In The Flesh: celebrating BBC Three originals

Dominic Mitchell's superb In The Flesh ran on BBC Three for two short series. Here's why it deserves to be revived...

In the Flesh screengrab
Photo: BBC

In December 2014, BBC Three announced a plan to leave behind genre labels when it moves online. Goodbye to comedy, drama and documentary; hello to shows that “make you laugh” and shows that “make you think”.

Weeks later, the channel announced the cancellation of original supernatural drama In The Flesh, a series that proved not only too expensive to continue, but evidently too complex. By making its audience empathise, critique, scrutinise and self-reflect on top of laughing and thinking, perhaps In The Flesh aimed too high.

As the BBC channel that brought us In The Flesh moves online, we look back at the many things the show still had to offer…

“This place. It’s never going to accept people like us. Never ever.”

In The Flesh’s coup was a switch of perspective. It showed the trauma of a zombie uprising from the point of view of the monsters and not the victims, then splintered the certainty of both those labels.

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Using the supernatural as a prism through which to see real life, it presented the undead not as target practice for macho heroes, but as outsiders of all stripes. Back-from-the-dead Kieren, Rick, Amy and Simon were marginalised because of their otherness in a town that feared difference, prompting the show’s young audience to consider themes of grief, guilt, depression, bigotry and sexual identity.

Its stories were about young people rejecting the labels society tagged them with and working out how they were going to live in the world. It showed alienation leading to radicalisation (what more apt theme for this century?), and gave us characters choosing hope over grief and love over dogma. It was a rallying cry for outsiders and above all, a call for empathy.

“I am a Partially Deceased Syndrome sufferer and what I did in my untreated state was not my fault”

That all of the above was built around a central pillar of very funny, very British humour is yet more to recommend the series, ensuring that it never entered preachy After-School Special territory. Writer/creator Dominic Mitchell channelled both George Romero and Alan Bennett by layering mythology with banality (who didn’t instantly love Shirley the Community Care Officer when she euphemistically referred to the zombie uprising as “that spot of bother”?).

In The Flesh’s idiosyncratic Northern humour came with a healthy serving of satire, and an even healthier mistrust of government rhetoric. Seeing through language was one of the show’s preoccupations, from the monologues preached from Roarton’s pulpit to legislative double-speak, via the self-help language of therapy. Sensitive to the nuances of language and labels, In The Flesh showed the good but awkward people of Roarton tongue-tied with their desire to use politically correct terminology. Bigots called Kieren a Rotter, but he was officially encouraged to call himself a PDS Sufferer. When a group of the undead start referring to themselves as the Redeemed, that’s when things became even trickier…

“We’re living in a world where real monsters exist”

Series two made the personal political with the introduction of single-policy party Victus, a group of elected officials campaigning on an Anti-PDS platform, and bolstered by public outcry against terrorist acts by the Undead Liberation Army. What followed was a shrewd dissection of how prejudice and radicalisation works, and – importantly – how empathy can dismantle both.

With its Workfare-targeting ‘Giving Back’ community service plotline, In The Flesh’s second run contained a sharp line in political satire rarely that’s found in youth-skewed shows. (Where else is UKIP’s shameless fear-mongering being laid bare for 16-24 year olds? On Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents?)

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In The Flesh also called belief structures and religious dogma into question, particularly in one effective scene putting the prayers of three different extremists side by side. The show’s young audience was repeatedly reminded that there’s more moral grey than black and white in the world, and that a deeper understanding of individuals can explain the sometimes unthinkable actions of groups.

“For me, it’s not the end for Amy” – creator Dominic Mitchell

The worst part of the cancellation news for fans is that In The Flesh’s story wasn’t even close to ending after the series two finale. Audiences were left with a cliff-hanger that would rewrite all the rules of its universe, leading to an eventual, satisfying end-point that, ideally, wouldn’t arrive for at least a couple of years.

Anyone who’d initially doubted whether there was enough meat left on the bone for a second series was left in no question by the end of it. In The Flesh’s world was deftly expanded for series two, without losing any of its charm or allegorical power. We ventured into cities, Undead communes, and a Detention Centre, meeting a host of characters whose stories took place outside of the series one-centric Walker home. The new episodes didn’t lack for ideas, quite the opposite in fact. It teemed with new characters and content.

“Not going away I hope?”

Admittedly though, not quite enough of them to earn In The Flesh a trip to BBC Two, where many hoped it would land when BBC Three closed its broadcast doors. Cheapo ratings hit Don’t Tell The Bride has found a new home on BBC One, but due to budget cuts, the soon-to-be-online-only channel now seems to be operating a one-in, one-out system for original drama.

Just as the bold and brilliant Utopia got the chop after its second series to make way for Channel 4 sci-fi adaptation Humans, In The Flesh appears to have been shelved in favour of Tatau. It’s a tough policy, and not without precedent. The Fades had to go in favour of a final run of stronger performer Being Human, and now In The Flesh in turn has been cleared out to make way for something new.

Whether it’s rescued or not though, the fan love for it is going nowhere (you only have to Google ‘Kieren and Amy Cosplay’ to see that). And neither is its legacy.

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In The Flesh launched the careers of a host of talented writers and actors, from its Bafta-winning writer Dominic Mitchell to the brilliant Luke Newberry, Emily Bevan and more. Lead director Johnny Campbell proved that youth-skewed drama doesn’t have to be hyperactive and neon, but could be beautifully and wistfully shot and performed. And finally, it offered an antidote to the macho circus of chainsaws and exploding heads previously associated with the zombie genre.

However reluctantly, that’s what BBC Three gave up by cancelling In The Flesh; originality, intelligence, talent, diversity and bravery. It’s their, and our, loss.