Human nature

“Bloody hell, is that Julie Gardner?” I thought to myself. I imagine if you work in television, you find yourself thinking “bloody hell, is that Julie Gardner?” at least once a fortnight, and the answer will usually be “yes, it is Julie Gardner!” Over the last few years the BBC executive has been associated with some of the most exciting drama projects on British television, most famously the revived Doctor Who, Life on Mars and now BBC Three’s Being Human.

It was in fact celebrity-spotting heaven for geeks at last night’s preview screening of the first episode of Being Human at the National Film Theatre. The event was publicised as including a Q&A with cast and crew, and I was impressed with the turn-out: Russell Tovey and Leonora Critchlow were both there, though only the former was on the Q&A panel; producer Matthew Bouch and writer Toby Whithouse were also on-hand as was executive producer Rob Pursey. I know what you’re thinking, and yes, that is Rob Pursey of Talulah Gosh, Heavenly, Marine Research and now Tender Trap! The Rob Pursey! Must admit I had no idea his day-job was as a TVwriter /  producer, but it is – if Ash Stewart had been there I’m sure his head would have exploded in a spectacular but inconveniently sticky fashion.

So, is the new episode as good as the pilot that I have raved about on here before, despite the re-casting and reported tweaking of the format? (NB: mild spoilers follow, but – I believe – nothing that should ruin the episode for you.) The answer is: yes, it undoubtedly is; indeed, much as I still love the pilot, I can see why they have made the changes, and they seem to make a lot of sense.

The first surprise is that the episode does not re-tread the plot of the pilot, in which George and Mitchell move into the house and discover Annie the ghost in it. Instead, it picks up more or less from the point at which we left the characters at the end of the pilot: the trio are installed in the house, and Annie is newly visible to humans… some of the time. Indeed, George’s containment cell is made unavailable to him, which leads to a frantic search for somewhere else safe to transform.

There are big changes to the casting. Leonora Critchlow replaces Andrea Riseborough as Annie, and is every bit as good as you’d expect. Brilliant though Riseborough was in the pilot – and I was certainly sorry to hear she was no longer involved – I do wonder whether the frail and kooky insecurity she brought to the part would have worked well over an entire series. Critchlow brings a warmer take on the part, though her acting chops are every bit as impressive – the sequence in which she attends her own funeral and screams at her relatives who cannot see her is devastating.

Additionally, Aidan Turner replaces Guy Flanagan as Mitchell, and is altogether more of a hunk and a lothario in the role. He’s very good, and it should please those who felt Flanagan was a bit “drama school”; myself, I thought he brought an understated charisma to it, a bit like Paul McGann in Withnail and I. But I’ve not got anything bad to say about Turner’s performance, which puts Mitchell’s dilemma across very powerfully. The re-casting apparently arose at least in part because by the time the show was commissioned the cast of the pilot were no longer under option, though it seems likely from the Q&A that the tweaking of the format was at least partly responsible too.

One other point on which the pilot was criticised was the rather gothic depiction of the scheming vampires, particularly the character of Herrick as played by Adrian Lester. Herrick has now been re-thought, although the overall threat from a vampire plot has been retained; but in the guise of Jason Watkins, Herrick is a more down-to-earth and ambivalent villain, and all the more menacing because of it.

The greatest strength of the series is of course the writing from Toby Whithouse, and the deftness with which he has crafted the characters. It was interesting to learn from the Q&A that originally the show was envisaged as a house-share series for BBC2, as more of a This Life style drama without any “genre” elements. Much of the character development had already been done on George, Annie and Mitchell before it was decided that they would be a werewolf, a ghost and a vampire. There’s a lesson in there for the developers of other shows – perhaps if ITV’s Demons had started with the characters rather than the monsters it would have been more engaging – decent though it is.

One thing I found interesting was that the first episode felt able to open with a voice-over and flashback sequence, these being two things that new writers are constantly warned off, on the basis that script readers tend to view them as suggesting the writer is using cheap gimmicks rather than having a command of their material. I’ve heard and read this so many times that when I now see a voiceover or flashback it jars with me – and if I remember rightly, the pilot steered clear of them as it tried to establish the show, even though it was from an established writer. Maybe it’s just a coincidence – after all, the new episode has to convey the set-up very quickly at the start.

In sum, Being Human is a great achievement for the writer, cast and crew; I thoroughly recommend you watch it on BBC3, Sunday January 25th.

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