Skins: Immigration and the arrival and departure of Thomas

Curator's Note

In Season 3 of the British E4 teen drama series Skins, Thomas from the Democratic Republic of Congo joins the series’ second generation of characters who attend a local Bristol Post-16 college. Thomas’s introduction in February 2009 corresponds with the present moment in British politics when reports of public anxieties are increasing around issues such as the nation’s economic deficit, unemployment and lack of access to affordable housing. One year and a few months after Thomas’s arrival, a heated subject of public debate after the call for a general election is the effects of immigration on the state of the nation. Charting Thomas’s struggles as an illegal immigrant to make his home in a working-class milieu, this episode amplifies these anxieties through hyperbolic comic means and articulates them through stereotyped working-class characters.

The opening sequence’s attention to a council housing estate and derelict flat where Thomas finds refuge reflects the tradition of British social realism with its historical focus on the experiences of the working-class. While less time is allowed for contemplation over single shots, the opening montage establishes an urban, working-class landscape that is saturated with symbolic meaning with its displays of the Union Jack and St. George’s flag of England. Accompanying this with contrasting African Hip Hop music and shots of Thomas dancing, unpacking and showering, the montage identifies Thomas as an outsider. While his African beats and talent for rap at an underground party later help Thomas gain respect from new friends, the early encounter with his unfriendly neighbor alludes to a visit by the series’ well known local gangster, Johnny White (Mackenzie Crook, The Office). The comical Johnny and his two sidekicks embody British popular stereotypes about anti-social, white working-class ‘chavs’, the ultimate purveyors of bad taste. Johnny’s regional accent signals his native attachments to Bristol while his surname accentuates his racial assertion of power over the African teen (reminding local viewers of Bristol’s colonialist history in the slave trade) when he demands payment from Thomas to reside on ‘his’ estate.

The episode shows Thomas competing for unskilled labour with a group of white Polish migrants, a growing Eastern European community in Bristol, when he is told by one to ‘Fuck off. This isn’t your work’. He later invades Johnny’s drug turf when he sells a stash of weed at the party because his cleaning job at the college cannot make rent money fast enough. Thomas finally wins the right to stay after challenging White to a chili eating contest. Jumping ahead to Season 4 when the show must decide the future of the teen characters and create space for the next cast, Thomas gets thrown out as a student of the college after wrong suspicion of involvement with drugs. In the last episode, however, he is spotted by a running trainer who secures him a full Harvard scholarship. Season 3’s attack on the inadequacy of the UK educational system’s token attempts to address multiculturalism (in this episode Thomas, the cleaner, enters a drama class where students in animal costumes are directed to act out a 'wild' African jungle scene) extends to a critique in Season 4 of its inability to accommodate young people like Thomas. Thomas’s departure seems a perfect metaphor for the series’ global exchange with the US where it has attracted a large fan base and is soon to be adapted by MTV and set in Baltimore. How might the US version of Skins negotiate the conventions of the hybrid teen drama/comedy series with its address to the politics of nationhood?

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