Monday, 16 February 2009

Being Brilliant...Being Human on BBC3

Early in 2008 BBC3, the Corporation’s ‘yoof’ channel, as part of its ‘rebranding’initiative, aired six one-off drama pilot episodes, each of which had, apparently, the potential to be commissioned as full series depending on public reaction, audience figures etc. Several of them were forgettable right-on modern dramas which went largely unnoticed. One, a colourful comic strip adventure starring Jamie Winstone and called Phoo Action, was quickly commissioned for a full series; a bit of a puzzler, this decision, as the pilot was utter rubbish, nonsensical from start to finish and clearly displaying no real potential without a major creative overhaul. Sure enough, the planned series was abandoned a few months ago. Ha ha and good riddance etc. Then there was Being Human in which a werewolf, a vampire and a ghost share a house in Bristol. Written and created by Toby Whithouse, who has written for both Dr Who and Torchwood this was easily the best of the six pilots – but following broadcast the word was that it wasn’t going to be spun off into a series. Boo hoo. Then public support started to build – the usual online petitions, enquiries, wailing’n’screaming – and suddenly Being Human was back as a six-part series, albeit with a slightly-adjusted cast to (sigh) appeal to BBC3’s perceived demographic. Yeah, right…

Anyway, the series is currently airing on Sunday nights (and at various times throughout the week) and is an absolute revelation. Forget your Torchwoods, Primevals, Merlins, Apparitions, Survivors, Demons (please forget that one), Being Human has quickly – and apparently effortlessly – established itself not only as the best new genre show on British TV since the return of the Doctor in 2005 but I’d go further and say that it might well be the best new drama on British TV in the last ten years. And that’s not just the hyperbole of a dedicated fan of this sort of stuff – Being Human manages the difficult (sometimes almost impossible) feat of satisfying the demands of good imaginative ‘fantasy’ TV and good, solid conventional drama. In that way it has much in common with new Dr Who which tells powerful fantasy stories shot through with real emotion and real humanity. It can be no coincidence that Whithouse has worked on the Who family series; he’s clearly picked up a few tips on how to write outlandish, ostensibly completely fanciful TV and yet make it work as good drama.

So basically we have three characters struggling with humanity – with being human.. Annie (played by Andrea Riseborough in the pilot, now recast with great success and played by Leonora Critchley) is a ghost. In life she died in the house after a fall down the stairs. Episode three revealed that her death wasn’t the accident she’d previously thought it was – and this is likely to have a devastating effect on her and she struggles to come to terms with the fact that she’s dead. Then there’s George (likeable, jug-eared Russell Tovey) who’s been infected with the curse of the werewolf after a bloody encounter with a wolfman. George, nervy and neurotic at the best of times, hides his affliction and does his best to transform into a monster in circumstances which aren’t likely to cause him to murder anyone. But his condition is hard to live with and he eschews relationships and broad human contact and just wants to keep his head down and lead a quiet life. Finally we have Mitchell the vampire (Guy Flanagan in the pilot, now played with a brooding intensity by Aiden Turner). A bit like Angel in Buffy the Vampire Slayer he’s a vampire who’d really rather not kill anyone so he’s trying to lay off the red stuff and blend in with normal society despite his own cravings and the temptations thrown in his way by other vampirekind who are clearly working towards a vampire revolution. Mitchell – like all the vampires in Being Human - is no cloaked, fanged, snarling vampire; he looks just like you and me (well, you maybe) and, whilst there’s been the odd reference to him being sensitive to light, he seems to function well enough in the daylight hours, albeit with the help of a pair of cool shades, and there’s no sign of him running away screaming from garlic or crucifixes. The analogy’s clear enough; Mitchell is effectively a junkie trying to kick his habit and it’s hard when there’s so much temptation out there and other ‘users’ waving their addiction and their love of their addiction in your face.

In the pilot episode this peculiar trio gravitate towards one another when Mitchell and George move into a new home, already occupied by the ghostly Annie. The series picks up pretty much where the pilot left off. George and Mitchell are still keeping their heads down in lowly jobs at the local hospital, Annie is enjoying the company of two other less-than-human beings who can at least see her and inter-act with her, even though she can’t understand why she hasn’t ‘passed over’ and is still inextricably tied to the mortal coil. Mitchell is still being tormented by Herrick and his minions, partciularly Lauren, a recent 'victim' of Mitchell's condition, as they try to tempt his back to the dark side and poor George is more desperate than ever to ‘fit in’. The first three episodes of the series see the trio face new difficulties and hew obstacles. Mitchell is attracted to a nervy young girl from the hospital but he’s still batting against the bloodlust and when Lauren strikes again he has to decide whether to ‘save’ the girl by turning her into one of his own kind or else show true humanity by letting her die. Episode two sees George befriended by Tully (Dean Lennox Kelly), a fellow werewolf. Despite George’s reluctance he becomes friendly with * and the house dynamic is threatened – until George learns the truth about Tully in a gripping, dark woodland confrontation. In episode three Annie makes the acquaintance of a fellow-ghost named Gilbert and she in turn discovers some terrible truths about her own predicament.

Episode four, just screened, is the strongest of an already-strong bunch, taking the show into another level altogether. Still fighting to be accepted in normal society despite the secret afflictions which hold them back, the trio find things coming to a head when Mitchell befriends a local single mother Fleur and her young son Bernie, Annie makes a decision about her place in the scheme of things and George has to make a decision about his future with Nina. A terrible misunderstanding over a Laurel and Hardy DVD (and we’ve all had one of those!) has appalling consequences and Mitchell and George find themselves becoming even more cut off from the real world. This is a stark, powerful and black episode. George and Mitchell are depicted as ‘monsters’ to their neighbours but a completely different sort of monster to the ones they actually are. But, in the most richly-layered episode yet, it seems that everyone’s a monster; George’s girlfriend Nina, who he splits up with for her own sake, has her own scars (she’s been a victim too) and ugly suspicions expose the cruel, dark, irrational side of human nature – the one we see plastered across our tabloid newspapers days after day.

In just a handful of episodes Being Human has established itself as something very special, a real shining light on the TV landscape. Where much ‘fantasy’ TV in the UK can seem frivolous and whimsical, aiming for a family demographic and too scared to aim its imagination at a more adult audience, Being Human confronts the genre head-on and makes no concessions. In some ways it’s not easy television. It makes demands of its audience. It requires them to take on the concept of three supernatural beings walking amongst us in a very recognisable, gritty modern-day world and dealing with all the fears and frustrations which confound us all, and it requires them to take a very close look at the nature of humanity in a world that doesn’t always seem to be very humane. It’s about outsiders, about conformity, about growing up different and trying to find acceptance. It’s about the struggle to do what’s right in the most extraordinary of circumstances. First and foremost it’s a drama about people but it’s about people who really aren’t people in any accepted sense. George and Mitchell are monsters but they’re monsters within a shell of humanity and despite all the terrible things they do or can do, they’re often depicted as far more self-aware and far more human than the narrow-thinking and small-minded people who bustle around them. Annie may be dead but she has a greater sense of life and what it means now that she’s no longer involved in it and, intriguingly, episode four, where she suddenly becomes corporeal and visible to people, suggests that in death she’s becoming something bigger than death.

Over the last few years ‘fantasy’ TV has grown up. It’s no longer just about monsters, explosions, special effects and a happy ending forty-five minutes later. Characters in these shows now have lives, they have problems, they grow and they learn and they develop as people. Buffy the Vampire Slayer led the way in this regard, to the extent that the monster-slaying just got in the way of the human dramas of Buffy Summers and her Sunnydale friends and, under the guise of light fantasy, Buffy was able to deal with extraordinarily mature and sophisticated storylines and dilemmas and present them in richly-rewarding and imaginative ways which completely belied the perceived nature of the series. Over in the UK Dr Who in particular has taken this lead; it’s always fun watching the Doctor face off against the Daleks or racing to escape a giant bee but as pure drama it’s much more interesting to see him coping with survivor guilt, coming to terms with grief and loss and unfamiliar emotions like unrequited love. Because ultimately any drama series can only be as good as the dramatic situations its characters find themselves in. Being Human has followed the examples of both Buffy and Dr Who but instead of placing ordinary people in extraordinary situations it’s turned things around and put extraordinary people – monsters and ghosts – in the cold and brutal world of the 21st century where people worry about finding enough money to pay the rent and avoiding the casual violence which comes hand-in-hand with the modern world. And it’s not easy. But it makes for brilliant, audacious and sometimes breath-taking television. And it’s on BBC3. Where Two Pints lives.

Being Human absolutely deserves your time. It deserves a rapid prime time BBC2 repeat. It’s a cult show just waiting to happen. If you wander into the World of Stuff and ever take anything away with you, do yourselves a favour and just track down Being Human by fair means or foul. It’s simply unmissable television and a real reminder of just how much the medium can still offer an audience when a show is made by people who care, people with vision and talent and the ability to tell good stories about fascinating, complex people. Being Human is brilliant. and really that’s probably all that needs to be said.

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