The Fades: celebrating BBC Three originals

With great writing, a strong cast and a gripping story, Jack Thorne’s 2011 supernatural drama The Fades was one of the best…

Iain de Caestecker in The Fades poster
Photo: BBC Three

According to former BBC Three controller Zai Bennett, fans of The Fades have themselves to blame for Jack Thorne’s superb fantasy drama not being recommissioned. We were too few and too old.

The BBC Three remit aimed to attract 16-34 year olds, Bennett explained at the 2012 Edinburgh International Television Festival. Because The Fades found more love among those with mortgages and middle-age spread than it did with fresh-faced teens and twenty-somethings, it didn’t fulfil that remit.

However much critical acclaim (plaudits from The Guardian, The Telegraph, some website called Den Of Geek) or however many awards (a Bafta for Best Drama, nominations for Best Writer, wins for Best Music and Digital Effects) The Fades received, the kids weren’t down so it had to go. And in the channel’s 2012 cuts following extreme budgetary pressure from that year’s Financial Review, it did.

“The dead, the Fades are walking the earth”

The premise of the series is that a fracture has occurred in the Ascension process between death and the afterlife, leaving a portion of the dead invisibly earth-bound, unable to touch or speak, and growing angrier and more vengeful with each passing year. A group known as the Angelics, to whom the show’s teenage lead is connected, can see these “Fades” and are tasked with battling them when they discover a way to take revenge on the living.

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There’s a simple reason that older viewers couldn’t stay away from the show: it was brilliant. Clever, funny, scary and imaginative with skilfully written characters who felt as real as the humdrum town they lived in whatever magical events they faced.

The Fades’ determination to ground its fantasy story in the normal world was one of its key achievements. The tale of a young person stumbling upon a hidden supernatural world existing in parallel to their own, one in which they turns out to play a powerful part, is a fantasy blueprint to be found everywhere from C.S. Lewis to Buffy The Vampire Slayer. What The Fades did differently was to underscore the ordinary and create characters we’d want to spend time even if they weren’t sprouting wings or shooting lasers from their palms.

“You’re scared? My only friend is either a lunatic or Heather Langenkamp. I’m petrified.”

The central two such characters were Paul and Mac, the geeky seventeen-year-olds whose friendship forms the emotional backbone of The Fades. Played by Iain De Caestecker and Daniel Kaluuya, talented actors who’ve since gone on to major films and high-profile Marvel TV success, Paul and Mac were written and performed with immense wit and heart.

The boys’ relationship was also refreshingly different to the jibing mockery of The Inbetweeners and its many imitators. It was based on evident affection and unembarrassed displays of the same.

Though their friendship is platonic, scenes between them are peppered with rom-com moments. In one, Paul surprises Mac outside his bedroom window with a repentant display for forgetting his birthday – The Fades Say Anything tribute, if you like. In another the two chat while casually swapping ice-cream tubs back and forth with the telepathy of an old married couple. And where else would a house-key be wrapped up and given as a gift but in a love story?

Bleeding rom-com affection into this idealised version of male teenage friendship set a liberating and positive template for young viewers. Those who were watching, at least.

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“Ghostbusters’ honour”

Another attraction of Paul and Mac, especially for a site like ours, was their geekiness. They were sci-fi, fantasy, movie and comic book fans, and unlike geeks portrayed elsewhere on TV, convinced as real sci-fi, fantasy, movie and comic book fans. Their references to Susan Cooper and Alan Moore didn’t feel arbitrarily plucked from a quick Google of ‘things nerds say’, nor were they the lead-in to inane, mean-spirited punchlines. The quotes rang true, added texture and were relevant to the show’s supernatural plot. If you discovered you were an Angelic who could see dead people, of course you’d bring up Neil Gaiman and The Sixth Sense.  

Their geekdom isn’t limited to Terry Pratchett nods and lusting after Pam Dawber, but extends to a delight in scientific discovery. In episode three, a beautiful piece of writing on that subject stands out. Pulling a Cyrano de Bergerac in Paul’s girlfriend’s back garden (The Fades’ romance isn’t limited to the boys’ friendship, even if that is the headline act), Mac spools out a speech that culminates in Paul sitting on a magically flowering tree bough and declaring “I’m Stevenage.”

He’s not having an episode (though he is in psychiatric therapy for his ominous, bedwetting nightmares) but expressing something profoundly wonderful about the earth-bound origins of extraordinary things. The Gaia celestial mapping satellite, he tells his girlfriend, that wondrous, sci-fi object launched to chart the firmament, was built just off junction 7 of the A1, in Stevenage. Though strange things are happening to him, Paul assures her he’s merely ordinary. He might have been launched into a world of mad imagination, but his feet are, figuratively at least, on the ground.

Simply put, he’s Stevenage.

Death is random, same as life is. Life is famine. Illness. Shittiness. Death is similarly crap

From Hertfordshire boroughs to scarier territory; The Fades was equally successful as a horror. Directors Farren Blackburn and Tom Shankland and their design teams tease every scare and stomach-turn they could from its story of the vengeful walking dead and the sparse group of super-powered humans destined to face them.

The Fades’ introduction to Mac and Paul, which sees them break into a disused shopping centre, establishes the show’s horror leanings. What follows are abandoned buildings full of creepy corridors and things lurking in the shadows… not to mention body horror that would put even David Cronenberg off his dinner. (If you’ve ever wondered what a nude Natalie Dormer would look like as seen through a blanket of tripe, The Fades has your answer.)

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Speaking of Natalie Dormer, the cast assembled for The Fades was also full of pleasant surprises. In Daniel Kaluuya, Lily Loveless and Joe Dempsie, writer Jack Thorne imported a trio of his young cast from his previous show, Skins, while the adult cast boasted Johnny Harris, Daniela Nardini, Tom Ellis and Dormer. Those capable performers brought Thorne’s characters to life in a grounded and compelling way, whether they were playing history teachers or decades-dead resurrected vampiric monsters.

Among a solid group, Johnny Harris, Iain De Caestecker and Daniel Kaluuya were The Fades’ stand-outs.

As anyone who saw him on Skins can say, Kaluuya is a natural with comedy, and in the first three episodes, his character Mac is The Fades’ comic relief. When called upon later to do more – fear, love, desperation – he proves himself more-than capable.

As does De Caestecker, whose Scottish accent has been swapped for seamless Rafe Spall-ish Estuary English for the role of Paul. The funny, awkward charm and warmth De Caestecker brings to his character makes it clear why L.A. was so keen to poach him to fight Hydra.

Johnny Harris (This Is England, Fortitude) plays an Angelic and Paul’s entry-point into his mystical destiny. He brings the same intense performance to fantasy as he does to straight drama roles. Not being able to find out more about his character, Neil Valentine, is one of the many things to mourn about The Fades not being recommissioned.

“Well, I can see the beauty. So I’m lucky, aren’t I?”

According to interviews, creator Jack Thorne had plans for a further two series. And by the end of the first six-episode run, it’s obvious that there’s cruel potential for more from this compelling world.

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That’s not to say that The Fades doesn’t satisfy as is. The series one finale rounds off several plot lines, while leaving room to explore much, much more. Why Ascension broke, the rules and scope of the Angelics, where Paul’s Clark Kent superhero fits in to the world he’s changed significantly… Not forgetting the show’s real hook: its characters’ lives and relationships.

Even cut down before its time, there can be few better ways to spend six hours in front of the TV than watching The Fades. It’s a dark and light, scary and funny, satisfyingly complex supernatural drama that, to my mind, represents the best of BBC Three.