Caragh Medlicott caught up with Kayleigh Llewellyn – creator of the award-winning BBC3 series In My Skin – to discuss the making of the show, class representation in the media, and Llewellyn’s experience working on the final series of Killing Eve.
Caragh Medlicott: How did you find the experience of writing the second series of In My Skin – was it intimidating sitting down to work on series two after the success of series one?
Kayleigh Llewellyn: It was very intimidating. Going into the pilot, you know, it was just this kind of joyous experience. I’d never had an original commission before – though I’d tried many times. And so, it just felt like being a kid in a candy shop with the first series. It was almost like being a competition winner. Then it did well, which was wonderful, but not expected. We won a couple of BAFTA Cymru awards and that was for the pilot, and then for series one we won a couple more BAFTA Cymru awards and we won the RTS [programme awards] for best drama.
Suddenly it was like, Oh God, this is happening now. So I procrastinated for a long time and also we were really struggling with funding so there were two things happening at once. One was that I was having a kind of crisis of confidence, the other was that we didn’t know if the series was going to happen. The financial issues kept rambling on and on and on. Until eventually it was like, January 2021, and then I got a call saying we’d got the money and we started shooting at the end of march. I hung up the phone and started typing – suddenly my writer’s block was gone. I turned the whole thing out in five and a half weeks. Then we just went out and shot it. There was no time to overthink it, which was a blessing I think because I’d done too much overthinking in the run up.
CM: Something that really struck me watching the show was how well-rounded it felt – I think so many depictions of working class communities fall either into the category of poverty porn or this weird dynamic where the characters become the butt of the joke. Was finding that balance and authenticity something you had to work at?
Kayleigh Llewellyn: No, not at all. I’ve lived it. Whenever I watch other people’s work, to me, there’s always such a clear line where you can tell when people have genuinely lived it, and when they’re making it up. So it comes very naturally.
CM: I think in terms of Welsh representation, especially, it feels like Welsh characters are so often turned into something purely comic – which is fine – but surely it’s important we see other versions of Welshness on screen, too.
Kayleigh Llewellyn: Yeah, for sure. I think often that comes back to wealth and poverty, the representations of it are these two opposite ends. There’s this Welsh kind of poverty which is comic and slapstick, and then there’s this UK-wide representation of poverty which is just like unrelenting misery with no laughter. I can’t watch that, it starts to feel like self-harm. So I wanted to do something that felt a little bit more real. To me, laughter has gotten me through everything I’ve ever been through. It makes sense to me that there’d be laughs, too, in a show.
CM: I sometimes wonder whether class is perhaps overlooked in conversations around representation and diversity.
Kayleigh Llewellyn: I think it is overlooked. Yeah. And I’m a big proponent of splitting up the term working class as well. Thinking of it as benefit class and working class, because there is a real difference between someone who has a lifetime of gainful employment as a teacher and someone who, or whose parents, don’t work at all and live hand to mouth. It’s a different thing.
CM: I guess there is also much more demonization – in tabloids and the media – with the “scroungers” narrative applied to benefits, too.
Kayleigh Llewellyn: Yeah, I think the benefit class and working class in general can oftentimes be overlooked in favour of other kinds of diversity. But it still stands, if you’re someone from a particular background or minority group but you went to private school, or you were raised in a wealthy family in London that had media connections, of course your entrance into the industry is going to be smoother. I didn’t even know, when I was younger, that this job existed – let alone knowing people who might help me in. There are so many different minority groups that are going to struggle to make it in this industry. I think it’s just about acknowledging that there are different forms of struggles for different groups, and none are harder or easier than the next.
CM: I did actually want to talk to you about your personal experience as a working class writer in the industry. I don’t think it’s a secret that, even though only about 6% of the UK population attend private school, there is an overrepresentation of privileged individuals in the top tiers of the arts. What has your experience been like, and do you think things are progressing?
Kayleigh Llewellyn: I think things are progressing in the sense that, as an industry, we are aware that we need to improve diversity. Slowly but surely the leaders of our industry are becoming more and more aware of that. I think a big barrier still remains that comes down to cold hard cash. The fact that 6% of the nation go to private school and yet are overrepresented in our industry is not shocking at all, because, chances are, they’re the ones who have a financial buffer zone. They can take unpaid shadow script schemes and wait months on end to find out if a script that they had commissioned got the green light. Money makes everything easier. So for me going forward, hopefully as I get more shows commissioned, what I’m looking to do is paid internships, paid shadow script schemes, to help people. If you want different voices, you need to make it viable for them to speak up.
For me, with my experience, I was working on Casualty – so this would have been 2016 – I’d been working as a writer for four years, but it was very difficult. I still had a day job. I was working at a theatre box office in Leicester Square and at the same time I was writing a BBC One primetime show, and I was exhausted. I think the producers were often getting annoyed with me because they want you to drop everything and take script notes, and I’d be like, I can’t – I’m selling some tickets to Phantom of the Opera. Then I went through a period of lots of deaths in my family. With something like that, it’s so hard, you don’t see it coming. Funerals cost a fortune. I already didn’t have a buffer zone so I just went into this extreme debt. I would have had to quit the industry, at least for the time being, if it wasn’t for the film and television charity who someone recommended to me. You know, it’s just a weird situation to be like, I’ve got a day job, I’ve also written three episodes of this primetime show and I’m also writing for Stella on Sky One, yet I can’t afford to live. And the charity was amazing. They swooped in and gave me some grants that meant I could survive and dug me out of a hole. But that’s why we don’t have benefit class writers. If it wasn’t for that charity and someone at BAFTA who told me about them, there wouldn’t be any In My Skin. I wouldn’t be here.
CM: It’s sort of crazy that there’s even a debate around paying interns. And the fact that grief should even come with debt, too. If you do have a safety net of money it can change your whole life experience.
Kayleigh Llewellyn: It makes all the difference. Mentally and emotionally the burden that is lifted when, you know, your bills are paid. You’re free to enjoy and create because you’re not having to panic about other things all the time. It’s what it always comes back to – money, money, money.
CM: I understand that you draw from your own experiences with your mum growing up which adds such authenticity and sensitivity to the fantastic performance given by Jo Hartley in In My Skin. I wondered how you walked that line between real-life inspiration and fiction – if there were any particular techniques or boundaries you had to employ?
Kayleigh Llewellyn: There were some small boundaries, well maybe not even boundaries, but some small areas. I found that writing the pilot was where I deviated from the reality to just give me some creative space. So in real life, my mother is a blonde Welsh woman and we hired a brunette Mancunian to play her. That may sound minute in many ways, but it allows that tiny bit of distance in your head that makes you go, Oh, this is Trina and she’s a character in her own right. And that’s my mum, she’s different. And then there’s the role of the Nan. In real life that was my mum’s mum, but in the show she’s the father’s mum – it’s a small difference but it adds a completely different dynamic. It’s also this very common thing; a woman who is a wonderful mother, a very caring person, but turns a blind eye to her son’s atrocities. That was a part that was different from my own Nan.
There was briefly talk about filming in my real high school and ultimately I was like, No, let’s use a different school. You have to find those areas of space. Then, in terms of writing it, I think truth is often stranger than fiction. In this case, in my story, it often is the true stuff that’s most interesting but I’ve honed my ability to be ruthless. So if the truth is the most interesting thing, we use it, if not, it goes in the bin. I’m not precious about stuff like that – I’m not trying to do the TV version of my diary. It just transpires that a lot of it’s true because it’s what was most interesting.
CM: It feels like there has been some progress in the societal conversation around mental illness – but even now it seems there are degrees of acceptance when it comes to different conditions. Do you think stories can communicate complicated issues more effectively and empathetically than, say, something detailed and factual?
Kayleigh Llewellyn: Absolutely, I do. I think not everyone even sits down to watch documentaries or the news, first of all. And I think there’s almost some kind of like, internalised hierarchy in the kind of people who watch documentaries. Certainly, not all teenagers do. So putting a show on BBC Three that’s packaged as a comedy-drama, you probably just get yourself across more people’s paths than you might have otherwise. Did you happen to see Jack Thorne’s Help?
CM: I haven’t yet, actually, no.
Kayleigh Llewellyn: It’s a drama with Stephen Graham and Jody Comer about the COVID crisis in care homes. It’s so, so powerful. So good. It’s only a 90 minute piece, and I think a lot of people think we’re too close to COVID to reflect on it yet. But then you watch this piece and you go, Oh my god, we are ready – we need to be ready. My sister works in a care home. So you know, I thought I was well aware of how difficult things were, but this thing… when I tell you I wept from about three minutes in until the end. Seriously. My girlfriend had to put me to bed with a cold flannel. It’s so emotive. In one piece, Jack Thorne, Jodie and Stephen did more for our cultural understanding of what was going on in care homes than any politician or tabloid inches. Those things just don’t resonate the same way. So that’s a roundabout way of saying, I think TV is a really effective way of getting across a story with empathy.
I’ve even felt it in my own extended family – people who were aware, to some extent, of what was going on in my house. But not the full amount. But in that working class, benefit class, Welsh way, male violence was normalised. It gets diminished and swept under the rug. People say, “oh, what is he like?”. I felt a lot of that growing up. I felt that people weren’t really hearing me. It’s only since making the show in the last few weeks that so many of my family have got in touch and said, I’m finally understanding what it was like. That’s with my own family.
CM: I suspect, too, there will be teenagers or young adults out there who have had similar experiences to you who now get to see that represented.
Kayleigh Llewellyn: Yeah, you need to see yourself – we need to see ourselves. I hope that even if there’s only a few people in the situation that they watch this show and see hope. Even though my situation was bad, I managed to pull myself out of it. It’s so easy to feel hopeless, but it doesn’t have to be like that. I wanted that to be the overriding message of the show so I hope it has that impact.
CM: I’ve read you say before that the need for comedy in the show was somewhat to sweeten the pill of a female-led drama that deals with mental health and a lesbian relationship. But with this series, and Beth and Cam’s relationship in particular, I think the blurred line between the hardship in Beth’s life and then this beautiful oasis of a relationship felt really true to life. The way we can kind of compartmentalise really contrasting things. Do you think that in some ways a drama-comedy is more true to life than dwelling, say, in just drama or just comedy?
Kayleigh Llewellyn: Absolutely. Laughter has gotten me through everything. Literally it has. There’s not been a situation where at some point the tension hasn’t been broken by someone cracking a joke, whether that be at a funeral or with my mum in a mental hospital. Humour has been my best friend, my longest companion. So it just feels real. Yes, on one level, it sweetens the pill and makes the show easier to watch. But on a human level, it’s just how we operate. So few people don’t laugh, you know, there’s always something. I think, particularly for teenagers, we are inherently selfish when we’re at that age. So in the first series there are these moments when there’s all these awful things going on with Beth at home but then the popular girl says, Do you want to come to the park with me? And that’s it. It becomes an amazing day.
CM: I have to ask, too, about your experience working on Killing Eve. That must be an amazing project to take on – how have you found it?
Kayleigh Llewellyn: Amazing. I mean, because of the pandemic what should have been an eight month job became more like a two year job. In a way I feel like I’ve spent more time on Killing Eve than I have on In My Skin. It’s become a real labour of love. But it’s a completely different world to be stepping into because it’s a show that’s loved worldwide. It’s viewed by millions of people and this is the fourth and final series. I came to it as a fan first so I’m keenly aware of the amount of fans who are like, Don’t fuck it up.
CM: I didn’t realise it was the final series!
Kayleigh Llewellyn: Yeah, it wasn’t when we first started, but the decision was made that the time was right. And it’s a different beast, you know, because In My Skin – I’m exec producer, I’m across every decision. I’m in the room for everything and it’s my baby. With something like Killing Eve, you’re working on someone else’s baby. You might want things other people don’t want. You’re a cog in a machine, to a certain extent, but I’ve learned so much from some of the writers on the show. You know, Laura Neal, who’s the lead writer, she’s so talented. Working with her and the team has been an utter privilege. Then, seeing your words in the mouths of Jody Comer and Sandra Oh…
CM: That must be pretty cool.
Kayleigh Llewellyn: Oh, I just get chills. Every time.
CM: And I guess it’s a gearshift just in scope, from the micro and almost zoomed in look at the world of Beth in In My Skin to Killing Eve which is globe-spanning in its locations.
Kayleigh Llewellyn: It’s massive. I think as a writer you have to find your own way into it. For me, the thing I find exciting is just complicated female relationships. If I go in thinking too much about it I’d just be too daunted and paralysed, so, I have to fall into myself and think, What makes me tick? And the writer’s room is an interesting study, really, because people are approaching it from their own angles. You know, we have writers in the room who are fascinated by spies, or writers who are fascinated by the psychopathy element.
CM: And what’s next for you?
Kayleigh Llewellyn: More complicated female stuff! So, I’m going to be making another show with the same producer from In My Skin. It’s set in Wales again, but this time in the 1970s, and it’s another very personal story. Then I’m also doing an adaptation of an incredible book called Dreamland by Rosa Rankin-Gee which is amazing – by about page ten of the novel I was like, This has to be mine. I have to be the person who does this. And finally I’m also working on a show in the US which I think is the first of its kind (though I might be wrong). It’s with the band The Lumineers, the album they had out about a year and a half ago called III, the whole record was about a fictional family, so we’re taking those characters and putting them in a TV show. The music is incredible and the two guys from the band, Jeremiah [Fraites] and Wesley [Schultz], have been fantastic and so supportive. So we’ll see! It’s a very exciting time.
You can watch the second series of In My Skin on BBC iPlayer now.