Teen drama Skins, the enormously successful hit for Channel Four’s digital channel E4, is back this Thursday night. The series, which prides itself on using a very young writing team, famously made the daring move of almost completely replacing it’s popular original cast after two series. When the new characters, such as twins Emily and Katie and the strident Naomi were first introduced, many viewers were left pining for the likes of Sid, Cassie and Maxxie. But by the end of the third series, we were sucked into the world of these new characters and left wanting more.
The series begins with a very bold opening episode. Unlike the fun, boisterous starts to previous series, this episode is dark, brooding and tragic. While the start of the last series had to deal with introducing us to an almost entirely new cast, we get straight into the action here. In a sequence brilliantly directed by Neil Biswas which perfectly captures the sights and sounds of a club, we follow a girl as she walks through the crowds, before something unexpected and shocking happens, which will not only have a major impact on the rest of this episode, but the three or four episodes to follow.
Thomas, the Congolese immigrant whose mother is having second thoughts about coming to this sin-ridden country, is the focus of the episode. He faces up to the conflict between the debauchery of his friends and his faith and the strong values he’s been brought up with. He finds that things aren’t quite as clear-cut as that, with temptation coming in the most unlikely of places. The sweet Pandora follows him everywhere, but don’t forget that she slept with yobbish Cook. Thomas certainly hasn’t forgotten.
Even with the darker themes of this first episode, there are still plenty of very funny moments. Thomas’s little sister Fumi has some of the best lines of the episode, including a cracking Star Wars reference. But the star of the show was probably The Thick of It’s Chris Addison, who plays David Blunt, the new Director of Roundview College, who comes across as a slightly psychotic version of David Cameron. Addison is following in the footsteps of a wealth of British comedy royalty who have appeared in the show, and in this first episode he’s joined by Birds of a Feather’s Pauline Quirke.
The last series ended with Cook and Freddie (not to forget JJ) facing up to each other in a bid to win the affections of the enigmatic Effy, and while there’s not any final resolution to this story, we see that things have definitely moved on in a very interesting way.
Yes, there is plenty of sex, drinking and drug taking in the episode, as you’d expect. What Skins does brilliantly is take your expectations and sometimes gleefully run with them, being every bit the immature, hedonistic show people who have never seen it assume it to be – but regularly, like in this episode and countless other times before, completely subverts and confounds those expectations to produce something surprisingly contemplative and emotionally complex.
Merveille Lukeba is terrific as Thomas, raised in South London but completely convincing as the African teenager who has just arrived in Britain. He handles the emotional scenes particularly well, as do Lisa Backwell, Ollie Barbieri and Luke Pasqualino in their brief appearances.
I watched the first episode at a screening last night at the BFI, which was also attended by hundreds of brilliant, crazy, screaming fans of the show from far and wide, including some who had come especially from Canada and Germany. After the screening there was a Q&A session with some of the cast, plus creators Bryan Elsley and his son Jamie Brittain, who let slip a few secrets about the future of the show. The fifth series hasn’t yet been officially commissioned yet, but given the international success of Skins it’s bound to continue, and once again after two years with this cast, the plan is to come back with an entirely new cast next year. Just as Tony’s little sister Effy was the link between the first and second generations of Skins, the current plan is for the one familiar face next year to be James Fitch, the twins’ devilish younger brother.
But for now, there’s plenty to look forward to with the current cast, with the writers’ favourite episode being the fifth, focusing on Freddie. And there’s lots more happening in the world of Skins, with a novel recently released, a movie in development, and an American pilot being produced for MTV. Going into it’s fourth series, it seems that Skins is stronger than ever.
Skins, Thursday 28th January at 10pm, E4