On 25th January 2007, an hour after UK watershed of 9pm, a generation of British pubescents peeled themselves away from PC screens and stashed their Sony Ericssons to witness the inaugural episode of E4’s Skins.
I was 12 at the time and had been bracing myself for this moment since the show’s advert began airing weeks earlier. That 60-second sequence – swarming with scantily clad sixth formers, lashings of squirty cream and snogging to the beat of Gossip’s Standing in the Way of Control – had already captivated one generation and horrified another.
To its most dismissive critics (read: The Daily Mail), Skins was a show about “appallingly behaved teenagers” who skipped school, vandalised private property, disrespected adults and disregarded the law in sole pursuit of pill-popping hedonism. To its most discerning, it was a well-intentioned (and welcome) exploration of the darker aspects of adolescence: sex, drugs, domestic violence, neglect, eating disorders and mental health. It was also one that sometimes had ramifications for real-life teenagers through its depiction of those issues.
When it aired in 2007, the Bristol-set Skins was the absolute antithesis of the polished American narratives dominating TV depictions of teens at the time – worlds apart from the twee suburban troubles of Gilmore Girls’ Rory Gilmore or the champagne problems afflicting the upper echelons of Orange County, as shown in The O.C.
Teen drama, as viewed through a US lens, was a genre that had until then peddled largely unrelatable, almost aspirational storylines via chiselled actors a decade older than the characters they were cast to play. But in a show – created by a father-and-son writing team – that was more Kidulthood than Dawson’s Creek, Skins’ characters looked like teenagers (acne and all), talked like teenagers and embodied a broader scope of teenagehood.
Because of that, it captured the hearts of young people nationwide.
Times have, of course, changed, but as Euphoria-mania is revived for its second season, so are comparisons to the UK show which many consider its precursor. It perhaps explains why Skins’ audio is being lip-synced by TikTok teens who weren’t even born when the show debuted, or why compilations of Effy Stonem – complete with smudged eyeliner and cigarettes – are garnering millions of views worldwide.
But what do those who were, at the time, actually living in a real-life version of Skins-world – that is, teachers – think of the show 15 years on?
When the show first hit screens, Marek, 59, was working as a secondary school English teacher in Cambridge. He remembers Skins as a series that caused a particular stir among students – especially his son’s friendship group, who were in year eight or nine at the time.
“They were at this age where they were beginning to have quite a lot of independence and were just finding out about themselves really,” he says.
Set against the fictional backdrop of Roundview sixth form college in Bristol, each episode of Skins’ first season focused on a different character, providing crucial context to their coming-of-age, soul-searching plot lines, while also painting a picture of the disparate domestic set-ups, familial constructs, cultural and socio-economic backgrounds that informed them.
Unlike the heterosexual, white and predominantly (upper) middle class characters of shows like The O.C., and even more democratic UK shows like Byker Grove and Grange Hill, Skins mirrored the same kinds of disparities that were apparent in schools like Marek’s, which was sandwiched between a council estate and one of the most affluent streets in Cambridge.
“You had kids from hugely different backgrounds,” he remembers, “but they didn’t really differentiate – they all just got on with it. They were friends with whoever.”
The same was true for the kids in Skins, who happily co-existed as peers in the context of their sixth form bubble, while viewers became aware of the more complex shades of their lives. We were shown how Cassie’s loving, yet negligent parents understated the severity of her eating disorder, and how Chris suffered in silence after the death of his brother and being abandoned by his mother.
For Ann*, 48, who was teaching science at a comprehensive school in London’s Crouch End at the time, Skins portrayal of “normal” school life also rang true.
“Our school was located in a very upper middle class neighbourhood, but there was a huge dichotomy,” she says. “There were some students from very, very poor neighbourhoods. There were kids who were coming to school unfed.” When Ann joined the school, there was no uniform policy, but one was introduced around 2009 precisely to diminish the glaring socio-economic disparity between pupils.
Because it was set in a sixth form, Skins didn’t have a uniform, but its presentation of teenagers was adept in its awkwardness, its mishmash of fashion mistakes (Nu-Rave: say no more) and girls sporting smudged eyeliner and garish shades of lipstick.
As Ann points out with a laugh, “in US shows, school kids are always clean”. But whereas the ’70s retro-’50s fantasy of Grease gave us T‑Birds played by leathered-up actors in their thirties, Skins gave us actual grease in the form of Sid. He was a literally unwashed teenager whose outfits consisted of the least odorous item of clothing he could find on his bedroom floor.
But while it’s true that much of Skins’ success was down to its realism, it often also tapped into the teenage mindset through deliberately reductive and often extreme narratives. As Emma Garland writes of the character of Effy: “She is melodramatic and completely unrealistic, but that was the point. Effy is a characterisation of how teenage girls feel, not how they actually are.”
These exaggerated characters and storylines appealed to teenagers’ “you don’t understand me” angst and made them feel seen. But they were also accidentally aspirational. “It was this thing of life imitating art more than art imitating life,” says Ann. “I think there was a fair bit of that going on.”
By presenting anguished, suffering characters as beautiful and intruiging (particularly to the opposite sex), Skins told a generation of teens that it was not only OK not to be OK, but that, in fact, it made you interesting. For many, poor mental health became a desirable “quality”.
“Being a teenager is fucking hard,” says Ann, “and I suppose the show was attempting to validate being a person who is figuring their stuff out and not knowing where they belong. By glamorising being a weirdo with ‘issues’, it probably also unintentionally glamorised some serious, unhealthy habits.”
In a post on #triggered, a woman called Renée describes how Skins hindered her mental health recovery: “I lost interest in seeking help… Why should I recover? It was beautiful to be a mess!” Simultaneously, as Anna Leszkiewicz wrote in The New Statesman, Cassie’s character became an icon for pro-ana communities on Tumblr.
“It’s interesting you say that,” says Marek, “because around 2007 to 2010, the eating disorders among girls seemed to cascade. It wasn’t just one student, it would be two, three, five, ten.”
He remembers entire friendship groups displaying similar behaviours and patterns of eating, which made knowing how to deal with different cases difficult. “You just had to think, everyone’s suffering in some sort of way and, whether it’s self-inflicted or not, it doesn’t matter.”
When Skins was Americanised in 2011, it ran for only one season, cancelled for being too extreme. But in the UK, subsequent seasons only got darker. The trailer for series two, for example, showed nothing of the neon glow sticks, laughter, or pillow fights of the previous. It was bleak. It was a “party” by context, but not by character.
Still, despite their rapid descent into darkness, teens of the time will remember the epidemic of Skins-themed blowouts that ensued. Less than three months after its first episode aired, the term “Skins Party” made tabloid headlines and it continued to do so throughout the show’s run, which ended in 2013 with series seven.
First there were the “200 yobs high on drugs”, who left £20,000 worth of damage along with “buckets of vomit” at an event described on Facebook as: “Let’s trash the average family-sized house disco party.” Then there was the “baying mob” of gate-crashers in Bournemouth who “left a trail of devastation” on a semi-detached house, destroying property, urinating in gardens and smashing cars.
But despite the media attention, Marek doesn’t remember a significant change in partying, alcohol or drug consumption in the age of Skins. “I’d say the average age kids start properly drinking in the UK is about 14,” he says. “It’s always been young. I’ve seen kids as young as 11.”
In fact, when Ann left London in 2011 to teach in Mexico, she was shocked by the difference in mentality. “The kids here [in Mexico] seemed so innocent,” she says. “They seemed like actual children and teenagers. The kids in London were always trying to be adults and having sex – or at least pretending they were having sex – and having all these parties. It’s not a universal thing. It’s a very UK thing.”
Skins was certainly a product of its environment and of its times – one that didn’t always get it right. But it was also symptomatic of larger societal failures, which, for better and for worse, were thrust to the fore. Skins’ very shortcomings mirrored real-world issues, in turn setting a precedent for how the complexities of teenage existence should be handled not only on screen, but in British classrooms and at home.
Fifteen years on, it’s difficult for Marek to pinpoint any one particular period of time that saw a drastic change in teenage development or behaviour.
“The years kind of blend into each other,” he admits. “You start thinking, do year groups change that much from one year to the next? Do kids behave any differently? I don’t know.”
Perhaps that’s exactly the reason for Skins’ resurgence. The way it’s resonating with an entirely new generation is testament to the same genius that was also its downfall: honing the misunderstood angst of universal teenage-dom down to a T.
*name has been changed for anonymity