It’s been just over 10 years since I watched on-demand TV for the first time. I got back from college, went into my dad’s attic office, and logged on to his computer. I tentatively navigated the 4OD website and hit the refresh button until a purple landing page with a photo of seven teenagers draped across each other appeared. There was to be a teaser of Skins released – the first 10 minutes of a programme so widely advertised it literally plagued my dreams.
The advert had been flashing up for weeks. Gossip’s "Standing in the Way of Control" was the soundtrack that kicked in to backdrop a house party that looked all too familiar, because it was exactly what my friends and I had been doing for the past two years.
I – like most of the nation’s under-18s – had had “virgin” written on my forehead and a massive dick drawn on my cheek with a Sharpie. I’d thrown up in many a sink after draining the alcohol cabinet of whoever’s parents were brave enough to go on holiday and leave their 15-year-old in charge. I had, on numerous occasions, worn nothing but a leotard and cat ears to a party.
Watching the one-minute trailer was the first time I’d ever felt exposed. I thought about my parents watching it, and wondered if they’d ever let me leave the house again. It was the first time I’d ever seen an accurate representation of what it was actually like to be a real 16-year-old in the UK.
Up until then, we'd had The OC, Gossip Girl, and Dawson’s Creek – but the all-American glossiness and aspirational fairytales only increased that feeling of otherness that Skins helped to counteract. The Britishness and grit made Skins feel real, and that 60-second trailer felt revolutionary. Before that evening, sat up in the attic, I had never realised quite how important it was to have the mainstream media nod in your direction and tell you that you might be a complete fuckup, but you’re not alone in feeling like that.
The tabloids said it was leading us on – that Skins parties popping up all over the country (one of which I went to and fell down an entire L-shaped staircase after taking on a “vodka challenge”: 15 shots straight as quick as you can for a fiver) were influencing us to take drugs and have sex. They didn’t know that we already had pills in our knicker drawers and condoms in our pencil cases. Skins didn’t influence us – it represented experiences we were already having; it made us feel visible. Focusing on the parties and the drugs, the tabloids took a step back from the issues like pregnancies, eating disorders, and mental health because they weren’t glamorous enough for a headline, but they were the things that real young people were contending with.
Growing up in rural Leicestershire – 8 miles from the city, too young to drive, and living by a sporadic bus timetable that abruptly ended at 6pm – it was easy to feel isolated. By the time I reached college, I was disenchanted with education and the people around me. When you come from a village like mine, there are only so many kids to make friends with.
Like most 16-year-olds who wore Joy Division T-shirts in 2007, I ran away from the school where everyone knew who I was as soon as I’d finished my GCSEs. I decided to reinvent myself as the person I wanted to be – the person who I really was – and as if by magic everything started to fall into place. It was like the outsiders were magnets, drawn together while repelling the rest. I felt like I was part of something bigger, and I think everyone else did too.
The friendships we formed were based on fun – nothing more, nothing less – but when you find your fun in throwing parties, getting pissed, having sex, and taking questionable substances, there’s always going to be a couple of glitches along the way.
The good times outweighed the bad: heading into town and getting stoned in Victoria Park on hazy summer days; dashing back to someone’s parentless house during our free periods to gather round a computer and watch a Russian webcam model before heading back to college two hours too late; the parties that none of us really remembered; the sex we were all having but no one spoke about.
But when shit hit the fan, it really hit it pretty hard: watching those two lines appear on your mate's pregnancy test, two days after her 16th birthday; sitting in the Leicester Royal Infirmary’s STI clinic after an encounter you don’t think you really wanted; having a bouncer search the zip pocket in your purse and take out an envelope of 20 pills that you bought on tick; explaining to your mum why there is sick and what looks like blood all over her cream sofa.
In the midst of all those things, Skins was like a warm hug from a friend because it acknowledged them all in the most raw and honest way. It never shied away from the dark side of the story, but managed to remain humorous and uncondescending in showing the consequences. Skins acted as the cool mum at the party – the one in the corner watching out for you but also letting you sink WKD like there was no tomorrow. The one who would always end up holding back your hair while you were throwing up in her sink later that night, without ever saying “I told you so.”
There’ll be the naysayers, of course. The ones who will be reading this thinking “Your life wasn’t actually like that, you just wish it was,” or “less like Skins, more like The Inbetweeners.” My memories are so happy that I started to worry that I’d imagined them. I messaged the whole crew from 2007 and asked them if I was making all this up – it did happen, didn’t it? My stories were so entrenched that I wondered whether I’d glamourised them in my mind to detract from the tremendous series of mistakes that followed those brilliant few years. All bar one replied and reassured me I wasn’t making it up, in exactly the same way that E4 did when it showed Skins for the first time.
Skins might be a decade old, but the timelessness of the storylines proves that young people in the UK are still experiencing the same issues we were then, with even more on top – we just can’t see them.
What we need now is a programme for the young people of 2017. We need characters who can’t go to uni because the fees are just too high. Characters who’ll never pay off the loans they took out to pay the deposit on rented houses. Characters who haven’t got a chance in hell of earning enough to save £20 a month, let alone £2,000. Characters who live for the weekend, because they're overworked, underpaid, and underrepresented.
We need to see young people protesting against a system that they don’t believe in – not as rebels and renegades, but as intelligent adults with genuine concerns about their future. We need to see young people angry and discontent and fed up. We need to see open conversations about suicide and mental health. We need to talk about how to take drugs safely. We need to see people talking about sex in a way that eliminates gender and sexuality and focuses instead on pleasure and protection and consent. Let’s see a group of teenagers as a bunch of mates, rather than a gang. We need to see people talking about their problems – however dull and “millennial” they might sound to people born outside our decade-long bracket.
I’m getting frighteningly close to 26 – that tipping point where you become more of an adult and less of whoever you were before. I can feel myself stepping out of a period of self-discovery and sinking into my own skin, with all its faults and flaws and memories and mistakes written all over it (quite literally, in the case of the tattoos). Skins was there to show me that I wasn’t alone, but what is there now?