all the time." "Don't diss The Creek," says Thorne, a glint in his eye.

Skins follows the lives of nine teenagers from the same Bristol sixth-form college. Each hour-long episode is devoted to a different character. All the cinematic tropes of high school are here: pretty boys and girls, geeks, sidekicks and outcasts.

Apart from Nicholas Hoult as Tony (About a Boy, Wah-Wah), the cast is largely made up of first-time actors. But there's a great running joke: all the adults are played by well-known actors and comedians. Tom's parents are Harry Enfield and Morwenna Banks; Neil Morrissey is the father of the eccentric Cassie; while pretty girl Michelle is at loggerheads with her mum (Arabella Weir) and much younger stepdad (played by Danny Dyer).

But E4 is actually playing down the celebrity angle. It believes 17-year-old viewers will be more interested in seeing their own age group reflected on screen (arguably it is thirtysomething Fast Show fans who will relish Enfield playing a porky, middle-aged dad), plus the drama is filmed from a teen perspective. The adults only appear on the periphery of their children's lives - which feels pretty true to life. "It's like the old Tom & Jerry cartoon where you only ever see their legs," says C4's senior commissioning editor for drama, Francis Hopkinson.

Elsley came up with the idea for Skins when his son, Jamie Brittain (now 20 and one of the writing team) complained there was nothing worth watching on TV.

In fact, Hopkinson and Cohen were actively looking to grow their own drama for E4. They'd already tried out a few sci-fi shows with a young cast, but could never find the right scripts. So when Elsley approached them, they jumped at the concept.

A lot of teen TV is "alienated, disembodied wallpaper", argues Elsley. "What producers tend to do is smooth everything out so it's not controversial. Everyone's very beautiful, everyone looks the same. They shoot it all on a hand-held camera because no one can afford to stand still and think about these things."

Skins is not intended to be socially useful, however. Primarily it's entertainment, though the writers manage to sneak a few issues under the wire. Everyone is pretty cool about race and sexuality. There's a very funny scene where Maxxie, the openly gay character, takes the boys along for A Big Gay Night Out, only for it to end in a dismal karaoke session in a pub.

And in episode two Cassie clearly has an eating disorder, although no one mentions anorexia explicitly. "It's just all about how she gets through her day without eating," says Elsley. "So the episode is about how she feels and what her tactics are." In fact the writers fought not to have a helpline at the end of the episode. "We don't want a little preachy drama where everyone hugs at the end," says Thorne, "but hopefully some people will recognise themselves in Cassie."

"We're not attempting to help or instruct anyone," says Elsley. "What we're trying to do is write a show about relationships. It's not about whether or not you should have sex, or whether or not you should take drugs."

Similarly they turned down all offers of commercial sponsorship ("kids see through it", says Hopkinson) and any sort of whacky title like "Crazy Days". Skins works, says Cohen, because it has a myriad of meanings. The episode they're brainstorming today focuses on Michelle, the empty pretty girl we all remember from school. But Michelle is about to get a shock: when she splits from Tony her world comes tumbling down. The writers debate how her new-found insecurity can be represented in a fresh way. "You could have her trying on hundreds of different outfits," suggests Josie Long.

Refreshingly, they turn down the opportunity to have Michelle embark on an affair with her stepdad, or introduce a predictable abuse storyline. "Too Brookside," says Amstell.

"The problem with teen dram is it tends to be either quite working-class or quite glib," says Thorne. "The thing about the Skins lot is they are from comprehensive schools but they're not especially gritty. They live in a world we all grew up in. It's not just about crime and stealing, it's about working out how to have fun."

For all the moral relativism, there is a heart to Skins. Everyone involved on the production feels passionately that 17 is a tricky rite of passage.

The beautiful, callous Tony may initially seem the hero, but in fact audiences are most likely to identify with geeky Sid.

And Skins is often very funny. Not only do we get to snigger at trendy parents fighting for the Coldplay album, the teens are convincingly narcissistic. "I recently re-read all my old diaries and, God, are they bleak!" laughs Long. "They're a combination of intensely emotional and really superficial. Things like, 'Everyone looked lovely. I wish I were dead'."

"Growing up it took me years to work out that actually I wasn't popular at all; I was just with the popular people," laughs Thorne.

There is a rawness to Skins because the characters are doing everything for the first time - from sex to posh parties. "By the time you reach your thirties you've fallen in and out of love two or three times, so you understand the rhythms, but the first time when you go through it, you never really understand it," says Hopkinson. "And of course you have more time to brood over things, and plan things, which you don't have if you have a 9-5 job, or are married or have children."

Production values on Skins are impressively high. According to Hopkinson (whose credits include Longford, Elizabeth I and a dramatisation of the Bradford riots), the model is independent films such as Mean Girls and Brick. He doesn't see why shows that feature teenagers, such as Sugar Rush, should be automatically labelled as teen drama. "You watch something like Stand by Me and you don't say, 'that's a children's drama' just because it's got children in. It's an adult drama, but you watch it because it takes you into a different world, and that's what I want Skins to do."

Elsley boasts that they have one of the youngest TV writing teams ever (the average age is 23, and they'd like to get it under 20 for series two). But he's upfront about the budgetary constraints. After today's brainstorming session, he has the headache of writing the Michelle episode. "I've volunteered to Channel 4 for this to be the cheap episode," he laughs, "so that means the absolute minimum number of supporting artists and locations."

Since the Skins team snapped her up, stand-up Josie Long's career has gone through the roof. But she says she's learnt a huge amount. "I'd never written drama before and suddenly it was 'wow you're making a glamorous TV show!'. The attraction for me was being able to meet other young writers in a workshopy way. I really love American comedy and I got very excited by the idea of team writing. As a stand-up you don't ever volunteer for criticism; you just go 'well this is what I think is funny'. It's your only way of having consistency, you need to have your own belief in it. But with scriptwriting you do draft after draft, and there's so much input and advice. You have to be a lot more open."

Skins will go out post-watershed: the characters drop pills, have sex, and push boundaries like only teenagers can. Writing authentic dialogue wasn't always easy, however. The Broadcasting Standards Codes rule against the use of certain words (which are the words that 16-year-olds use). Plus the writers also have to work within the constraints of the Child Protection Act. "It's a huge issue for us in terms of what we can depict," says Elsley. "We want to show life as it happens, but the Child Protection Act regulates against the depiction of teenage life as it actually happens."

Four months after the workshop, I watch a rough cut of the drama. The first episode - where Sid tries to lose his virginity - may seem slightly laddy. But hang in there for episode two (Cassie's story), which is a fantastically nuanced piece of writing. When it comes to the mysteries of puberty, Skins aims to communicate with teen audiences, while also reminding adults what it was really like. Yes they have more sex and better haircuts these days, but it does a great job of conveying the gaucherie of adolescence - the agony of teen politics.

"It's got lots of texture to it," says Long. "It doesn't just feel, 'Oh look, we're zeitgeisty and young'."

E4 insists there is no one target audience for Skins. It is billed as drama "for young people of all ages". "I don't just want to make it a drama that 16-year-olds feel they will watch," says Hopkinson. "Good stories are universal. I mean My mother watched This Life."

'Skins' is on E4 in the new year

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