Being Human: celebrating BBC Three originals

Next on our list of salutes to BBC Three geek favourites: Toby Whithouse's much-missed Being Human...

Russell Tovey, Aidan Turner and Lenora Crichlow in Being Human
Photo: BBC Three

It started off as a joke, a silly fantasy twist on a generic sitcom premise, but Being Human somehow, against more odds than we remember years later, ended up becoming one of the defining British genre shows of the decade. It was both of its time back in the vampire-saturated late noughties and classic in the way few shows manage to be. It was lightning in a bottle, and much of its power came from just how unexpected it was.

Back in 2009, BBC Three wasn’t known for quality genre drama. The BBC arm aimed at tempting the eyeballs of the notoriously difficult to engage 16-34 age bracket, the channel had been going through an identity crisis since its inception and needed something to define it as an entity in and of itself. Enter a slew of drama pilots, of which Toby Whithouse’s Being Human was the only one to be commissioned.

But that wasn’t the end of the story as, before the series was greenlit, the channel needed a bit more convincing. An online petition from a journalist at the Reading Chronicle did this for them, gathering 3,000 signatures from people wishing to see the concept become a full-fledged series.

It was fan reaction that willed it into reality, which was as good of an indication as any that there was an appetite for fresh and exciting geek TV that wasn’t Doctor Who.

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It’s to the BBC’s unending credit that this period of BBC Three was utilised to foster ideas born from the minds of new talent, without which Being Human would probably never have seen the light of day. Born in a time when British genre telly was having a bit of a renaissance with shows like Misfits and the continued success of Who, it was in many ways the perfect time for it to exist.

The show fits into the same mixed-genre category as past successes like Buffy The Vampire Slayer, combining comedy, drama, overarching mythology and mainstream appeal in a finely-balanced cocktail of entertainment. Being Human had grand ideas about what it wanted to say about humanity, but it wrapped it all up in a package that matched those ideas with the everyday ways people connect with each other.

A lot of the early reviews weren’t filled with the praise and adoration that would soon characterise the show’s overall reception, with many appearing to miss just what those first few episodes could grow into over time. But it’s arguable that Being Human was special precisely because it was so rough and tonally scattered. Those flaws matched the subject matter perfectly – a show about the mess of mid-20s life shouldn’t be glossy or polished, but a work in progress that still gets to the heart of what matters to its characters.

The success of its commitment to exploring the humanity of Mitchell, Annie, George and Nina in those early series probably had a lot to do with Whithouse’s original idea. Before the vampires, the werewolves and the ghosts, the show was going to be a straight dramedy about three housemates wrestling with slightly less fantastical ailments. In this version, Annie was an agoraphobe, Mitchell a sex addict and George a man with anger management issues. But it didn’t click until Whithouse introduced the central genre concept, and the melding of those two ideas infused the first season with a realism it might otherwise never have had. The bad guys were everywhere – the police force, the hospitals – and the all the good guys wanted was to be was normal.

That’s what made the series so accessible; these weren’t brave superheroes destined to save the world from evil, but rather just ordinary men and women who had been violently torn from their existence and were now desperately trying to put the pieces back together. They had already died (some literally), but still had to somehow find a way of existing in the world.

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Episodes expertly paired the mundane with the extraordinary – a scene involving Annie, Mitchell and George drinking tea and watching telly was as involving and emotionally charged as an entire episode of mythology-laden heroics. That’s what set it apart, and it did it better than pretty much any other series.

Behind the scenes, the show also made great use of online audience participation, offering material supplementary to the show in order to enhance the experience for die-hard devotees. There was also a web series, Becoming Human, notable for featuring both Craig Roberts and John Boyega, which attempted to adapt the show’s central themes to appeal to a younger teenage audience.

But the show’s cast did not remain consistent and, now we can lean back and see the whole picture, that’s one of the most frustrating things about Being Human in retrospect. By the time series five’s finale aired, there was a different werewolf, ghost and vampire in the house – Hal, Tom and Alex had replaced Mitchell, George and Annie after a mass exodus following the show’s third series.

As with most similar cases, a section of the audience chose to abandon ship at the same time as the cast, a weak and muddled fourth series doing nothing to allay fears that the unceremonious death of so many beloved characters would rob the show of its heart. In the space of two episodes, three regular cast members were dispatched, one completely off-screen in a throwaway line, and only Annie remained.

Still, it’s a shame that this put so many people off because, after what could be adequately described as Being Human‘s own ‘gas-leak’ year, it came back for one final run with a renewed energy and revised game-plan. Series five was to be the show’s last, but it turned out to be a fitting send-off if not to the show as it had been in the beginning, then at least to what it had turned into.

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It was undeniably time for it to exit, but the unfortunate side-effect was the loss of the new trio. Despite being replacements for far more iconic characters that will be remembered for much longer, they were worthy players in their own right, carrying the burden of summing up the mission of the show in its final moments. They had a thankless job, and they pulled it off admirably.

And the talent Being Human has spawned since its finale can’t be denied, with Aidan Turner, Russell Tovey, Craig Roberts and Michael Socha just some of the British actors who’ve gone on to bigger and better things.

Subsequent series attempting to recapture that same magic have been left struggling for ratings and mainstream attention, with The Fades only lasting a single season and, more recently, In The Flesh cancelled after two short runs on the channel. Both trying to court that same young audience with exciting ideas from up and coming writers, they were the victim of a changing TV landscape, and just couldn’t survive.

Which poses the question – would Being Human have lasted five seasons if it had premiered today? Would it even have reached that point? If nothing else, these questions prove just how valuable BBC Three was during its time, giving weird little dramedies with grand, unwavering concepts a chance when other channels wouldn’t dare.