In the Flesh: ‘If Alan Bennett and Ken Loach did a zombie show’

BBC3 drama ‘In the Flesh’ has breathed new life into the undead. Stephen Kelly heads on set as it returns for a second series

In a church hall in Salford, a queue of the undead is forming. The politically correct term for these people is “partially deceased syndrome (PDS) sufferers”; the un-PC refer to them as “rotters” or “zombies”. Some of those in today’s line-up could pass as fully living, having opted for contact lenses and flesh-coloured mousse to conceal their colourless eyes and deathly pallor; others, though, prefer to go au naturel, their bone-white skin flaking off like paint.

Such is the scene I witness on the set of returning BBC3 zombie drama In the Flesh; one of the channel’s most mature commissions, the second series will also be one of its last, terrestrially at least, following the announcement that the channel will be online-only from 2015.

Last year’s first series, a three-parter, was roundly acclaimed as a masterful piece of genre reinvention, even by the kind of critics who typically slate the channel’s output, and is up for two awards at next month’s TV Baftas. Set a few years after a zombie apocalypse, in which thousands of corpses had risen out of their graves and feasted on the flesh of the living, it followed Kieren Walker (Luke Newberry), one such zombie, as he was rehabilitated and re-integrated not only into a family that had lost him to suicide, but a Lancashire village of xenophobic curtain twitchers.

Deadly serious in its execution, the show unfolded in the style of a kitchen-sink drama. The result: a subtle, layered take on prejudice, sexual identity and the devastating aftermath of losing a loved one to depression. Danny Dyer: I Believe In UFOs, it was not.

“Being a teenage zombie show, I think people had this preconception of it being a joky Walking Dead-style gorefest,” says creator Dominic Mitchell, on set today overlooking his horde. “Instead, they got this very bleak, existential drama... We always said it was what would happen if Alan Bennett and Ken Loach got together and did a  zombie show.”

It wasn’t always destined to be this way, however. For just as fellow BBC3 supernatural series Being Human was originally envisaged as a regular flat-share drama, In the Flesh began life as a one-page pitch about the stigma faced by a mentally ill young man who moves back home after violently attacking someone. It was an idea informed by the 34-year-old Lancashire writer’s own experience of being diagnosed with agitated depression while at university.

“I had to quit and go back home,” Mitchell says, “go to my doctors, start taking medication – all the things that Kieren does. I had all these massive dreams, and then this illness came out of nowhere and scuppered it all. I was like, ‘Oh, right. This is it? This is what I’m going to do? I’m going to live in my little village with my parents forever?’”

Just like Kieren’s Roarton, though, Mitchell found little understanding in his “little village” – he won’t specify which – either to depression (“it’s an illness you can’t see”) or to anything else not considered “normal”. “I was the black sheep of the village because I wore cardigans and listened to Morrissey... I remember giving this guy a mix CD and his father going crazy about it. There was no bad language on it, it was just not seen as macho.”

Such prejudice informed his decision to make Kieren bisexual – a deftly-handled element of his character that, for some of the locals, is an even bigger taboo than being a living corpse. “That was the thing I wanted: this poor lad – he’s killed himself, he’s come back, he’s done all this horrible stuff in his untreated state, and now he has to go back to this village with people who didn’t even like him when he was living. I always saw Kieren as me.”

 But though he was intent on tackling these personal issues, Mitchell felt that his original idea was “too on-the-nose”, and needed some fantastical fleshing-out.

“I was up late one night watching a bad zombie movie,” he explains, “and I started feeling sorry for the zombies... These living humans were killing them in such a macho, gleeful way and I was just like: ‘You know, these zombies are someone’s son, someone’s daughter, someone’s mother and father …’ I wanted to ground it in that kind of realism – in what would happen if a zombie apocalypse happened in England for real, and if they then could be treated.”

Indeed, In the Flesh confronts its young audience with some stark truths. In one scene from the first series, for instance, Kieren’s zombie-hating sister Jem (Harriet Cains), talking to her brother for the first time since his suicide, breaks down in tears as she reminds him: “You didn’t even leave a note.” It’s powerful stuff: the basis for an “anti-suicide show”, as Mitchell puts it. 

With only three episodes to play with in series one, Mitchell contained the drama to the fictional village community of Roarton. Series two, however, is six episodes long and broadens its canvas, exploring the nationwide political unrest that was previously only touched on.

This is dealt with through two new opposing characters: Simon (ex-Hollyoaker Emmett J Scanlan), a charismatic disciple of mysterious zombie rebel-group leader the Undead Prophet, and Maxine Martin (Wunmi Mosaku), an MP for “pro-life”, anti-PDS sufferers’ party Victus. The battle between the two sides allows for a deft exploration of both the fight for civil rights and – never more topically – the way in which right-wing, one-issue parties thrive during times of uncertainty and fear.

“[Victus’s] slogan is, ‘they’re only one missed dose away from ripping our heads apart’, which is a scare-mongering motto but sort of true – if [the PDS sufferers] don’t take their medication, they go rabid,” says Mitchell. “With some political parties, you can get a lot through by sprinkling a little bit of truth.”

Indeed, Victus is the reason for today’s aforementioned scene, of PDS sufferers lining up to sign up for the party’s “Give Back” scheme -  involving glorified Workfare-style slave labour - so they can pay back their debt to society. Among the queue is Kieren, stuck in Roarton after his plans to move to Paris fall through when he is stripped of British citizenship. Over the course of series two, viewers will see him struggle both with picking political sides and coming to terms with himself: one scene, in which Kieren puts a towel over his mirror before removing his make-up, says more than words ever could.

If anything, series two feels like the real beginning of In the Flesh, after the establishing prologue of last year’s three-parter. For while its script is still intimate and darkly wry, its scope is bigger and its tone bolder. It is a stirring reminder of the youth television that BBC3 is capable of making – and why the decision to reduce it to an online-only service is, as the channel’s controller Zai Bennett has said, perverse.

For, much like Roarton, the future of In the Flesh is uncertain. If series three is commissioned, will it move to BBC2? Will it air online? And if so, would it benefit from the same sort of budget? Mitchell himself is reluctant to comment until more details surface, only saying for now: “Whatever happens, I hope BBC3 will continue to take risks and make bold television. The BBC as a whole owes it to young audiences ... and not-so-young audiences.”

One thing’s for sure: if the powers that be do bury it, they’d be wise to keep an eye on the grave.

‘In the Flesh’ returns to BBC3 on 4 May at 10pm