Thursday, March 12, 2009

Being Human: A ghost, a werewolf and a vampire walk into a bar. No, really.

Something wicked comes to the Yes household. Normally of relaxed disposition, we've taken of late to sleeping with the light on, keeping up a constant stream of nervous chatter. Anything that'll keep at bay the silence, into which can creep the awful question: oh god what's that in the loft?

Once, in more innocent times than these, I would have ventured into our loft’s depths without a second thought. But those times are passed. Now, shadows scuttle from the corners of our dark-adapted eyes. Surely that was too large to be a rodent? It's possible that our new tenant is some foul Summerian spirit, biding its time in our roof before it seeks out some poor prepubescent for a spot of head-turning. I could live with that. But I suspect I know exactly what's causing the Fear. Behind that wardrobe with the fur coats and surrounded by the corpses of fatally curious pigeons, lies a glowering and maleficent set of DVD box-sets, nine complete seasons, each in bulky old-school packaging. This is Shana's collection of the complete Buffy the Vampire Slayer; and it scares the living crap out of me.

All of which is a belabouring of the point that I never really watched Buffy; my loss, I fully appreciate. With more arcs than Gaudi’s balconies, the show was a super-stylish example of just what TV can do when given the better part of a lifetime in which to unfold. But it always struck me, from the handful of episodes I did manage to catch — and here I run the very real risk of excommunication from my own home — that the tone of the show was less Shining, more Dawson’s Creek with more fangs. In other words, for all of Buffy's vaunted charms, on the whole, it was content to leave bowels unloosened.

Ultraviolet, on the other hand, knew a thing or two about sphinctural declenchment, and when a show can scare, or even just deliver chills, you’re more likely to cut it some slack; necessary when your lead actor is Jack Davenport. The show followed a secret branch of the security services dedicated to hunting ‘Code Five’ (vampires to you and me, although the word is never used). Shows like this have to earn their believability by playing or tweaking with the rules of the vampire game, dismissing all those other vampire books, films and shows as just entertainments, as fabrications or distortions, whereas this, this is the truth. Ultraviolent pulled off this trick brilliantly, so that instead of stakes to kill vamps, we had guns that fired carbon-tipped bullets and were fitted with special cameras to distinguish between humans and ‘the leech’; their gas grenades contained Allicin, the active ingredient of garlic; local paedophiles would be revealed as vampires; and so on.

All of which brings us neatly to BBC3’s Being Human, a show that seeks to split the difference between the rites of passage drama of Buffy and the spooky procedural of Ultraviolet, between being frightening and being interested in characters; Henry James meets Rentaghost. It’s unashamedly high concept: a werewolf, a vampire and a ghost share a flat in Bristol: Fiends, if you will. It's brilliantly written by Toby Wodehouse: funny, touching and shocking.

Our protagonists aren't merely monsters. They’re people too, trying to come to terms with what they see in the mirror (or what they don’t see, in Mitchell’s case). They are:

George, a geekily bespectacled hospital porter and all-round nice chap, moonlighting, as it were, as a werewolf. Played to neurotic perfection by Russell Tovey, George is always trembling on the edge of a mild hysteria after being an attack in Scotland left him with the alarming habit of turning into a ravening wolf every month. He tries to keep this under wraps by keeping away from friends and family.

Mitchell was recruited to the parasitical ranks during the Great War and is evidently a superstar vampire whose exploits are still talked about among undead communities (Deadbook?). But now he’s desperately trying to go straight. Guilty secret: he had an affair with George’s old sweetheart; a forgivable act if not for the fact that he killed her and turned her into a vampire: the treachery trifecta. Mitchell is drawn irresistibly to flesh and blood, and flesh and blood reciprocates: he’s played by a delectable Aidan Turner.

Annie. A bit of a bubblehead, Annie is neurotic, scatty, lovable and deeply dead. She’s still very much in love with her fiancé Owen, which is problematic because A) he happens to the landlord of the house into which George and Mitchell move and B) he’s a really a villain who’s found a new woman with indecent haste and C) because she’s dead.

Within this ménage mort a trois, the show can wittily explore a whole range of themes: George’s unwillingness to let anyone get close to him in case he hurts someone during a change, or what it means to struggle with addiction (Mitchell), or what it is to be alone. It's often more like Alan Bennett than George A Romero. There are so many great scenes: George’s experimental transformation in his house to “Smack my Bitch Up”, Anna practicing her ghost lines in a mirror, the scene’s with the avuncular head of the vampires, Herrick, who seems to be plotting some awful final solution, Mitchell’s tussles with George’s ex, Lauren, who’s now a fledgling Vampire unaccustomed to the rhythms and requirements of blood-sucking. Props also for Herrick’s creepy number two Seth, a manc vampire with maturity issues, and Nina, the ward sister who starts to fall for George, much to his consternation.

It’s often genuinely scary. The moments where the lead’s true natures irrupt into their daily lives are always shocking: George's meeting with the creature that turned him or his first encounter with Mitchell; Nina’s sanguinary revenge on Mitchell at the end of episode one; how Anna really died.

This first season built to a spectacular ending with shades of The Road and Happiness and 24 Hour Party People (oh yes), even if the coda wasn’t quite the surprise the editing evidently thought it was. Anyway, a second season has been commissioned, which means there is a reason to watch BBC3 again in the near future. (Eight episodes too!)

In the meantime, does anyone know a good exorcist?

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