Years back, my tweenage daughter and I would watch the original Beverly Hills, 90210 together, and I would tell my daughter, “Behave like that nice girl Donna or brainy Andrea and not that little tart Valerie.” And though I laughed until I cried when I watched the first episode of the new season of Skins, I cannot imagine watching it with my children. Indeed, I can barely imagine how it can be edited for American television.
That’s because Skins — the series that launched the career of Slumdog Millionaire star Dev Patel — is sexually charged, irreverent and sometimes profane. When I got a chance to interview Bryan Elsley, the older of the father/son creative duo behind Skins, my first question concerned how much editing would be done before the new season begins on BBC America.
I can’t help but wonder. Do you simply create a special U.S. prude edition?
Bryan Elsley: (laughs) For America I think we bleep quite a lot of the language and there is a little bit of pixilation that goes on as well and at times we provide subtitles. It’s very heavily edited for America.
There are some differences between the British educational system and ours, so how old are these kids?
They are 17 and 18. By “college” in Britain, we mean your last two years of high school, so these are kids in their last two years of secondary education. They have small classes in the British system, and there is a new movement that tries to provide fresh, new, optimistic buildings and a new educational experience, so college is a very open and permissive place.
The first season was lauded for taking on some very controversial themes, including homosexuality. That’s daring in a teen drama, isn’t it?
Yes. We want this show to be edgy and operating on an edge of acceptability. But the hidden gag behind Skins is that the show is deeply subtextual and deadly serious. When people watch Skins, they often start off thinking it is a very stupid teen-based show but as it goes on our aspiration is that the audience finds a depth that is very serious indeed.
What has it been like working with your son on this series?
My son is 22 now. He was 19 when he started writing the show. Sometimes it can be murder. He is a very insolent and cheeky boy who doesn’t understand who’s in charge half the time. And he has a slight tendency to write directly about his dad in the scripts, and not in an altogether flattering light. Beyond that, we get along pretty well and things go pretty smooth.
Do you divide the work or is it a collaboration?
It’s a constant collaboration — but not just between me and my son, Jamie [Brittain]. There is a whole range of young and teenage writers who work on the show. And we have, we believe, the youngest television writing team in history. We have one episode that was written by an 18-year-old writer. And we have a large writers’ group that meets once a week and the show flows outwards from that room.
We also have groups of teenagers from all over the country that we meet with on a regular basis. They are bright, opinionated young kids. We get a lot of feedback from them and from our website where we have a lot of dedicated followers.
How have things changed since you were your son’s age and how are they the same?
The big difference is that my teenage years were pretty miserable. There was no video, no DVDs, no computers, one cinema that was always closed in the one-horse town in which I lived, and there was nothing to do but fight and drink. The big difference between that life and my son’s teenage life in Bristol is that his was great fun. One thing the show says is that it is fantastic to be a teenager in the U.K. today because there is so much to do and so much to think about. At least, that’s our broadly optimistic take on things in this show.
And kids are a lot freer today as well.
I really think that’s right. I’m in the camp of thinking this a good thing because it makes them more interesting people. And I think that paradoxically, it makes a good deal of them very oral people. I would argue that Skins is a highly moral show in the sense that the kids in it have very clear ideas of right and wrong and a very strong sense of what is meant by loyalty and friendship, and some surprisingly conservative views on sex. … The show always starts out very stupid indeed but it deepens. So keep watching.
Skins: Season 3 premieres Aug. 6 on BBC America.