Un-zombie drama In The Flesh arrived on BBC Three last year fully-formed, having sprung Athena-like from the head of creator Dominic Mitchell. Similar to a carved miniature or a Swiss Army Knife, its containment – a complete story of grief, prejudice and acceptance folded neatly into three hour-long episodes – was part of the attraction.
Doubling the length and broadening the scope for series two then, was a dangerous prospect. A second run of In The Flesh risked being a bloated, diluted version of the first, a drama that had made its point, outstayed its welcome, and was hanging around only to weaken the good work of its predecessor.
Danger averted. The second run is nothing of the sort. In the most natural of ways, series two pegs its tent out over more ground than the first without diluting either identity or tone. Instead of blending it in to a broader, blander setting, the episode’s trips outside Roarton actually serve to sharpen the village’s claustrophobic insularity.
Episode one opens in the urban world, a place of brutalist tower blocks, graffitied concrete, and trams, before scurrying back to the imagined safety of the rural village, a place, as Ren and Rick discovered in series one, every bit as susceptible to violence and danger.
Roarton itself has grown, too. A high school, GP’s surgery, and B&B have been added to series one’s flashback-sparking supermarket, graveyard, parish church and British Legion pub. Still at the heart of it all though, is the Walker family home.
Nine months after the events of series one, the Walker family is trying but struggling to move on from its emotional trauma. Dad Steve is shown determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past in a running joke that continues In The Flesh’s gentle satire of therapeutic language. Siblings Jem and Kieren begin the second series as close as they were distant at the start of the first, but neither is exactly thriving.
Luke Newberry’s sensitive yet wry performance as Kieren, whose desire to escape Roarton – and himself – is stronger than ever, is every bit as convincing and appealing as it was in series one. Newberry does more with a wordless scene in the family bathroom than many of his peers could with a page of dialogue (due credit of course, to In The Flesh‘s talented VFX and make-up team).
There are old faces to greet: Nurse Wilson and son Philip, Kenneth Cranham’s Vicar Oddie, Ricky Tomlinson’s Ken Burton, and of course, Emily Bevan’s vivacious undead Amy, whose time in the commune has put her firmly on one half of series two’s battle lines.
Eyeing each other from opposite sides of those lines are two newcomers, recently elected MP Maxine Martin (Wunmi Mosaku), and WB Yeats-quoting Undead Prophet disciple Simon (Emmett Scanlan). Both are quickly bedded in to the series, each introduced with their own mysteries and, in the words of creator Dominic Mitchell, representing two sides of the same coin.
The second series has lost none of the first’s idiosyncratic Northern humour. The Legion’s landlady could have wandered in from (an admittedly trippy episode of) Last Of The Summer Wine, and the locals still chat in bathetic punch lines that leaven the series’ broadly drawn social themes. It’s still about exclusion, prejudice, fear, self-acceptance and so on, but belief – either in ideology or self – is the predominant theme of this second run according to writer Mitchell.
Particularly well observed in the opening episode is the people of Roarton’s very British struggle with using the correct terminology. Names for Kieren’s sort vary from euphemism to hate-speech, ‘Rotter’, ‘Rabid’, ‘Deader’, ‘Dead-Un’, ‘Zombie’, ‘PDS Sufferer’ and ‘Undead’ all carrying their own specific weights of pride and prejudice. It’s in these close observations that Mitchell’s satire and insight excels. He absorbs the political attitudes of the day and reflects them back to us under guise of supernatural fantasy. Only fantasy isn’t quite the word for In The Flesh; it’s supernatural realism.
To sum up and stay spoiler-free: if you loved series one but doubted whether or not In The Flesh had enough steam for a second outing, stop worrying. Come May, you’ll see for yourself how sensibly and sensitively its world has been expanded, without distorting series one’s compact charm.
Read our spoiler-filled reviews of series one, here, and come back soon for our series two set visit report and cast interviews.
Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.