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More Than Skin Deep: Televisionary Talks to Jamie Brittain, Co-Creator of "Skins"

Fans of Skins might not want to hold their collective breath waiting for Sid, Cassie, Tony, and Michelle and the stars of the first two series to return, according to the series' co-creator.

This past weekend, I interviewed 23-year-old Jamie Brittain, who--along with his father Bryan Elsley--co-created Skins, which airs on E4 in the UK and on BBC America in the State, to dispel some rumors and set the record straight about the highly anticipated third series of Skins, which returns with new episodes this year. (You can read my advance review of the first episode of Series Three here.)

Over a pre-prandial cigarette on the terrace outside the ballroom at the Universal Hilton, where he had spoken earlier that morning on a panel for the Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour, Brittain denied reports that the former cast of Skins would ever reappear on the series, confirmed that a US version of Skins is in the works, and told me what to expect for the third series of Skins, launching January 22nd on E4 and later this spring on BBC America.

Televisionary: Can you tell us what the genesis was for the creation of Skins and what its inspiration was?

Jamie Brittain: My father is a guy called Bryan Elsley, who is a fairly well-known television writer in the UK. I was sitting with him in his kitchen in London and he was coming up with ideas for shows and was pitching them to me and was, like, "what about this, what about this?" And I was like, nah. And he said, "well have you got an idea then?" and I said, "I have this short story that I wrote when I was 15 and I think the characters are quite good and I think it would work as a television show." He liked the idea and his bosses liked the idea and the channel liked the idea and it was one of the fastest commissions ever. It took 24 hours, from start to finish. And so [we] put the whole thing together.

Q: What's it like writing and working with your father?

Brittain: We've got a very good relationship, actually. It would be more interesting to read to read, oh, it's terrible but actually we get on very well and we have a very close relationship and there's certain things that I can say to him that no one else could. It's good fun.

Q: Series Three is going out in the UK on January 22nd and launching in the US later this spring. Given that it has a whole new cast, it almost seems like almost different show. What went into the decision to bring in a new cast for the third series?

Brittain: Well, it was because the show is about people aged between 16 and 18. That's exactly what it is. Really, it was the only thing we could do and we didn't want to continue with the old cast [as they got older], so we brought in a new one. And that was our reasoning.

Q: Will we see any of the old cast pop up at any point? There were rumors a while back that Sid and Cassie could turn up or we might see Tony as he's Effy's brother. Is there any truth to that?

Brittain: No. I can tell you now that there is absolutely no chance of any of the old cast coming back. I am sorry but but it's one of the rules we set ourselves. We're not looking back, we're looking forward.

Q: What was the reaction from the channel to the new cast?

Brittain: They were trepidatious about it and then we explained it to them and they got behind it They're very good, the channel [E4], they let us do pretty much whatever we want and it's a very good relationship.

Q: Seems like Skins was very much a brand-defining series for E4. Do you think that at the time it was exactly what E4 needed?

Brittain: Yes, I think we were in the right place at the right time. I think a show like Skins would have happened if we hadn't made it first. The atmosphere was ripe, teenagers more empowered than ever, and there was going to be a show sooner or later that showed them as empowered individuals and it was exactly what the channel was looking for and it was exactly the audience that they were looking for. Part of the success of the show is basically due to the mood of the times.

Q: How important is the city of Bristol to the show?

Brittain: Yeah, because we're a very cheaply made show we don't really have the money for those very classy, high definition shots of the city. The city is very important to the show and we chose a city like Bristol because it's big enough to have a lot of interesting places to go to but small enough to have sort of a community center to it. The word Bristol is never used in the show and we've only ever used the Clifton Suspension Bridge once, a big landmark that. I like to think that the city is sort of a strange, unknowable place in Skins and the characters move through it in a slightly confused sense. Certainly, if you watch some of the episodes in Series Three, the city is much more of a character and there's many more weird places to go to.

Q: What can fans expect to see in Series Three? And is it a good jumping on point for new viewers?

Brittain: Yeah, yeah. You could have never seen Skins before and you could watch Series Three. It is about how a group of friends come together, about how a group of disparate people come to meet each other. Unlike the first two series, where the characters already knew it each other, this time round it shows how they meet each other and how they react. It's also about how a girl--Effy--disrupts a group of friends, Freddie, J.J., and Cook as they all fall in love with her. It's about how they work that out and how she responds to it. It's a very complex, nuanced series and I think it's the best one we've ever done and it's just fun. I just hope it's a lot of fun to watch.

Q: Did you have any idea when you cast Kaya Scodelario as Effy back in Series One that she would be the lynchpin for the new cast down the road?

Brittain: Not when we immediately cast her. As soon as we started doing Series Two, we knew that if we did another series--and if we were commissioned for another series--we would involve her as one of the main cast.

Q: Effy's quite an interesting character as, unlike Tony, who was front and center and his manipulations were much more overt and out in the open, Effy tends to work behind the scenes much more quietly.

Brittain: She's a very mysterious character and you never quite know what she wants. And we go some way to explaining her motivations in Series Three.

Q: Is the third series a darker series than the first two?

Brittain: I wouldn't say it's darker, no. I would say if Series One was light and Series Two was dark, Series Three is a sort of synthesis, it's sort of a little bit of both. It's got a very slick variety of tones, which I am very proud of. The first episode is very light and funny and the second episode, which I wrote, is sort of dark and strange--

Q: That's the Cook-focused episode?

Brittain: Yes, that's the Cook episode. And it ends up with him beating up a gangster in a brothel. So it's good fun. I think it's the best we've done.

Q: If you look at Series One, it laid the groundwork for these characters and Series 2 pushed them, in many cases, beyond their limits. Will Series Three and Series Four follow that same pattern?

Brittain: Um, yes, the first series we do with each characters is about introducing them and setting them up and the second and fourth series are about complicating them, finding out how far they can go. Some people said that in Series Two we went a bit too far with that so this time around I think we will try to keep it as funny and exciting as people expect from it.

Q: Obviously, you've got an amazing group of actors with the new cast but you also have a track record of working with amazing guest actors, with people like Mackenzie Cook, Harry Enfield, and Scott Mills. Did they approach you about being on the show or vice-versa?

Brittain: Yeah, they are great. Generally, what happened is that Brian [Ensley] is friends with Harry Enfield. Harry is one of our big guest stars and so he asked him as a favor to come and be on the show [as Effy's father] and once we got him a lot of other people were, like, "oh, this could be quite a fun thing to do," so we got lots of great people. Sometimes we hear about people who really want to be in the show; other times, we just ask people and they say yes. I was at an awards ceremony the other day and I met the actor Chris Addison, who's in The Thick of It, and I said, "Do you want to be in Skins?" and he said yes. So I said I'd write him a part. Sometimes you just meet people like that and so we find a part for them.

Q: It was amazing to see over the first two series, that range of guest stars you used. Some of it quite unexpected like Peter Capaldi, who played Sid's father... though I won't forgive you for killing him off!

Brittain: Oh, yeah. It was really funny--because I am not the showrunner or anything, I'm just a writer though I will be the Lead Writer next year--but when I wrote my episode for Series One, which introduces the Peter Capaldi character, they said, "Who do you want for the mum and dad" and I went, Josie Lawrence and Peter Capaldi. And they said, all right then and they got them.

Q: Throughout the first two series, Skins has done a lot with playing with the line between reality and fantasy, especially with Cassie and Tony. Was that something you set out to do initially, to create a show where that line could be blurred?

Brittain: One of the rules we set ourselves when we started the show was: no dream sequences and no flashbacks. But I sort of bend that rule my Series Two episode, the Tony episode where he goes off to university, which has this very dream-like quality. It was something we played with later on but we never went too far with it because we never wanted to do a dream sequence or a flashback but it's another way of expanding the characters and getting to know the characters better and taking the characters to places they wouldn't ordinarily go.

Q: Without revealing too much about Series Three, what else can you tell us about the plot?

Brittain: Apart from what I've told you already, it's about how Effy complicates the [relationship between] the boys... but every episode is an individual film, really. So there's lots of stories. There's a story about a lesbian girl coming out, there's a story about a guy with sort of social difficulties coming to terms with himself. There's an American Idol star spoof, which is quite good fun, which has an actor in it called Richard Fulcher from The Mighty Boosh. He plays the Simon Cowell type figure and he's really good fun, he's brilliant. And he's probably my favorite guest star this year, with him and Matt King, Super Hans from Peep Show, who plays Cook's dad. There's lots of good people.

Q: Were you at all surprised at what a huge global phenomenon Skins has become?

Brittain: Yeah, it's bizarre. The show is made really cheaply. Chris Clough, our producer, is a genius at being able to make the show so cheap and make it look as good as it does. The show's got a tiny budget and it was on a digital channel and we had no clue. We thought it would be fun to do, fun to write, and do one series and then that was it. It was very surprising and very cool.

Q: I've heard it's huge in Brazil.

Brittain: (Laughs.) They love it, the Brazilians. There's a fan site called Skins Brasil and there's a guy who runs it called Victor, who's sort of a blogger and he gets all of the information before anyone else and he sends me emails all the time, he's obsessed.

Q: Have you been approached about doing a US version of the series?

Brittain: Yes... we're working on it at the moment. We're really at the early stages so we're just trying to work out what will work and what won't and I am going to be writing it with an American team and I'm nervous about it because working in America is very different than working in the UK. I think we can make it work. It should be good but it's still very, very early.

Q: What other US or UK series influenced you or are you passionate about?

Brittain: Well, I love television. I watch a lot of television, mostly American television. As for influences on Skins, pretty much every teen show ever: 90210, My So-Called Life, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dawson's Creek, The O.C. All of them we watched. Personally, I love--I mean, everyone's saying this at the moment--but I love The Wire. You have to say that if you like television. I love the The Wire. All the big American dramas, especially cop dramas. I love The Shield, NYPD Blue, Homicide: Life on the Street, LA Law. All of them. Yeah, cop shows. I watch a lot of comedy in the UK. Probably my all-time favorite show is The Thick of It, with Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison. I love that show.

Q: Is there a writer whose career you'd love to emulate?

Brittain: Well, Armando Iannucci, who writes The Thick of It. He can do anything; he's an actor/writer/performer/producer. That would be pretty cool. My father [Bryan Elsley] is a huge influence on me. He's at a point now in his career where he can pretty much do whatever he wants. It's taken him 25 years to be able to get there but he can pretty much make any show he wants because he's proven himself as a bankable writer who makes popular yet complicated and original shows. I'd love to be able to do that.

Q: Is there any single character from Skins who you most identify with?

Brittain: Sid. First time round. He's based on me. Everyone loves Sid.

Season Three of Skins launches January 22nd in the UK and this spring on BBC America. (You can read my advance review of the premiere episode here.) Be sure to come back later this week for my interview with new series star Lily Loveless.


Anonymous said…
Great interview. As interesting as it would be to see an American version of SKINS, I couldn't imagine a US broadcaster or even cable outlet getting away with what E4 allowed Jamie Brittain and his creative team to write.
Anonymous said…
Great interview! I am pissed though that Cassie and Sid won't be coming back to tie up that story. And please, Jamie don't make a US version of the show!!!! Don't do it!
Andrew said…
I personally despised Sid. Lol. It's funny he thinks everyone loves him. However, I love Skins completely.

The only old cast member I want to know about is Cassie!

I want to know what ended up happening to her!

So looking forward to season 3.
Anonymous said…
Loved the interview but am so sad to hear that they are doing an American version of this fantastic show. Why mess with perfection? Still, it was great getting an inside glimpse into the world of Skins and I am really looking forward to Season 3!
Unknown said…
a belated, but no less fervent tip of the tit to the creators and and cast of skins, and to bbc america for getting behind it; ive been around, in and behind a lot of tv over the years, and skins is the freshest, most real look at the Y.A. genre ever produced. Rock on!
Anonymous said…
NOOOO! Pleaaaase don't make an american version of skins! The best thing about skins is that it is a brittish show! The accents, the slang, the acting, the... everything!
American shows just doesn't cut it! :'(

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