Caragh Medlicott reviews the second series of In My Skin, the Bafta-winning drama from Kayleigh Llewellyn.
Coming-of-age stories have, and always will be, plentiful. In an era of fast-upgrading tech and social media micro-cultures, generational distinctions tend to feel particularly pronounced. It is often misguided attempts at over-emphasising the phases of post-post-modern internet humour which render the current bildungsroman caricature and anachronistic. True and unfiltered authenticity is rare. This is one of many reasons Kayleigh Llewellyn’s In My Skin is so remarkable. If it is a keenness of observation which has earned Sally Rooney’s Normal People and Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag such cultural resonance, then In My Skin deserves to sit alongside them; equally unflinching and sincere. Not only is it a brilliant coming-of-age story, but also an honest and masterful depiction of working-class life. One so good you’ll suddenly feel the dearth of its existence elsewhere.
Now in its second series, In My Skin kicks off in a moment of relative calm. Bethan (the fabulous Gabrielle Creevy) is in her final year of sixth form, her mentally ill mother — who in the first series is intermittently institutionalised — is home and working alongside Beth’s nan at the bingo hall. Where In My Skin’s first instalment hovered around the shroud of lies told by Beth to conceal her mother’s bipolar disorder and her father’s often violent alcoholism, here we find her somewhat more assured; not open about her difficult home life but not fabricating extensive evidence to conceal it, either. The almost painfully realistic portrait of state school continues with flair, its subtleties slightly adjusted by Llewellyn who finds fertile ground in the ephemerality of friendships bound for the bifurcation of uni and full-time work.
The introduction of Beth’s first proper girlfriend, Cam (Rebekah Murrell), feels intricate and tender. Behind its opening façade of casual banter is the pulsating anticipation of two people falling head over heels — from the first brushing of the fingers to the damp-eyed vulnerability of those three little words. In My Skin manages, despite its brevity, to show Beth’s life in panoramic fullness. There are moments of devastation and equally ones of joy and boredom. Like flaking paint revealing an underbelly of graffiti that is at once garish and beautiful — Beth’s coming of age is more about the revelation of self-knowledge than any sanitised ideas of self-betterment. For a young woman who has never had the luxury of putting herself first, even in her own thoughts, it’s a growth which feels truly epiphanous. After all, this is a show that is empathetic in the extreme. It builds itself around a framework of love — is in homage to its imperfection and duplicity. For Beth, it is the contradictions and ultimate victory of love which give relationships their exceptionalism; the possibility to be maimed by a loved one’s selfishness one moment and elevated by their breath-taking kindness another.
The temptation to talk about In My Skin’s “grittiness” is a great one — yet it seems more accurate to comment on its unblinking honesty, and the strength of its craft. Perhaps it is only the stark absence of such depictions elsewhere which transform what is, often, a generous portrayal of working-class community — yes, with warts and all — and turn it into something inevitably labelled as novel and dark. The problem with such assertions is that they seem to position In My Skin’s world as one that is unusual in its bleakness, rather than an artistic microcosm of the many working-class communities across the UK equally plighted by mental illness, poor pay, lacking prospects and alcoholism. Certainly, In My Skin speaks to the power of representation over tokenisation and even demonstrates the genuine strength of “lived experience” (a buzzword so often bandied about in bad faith that it’s easy to forget the truth at its core). Yet this is not melancholy for the sake of melancholy. One of In My Skin’s greatest assets is its continuous undercurrent of comedy — the pockets of joy and affection nestled amidst its darker truths.
In everything from its writing to its acting to its production, In My Skin is layered with intelligence. Each new segment — from Jo Hartley’s spectacular embodiment of Beth’s mother to director Molly Manners’ excavation of beauty in even the greyest of mise-en-scenes — enlivens the foundation of Llewellyn’s ambitious vision. To watch In My Skin is to be transported to its small and richly textured world. Any critic is loathe to fall back on comments as banal as “moving” and “absorbing” — yet In My Skin seems to demand them. This is as much an emotional experience as it is a TV show. It’s not clear whether the show will return for a third series, and certainly the second instalment ends with natural resolution. The sun setting on one era for Beth, a bluish sky pierced by gold, Llewellyn seems to say that even if not every cloud has a silver lining — they do all, at the very least, eventually pass over.
In My Skin is available to stream now on BBC iPlayer.
Caragh Medlicott is a Wales Arts Review senior editor.
Header image: BBC (In My Skin: series two, episode one).