Most zombie dramas depict the End of Days itself, the chaos and carnage of society collapsing, the human race subsumed by the reanimated. But the premise of In the Flesh is so deceptively simple and obvious you can’t help wondering why no one’s done it before. The undead have risen and humanity has managed to get the upper hand – yay humanity – but what happens afterwards? Undead 'survivors’, known as sufferers from ’Partially-Deceased Syndrome’ (PDS) are being treated in holding centres in Norfolk and medicated back to an approximation of normality – which ultimately involves being returned to their local communities and, hopefully, the bosom of their welcoming families. But how warm a welcome will they receive, not only from their own nearest and dearest, but also from those around them who remember the fear and the violence of The Rising itself and who aren’t quite so keen to welcome the undead, dubbed as ‘rotters’ back into the world of the living?
In the Flesh, a new three-part 'event drama' screening later in the month on BBC3, has been written by newcomer Dominic Mitchell, a graduate of the BBC Writers Rooms’ ‘Northern Voices’ initiative, and on the strength of the first episode screened at this week's London Press launch, it’s clear that not only does he know his zombie stuff but he also knows how to write a powerful, evocative and often quite disturbing drama which takes a familiar and fanciful idea and turns it into a chilling parable for our times, forcing us to questions our own views and attitudes to outsiders, whether they’re zombies or sex offenders or psychopaths, and what society can and should do with those who just don’t fit into our cosy world view.
Episode one sets up the scenario with effortless conviction. Mitchell cleverly wrong foots his audience with his first scene – a survivor ransacking a supermarket during ‘The Rising’ encounters brain-hungry zombies and suffers the inevitable consequences – before turning our expectations on their heads and revealing his post-outbreak world. We meet Keiren Walker (Luke Newberry), who is being treated for PDS and preparing himself for repatriation amongst his family even though he doesn’t feel quite ready. His parents Steve (Steve Cropper) and Sue (Marie Critchley) are nervously bracing themselves for the return of their once-dead son but his sister Jem (Harriet Cains) is openly hostile to the idea and wants nothing to do with it or him.
Keiren’s problems are compounded by the fact that his family live in Roarton, a rural village in Northern England left to its own devices during The Rising and which is now ferociously opposed to ‘rotters’ and the policy of returning the undead to the communities they’d previously tried to ravage. In Roarton the anti-'rotter' feeling, manifesting itself generally as the Human Volunteer Force (HVF), is fomented by the vicious, opinionated Bill Macy (Steve Evets) and fanatical local churchman Vicar Oddie (Kenneth Cranham). Episode one sees Keiren nervously returned to his family, smuggled into the house under a blanket and advised to stay indoors as much as possible. But Keiren isn’t the only ’rotter’ living in Roarton and Macy’s quite prepared to take the law into his own hands to keep the village ’clean’. But how will Macy react when the ‘rotter’ problem suddenly strikes closer to home and how will Keiren adapt to living in a world he didn’t want to be a part of when he was alive the first time?
In the Flesh is a beautifully-presented piece of intelligent, thoughtful genre television. Jonny (Eric and Ernie, Doctor Who, Spooks, Ashes to Ashes) Campbell directs with an unfussy economy, his camera often roving in a near-documentary style in the domestic settings, capturing the eerie, unearthly isolation of the story’s rural backdrop and, in the impressive sequences in the Norfolk holding centre, the coldly clinical sight of ranks of white-robed PDS suffers shuffling along corridors and lining up for treatment. There’s no bang or flash here, no burning cities or hordes of moaning, groaning blood-crazy undead. This is the intimate, low-key tale of a weary Britain battered by catastrophe and struggling back to normalcy but with an indigestible new ingredient in the social mix. Mitchell’s characters aren’t superheroes, they’re ordinary, recognisable 21st century people fighting to regain their equilibrium is a world which has briefly gone mad. Like all real people, they have hopes and fears and, like real people, they are wary of and distrust the things they don’t understand. This is the conflict at the heart of In the Flesh; it’s not the ‘rotters’ which we have to fear, it’s basic human nature.
Mitchell writes with the verve and confidence of a far more experienced scriptwriter. His characters – brought vividly to life by an impressive mix of new talents such as Newberry (particularly good as the disorientated Keiren), Emily Bevan as fellow-‘rotter’ Amy and Harriet Cains as Jem, alongside experienced old-handers like Ricky Tomlinson (villager Ken Burton), Evets and Cranham – are sharply-drawn, his dialogue naturalistic and believable, and whilst the story is often bleak and disquieting there are moments of jet black humour (the poorly-trained nurse who’d rather be anywhere else trying to explain to Keiren’s parents how to administer his daily medication) and some genuine horror as we discover just how ruthless Macy and his supporters can be when facing a seemingly-innocent, well-disguised ‘rotter’ in their midst.
In the Flesh is a bold and brave commission for BBC3, a channel which doesn’t always get the best press due to its perceived youth fixation. But when it gets it right – it’s given us Being Human and The Fades, for God’s sake, and their commitment to original British situation comedy can only be commended – it’s more than worth its share of the licence fee. Episode one of In the Flesh is a commanding and rather daring piece of modern television and whilst we’re promised a self-contained and satisfying three-part drama, let’s hope it gets the bums-on-seats it deserves to get an already tentatively-planned second season off the ground, because it’s clear from this stunning, haunting first episode that this is a show which could, and should, run and run.
In The Flesh begins on BBC3 on 17th March at 10pm. Writer Dominic Mitchell will be interviewed in the next issue of Starburst Magazine.