BBC Three box set review: In the Flesh (Season 1)
James R | On 09, Apr 2016
“You get bitten. You come back. We’ve seen it in the films. That’s how it works.”
That’s one of the residents in Roarton, Lancashire, a town where the dead have started coming back to life. Zombies? In a TV show? It may seem like a tired idea, but BBC’s In the Flesh has a premise – and substance – all of its own.
The show, created by Dominic Mitchell, isn’t a zombie story in the traditional sense. People come back for an unknown reason – one that haunts them as much as they do the living. Labelled as sufferers of Partially Deceased Syndrome, they’re treated by the government and sent back into society. The three-part series examines the domestic impact of their arrival; a home invasion that’s as creepy as it is touching.
That focus separates it from the rest of the undead pack. While The Walking Dead looks at the humans fending off their inevitable mortality, In the Flesh is more like The Returned, but without the French programme’s penchant for mystery. The narrative isn’t driven by unanswered questions, but unresolved feelings.
We follow freshly-treated Keiren (Luke Newberry) as he returns to his Norfolk home, where he committed suicide after his best friend, Rick (David Walmsley), left. Rick was forced to join the army by his dad, Bill (Steve Evets), who didn’t approve of their relationship. But when Rick comes back, their romantic bond is rekindled – along with all the unspoken hatred that has been replaced by a new kind of prejudice.
Zombies as a metaphor for homosexuality? It’s an inspired take on the cold-eyed creatures. Forced to wear contact lenses and apply skin-coloured make-up, the PDS victims try to blend in with the normal people, while the angry villagers, whipped up into a frenzy by the local priest, give them a separate section in the pub, paint notices on doors and hunt them in the woods.
Luke Newberry is fantastic as the lonely lead, his gaping brown eyes filled with a sadness that’s matched by David Walmsley’s Rick, whose dad expects him to be a manly zombie slayer. Their reunion is an emotional midpoint for the mini-series, but the rest of the cast give the couple’s bond an impact that resonates through the community; Steve Evets growling as the military veteran and Ricky Tomlinson gruff as a quiet leader of the anti-PDS group. As the reverb spreads, each character finds themselves questioning their own stance, unsure whether to welcome back their loved ones or join the groaning, discriminating hordes.
Most affecting of all is the dilemma faced by Kieran’s sister, Jem (Harriet Cains), a trooper dedicated to “curing” the sick. She’s as troubled by Kieren’s zombified state as he is after witnessing him attack a girl in a supermarket – an event that director Jonny Campbell (Vincent and the Doctor) flashes back to with grisly, shocking gore. The whole production design is eerie, from the resurrected’s grey eyes (complete with cross-shaped pupils) and rabid mouths to Rick’s staple-ridden forehead. The tone is made even more unsettling by the downbeat, naturalistic surroundings; it’s like EastEnders remade by Romero.
The screenplay’s intimate scale is what elevates the whole show, though, giving the hollow creatures so over-saturated these days an unfamiliar heart.
“I’m not a rotter. I’m a diabetic!” cries one young lad, locked into a school playground with no food after being bitten. As the phobic community descends into outbursts of revenge and long-held grudges, In the Flesh becomes a powerful, bloody tale of closeted fear – and a moving tale of a teenage boy trying to find acceptance.
“You get bitten. You come back. We’ve seen it in the films. That’s how it works,” a pair of hopeful parents nod, expecting to see their child again.
Kieren’s contact lenses gaze back silently. That’s not how it works. And In the Flesh is all the better for it.
In the Flesh: Season 1 is available to watch on BBC iPlayer until June 2016.
Photo: BBC iPlayer