Teen writers show their 'Skins'
One of the reasons E4's youth drama is such a hit is that it is written by youngsters. Chris Green talks to them
Monday 11 February 2008
Daniel Kaluuya is a normal teenager from Camden, in north London: he goes to school, enjoys hanging out with his friends, and only occasionally bunks off lessons.
But Daniel, 18, also happens to be a writer on E4's teen drama Skins. The second series launches tonight and his episode is due to be screened later in the year, making him one of the youngest people ever to have written an hour of prime-time television drama. "What's great about Skins is that the characters are exactly like people around you," says Kaluuya, who also plays the character of Posh Kenneth in the show. "If I was at school and one of my friends said something funny, I'd write it down in a notebook and take it to the writers meetings. I never told my friends about it. I just thought I could incorporate stuff that was true to life." Skins traces the drug and alcohol-fuelled tales of a group of 16 to 18-year-olds, who all attend a fictional sixth-form college in Bristol.
Each hour-long episode follows the fate of one character, telling their story through sparse, music-laden scripts.
The original idea of a dark, bittersweet look at teenage life was conceived by the father-and-son duo Bryan Elsley and Jamie Brittain, who both now write for it. The first episode – shown on E4 at the beginning of last year – pulled in more than 1.8 million viewers, and instantly became the most successful home-grown commission in the digital channel's history.
Elsley, who at 46 is by far the oldest and most experienced member of the show's writing team, was surprised when E4 leapt at the idea. "I thought: oh my God, what am I going to do to make this good? I took some very pragmatic decisions: If I'm writing a show about young people, I'd better go and find some."
And he did just that, scouring the theatres of London for aspiring young writers and inviting them to attend the writers' meetings, which are held in the offices of Company Pictures, just off Tottenham Court Road. Here, fed with a creative cocktail of cake and fizzy drinks, the young contributors were let loose on whiteboards and Skins was born.
"It's very fun to be paid to be creative," says 22-year-old Brittain, writer of the sixth episode in the new series. "I still have a lot of help, as do all the young writers, because we do need nurturing and mentoring: but that decreases every year. We have people coming through our young-writers' groups who in the first year were just there to help us out, give us stories, or tell us if we were crap. But now they're writing scripts."
Almost all of the writing team are still in their twenties, and for many of them this is their first job in television. Elsley, who describes himself as the show's "boring, middle-aged ringmaster", is convinced that having such a wide range of contributors is what keeps Skins fresh and viewers coming back.
"These are very talented young people with massive amounts of energy and commitment," he says. "They try to outdo each other with the breadth of their originality, which means that the episodes are all very different from each other."
Lucy Kirkwood, 24, had never even heard of Skins when her agent phoned to tell her that the writing team had read one of her plays and had invited her to an interview. Although her background was in theatre, Lucy jumped at the chance.
"I don't think that writing for TV is a problem for our generation," she says. "Most people's access to drama is through television and film rather than theatre: I've probably watched a hell of a lot more telly than I've seen plays. So without realising it, you're already versed in the language of speaking visually."
Anyone who has ever watched Skins will know that the silences between characters are just as important as the words: many of the scenes are short and rely on the actors' expressions as much as the script. Brittain admits that such subtleties can be tricky for a young writer.
"I've got a scene in my episode this year which is almost entirely composed of people looking at each other across a club," he says. "That took ages to write, and I had to have a lot of consultation with the director and actors as to how it would all work."
Kaluuya himself is quietly modest. "I'd love to keep doing Skins, because I've got so much more to learn," he says. "Writing can be really lonely, and I find that bit difficult. I'd rather be around my people, getting ideas. But you can't keep stopping and writing stuff in a notebook. When work ends, I'd rather just be seen as Daniel – normal."
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