Having started life as a one-off pilot episode for BBC Wales, this acutely observed and superbly well scripted series is now deservedly getting a UK-wide airing. Written and created by Kayleigh Llewellyn it’s a harrowing but ultimately uplifting account of 16-year-old Bethan (Gabrielle Creevy)’s coming of age as life throws bucketloads of trouble at her. Her inner steeliness and deep resolve help her deal with schoolyard bullies, the unwanted attention of a PE teacher as well as thwarted love. Throughout she is a perfectly lovable creation, almost willing the viewer to be on her side, much as she does towards the end of the series, when withering despair finally yields to optimism and hope.
Bethan’s troubled, bi-polar mother (quite brilliantly acted by Jo Hartley) is sectioned more often than not and her paranoia in the psychiatric wing is sometimes woundingly re-chanelled towards Bethan who is accused of ‘Leaving me here, in the eye of the storm. There’s cameras everywhere, everything gets reported back. They’re not even nurses…’ Meanwhile her sot of a partner, Bethan’s dypso father Dilwyn (Rhodri Meilyr), is a Hells Angel who now usually raises hell from the confines of his sofa. Here he’s often KO’d by cooking lager which he’ll have in lieu of breakfast. As Bethan puts it ‘He’s the maddest bastard you’ll ever meet.’ Mad, yes, but deeply, troublingly pathetic – a repelling and repulsive creation in one and the same breath.
In a clever updating of, say Keith Waterhouse’s ‘Billy Liar’ Bethan holds it together by inhabiting a fantasy world and writing poetry and escaping into budding hopes for a romance with the svelte and seemingly savvy Poppy (Zadeiah Campbell-Davies.) So Bethan invents a mother who works in HR and forces her to go to the ballet and replaces her inadequate father with a tax inspector. She bends the truth to her teenage will.
Luckily, in reality Bethan has a strong grandmother, Nana (Di Botcher) to lean on, and she’s a character and three quarters. When Bethan asks her how she she informs her that her ‘knee is stiffer than a dead perv’s todger, I’ve got moths in my purse an’ I’ve been doing double shifts down the bingo to pay off my catalogue, but as least I’m beautiful.’ The script is shot through with such writing. The sexual uncertainties and hormonal buzz of adolescence are superbly well captured, as Bethan drinks cornershop vodka and exchanges savage put down with her die-hard friends Tristan and Lydia, misses exams and seems to rail against her own academic possibility of being a Grade A student.
The pubescent tumult of sex is seemingly ever present – in banter and dates and sexual uncertainty – but it’s a subject that darkens as the series unfolds, not least when an inebriated Lydia visits the reptilian, much older Tony Chips (Richard Corgan) on the night of her birthday. Then there’s the politics of school, in this case Llanfair High School, where popular kids hold sway just as certainly as the boorish bullies, where Bethan has to navigate her way between the allures and dangers of both kinds of student. It’s a minefield out there.
The deeply affecting and testing central relationship between Bethan and her mother is punctuated by moments of impossible tenderness, such as the moment when the daughter shaves her mam’s legs, now hirsute after long neglect, or the moment when thet dance together in a karaoke session in the secure ward.
Throughout the five-part series the balance between light and shade is well maintained, between the moral suppuration of Dilwyn – seemingly entirely heedless of his wife’s needs, down to forgetting the pills that allow her to live outside an institution – and Bethan’s defiant optimism in the face of knockdown after knock-down is very well maintained throughout the series, directed with clarity and insight by Lucy Forbes.
There are plenty of dark laughs to mitigate the tragedy, and oodles of scalpel-sharp writing confirming the arrival of a confident voice in the world of arresting TV drama. Little wonder that the series won best drama award at last years’s BAFTA Cymru prizegiving ceremony.
It’s now deservedly winning a bigger audience which will surely enjoy meeting Bethan as she resolutely manages to stand proud, despite all the batterings and beatings of life’s testing weathers.
In My Skin is broadcast on BBC 1 Wales and streaming on BBC 3.