The show's creator hired young scriptwriters and unknown actors to add real-life grit.
The show's creator hired young scriptwriters and unknown actors to add real-life grit.

Broadcaster: E4
Producer: Company Pictures
Start: 10pm, 25 January
Length: 9 x 60 minutes
Commissioning editors: Francis Hopkinson and Danny Cohen

Using your bollocks as collateral in a drugs deal, wrecking a posh girl's house party and trying to avoid oily fish served up by dinner-ladies dressed as pilchards - it's just an average day in the life of a 17-year- old, as depicted in E4's new drama Skins.

Written by what must be TV's youngest-ever scriptwriting team, the offbeat nine-part drama follows in the vein of Channel 4's acclaimed teen offering, Sugar Rush- with a bit of Shamelessthrown in for good measure.

Coming in on a budget of about £3.6m, E4's most expensive original drama commission to date was delivered to the fledgling channel by Shamelessproducer Company Pictures.

Although the show's creator and executive producer, Bryan Elsley, penned The Young Person's Guide to Becoming a Rock Star, the idea for Skinsmaterialised after his 21-year-old son Jamie Brittain dismissed his dad's ideas for new programmes as 'crap, boring and middle-aged'.

'I asked him if he could do any better and what he came up with was quite simple - do something for teenagers that's not issue-based and isn't made by middle-aged people with middle-aged music playing over the top that its makers think is youthful,' says Elsley.

No aspect of a teen's life has been sanitised in Skins- these school kids have sex, take drugs (as the show's title suggests) and undermine their parents. The characters are also sympathetically drawn and their likeability is helped by the fact that, like Shameless, each episode focuses on a different character, allowing the audience to become better acquainted with them.

Elsley thought it would be a bit weird if all the scripts for a teen drama came from the pen of a 45-year-old man, so a young scriptwriting group was assembled fairly early on in the process. 'It consisted of upcoming writers, teenagers, comedians, people from the Young Persons' New Writing Project in London. Basically, we involved anyone who had a slightly sideways view of the world. Not all of them stayed the course, but we ended up with a core team of 16 very committed contributors.'

The final group comprised the talents of comedian and TV presenter Simon Amstell, Edinburgh Fringe's best newcomer of 2006, Josie Long, The Dawson Brothers ( Balls of Steel, Dirty Tricks), Shamelesswriter Jack Thorne and twentysomething new writers Ben Schiffer and Camilla Blackett, and the show's co-creator, Jamie Brittain.

Additional material has been written for the E4 website by teenagers involved in the project and, should the series be recommissioned, there are plans to include scripts from teens who show promise.

Key to the story, character and script ideas was a weekly writers' meeting held by Elsley every Wednesday. A huge white board at one side of the room was the group's main tool for plotting storylines and characters. Early versions of the scripts were critiqued here too.

The main point, according to Elsley, was to create an atmosphere where nothing was off limits. 'If you can create a climate of creativity then people never shy away from [articulating] an idea that's going through their head - even a silly one.'

The decision to set the show in Bristol was made in part because that's where Elsley's son had grown up. The producers were also seeking a different dynamic. Sugar Rushhad claimed Brighton and last year's film Kidulthooddefined the south London teen experience.

Scouring the south-west for a credible group of 17-year-olds to play the characters became one of the biggest challenges. Producer Chris Clough (whose credits include The Ghost Squad) wanted real 16 and 17-year-olds, not drama students in their early 20s. 'It was a big gamble - Nick Hoult [last seen in About a Boy, aged 11] was the only 'known',' he says.

Open casting auditions were held in Bristol and London, which were advertised in local papers and on radio stations.

Casting director Jane Ripley also saw kids from almost every school and drama group in Bristol. As shortlists were assembled, further workshops and auditions were held. Clough recalls: 'We must have seen thousands of kids and it became a rigorous filleting exercise that took at least two months. Most of those shortlisted had little or no drama experience - not even at school.'

Two of the actors - Larissa Wilson (who plays musician Jal) and Dev Patel (partying Muslim Anwar) came from open castings in London. However, the need to feature the Bristol twang and the fact that most of the cast were doing A and AS levels and couldn't travel far meant using locals proved the most practical option.

By contrast, the older characters are played by established stars in cameo performances. Neil Morrissey pops up in episode two as a bohemian parent, while Harry Enfield's comic dad character displays much less maturity than his 17-year-old son (played by Hoult). In both cases the parents are no longer necessarily figures of authority and, like their kids, they're still trying to find their place in the world. As Francis Hopkinson, senior commissioning editor, C4 drama, adds: 'The series deals with a post-1960s generation which has a different attitude to parenting, and the subsequent effect that their behaviour has on their kids.'

Shot in HD entirely on location and posted at BBC Bristol, the show promises to be a cut above most precinct-based teen shows. While the first episode revolves around a flimsy storyline about one of the gang trying to lose his virginity, it sets up the main characters well. By the second episode, the show is up and running as newcomer Hannah Murray manages to raise her 'bonkers girl with issues' character above the traditional stereotype. While her character Cassie has an eating disorder, it doesn't dominate the show, and its writers make no attempt to wrap up the problem in the given 60-minute format. Elsley adds: 'The way TV has traditionally tended to deal with these issues has been very simplistic. People who think solutions are that easy for kids and yet so complicated in adult-based dramas are wrong. We're aiming to be humorous - just so long as we give a full and complicated view of kids' lives.'

Production credits
Created by: Bryan Elsley, Jamie Brittain
Exec producers: Charlie Pattinson, George Faber, Bryan Elsley
Producer: Chris Clough
Directors: Paul Gay, Adam Smith, Minkie Spiro
Writers: Bryan Elsley, Jack Thorne, Jamie Brittain, Ben Schiffer, Simon Amstell
Script contributors: Peter Bakare, Camilla Blackett, Dawson Brothers, Faye Dorn, Atiha Sen Gupta, Daniel Kaluuya, Josie Long, Chloe Moss, Kieran Rafferty