Did we like it?
Just as Queer As Folk was a brilliant drama that just happened to have gay characters rather than a ‘gay drama’, after this superb opener Skins is well on the way to being a brilliant drama that just happens to have a mainly young cast rather than a parochial ‘youth drama’.
What was good about it?
• Like Torchwood, Skins has benefited from not trying as hard to be controversial and ‘sexed-up’ but instead to focus on the main elements of great drama – character and plot. And this, perversely, has also made it weirder but because of the strong characters and plots this weirdness is much easier to accept as part of the Skins world, and is handled far more adroitly than similar efforts to weave weirdness into drama such as Ashes To Ashes.
• While the acting was of a decent standard in the first series, it has markedly improved here. Most notable is Nicholas Hoult as Tony, who after being hit by a bus is now disabled. Although able to walk and (just about) talk, he shambles along behind his friends whom he once dominated with his charisma and is openly mocked by pre-teen girls as “mental”, although they all profess a rather unhealthy desire to “give him one” all the same.
• But what Hoult manages best is to remind you that the old Tony is still in there, lurking, no matter how much he has changed; as he confesses himself, “I miss me”. The bastard he once was is apparent in a flash of heartless humour, a spasm of spoiled-child violence in frustration at his inability to write or a fixed stare at his friends drenched with a glowering menace.
• And Tony’s resentment after Jal lets it slip about the massive party to herald the end of the summer holidays, to which he isn’t invited. Hoult conveys that it’s not so much the lack of an invite that’s most upsetting, but the fact that they now regard him as so stupid he won’t be able to see through their transparent lies to downplay the enormity of the party.
• Also impressive was Mitch Hewer as Maxxie who had to deal with living up to the expectations of his dad Walter (the fabulous Bill Bailey) while being pestered by the local homophobic teenagers on his estate. Bailey was marvellous as the pair played out that eternal conflict between father and son, but did so with a rejuvenating pathos and humour that made it seem as fresh as Adam and Cain.
• The headstrong Maxxie made clear his determination to leave college to become a dancer, while Walter preferred him to get his A-Levels and then join him on the building site. As a row descended into arbitrary abuse, Maxxie stormed off to his room cursing only for his father to chase after him with, “I’ll have no f**Kin’ swearing in this house!”
• While Effie, Cassie, Anwar and Jal didn’t get much of a look in this episode, Chris (Joe Dempsie) seems to have overcome the problems of the last series and cheerfully walks the streets dressed in his pyjamas (which is an improvement on naked) and a Sex Pistols T-shirt, the emblem of the futile teenage rebel. But he still joyfully symbolises the carefree attitude of every teenage generation, “Let’s go and get f**ked!”
• But the most affecting and striking moment came in the wordless exchange of glances between Sid (Mike Bailey) and Michelle (April Pearson) at the party as he sanctimoniously tried to shift all of his guilt over Tony onto Michelle as she was being groped by some blokes, by staring at her with a Godly patronising, wearied resignation at Lucifer’s predictable rebellion against the Kingdom of Heaven.
• Such is the confidence flowing through its adolescent veins that Skins attempted, and pulled off, that most fiendish of dialogue exchanges, The Chinese Water Torture Cell of TV drama – the earnest expression of love between a parent and child. Reconciled, Walter confessed to Maxxie: “You’ll understand this one day, kid. You’re everything I’ve got to show for my life, and I’m not ready for you to go ’cause I f**kin’ love you too much.” “I love you too, dad,” Maxxie replied.
• The bizarre, almost Father Ted, fragments that seem to bear no relation to the rest of the script, or indeed reality. In this episode, the absent Cassie plucked at the lovelorn Sid’s heartstrings as she performed the Highland Fling in a videotape sent from her new home in Elgin; and Walter and his neighbour Bandy chatted about Bandy’s wife: “She’s still got to wear the electronic tag. And they’ve banned her for life from operating a concrete mixer or a cattle prod.”
• It’s set in Bristol which means an absence of baffling references to ‘Hoxton’, a media concept conceived by people with a brains worthwhile only for a dog to bury its bone in, that travels from the London epicentre in the same way as TV waves drift through the cosmos, only doing so at the speed of slugs rather than light, an apposite velocity for this slimy, base slithering mollusc of mendacity.
• Maxxie pondering one the enduring mysteries of “how is A-Level history going to help me become a builder” or indeed any worthwhile occupation except historian? It can be answered in that A-Levels are simply a portal to three years of delight and debauchery at university (or at least they are if you happen to be as handsome as a character in Skins, otherwise it’s an eternity of gazing forlornly on in choking, dry-iced nightclubs at scornful eyes and upturned noses who would sooner use you as a spittoon than as a savoured receptacle for their tongue).
• It’s reassuring that the youth of today are, judging from the rave, as abysmal at dancing as their forbears, while sharing all of their copious self-delusion about their dancefloor aptitude (Maxxie excepted, of course).
What was bad about it?
• The sense of surreality also stretches into causing some pretty peculiar X-Files glitches on the narrative. Of course, only a native of Bristol might recognise this (and only a perditious pedant would point it out) but Tony and Maxxie’s bus was at first trundling along in the town centre, and then in a wink of an eye they were passing College Green about half-a-mile away.
• And as Effie and Tony entered the rave in the fading afternoon sunlight, somewhere in the world a Krakatoa-esque super volcano erupted plunging the globe into the foreboding, impenetrable darkness that Maxxie emerged into about two minutes later as he followed the fleeing Tony.
• After Maxxie unexpectedly followed Tony out of the rave, how did the homophobic gang know he was going to be coming out at that time (considering it was still early evening) and the direction he would go in?
• And the homophobic gang were mostly in possession of thick Bristolian accents, whereas most of the main cast had steadfastly middle-class accents, save for the gentle burrs of Maxxie and Sid.
• The needless Carry On moment when Chris and Jal spied Maxxie’s mum seemingly giving Tony a blow job, when in fact she was just doing up his flies as “my hands don’t work”.
• For all it’s perspicacity on teenage issues, Skins still suffers slightly from the affliction of Hollyoakitis, in that the cast are uniformly too good-looking; even the gangly Anwar believes he’s going to pull at the rave. This precludes any realistic insight into alienation and angst, something that only As If has ever even broached.
• And while Tony, Michelle, Sid et al may suffer some kind of rejection or isolation from mainstream society, it’s always tangible – physical impairment, i.e. Tony’s injuries, or enforced separation such as Sid and Cassie – there’s no sense that any of them feel that indefinable dislocation from everyone else in existence, which is a far more common trial of adolescence than recovering from a serious injury or illness.