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Exit Stage Left: Writing drama for young people

Posted on 11 November 2011 by Tristan Pate

Producing high quality drama for young people has always been fraught with challenges. Writers come across all kinds of difficulties in serving their target audience, while not patronising them or insulting their intelligence; toeing the line between reflecting the experiences and indulgences of teenagers, and just seeming desperate to be “down with the kids”. It may be very easy to identify the ones that miss the mark, but it’s also worth celebrating the successes that strike a chord with a generation and pass into the realms of the classics.

If our parents only had Monty Python in the 70s (still bizarre and anarchic today, and as the BBC4 drama doc Holy Flying Circus showed last month, just as controversial and strikingly relevant), and The Young Ones (still completely off the wall) in the 80s, then the youth of today are absolutely spoiled for choice.

The rebirth of edgy teenage programming for the mainstream can be traced back to Skins, starting life – as many of these success stories do – on E4. Of course this wasn’t a groundbreaking Year One for teen programming on the network – Channel 4 has been committed to producing work with a youth focus since its conception, but it seems significant in that as well as being crass and explicit (in the way teenagers so often are) it also depicted young adults as a mass of contradictions. Who doesn’t look back on their schooldays and think “Wow, I was a complete idiot”? Skins was full of self-obsessed, vain and confused teenagers behaving in exactly that way. They weren’t all hideous, selfish characters, but the programme perfectly captured that wonderfully misguided outlook that our hopes and dreams, our shortcomings and relationships were absolutely at the centre of the universe, and nothing else could ever come close to being as important.

I very much enjoyed the first series of Skins, although I feel that as it has developed it has had to keep finding ways of being more outrageous and controversial, taking on a slightly colder tone in latter episodes. Sadly, it has become little more than a big “fuck you” to anyone older and in a position of authority, which I’m not necessarily against, but is done in an increasingly nonsensical and one-dimensional way. At least in the first series with actors such as Peter Capaldi, the adults were people too, rather than hateful grotesque exaggerations akin to the female characters of a Lucas/Walliams vehicle.

The Inbetweeners, another Channel 4 effort, manages not to do this. Sure, on the surface much of it is essentially gross-out material, but its strength lies in the truthfulness of the observation. In opposition to the ludicrous pantomime adults of Skins, The Inbetweeners is so accurate a picture of hormonal, awkward, sexually-frustrated teenage boys, it resonates not only with an audience of a similar age, but also with adults who have supposedly grown out of such behaviour, but can remember such crass bantering.

The genius of the writing is similar to that of Gavin and Stacey (another programme I tried very hard not to like, before being converted by its warmth and charm), in that the skill lies in writing something so mundane as a five minute sketch about ordering a curry with very few jokes in it, that it becomes relatable to anyone.

Less naturalistic, but equally brilliant, is Misfits, now in its third series, which I thought would be another barrage of shocking television – sex, violence and cussing… So yeah, it basically is that, but it does it in a really clever good way, and they have super powers and stuff.

The best thing about this show is that for once these characters are actually genuine misfits, ridiculing the arrogant message of Glee, whose “outcasts” are a bunch of air-headed (and air brushed) Mickey Mouse Club, amazing-looking people, who also happen to be brilliant dancers, auto-tuned to within an inch of their lives, but still going through all the teenage woes of middle American Republican rich kids, and being called inclusive because one of them is both fat and black.

The kids in Misfits, however, have nothing. No obvious support from families, friends, or their parole programme, no prospects for the future, no manners. These are the type of people that actually would have been the misfits at school, and even in the extreme realms of the super hero genre, it is these cleverly observed and well-rounded characters that give this show a solid basis in reality. How often do you see a character as brilliantly complex and real (and brilliantly played, it must be said) as Lauren Socha’s Kelly on TV? Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a dirty Nottingham accent like that on a mainstream prime time drama before. Similarly, the now sadly departed Robert Sheehan’s infuriatingly arrogant, selfish, disgusting but annoyingly charming character, Nathan, is one we can all recognise as the nomadic, homeless dependant friend who lives on the charity of others, but somehow gets away with it and is well liked.

These characters are endearing in their strength and wit in tackling the pretty shitty cards they have been dealt in life, so much so that the awful things they do are somehow forgivable to an empathetic audience, a theme explored recently on the big screen in Joe Cornish’s Attack The Block. This honest portrayal of life in poverty without any obvious way out is set against the brilliantly surreal backdrop of a world that has granted them super powers and given them free rein to use them without any apparent consequence. In a less compelling drama, one might wonder why, after having killed their probation officers, there wasn’t any sort of proper police enquiry, or how Nathan, waking up in a coffin after being certified dead, would just start work again on his community service, no questions asked – but in the world of Misfits this doesn’t matter, almost adding to the fun.

And as if we haven’t been completely spoiled for choice within this genre in recent months, from the pen of the brilliant Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain, we now have Fresh Meat. In many ways it is the successor to The Inbetweeners – a bunch of students with very little in common are thrown together in a shared house in Manchester. Most notable for Jack Whitehall’s hilariously self-aware portrayal of private school boy JP, I’ve never seen such an interesting and accurate portrait of university life, complete with lengthy discussions about the best way to eat toast, and again celebrating a collection of misfits from all walks of life that comprise a student lodging. The reason this works so well is that it doesn’t glamorise or elevate its young characters to iconic status – the vast majority of these young people aren’t even particularly likeable. We all act in ways we are not proud of when we first begin our further education, whether it is by compulsively lying about who we are in order to try and forge a new identity for ourselves, or sleeping around with people we don’t necessarily find interesting or attractive to try and prove that we’re cool and grown up, or just trying to get as smashed as possible at every opportunity so we can try and forget how alone we feel and how much we miss our mummies.

All of the above mentioned writers, actors and directors have truly broken new ground because their programmes don’t only appeal to the teenagers currently going through these woes, but also to the older generations who can remember the experience and chuckle knowingly with the arrogance of hindsight.

Our generation are lucky to have a surfeit of innovative and relevant television at our fingertips, and long may this continue.

Image by Susan E. Adams.

Tristan Pate

Tristan Pate

Tristan is an actor and musician and graduated from the Birmingham School of Acting in 2010. Since then he has appeared in plays, musicals and physical theatre pieces both touring nationally, and in London. He lives in Oxfordshire with his fiancée and young daughter.

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