Monday, 11 March 2013

Prepare for the Zombie Apocalypse: Dominic Mitchell and Jonny Campbell In The Flesh

First, there was AMC's TV adaptation of the recent US comic book series, The Walking Dead. Next came Isaac Marion's Warm Bodies, a teen zombie romance novel, quickly snapped up by Mandeville Films for a big screen adaptation. The latest in this line of rejigged zombie horror is Dominic Mitchell's new BBC drama, In The Flesh, coming on Sunday to a television near you.

Just as Warm Bodies has lurched in to pick the bones of Twilight fandom, so In The Flesh is set to take over the Sunday night drama slot on BBC Three, relinquished yesterday by another vampire/werewolf fantasy/horror series, Being Human. So zombies, it seems, are the new vampires.

Not that Mitchell could reasonably have been influenced by any of these other zombie stories: In The Flesh, he explained in the Q&A I attended on Thursday, has now been in development for five years. That's three years before The Waking Dead was first broadcast in the States, and three years before Atria Books acquired the publishing rights to the Warm Bodies novel. It's really interesting how these things seem to run in cycles almost completely coincidentally - though of course, what's already selling will naturally influence what gets commissioned. But then, neither is In The Flesh in any way unoriginal or faddy: far from it, in fact. Mitchell approaches this fantasy/horror genre from a completely novel angle, describing his work as a kind of kitchen-sink-zombie-apocalypse story, inspired as much by the likes of Ken Loach and Shane Meadows as by gory horror B-movies. Having been treated to a special preview showing of the first episode I can tell you that all of these influences definitely show.

At its heart, In the Flesh is a domestic drama, telling the tale of a teenage boy returning to his family after an extremely traumatic experience. In the Q&A session, Mitchell explained that the idea for a zombie series had come to him whilst working on another script about a boy's experience of returning home after a psychotic episode. During this episode, terrible things were done, so naturally, not everyone in the local community is altogether enthusiastic about his homecoming. Thus, in In The Flesh, this theme of mental illness is conveyed through the metaphor of zombie-ism (or Partially Deceased Syndrome) and surfaces repeatedly in a variety of ways. Before his reintegration into society, Kieren must first go through a period of extensive counselling and observation in a heavily guarded medical institution. For the rest of his life thereafter, he must take strong medication through painful injection every single day. Intermittently wracked with guilt about what he has done, filled with fear about how his family and community will react to his return, and cut-up with resentment about what he must now endure on a daily basis, Kieren is briefly tempted by a friend to seek escape through the use of powerful, mind-altering drugs, only effective on PDS sufferers. PDS is not, however, the only form of mental illness that features in the show: pay close attention to hints at the initial cause of Kieren's death.

In spite of this central focus on family experience, however, Kieren's return - and the reintegration of PDS sufferers into society more broadly - has much wider repercussions for his local community. Kieren's home town of Roarton is an isolated, rural working class society, highly conservative and fearful of change and otherness. It's also a stronghold of the Human Volunteer Force, an anti-"rotter" organisation, set up to "protect" the human community from the partially deceased, clearly mirroring anti-immigration organisations such as the National Front or EDL. The series resonates powerfully with gritty realist dramas like This Is England, not only in subject matter, but also visually, having been filmed on-location in similarly desolate, run-down areas. In comparison to its otherwise most kindred drama, Being Human, In The Flesh tackles socio-political and religious issues with much greater sophistication, integrity and maturity. Where Being Human's second series showed a disappointing a lack of real interest in or sensitivity towards the Catholic elements it incorporated largely for effect, In The Flesh's right-wing, evangelical Christian community is central to the story and entirely convincing, showing the damage caused by bigotry and prejudice, yet still managing to remain, to some degree, sympathetic and just to all of its characters.

Aside from zombie apocalypse movies and kitchen-sink dramas, I did notice some other unacknowledged influences, most obviously Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and various film adaptations thereof. Like In The Flesh, Shelley's novel details the quest of a reanimated corpse to become accepted into human society, and the difficulties he encounters in his ultimately fruitless attempts. Particularly striking for me was the similarity between the zombie make-up in this series and that used on Christopher Lee in the 1957 Hammer film The Curse of Frankenstein, with characteristic pasty faces and glassy, inhuman eyes, though of course a greater degree of subtlety in make-up is achievable today. It's brilliantly done, even down to the make-up actually used within the story by PDS sufferers: Kieren returns home a little orange, having apparently gone slightly overboard with his foundation, prescribed to allow him to blend in better with other people, in much the same way as wigs are currently provided for cancer sufferers. 

Not only is In The Flesh penned by an exciting, innovative new screenwriter, who has just made the transition from theatre to television, but it also features a whole host of brilliant young actors like Luke Newberry (Kieren Walker) and Harriet Cains (Kieren's sister, Jem). Even the series' more established and better known cast members are not, as Mitchell and Campbell themselves pointed out, the sort of people that "you see in everything". It's always good to see fresh talent being actively sourced in this way, and really encouraging to anyone just starting out themselves. One great piece of advice for aspiring scriptwriters that I gleaned from Mitchell's talk is to create a series bible: even if this includes lots of information you don't actually use in the show itself, it helps you to know your characters thoroughly, and to judge how they might react in different situations, as well as setting clear parameters for the world that you're creating. This is particularly important in a fantasy series: one must set firm rules and be aware of what is and isn't possible in order to maintain an internal logic and keep up the audience's suspension of disbelief.

In The Flesh airs Sunday 17th March at 10pm, and from what I've seen so far, it's gonna be fantastic! Don't miss it!

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