Kayleigh Llewellyn: How I made it as TV screenwriter

The BAFTA-winning writer speaks to emerging screenwriter Billie Collins about working on Killing Eve, the dramatic experiences that inspired her auto-biographical series In My Skin and how she hopes to present Wales on screen.

22 May 2020

Kayleigh Llewellyn won the BAFTA Rocliffe New Comedy Writing Award in 2012. It was a life-changing triumph, launching a screenwriting career that has seen her work on shows like Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Killing Eve (2018-), and In My Skin (2018), a BBC Three series that she wrote and created based upon her own experiences.

Set in Cardiff, In My Skin follows Bethan as she wrestles to hide her Mum’s bipolar and her Dad’s alcoholism from her mates, while navigating sexuality, school and the hormonal omnishambles of adolescence. While my teenage years were very different to Llewellyn’s, the series really struck a chord with me. Like Bethan, I grew up in a semi-rural and wholly boring town, gay in theory (I did a whole GCSE art project on ‘women in suits’), but woefully un-kissed in practice. I adored the series, the biting humour and tenderness of Llewellyn’s writing. So when the opportunity arose for me to interview Kayleigh as part of BFI NETWORK’s special comedy strand, I totally, casually kept a lid on my raging fangirling and leapt at the chance. 

How did you get into screenwriting?

I’d always said that I wanted to be a writer without ever actually making any effort to write. I trained as an actor, which taught me so much - but the more I acted, the more I decided that I wanted to write words instead of reading them. 

Then I got dumped by a girlfriend who had cheated on me, so I was feeling really low and needed a change. I saw a tweet about the BAFTA Rocliffe Competition, and I just thought, ‘I’m gonna do it.’ I called my best friend Matthew Barry and said, ‘there’s this competition, if you make it to the final ten Jennifer Saunders will read your script. I’m absolutely obsessed with her – d’you wanna do it?’ We won, which was amazing. The show was never made, but it meant I had scripts commissioned for BBC One, which in turn meant I could leverage a really good agent. 

I think a lot of emerging writers feel they need permission to call themselves a writer. Was there a point at which you thought, ‘I am a writer now’?

When the first two scripts were commissioned for that project, I’d been working at this discount theatre ticket box office in Leicester Square. I had this grand moment of, ‘bye everyone, it’s been great, I’m off on my new adventure and I will see you… never!’ So I quit my job, and then quickly realised that the TV industry is so slow. We’d hand a in a draft, and wait for like ten weeks to get notes. I was twiddling my thumbs, started going to G-A-Y in London every night and spending all my money on Jaeger bombs. Ten months later I had to go back to the box office and ask for my job back. So I started calling myself a writer quite quickly, but I had a little setback.

In My Skin is based on your own very personal experiences. How did you go about translating that autobiographical material into drama? Was there anything you were worried about?

Writers are often told to write what they know. I think that’s completely true, but it doesn’t take into account that you’re never going to only tell your own story. So I went in gung-ho like, ‘this is my story and I get to tell it’ before I had the crushing realisation that I’d chosen to tell my family’s stories too, without even asking them, which lead to a few long dark nights of the soul battling. I ended up speaking to my mum and sister and getting their blessing, which made things a lot easier. Writing is like therapy; I’ve lived through these experiences, they’ve stayed with me my whole life, and it was so cathartic to just get it all out of me. 

Where did you start?

I started by thinking about moments when I had really learned something. There was a period where I was hiding where I was from because I was ashamed. I worried that if people knew my mum had bipolar, and my Dad was an abusive alcoholic, they would judge me. I was living this half-life. Then without giving too away, the events that inspired the end of the series of In My Skin actually happened.

Someone from my school turned up to volunteer at the mental hospital when I was there with my mum. I thought that everything was over for me, and yet what happened was… absolutely nothing. It was the first time that I realised that maybe I didn’t need to hide who I was. Maybe I didn’t need to keep doing this. Ostensibly, you want your protagonist in any story to learn something, and so I thought that if I go back to a time when I learned something, and the show is about me, then inherently the structure is already there. 

You’ve also worked on shows like Killing Eve, Stella, and Casualty – how do those processes differ? Is it a big shift in creative control?

It’s very different. With something like In My Skin you get an extra level of authority, because you can say ‘but that’s how it really happened’, whereas with shows that are completely made up, there’s more debate. You’re there to bring your ideas and flesh out the world as much as you can, but your voice isn’t the most important in the room. So it’s shifting from being an auteur to a cog in a machine, but in a wonderful way. On In My Skin I work with my script editor and producer, but on Killing Eve we do a writers room. You all work to serve a higher purpose, and that requires a lot of compromise and teamwork. I’m loving doing writers rooms, but people normally do them first, and then do their own stuff. Whereas I’ve gone from having complete authority to like, ‘why can’t I just do the idea I want to do?’ So yeah, you have to be humble. It’s a great skill to learn: know when to fight for your idea, and when to take the advice of people who know more than you. 

I know that it was important to you to represent Cardiff in a way that felt authentic. Is ‘Welshness’ something you actively think about when writing? Is there a particularly Welsh sense of humour in In My Skin

Massively. There’s also a rhythm to the way Welsh people speak, and I write with that entirely in my head. It was really made apparent going into the casting process. Because we’ve got very young actors in the show and our overall aim is to find the best possible performer, there were occasions when we’d seen loads of Welsh kids and they just weren’t quite up to par. So we’d bring in English actors, they’d read the dialogue, and it would sound completely wrong. I’m really fascinated by certain vernacular and turns of phrase, and the specificity of different areas. I find those things so funny, rich and delicious, and when I’m writing I really have them in mind. I don’t write in RP, I write the words as I think they’ll be said. It breathes life into the markings on the page. 

I grew up with no real queer scene, and would have loved to watch a show like In My Skin as a teen. What does it mean to you to have a young gay woman at the centre of your story, and to reach those audiences?

It means absolutely everything. I was exactly the same as you - I was dying to see myself represented on screen. I’m 33 now, and it hasn’t really changed that much. It’s really interesting seeing the way that LGBTQ audiences respond to a show like Killing Eve because we’re so loyal. We’ve been so starved of seeing ourselves on screen that when it comes we’re obsessed with it, we’re just like, ‘thank you, thank you, thank you, finally something!’ I really wanted to make the show I wish I’d been able to see when I was younger. And I wanted to do something closer to my experience. There were shows like Skins, which was incredible, but it’s so sexy, and everyone’s like so grown up.

I felt hugely short-changed by my teenage years watching Skins. I was sat there like, ‘Where’s my party? Why is nothing happening?’

Yeah! Like ‘I’m a loser, what is this?’ And I sort of feel like that across the board with lesbian stories. With something like The L Word, again, it’s so highly sexualised. I wanted to show the flipside to that, which is something far closer to what I had, and is maybe more realistic for most school age lesbians. It’s this slow dawning realisation that when my best friend touches my hand, it feels electric. The first little feeling of dipping your toe into the water, before it gets sexy and hedonistic!

In My Skin is really funny, but it deals with difficult themes, including mental illness and abuse. What role do you think comedy has in communicating those darker themes or experiences?

I don’t preoccupy myself too much with labels like ‘drama’ or ‘comedy’. I never want to set out like, ‘this is my sitcom show.’ I don’t care about that. I care about telling stories that feel real. For me that means it has to have light and dark, and laughter and tears, because that is life. It’s never all one thing. On a more pre-planned level, you run the risk with themes like domestic violence and mental health that people sort of go ‘that’s such an important story, and I must watch it, but I’m not ready yet.’ They almost treat it like a chore, and entertainment shouldn’t be that. If you can find a way to weave laughter through those themes, then you’ve sort of used a Trojan horse to get your messages across, without making people feel like they’re at school. 

You also perform improve comedy, how does that feed into your writing?

In improv, you don’t have the luxury of subtlety. There’s no props or costume, so you can’t walk onstage and do some deep-seated acting work, because the audience need to know what they’re looking at. I think I do characterisation well, because I’ve learned to have them say who they are really quickly, and don’t worry if it’s not subtle. Another brilliant thing improv teaches you is the art of vulnerability. It’s hard to write if you feel like everything has to be perfect, and you can’t show it to anyone until it is. It’s freeing to just go, ‘I’m doing my best, what do you think of this? Oh, you’ve got some notes? That doesn’t mean I’m bad, that just means I’m trying.’ It feeds into my writing, but it also feeds into every area of my life. 

We also used improv on In My Skin. So we’ll record a version according to the script, and then we say to the actors: keep the same gist, but just play. It’s not about whether the words came from my pen, it’s about the end product being as good as it can be. So improv was intrinsic. Especially with Jo Hartley [who plays Katrina]. She goes really deep into character. She’s feeling what it’s like to be manic, and so to make her remember her lines 100% spot on is the wrong thing to do. I think that’s why those mental health scenes work so well, because they were free. 

That really comes across with the comic scenes between Beth and her friends too. They feel so natural. You’ve touched on this a bit, but who are your comedy heroes?

French and Saunders, massively. But the other one for me is Victoria Wood. That thing that I was talking about, enjoying people’s weird vernacular and funny turns of phrase, is something she does so expertly. I’d love to be half as good as she is.

What’s the best piece of screenwriting or industry advice you’ve ever had?

An amazing producer called Celine Haddad told me that when you have an idea, and you start meeting other creatives to develop it, you need to figure out if you’re picturing the same house. The house being a metaphor for the end project. So are you envisaging a castle? Or a bungalow? Along the way you can debate about light fixtures and things like that, but overall, your picture is the same. And if your picture isn’t the same, then don’t work together, because it will be like pulling teeth. In the past, when I pitched ideas and got that feeling of ‘they don’t quite see what I see’, I used to go for it anyway because I wanted to be working. But it would only end up being painful. So find the people who are seeing the same house as you are.

And the best piece of advice you’ve had generally?

The thing that you think you need to hide the deepest, the thing you’re most ashamed about in yourself, is probably the key to your creativity. 

Finally, what are you looking forward to working on next?
I’m so excited to be on Killing Eve because I adore the show and have wanted to work on it for years. I have two more shows in development – I’ve sort of set up this trilogy of my life story. I’m writing a new comedy drama about a period in my late twenties, and then I have another show which leans more towards drama. It’s almost like the origin story. It’s set in Wales in the 1970s, and it’s about the Hell’s Angels, and my parents meeting as teenagers. I’m really excited about those two, and can’t wait to get stuck in. 
 

Kayleigh Llewellyn is the writer and creator of the BAFTA-winning comedy drama, In My Skin. Kayleigh was named a BAFTA Breakthrough Brit in 2019. She is also a Broadcast Hotshot, a BFI Flare Mentee and the recipient of the BAFTA Rocliffe New Comedy Writing Award.

You can follow Kayleigh's work here. Watch all episodes of In My Skin on BBC iPlayer here.

Billie Collins is an emerging playwright and screenwriter from Merseyside, most recently with work at the Lowry Theatre Studio and HOME Manchester. You can follow her work here