In the Flesh - Review Sherlockabilia Shop Now Open

In the Flesh - Review * 09 June 2014

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Very occasionally a new drama comes along that really makes you sit up and take notice. For many reading this, Sherlock was one such series. From the opening scenes of the very first episode, you knew it was different. Taking a totally fresh approach to a tried and tested genre, it was incredibly smart and boasted a sharp script with a complex narrative, applied a highly unique and innovative visual style, not to mention sourced some of the most talented British actors working today. The BBC had certainly struck gold with Sherlock and to say the same of Dominic Mitchell's BAFTA winning post zombie apocalypse drama In the Flesh on BBC Three and BBC America, would not be an exaggeration.

If you are thinking In the Flesh is just another zombie horror in the same vein as The Walking Dead with perhaps a bit of Brit humour thrown in ala Shaun of the Dead, you could not be more wrong. It is a real game changer, not just because it uses the supernatural element as a metaphor for current social issues, but because it practices what it preaches and makes some real progressive steps in storytelling and character representation.

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The series follows the life, or second life, of Partially Deceased Syndrome sufferer - PDS for short - Kieren Walker (played by the BAFTA nominated Luke Newberry, who first came to our attention in Sherlock S2E1, A Scandal in Belgravia) in his attempts to re-join society and return to his home community in the rural village of Roarton, Lancashire. After being captured, treated and medicated, the undead of In the Flesh are far from the traditional mindless horror monster seen in many recent productions of the zombie apocalypse genre. Despite their supernatural mottled skin and pin prick eyes - which they are encouraged to conceal using cover-up make-up and contact lenses to blend in with the living population - with only 150,000 risen from their graves, they are a minority group and treated with various degrees of suspicion and social contempt.

The first series, broadcast last year and consisting of three hour long episodes, deals with heavy topics such as discrimination - from mild prejudice to social segregation - all the way to extreme violent fascism and genocide by using the supernatural zombie as a vehicle to represent social injustices such as racism and homophobia. The second series, extended to six episodes, tackles violent extremists and terrorism, addiction, PTSD and survivors guilt to name but a few. It is not all doom and gloom however, in any way, as although it does not shy away from these subjects or try and dilute the severity of them, it is injected with appropriately timed humour and focuses on hope and the positive effect a single person can have. It achieves this not in a lecturing way, but instead presents strong individuals from both sides of the line - living and undead - who want change and take action by various degrees.

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The greatest strength of In the Flesh is its ability to transform a supernatural narrative into a highly relatable drama. The fictitious village of Roarton and the community who live in it stand out as feeling so alarmingly real, you can easily imagine visiting it. It does not glamorise the surroundings or over romanticise the characters.

An inspired cast supports these characterisations to brilliant effect. Most are relatively unknown for now, although based on their work in this, it is hard to imagine this will remain the case for long. Each actor saturates his or her dialogue with such painfully authentic emotion, as a viewer you spend much of your time laughing out loud one moment, cringing in embarrassment the next, only to be brought close to tears straight after, and often in a single scene!

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We also see a series that breaks all precedents for stereotypical characters. It features a bisexual lead character, whose sexuality is not the main focus of who he is; Kieren could be heterosexual, he just happens not to be; and the predominant two female characters are represented as strong women in their own right, with concerns and issues that do not revolve around men. To have a trio comprising of two men and a woman, as seen in the second series, and not relegate that women to the role of love interest, is refreshing and hopefully the way forward for many more dramas in the future.

In addition to Luke Newberry's quite frankly jaw dropping performance, Emily Bevan (whose previous work includes BBC Two's dark political satire, The Thick Of It and the 2007 film, St Trinians) displays an extensive acting range. She easily deserves a BAFTA nomination for her work as the outwardly brash and nonconforming PDS sufferer, who internally is desperately looking to belong and escape the loneliness of her first life. From giving brilliant comedic timing one-liners to heart-breaking emotional performances, Amy Dyer is a fully realised multidimensional character favourite in both series.

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Series 1 also features extremely strong performances from a large ensemble cast, including Steve Evets (Rev) and David Walmsley (The Smoke), and the returning cast of series 2, Kevin Sutton (Shameless), Harriet Cains (Hollyoaks Later) and Steve Cooper (Emmerdale) among others.

Arriving in Roarton in series 2 and throwing Kieren's plans and beliefs into disarray is Simon Monroe (Emmett Scanlan - probably best known for his role as the homophobic gay sociopath Brendan Brady in Hollyoaks and soon to be seen alongside Doctor Who's Karen Gillan in the forthcoming Guardians of the Galaxy). He is by far the most fascinatingly complex of all the characters and a big part of why the second series notches up a gear. The scrutiny on discrimination is reflected onto the viewer with Simon, as we automatically make assumptions as to what side of the line he stands for and whether or not he can be truly trusted based on those prejudices.

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Visually the series is a treat. Though doubtless a low budget production in comparison to other shows, it skilfully makes use of real locations instead of sets and exceptional handheld, documentary style camera work with carefully designed cinematography and post production picture grading, lending everything a slightly grey, desaturated and sickly palette that only serves to reinforce the realism. Multiple narrative threads are often spinning around the residents of Roarton at once, and clever editing ensures we remain invested in all equally when we cut away from one to the next. As mentioned already, this is also a series that deals heavily in metaphor to deal with big, socially relevant ideas and small, subtle character moments, and it imparts these both visually and in the tonally naturalistic scripted dialogue. All these elements combine to demonstrate the level of craft in the behind the scenes work, delivering a drama filled with genuine thematic weight.

The BBC have supported In the Flesh by releasing all the shooting scripts for every episode in both series - although be warned, it does reveal more than perhaps you want to know should a third series be produced - and some wonderful propaganda adverts for Victus, the series' extreme Pro-Living party, set up in opposition to a moderate, PDS-tolerant British government.

In summation, reviewing a series that features a cast member who had a minor role in Sherlock may appear a little left-field, but we simply have not been this excited by a BBC series since Sherlock. With the demise of BBC Three next year, the future of In the Flesh - and a third and potentially final series - is unknown. We depart Roarton in series 2 on a suitably fitting note, but there is always something going on just below the surface that leaves us with the knowledge that everything is not quite dead and buried. In the Flesh is certainly a series that demands to be resurrected one last time, as we're not ready to say goodbye and mourn its death just yet.

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In the Flesh: Series 1 & 2 is released in the UK on DVD and Blue-ray today and BBC Shop is offering Sherlockology readers 10% off. Enter code 'FLESH1' at checkout. Offer ends 11.59pm Tuesday 10 June 2014.*

In the Flesh: Season One is out now on DVD in the US. Season Two is scheduled for announce on DVD in the next few months, but no date has been confirmed as yet.

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* Terms & Conditions: Discount code FLESH entitles you to 10% off In the Flesh series 1 & 2 DVD (product code bbcdvd3940) or Blu-ray (product code bbcbd0274) at Offer ends 11.59pm Tuesday 10 June 2014. Offer is not valid with any other promotional discount or offer and subject to availability. Only one discount code can be used per transaction and one use per person. Discount is exclusive to BBC Shop reserves the right to change, amend or discontinue the offer at any time without prior notice. Non-transferable and no cash alternative. Products are available whilst stocks last. Free delivery to UK only. Standard BBC Shop Terms & Conditions apply. Promoter: BBC Worldwide Ltd. Contact (UK) 01788 821107 (charged at basic rate) with any queries. See website for full Terms & Conditions.