Jess Brittain went from inspiring Skins to writing it, but her new show tackles the unjust horror of the weighty expectations that worry this generation
It’s been 10 years since Skins aired and had a whole generation hooked on the hedonistic plotlines of a teen drama that dealt with very adult issues. And while the allure of the sex, drugs and all round dysfunction of the main cast made you feel utterly boring it did bear some resemblance to carefree adolescence.
Skip forward to the uni generation now and the debauchery is clouded by angst beyond the normal awkward jump between your teen years and adulthood. Clique created by ex-Skins writer Jess Brittain, 28, addresses the pressures faced by women at university manoeuvring problematic friendships, tumultuous relationships while bearing the weight of rising tuition fees and shit job prospects when they should be puking in bushes.
Set in Edinburgh, the show follows Holly and Georgia, two lifelong friends who drift apart when a glamorous group of older girls who seem to have it all invite Georgia into the fold. The gang has a mysterious relationship with their hard-nosed lecturer who believes that mainstream feminism is leading women astray. “You are the ones moaning on Tumblr, you are the ones who’ve made yourselves the victim in every office, you are the ones banging on about the pay gap when you should be getting on with your job,” she announces to a room full of hopeful first years. “You are the problem”. Her brand of feminism and coveted internships are so intriguing the girls willingly delve into the sinister world of exploitative internships – cue cocaine-fuelled networking socials, ket pool parties and a mysterious suicide.
From problematic feminism to female friendships, we spoke to Brittain about what we can expect from the intriguing thriller centring women’s narratives.
How much can you reveal about the series to our readers?
Jess Brittain: It definitely gets darker if that’s possible. You see the carefree student nights out but it definitely gets more adult for Holly. It’s an unfolding mystery and from the first episode there are hints towards Holly’s past, so that will start to unfold along with the main narrative. But yeah beyond that, I probably can’t tell in case I spoil the twist.
Are the lives of the girls are reflective of modern uni life or is it aspirational – like the life you wish you could live when you’re a broke student with no prospects?
Jess Brittain: It’s definitely aspirational and set a few notches above complete reality. I wanted to sort of head towards that rather than be worried about being 100 per cent accurate all the time just because it gives you a better opportunity to discuss things in a bit more of an intense way. But, having said that, it does feel like we are reflecting a reality in terms of the sort of increase in pressure and the high stakes for young students. People are being pushed towards much more difficult, complicated situations in order to attend uni and get the correct work experience and intern at the right places and have yourself sorted for adult life. So hopefully, they’ll be able to engage with the themes rather than think “Oh, I’ve never been to a bar like that”.
Do you think it would be difficult to portray uni life in a time where uni fees are rising and your job prospects are dire and not convey an overwhelming sense of dread?
Jess Brittain: (Laughs) The reality of it is bleak for quite a lot of people and you know. Lots of people are making huge sacrifices to even get there in the first place and then you spend your whole time there wondering about how the hell you're supposed to tackle the crazy amount of debt you're going to be in when you graduate.
Did you inject the hedonism into the bleak storyline just to lighten the mood?
Jess Brittain: A show like Fresh Meat was so great at showing the ridiculousness of uni and the humour and crapness of it. I mean that as a compliment. Crap halls, crap parties and crap pub nights and that's been done extremely well by shows like Fresh Meat and so what I wanted to do was push against that and try a different way. It's a thriller so I was using some of the regular tropes in order to frame a slightly different point about the pressure on women but doing it in a way which is titillating.
It is International Women's Day today, so it's quite apt to talk about Jude McDermid’s antagonistic view of feminism.
Jess Brittain: It's not my view. She is an extreme characterisation of some of the conversations I've had about feminism over the past few years. Back when we started developing Clique, there was this feeling amongst a few of my peers that feminism had become this unfriendly place online and it very much felt like in some places, people were using it as a way to police other women. They were telling me that they were worried to not be toeing the party line on a feminist argument or they were worried about what throwback they'd get for having an opinion on certain things.
So there was a very strange and very strain of truth to Jude in terms of her crazy view on feminism that came out of talking to people my age but she's very much out there to antagonise and say the unsayable. If Jude makes you furious then that's a good thing because then you have to unpack why she makes you angry and I think we wanted to inspire debate and understanding.
Her group of girls appear to be so deeply troubled, is her type of feminism problematic in the end?
Jess Brittain: Jude's fatal flaw is that she's unwilling or unable to fully understand the repercussions of her influence. She definitely feels like she's doing something which will benefit these girls and she genuinely wants to give them opportunities. But the implications of her leadership are hardcore.
“I wanted to try a different way. I was using some of the regular tropes in order to frame a different point about the pressure on women but doing it in a way which is titillating” – Jess Brittain
I suppose the most recognisable characters for me were probably Holly and Georgia – are they a manifestation of people you knew at uni?
Jess Brittain: They started off as versions of me and my closest female friendships. I aim to keep female friendships at its centre regardless of it being a thriller. They're both very faulted people, they both have shortcomings. Hopefully, most women understand the intensity, complexity and importance of female friendship at that point in your life, so they'll be able to feel the pain when it goes wrong and how earth-shattering that can be.
If you were to rewrite Skins in the modern day, do you think you would change it?
Jess Brittain: Oh god, yeah. I mean, you wouldn't be able to frame Skins' first series the same way now. It's crazy how much has changed in ten years in the lives of young people. My dad wrote the show. Skins was based on my friends, my big brother's friends, you know, people we knew in Bristol and it was a show about freedom. Yes, there were pressures, and there were issues that cropped up and difficulties to deal with but the level of expectation was much lower.
While it is kind of sad – we were all pretty answerless and clueless and we sort of chucked ourselves around without much real thought – it does mean that you've this group of young people who are incredibly competent and vocal and know how to wield their power. I’m sure young people now look back at Skins and think "Who are these people and what is this world they're living in?"
Clique is available to watch on BBC iPlayer