“In My Skin is a reflection on my teen years – a time when I felt deep shame to be from a lower class, Welsh family living with mental illness”
BY SOPHIE PERRY. IMAGES BBC THREE/KARLA GOWLETT
They say, “Write what you know.” That’s certainly something screenwriter Kayleigh Llewellyn has employed for her new dark comedy series In My Skin. Set in Cardiff and told through the eyes of teenage Bethan (Gabrielle Creevy), In My Skin is a coming-of-age story about a young woman leading a double life.
Bethan is desperate to keep the truth of her home life a secret from her friends – a feat made increasingly difficult when her mother (Jo Hartly) is sectioned in a mental facility near her school (and has a penchant for breaking out). Along with her Hell’s Angel father (Rhodri Meilir), who drives a rag-and-bone truck, flying under the radar is no easy task for Bethan.
For the series, Llewellyn drew heavily on her own experiences of growing up with a parent with a mental illness. As Llewellyn explains, “The show is a reflection on my teen years – a time when I felt deep shame to be from [a lower class] Welsh family that was living with mental illness.”
Only through writing the show 15 years later has Llewellyn realised, “just how many other people are living through similar situations. Mental illness affects so many lives and yet it’s still so surrounded by stigma.”
DIVA: Much of In My Skin is autobiographical – which elements are purely fictitious?
KAYLEIGH LLEWELLYN: There are parts where you take dramatic licence. Or, a lot of the characters might be grounded in people I really knew, but then as the writing process goes on they grow and become their own thing. So, even though the original inspiration was taken from a real-life person, after a while the characters become their own entities.
Perhaps it goes without saying that there’s been an increased focus on representing and de-stigmatising mental health in the last few years. What does In My Skin offer that other representations don’t?
As far as I know, I can’t think of any shows in the UK that deal with teenage carers of someone with mental illness. I can think of a few different stories with the protagonist being the one suffering with mental health disorders, but I wanted to show that element of the story where it is the child that is being forced into the role of a parent, to a certain degree. When I first came up with the concept for this show and wrote the pilot script, it was an incredibly exposing position to be in. I felt vulnerable and I almost didn’t send the script and thought, “Oh God, actually I don’t want to do this, I’m revealing too much about myself.” But, as the script went out and it started being read by people, more and more situations would arise where actually people would say, “Oh, my Uncle had bipolar or my mum has it, or my dad or my brother.” It was in telling my story that I realised so many other people – who I thought I had to hide it from – have lived through the same thing. It feels really important to me that I, with this show, can help other people who have lived through it. [Hopefully they can] go, ‘”I don’t need to feel ashamed or hide anymore.”
Did the cast undertake any classes or consult mental health organisations to better understand the issues they would be representing?
In the first instance when I was writing the script, I could draw from a lot of my own personal experiences but we wanted to make sure we really did our due diligence in being responsible in the telling of the story. We had a representative from the [mental health] charity Mind who read over the pilot script for us and sent back notes. Then, going forward, we had a consultant who works in Cardiff [and specialises in bipolar disorder] read every script. She was employed from the very beginning to feedback and make sure we were being accurate, authentic and sensitive. With the cast, we were really lucky that, Gabrielle Creevy who plays Bethan and Jo Hartly who plays Trina, Bethan’s mum, they are both just the most phenomenal [actors] and took the job so seriously and gave it so much care and attention and sensitivity. We did loads of sessions with myself, director Lucy Forbes and those guys, where we would talk through what it is to suffer with bipolar and what those things look like.
Is there a group of people In My Skin speaks to more than others, do you think?
I hope that it appeals to everyone, [but] the main group I hope it speaks to, most importantly to me, would be someone who loves someone who has had issues with their mental health.
Lead character Bethan has same-sex romantic infatuations during the series. Was representing Bethan’s sexuality always a given?
Yeah, I’m lesbian so, with it being autobiographical, it was always going to be a case of following Bethan as she realised that for herself. I think we meet her in a place in the series where, [and] I don’t know that all lesbians have this experience but, where you spend a bit of time in your teen years not knowing that you’re a lesbian. So, you’re just like, “She’s just my best friend and I want to spend all of my time with her and when we sleep in bed I really like it when we cuddle up together.” You haven’t quite formed the line in your head that, “Actually, I’m attracted to her.” We meet Bethan as she’s having that realisation: “Is this a friendship or is this something more?” I think every lesbian has lived through that painful first obsession with a straight female friend who is never going to want you in the way that you want them.
What do you most want viewers to take away from In My Skin?
More of an understanding of what it is to live with an illness like bipolar, what it is to care for a family member with bipolar. If you’re someone whose experienced mental health in any way, watch it and feel like a hand is on your shoulder saying I see you – I know how you feel.
Can you describe the show in three words?
Funny, heart breaking and raw.
What was most fun about making In My Skin and what was most challenging?
The most difficult part was writing a show that is so close to my own reality: it’s never only your story. In effect it’s my family’s story. My mum is still alive, I have siblings, I have wider family members and I’m making the choice to tell their story for them too. That is something you really have to grapple with. The most joyful thing is being on set everyday with this group of incredible people. We had a mostly female-led team; we had a female producer, a female director, most of the cast are female. So, it’s this amazing crack pot team of women. Every day that group of women came to set and brought so much heart and passion and care. They [created] the story as if it was their own – as if it was their own mother.
In My Skin is available to stream on BBC Three and BBC iPlayer now and will air on BBC One and BBC One Wales on 1 April 2020.
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