IT looked like it would be an intriguing drama.
And lived up to expectations.
In The Flesh is a three-part BBC3 series starting at 10pm on Sunday (March 17) and also heading to BBC America.
It’s been trailed as a zombie drama but is much more than that.
Written by first-time TV writer Dominic Mitchell and directed by Jonny Campbell, it stars Luke Newberry as Kieren Walker and Emily Bevan as Amy Dyer.
Both are Partially Deceased Syndrome (PDS) sufferers.
Humans have won a war against zombies who are now, thanks to modern medication, being re-introduced into society.
Transformed via drugs, make-up and contact lenses to a more normal appearance.
But members of the Human Volunteer Force (HVF) and others are not convinced, also remembering those who lost their lives in the fight against the zombies.
Trick or Treat and Halloween is still banned in the small rural community of Roarton, such are the nightmare memories.
So what does that mean for people like Kieren, who originally killed himself, returning home to their parents after the horrors of what has gone before?
With his own sister Jem (Harriet Cains) a member of the HVF.
Last month I was invited along to a press screening in London which was followed by a Q&A and other interviews.
If you think In The Flesh is just for a youthful BBC3 audience, then – I’d argue – you’d be wrong.
With cast members including Kenneth Cranham, Steve Evets and Ricky Tomlinson, it has a cross-generational storyline relevant to a wide age group.
Including an exploration of prejudice, discrimination, extremism and redemption.
Director Jonny’s past credits include Eric & Ernie, Ashes To Ashes, Doctor Who, Shameless and Spooks.
So he knows a thing or two.
“What drew me in about this is that it was, effectively, a device,” he explained.
“It’s not really about zombies, you could argue.
“Yes, it’s got elements of that. But actually it’s about family and a drama which can ask questions which other dramas can’t.”
Made by the BBC Drama production team in Salford, there’s plenty to say about In The Flesh.
Below is the story I wrote a few hours after the screening.
That’s followed by a full transcript of the post-screening Q&A.
And then a transcript of a further chat that evening with Luke.
THE star of a new TV zombie drama got a shock when he fell asleep in the make-up chair.
“It was three in the morning during a night shoot and I took a nap,” said In The Flesh actor Luke Newberry.
“I woke up and caught myself in the mirror – I was terrified!”
The three-part BBC3 drama tells the story of the aftermath of a war between humans and the risen dead.
Defeated zombies are now classed as suffering from PDS – partially deceased syndrome – and receive NHS medication to allow them to be re-introduced into society.
Luke plays Kieren who is returned to his parents in the isolated rural community of Roarton where members of the HVF – Human Volunteer Force – still hunt the undead.
Kieren, aged 18, has nightmare flashbacks about killing a young girl in a supermarket when he was in a rabid state.
“It was very weird to film ripping open a scalp and eating a brain,” said the Devon-born actor, who has also appeared in Sherlock, Mrs Biggs and Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows: Part 2.
“Even though I knew it wasn’t real, I did feel very odd about it.
“It was like Angel Delight and actually really tasty. I look like I’m enjoying it and I was!
“The prosthetic brain was attached to the real actor’s head. I don’t think she minded,” added Luke, currently starring in ITV’s Lightfields.
Emily Bevan also had to spend hours in the make-up chair to play PDS sufferer Amy, who originally died from leukaemia.
“I came off the worst. I looked absolutely hideous,” she said.
“But in terms of getting into character it was incredibly helpful just to look in the mirror and be horrified by yourself.”
The series also features Rev star Steve Evets as Bill, leader of the local HVF, who is married to Janet, played by Karen Henthorn, who played twisted Teresa in Coronation Street.
With The Royle Family’s Ricky Tomlinson as Roarton resident Ken and Kenneth Cranham as Vicar Oddie.
In The Flesh begins on BBC3 at 10pm on Sunday March 17.
BBC3 Controller Zai Bennett echoed the wider themes of In The Flesh in his introduction before the screening.
“I will say zombie drama for now…
“The dead have risen. The zombies and humans have had a huge war and the humans have won. This drama begins where the zombies are being re-integrated into society. And for me that was just a really arresting, different pitch to read. And with that pitch came a wonderful script and a huge bible of all the mythology – Dominic had mocked up NHS leaflets for the partially deceased. Just amazing. It was a really easy commissioning decision once you’d read all of that. It was a world that he had thought so much about and knew intimately. It was so different and arresting that I thought we had to do it for BBC3.
“Dominic wrote In The Flesh and submitted it to the (BBC) Writersroom. Then it was developed by BBC North through the Northern Voices scheme. So things like this really do happen. A first-time TV writer – here’s a three-part drama. In only two years.
“In addition to being written by a hugely talented emerging writer, we’ve also had the chance to blend some wonderfully seasoned actors with some great new talent.
“Also what Jonny has done with the directing and the style – it’s a very different drama to what you’d normally get for 16 to 34s. Normally it’s super fast cut pace, loads of heavy music over everything and in your face. This is a wonderfully arresting beautiful drama which actually treats our audience like adults.”
Kate Harwood, BBC Production Head of Drama, England:
“I am so proud of this show that I could talk about it endlessly. To actually bring Dominic’s imagination to screen as a first-time television writer was a real honour and something that doesn’t happen very often. Then to have Jonny Campbell direct it was equally an honour and a privilege.”
Q: Dominic, Zai earlier on referred to the legendary ‘bible’ that we all read and were completely knocked out by. Where does it all come from? How did you come to this idea and how was it imagining this world? What drew you into it?
Dominic Mitchell: “I was watching a zombie movie, it was about five years ago, late at night. It was a typical zombie movie where you had a bunch of survivors and they were just blasting away zombies. They were doing it with such glee and macho gusto that I started feeling sorry for the zombies. One of the survivors, they blew away a young man and I was like, ‘Ah, he had a mother and probably had a father and maybe a sister. Maybe that’s an interesting take on it?’ And then I was developing an idea about a young lad who’d had a psychotic episode and he does something really terrible in his rural community. He gets treated and he gets medicated and he was coming back and dealing with all that guilt. I kind of was getting stuck on it. It was a bit too on the nose. Then when I watched the zombie movie I was like, ‘Oh, maybe he’s my young lad who had the psychotic episode? Maybe he didn’t have a psychotic episode? Maybe he’s a zombie?’ I was always like, ‘What would really happen in a zombie apocalypse in Britain?’ There would be this war and then the scientists would always be trying to get a solution to it. They would be like, ‘Right, we’re going to try and get them medicated and try and manage them.’ And that sparked off all the other ideas. And I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, that could happen and that could happen.’ You never see a zombie apocalypse…well you see an immediate aftermath…but I was like, ‘But what happens four years on when the undead and the survivors who battled the undead are trying to get on with their lives?’ So I thought, ‘That’s the way to go.’”
Q: The bible of mythology ahead of the script?
Dominic Mitchell: “It was really fun to do this massive bible. Because I had to get all the back story right in my head and what happened in The Rising and what the medication was…Nortriptyline…what effects does it have on the brain? So I did this big patient information leaflet where I know all the side-effects of Nortriptyline and what poor Kieren has to go through every day. With this kind of show you have to know everything about it before you can write the scripts.”
Q: Jonny – what drew you to this?
Jonny Campbell: “Everything Dom said is encapsulated in the opening stage directions of this script. And there was only the one script but it totally drew me in and I had to read to know what was going to happen next. But it was something in the tone of voice in the way he writes the stage directions which really drew me in most. For example, in the opening scene in the supermarket, you could have just written, ‘Oh, there’s a girl and she’s getting some supplies and then she gets attacked.’ But he went into such great detail, saying she was buying Monster Munch and none of the major food groups were accounted for in her trolley. And similarly, in the scene in the treatment centre where they’re sitting round having a therapy session, again it could have been, ‘There’s a group of people having a therapy session.’ But it was, ‘You could be forgiven for wanting to play a morbid game of guess the cause of death.’ It just nuanced it and gave it a sort of mischievous quality which went right the way through it.”
Kate then opened up questions to the audience:
Q: (From me, as it happens) Dominic, what sort of themes and issues did you want to explore in the series?
Dominic Mitchell: “It was about redemption and prejudice as well. There’s this rural community…the Human Volunteer Force are very against zombies. So it was about, coming back to having a psychotic episode, that thing of mental illness. Paranoid schizophrenics are medicated now but would you want one of them, even medicated, living next door to you? And I thought that’s something that you can actually talk about but not talk about, because it’s a zombie show. And that idea of extremism with the Undead Liberation Army and on the other side Vicar Oddie (Kenneth Cranham). When you don’t know. Because in The Rising, they don’t why it happened. So when there’s a vacuum then anything can fill it. And usually it’s quite extremist views that fill that vacuum. They were the sort of things that I was looking to explore.”
Q: Watching that, it made me think it could be an allegory for somebody who is maybe on the Sex Offenders’ Register?
Dominic Mitchell: “Yeah, definitely…they get a list. It was definitely that, that I was thinking about as well.”
Q: There are a lot of zombie things at the moment. Did that stymie you at all? Were you thinking, well I’m going to have to differentiate mine from the others. Have different zombie rules and that kind of thing?
Dominic Mitchell: “Yeah, sure. I was thinking about this idea five years ago and now it does seem like the zeitgeist with Warm Bodies and all this other stuff and World War Z coming in. But I love the zombie genre anyway. So any sort of zombie movie I will watch. I knew about Warm Bodies, the book. And I was like, ‘No, I can’t read it because it will seep in.’ I wanted to keep away from anything that was like that. I still watched The Walking Dead because I love The Walking Dead. And then they’re about survivors. It’s very tried and tested that kind of thing.”
Jonny Campbell: “That’s what drew me to it. It wasn’t like everything else I’d seen. I’d watched The Walking Dead and I carried on watching it. And I did find that at a certain point it becomes a bit more like a computer game. That it’s very, very samey. When the zombies don’t evolve, they just go round blowing the zombies away. The location changes but the story doesn’t really. And what drew me in about this is that it was, effectively, a device. It’s not really about zombies, you could argue. Yes, it’s got elements of that. But actually it’s about family and a drama which can ask questions which other dramas can’t. So, for example, ‘Why did you bury me?’ / ‘Didn’t I go to your funeral?’ / ‘Why did you choose that epitaph for me?’ You don’t hear that every day. And it just allows the characters to go back through things. Like, ‘Why did you commit suicide? Why didn’t you leave a note?’ They’re the kind of questions that people are facing every day, wanting to know answers. And this sort of drama allows some of those answers to come through. So it was fascinating for me as a director and a storyteller.”
Q: Dominic – why did you choose to set this in a rural setting as opposed to a city? What do you think that brings to the drama?
Dominic Mitchell: “Well, I’m from a rural setting myself. So I guess write what you know. We wanted to keep it really small scale. If we’d set it in Manchester or London, I think it would just have been too big. I think setting it in a little rural village, it’s like a microcosm about what’s happening maybe in the cities and Britain as a whole. Because I’m from a rural village I know those sort of characters, the whisperings and things like that. We didn’t have to go big on it. We could just go really small and that’s what I was really drawn to, to set it in Roarton, which is a village.”
Q: Question for the cast. How did you get into character for your rabid state?
Luke Newberry (Kieren): “Hours of make-up preparation. It was quite nice, actually. Because you could just come in, in the morning and just chill out and zone out while you had your face ravaged with prosthetic make-up.”
Emily Bevan (Amy): “Yes, the prosthetic cheeks we had to make us look a bit more gaunt and a wrinkled forehead. I think I came off the worst. I was absolutely hideous. And layers and layers and layers of make-up. In terms of getting into character it was incredibly helpful just to look in the mirror and be horrified by yourself.”
Luke Newberry: “I took a nap once, when I was in my full…it was like three in the morning where we were doing a night shoot. I woke up and caught myself in the mirror. I was terrified. There was a lot of that.”
Emily Bevan: “I remember in Shaun of the Dead there was a great scene – how to be a zombie. To teach them how to blend in. And I remember, ‘vacant with a touch of sadness’ was quite a useful reference. I’m not sure if any of that will come across but..”
Q: Dominic – were there any autobiographical elements to the story?
Dominic Mitchell: “Like I say, I’m from a rural village. I didn’t kill anyone and then come back from the dead. But there is quite a lot of autobiographical stuff up there. I guess I was different. Growing up and being a teenager, definitely I was different. I think rural communities or just my community were a bit afraid of that, a bit afraid that I listened to rock music – Guns and Roses. And I don’t think it’s that bad, Guns and Roses. And then Nirvana came along…I had long hair, I wore cardigans…and that made me like the bad lad of the village, the black sheep of the village and there was a lot of whispering about that Mitchell lad at number 11. So I kind of know where Kieren is coming from. And, of course, it’s incredibly heightened because he’s also a PDS sufferer who ate people in the village.”
Kate Harwood: “One of the things that I always find incredibly moving about it is Kieren chose to die, Amy didn’t…his energy coming back is particularly poignant because he wanted to go. And hers is very different because she didn’t.”
Q: Is it conceived as a three-parter or could it continue?
Kate Harwood: “Who knows? It’s a very BBC answer isn’t it? It’s a very complete three-parter. But let’s see who’s still there by the end credits and we’ll see how we go in the future. We were very aware of wanting to make this an event three-parter that really satisfies in its own right, rather than spending the whole time looking round the corner and trying to keep things going just in case.”
Jonny Campbell: “It was clear to me when I read the first script that this was a really interesting idea. Having said that, it was a fairly low budget piece but we had the three-parter to make. And Dominic has, as you can already tell, ideas to fill quite a long-running series. Having said that, we had three hours. So part of the conversation was about trying to, not clip Dom’s wings in any way but just make the most of what the story was giving you in that first episode and making sure that we weren’t going to tantalise viewers with, effectively, a three-part pilot for something. I think that’s really important because I think that happens far too often and I think it was really key for this to have a cathartic, wholesome three-part story that, as Kate says, hopefully like a lot of good things, if you think it’s good we’ll leave you wanting more. And that was the ambition behind it.”
Dominic Mitchell: “We wanted it to have a really good resolution. You see a lot of these things where you’re like, ‘Oh, they’re going to get to it on series two.’ We didn’t want that. We wanted the audience to feel satisfied at the end. There are doors open and I’ve got loads of…well, this bible, which weighs about 50 tonnes. But, yeah, we just wanted it to be a complete story and have that. I think that’s fine.”
Q: You got the commission through the initiative for new writers. What was the day job? What were you doing before? And can you talk us through how this affected you?
Dominic Mitchell: “My background was in theatre. I was a struggling playwright. A starving playwright…I was writing plays. When I first came up with this idea, I wrote a one-pager and I was like, ‘This is a TV series. It’s not a play. Should it be a stage play? No, it is definitely a TV series, I see it so clearly in my head. But I don’t know where to go.’ Because I had no contacts in TV at the time. And then this BBC Writersroom Initiative came up, which was Northern Voices – you could spend 12 months being mentored and developed…a great writer called John Fay. And it was just the four of us – three other really talented writers. It was great. I could learn how to do a TV drama because I’d never written a TV script before. So that was fantastic to do that 12-month thing. Then it was lucky enough to read by Simon Judd (script editor) and Hilary Martin, the executive producer. They liked it and we had a meeting and they optioned it. Then from there I started on this massive bible. It’s so incredible because of course it’s developed and changed – but a lot of the initial ideas, five years ago, are on the screen. It’s just incredible to see. And I think done really fantastically. It’s amazing.”
Kate Harwood: “This is made by our BBC Drama production team in Salford. Hilary and Simon snapped it up and brought it to mine and Ben Stephenson’s (BBC Controller of Drama) attention the minute they read it. Nothing in drama moves fast, but for drama it’s moved pretty fast actually. And we’re very, very proud of it.”
Luke Newberry plays Kieren Walker:
Q: Your background?
“I was a child actor, I guess, from when I was about seven, doing some TV and film and stage. A bit of everything really. I went to a normal school and took my A-levels and thought, ‘I really want to train.’ So I got into the Bristol Old Vic when i was 17 / 18 and went there for three years and graduated in 2011. Then I’ve had a year of being really busy and doing lots of amazing different projects and different parts and really varied roles. It’s been a great year. But this, obviously, was my biggest part that I’ve ever done.”
Q: How did you want to approach him?
“I wanted to make him believable. Obviously he’s very low, he’s very depressed and he didn’t leave the world in a good place and he doesn’t come back in a good place either. So it was a tricky balance of finding how to play all that – everything he’s battling with. And then new things he’s battling with coming back, like flashbacks. And also not making him just totally flat. I think Kieren goes on a very long journey throughout the episodes and you see that different characters unlock different things in him as they go along. Like Amy unlocks the fun in Kieren and slowly he starts to grown different parts of him back again.”
Q: You told the story about having the nap in the make-up chair. What time did you have to get in and how many hours were you in the chair on a heavy day?
“Depending on the location, maybe like a five or six start in the morning and then two hours in the make-up chair. And then on most days I’d be in every shot of every day, as well. And my make-up would be being re-touched throughout the day. So I’d be wearing an awful lot of make-up. Then we’d finish at seven or whatever. Unless it was a night shoot and then we’d go through. Then it was an hour of the make-up, depending on the day – whether it was prosthetics. The easy days were the days were the days when I was just in my foundation without any lenses in. But sometimes it would take an hour to get off and I’d get back to the hotel and just collapse.”
Q: How were those contact lenses?
“I got used to them. I’m not a contact lens wearer so I found it difficult. We all had difficult times with it. But actually, apart from the first day, they became quite comfortable. And they’re big. They’re massive. They are clear but they’re hand-painted so you’re a bit tunnel vision with them. It changed the way I was, really. Because when you can’t see everyone – it did make me go a bit inward. Which helped me then Kieren because he is very introspective. So it didn’t hinder anything at all, really.”
Q: So it must be quite shocking to see yourself at first in the mirror?
Q: Have your family or friends seen any photos of you? What do they think?
“Yes. Horrified! Thrilled! A lot of my friends couldn’t believe it. And couldn’t believe it was me. The weirdest make-up was probably the orange foundation at times because I look like me but just slightly not quite right. Which is almost more disturbing than the prosthetic cheeks and all that. Because that looks more generic zombie.”
Q: The flashback of you eating?
“The brain? When I eat the brain? It was like Angel Delight stuff. It was actually really tasty. So I look like I’m enjoying it and I was. It was great. Very weird though. Ripping open a scalp, which I actually did, and then eating. Even though I knew it wasn’t real, I did feel very odd about it. It was attached to the real actor’s head. So it was like an extension of her head. It was all a bit of a blur. Three in the morning in a supermarket, lenses in. I just went in and did it. It was like being underwater, slightly, because you had something on everything, in my eyes…so you just had to come in and go for it. I don’t think she minded me eating her!”
Q: Did you have any unexpected encounters on location with members of the public?
“We did a lot of my rabid stuff in the studio, so it was a bit more out of the way. The funniest thing was doing the funeral scenes, in my orange state, my foundation cover-up. And people in the crowds maybe not quite knowing the ins and outs of the story, knowing that I wear cover-up – and getting wolf-whistled by them. People must have been thinking, ‘Why the hell is that guy wearing so much make-up? And who’s his make-up artist?’ I just felt like screaming at everyone, ‘Just watch it. You’ll get it.’”
Q: Any other memorable moments?
“Me and Emily, who plays Amy, at four in the morning in a supermarket staff room, completely covered in prosthetics. She looked completely burnt. And both of us being a little bit hysterical. We’d had far too much coffee, going absolutely nuts. We couldn’t stop laughing for about an hour. That was a highlight. It was just so surreal. It was in a break. We were having our lenses put in and they couldn’t get mine in because I was laughing so much. Just very surreal. ‘How did we get here? And what are we doing?’”
Q: In The Flesh is partly about overcoming obstacles. With some really interesting issues in this?
“It looks at mental health issues, prejudice, things that obviously drama touches on a lot. But I think this can go further because by using Kieren being a zombie you can feed more in through that, in more interesting ways as well. I forget it’s about zombies when I watch it. And I think that’s interesting. It’s a funny one to describe. That’s great that it’s about zombies but it’s not that totally. I find it really hard to describe to people. I generally just have to say, ‘You’ll just have to wait until it’s on.’”
Q: Can you see it coming back?
“I’d love to. It works so brilliantly as a three part drama. But there are lots of different avenues that it could go, that would be really interesting. I was sad on my last day of filming saying goodbye to Kieren because I’d lived him for two months. So it would be a joy.”
Q: We get to more about why Kieren killed himself and his relationship with best friend Rick (who was Bill Macy’s [Steve Evets] son, killed by the Taliban while serving with the Army in Afghanistan)?
“Yes. Much more comes into play as we go through the series. And different sides of Kieren I get to show as well, through the different people he meets and the different experiences he has.”
Q: Other recent work and coming up next?
“I’ve got a series called Lightfields (which began that night on ITV). And a horror film. I’m doing another genre thing called Frankenstein’s Army which is coming to cinemas soon, I think. But apart from that I’m just focusing on promotions for this and meeting for stuff.”
In The Flesh begins on BBC3 at 10pm on Sunday March 17