Creative therapy

Creative therapy

Michael Pickard
By Michael Pickard
November 3, 2020

IN FOCUS

Writer Kayleigh Llewellyn and director Lucy Forbes reflect on their Bafta-winning series In My Skin, a coming-of-age drama about a teenage girl living a double life as she tries to hide her chaotic family situation from her friends.

With a running time of just two-and-a-half hours, coming-of-age drama In My Skin has almost as many Welsh Bafta awards as it does episodes. The series was named best drama and Gabrielle Creevy was named best actress at the event in 2019 for its half-hour pilot. Four more episodes were then released this year, which led writer Kayleigh Llewellyn and director Lucy Forbes to win gongs of their own at last month’s ceremony.

Its awards success is a measure of just how highly this series is regarded, with a trio of raw performances at the show’s heart bringing to life Llewellyn’s deeply personal, dark and funny scripts, framed by Forbes’ immersive visual style.

“If you sit down and think of the whole journey over the last two years, it feels a bit unfathomable,” creator Llewellyn tells DQ of her autobiographical show. “We put people first. From the get-go, myself and Nerys Evans, the executive producer, put a lot of stock in finding the right team – mostly women, but people we gelled with, connected with and who we knew cared about the project as much as we did. By the time we got to shooting, we had this tight-knit community and no one phoned it in. Everyone gave it their all.

“The show is about a time of my life when I felt incredibly ashamed and felt like I needed to hide who I really was. The subject matter seemed to touch personally so many of our team and so we all gave it our all. It was a joy. I couldn’t be more proud of it.”

Produced by Expectation, In My Skin began life as a half-hour, standalone pilot co-commissioned by BBC Wales and BBC3 for the latter’s Comedy Slice strand. It debuted in 2018, before a full season of four additional episodes aired in March this year. The story follows Bethan (Creevy), who desperately tries to keep the truth of her home life a secret from her friends. But it isn’t easy when her mother (Jo Hartley) is sectioned at a mental health facility near her school and has a habit of breaking out, and her father (Rhodri Meilir) is a Hell’s Angel who drives a rag-and-bone truck.

Lucy Forbes (left) and Kayleigh Llewellyn on the In My Skin set

As she digs herself deeper and deeper into a hole of her own lies, she deals with lesbian infatuations, tough love from her Nana and an interfering teacher who is always on her case in this tough but often funny series based on Llewellyn’s experiences growing up.

The writer began work on the series in October 2017, when she had just discovered a US show she had been working on was being dropped. “With it being autobiographical, the basis of In My Skin had been gestating in my brain for a while but I wasn’t ready to expose myself yet to my peers,” she explains. “On that day, I sat down at my laptop and wrote this very honest, one-page outline. And before I could regret anything, I fired it off to a few trusted producers I knew and liked. Nerys came back straightaway.”

Evans spoke to Shane Allen, controller of BBC comedy commissioning, who then greenlit a script for BBC3’s Comedy Slice. “I was a little reticent at first,” Llewellyn recalls. “I said, ‘There will be some laughs but I’m telling you now, I wouldn’t call it a slice of comedy, if I’m being honest.’ Nerys was like, ‘Just make it really good so they can’t say no.’ So we did. We put it in and they commissioned the pilot. From the start, I have felt like a bit of a fraud because it’s heavy and intense, but it all worked out.”

The balance between drama and comedy comes from what Llewellyn says is her experience of living through periods of intense trauma and using laughter “to stop yourself from going insane.”

“The way I describe it is I like to blow up a balloon of tension, and when the balloon is at its peak, pop it with a laugh, because otherwise the audience gets saturated with trauma,” she says. “It’s almost too much. It’s all about sweetening the pill, using comedy to make it a bit more palatable.”

In My Skin centres on Bethan (Gabrielle Creevy, right) and her relationship with her mother (Jo Hartley), who is sectioned at a mental health facility

With credits including Charlie Brooker’s Weekly Wipe and The End of the F***ing World, director Forbes then came to the project keen to ensure In My Skin wasn’t like any other high-school drama.

“I felt like they all have a very familiar tone and I wanted this to feel completely unique,” she says, determined that the audience would live and breathe the story from Bethan’s perspective. “I wanted the audience to feel like they were strapped in next to her, going along for the ride. It was also really important the kids felt like real kids and talked like real kids, so we encouraged improvisation a lot on set.”

Though the show is based on her own experiences, Llewellyn was also keen to distance it from her life to some degree and put some space between reality and fiction. However,  writing about her relationship with her father, who died in 2015, proved cathartic.

“He was a man I had no sympathy for, and I never wanted to make him this sympathetic character in the show,” she explains. “I wanted to show a real depiction of him but not show a 2D stock monster. To do that, I had to find a way to put myself in his shoes, which I’d never done before. I had to get into his psychology and think, ‘He behaves that way, why?’ It was also very important to me in the series we found those few moments where he was nice to Bethan and you just know he’s a man bound by his own background.”

The series was also filmed in a way that allowed actors freedom in their performances, particularly when it came to Hartley’s part as Bethan’s mum Trina, who suffers from bipolar and experiences manic episodes.

The series is based on Llewellyn’s own experiences growing up

“We just wanted to get a true depiction of someone suffering bipolar on screen,” explains Forbes. “We spent a lot of time talking about it and making sure we got it tonally right. The last thing we wanted was for it to look like an actor playing someone having a breakdown. The balance can so easily go off the rails and become too eggy, but Jo absolutely smashed it. Kayleigh and I have both got experience of living with someone with bipolar and we just translated that to Jo as much as possible.”

Part of that preparation included going “method,” where Hartley would be shut away from the cast and crew and then released in character once the cameras were set. “We’d open the door and it was like a Tasmanian devil flying out of this room,” Llewellyn remembers. “I would get goosebumps sometimes. It was like [TV impersonation show] Stars in their Eyes, but with mental health. Jo would walk into the room as Jo Hartley and come out as my mother. It was bizarre. And she’d never met my mum – that was a point we made to make Trina a character in her own right.

“Lucy did something else cool and cruel at the start of the shoot when she said to Rhodri, ‘Don’t speak to Gabby.’ Lucy wanted to keep that stiltedness between them as father and daughter. In the final few days of the shoot, Gabby said, ‘I really don’t think Rhodri likes me.’ I was like, ‘Oh no, Lucy told him he can’t speak to you because of character stuff.’ She was like, ‘I thought he hated me.’ It was very effective.”

Creevy, as Bethan, was “an absolute superstar. She’s an incredibly talented improvisor and such a thoughtful actress,” Forbes says. “You never knew what you would get sometimes and she was so prepared. I almost cried for joy on the first day of rehearsals when Gabby turned up with a folder and she had tracked the emotion of her character across every scene with these graphs. She was incredibly well prepared.”

Following the pilot, the BBC commissioned a full season of In My Skin, bringing the show up to five episodes. It wasn’t until a few weeks into shooting, however, that its pilot won Welsh Baftas for best drama and best actress.

In My Skin won two Welsh Baftas for its pilot episode alone

From the start, Llewellyn knew how she wanted the story to end, with a scene of Bethan and her mum dancing together in the mental hospital – a moment that really happened between the writer and her mother.

“The pilot was written with the intention that we’d hopefully get more. Then going from pilot to series was just a thrill,” she says. “ I was like, ‘Thank God I get to finish telling this story.’ It was a very painless, joyful writing experience for me.”

“What was really nice about it was we knew what we were doing and we knew that it worked [because of the Baftas],” Forbes notes. “It rained every single day of the shoot for a month but everyone had a bit more confidence in what they were doing. It was a joy. Those performances were just electric.

“The final scene of the series where Bethan and Trina dance together was at the end of a really stressful day. We were losing light, we were running out of time and we had to rush through that scene. We played the music and just let them dance, and because it had been such a stressful day and because we all wanted it so badly, it made the whole room cry. Even the extras were crying. The DOP was crying. Everyone was just brought to tears by this magical dance. It’s so overwhelming and so emotional, and that’s one of the things that makes this show so special. It had that power over us.”

Llewellyn says she has been surprised by the reaction to the show from one particular section of the audience, with middle-aged men often contacting her on social media to reveal how it has chimed with their own experiences. She believes its success comes down to the authentic way In My Skin discusses mental health.

“From the get-go, so I didn’t get lost in the writing process, I had a list reasons for ‘Why am I writing this show?’ Number one on that list is along the lines of, ‘The person you love the most can also be the person who hurts you the most and who you feel ashamed of, and then you feel more shame because you feel ashamed of the person you love,’ because that was my relationship with my mum. A lot of people know what that feels like. And then there’s just really good directing and really good performances.”

Llewellyn and Forbes, who are both repped by Casarotto Ramsay, are now working on new projects. Llewellyn is on the writing team for the forth season of BBC America’s award-winning spy show Killing Eve, while Forbes is prepping This is Going to Hurt, an adaptation of Adam Kay’s memoir recalling the endless days, sleepless nights and missed weekends of life as a doctor. Ben Whishaw stars in the drama, produced by Sister for BBC2.

Available on BBC iPlayer, In My Skin could also return to continue Bethan’s story. But in the meantime, Llewellyn is happy she has been able to write a show she wishes she could have watched when she was a teenager.

“I’m not exaggerating when I say a show like that would have changed the course of my early life because telly is this incredible Trojan horse,” she says. “When my grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer, I was beside myself, wracked with fear that my nan was going to die. Then about two days later, it just so happened to coincide with Peggy Mitchell getting breast cancer on [BBC soap] EastEnders. She was going into treatment and the doctors were like, ‘You can survive this.’ And I watched the TV and thought maybe my nan can survive – and she did.

“If I could have watched a show like In My Skin when I was young, I would have gone, ‘You don’t have to feel so ashamed.’ I wanted to do that for future generations, and hopefully we have. Hopefully more and more people are going to keep talking about mental health now, because it’s only by talking about it that we remove stigma. Everyone is touched by it in some way.”

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