In a hedging my bets kind of way, two weeks ago I inferred the second series of In The Flesh (BBC3 Sunday, 10pm) might not be quite so good as the first. I recant. The show is different, but it’s still terrific. My fear was that opening up the story was bringing in too many other elements – specifically a quasi-religious cult and a nascent political party. In a small way, my worries were exactly the kind of thing this series parodies. I didn’t want the drama’s fictional town of Roarton to change.
Granted, some of those parodies aren’t very subtle. Partially Deceased Syndrome sufferers made to work unpaid for the community in a ‘Give Back’ scheme? Distrust being sown about those who depend upon the welfare state? An MP from a single issue party making capital with popular fears? You don’t have to scratch too hard to see the real-world parables. But there’s no reason why satire shouldn’t be overt. What makes In The Flesh particularly effective is the way so much else is brilliantly understated.
It’s an undead drama set in an aggregate-rendered world. Where PDS sufferers have to wear high-visibility jackets with ‘I’m PDS and I’m giving back’ written in the jolly Casual font on the back, or where undead Freddie camps out at his ex-wife’s “next door in the guest bedroom with [her new husband’s] vinyl collection”. This approach – a domestication of horror – is best summed up by B&B owner Sandra. “Last thing we need is a Second Rising,” she sniffs. “We had enough trouble with the first”.
The other thing that strikes me about the show is very few of the characters feel like the kind of archetypes who would be useful in a zombie drama. Okay, Simon Monroe1, one of the 12 disciples of the Undead Prophet, is probably the most geared up, talking in a fairly declamatory fashion and specifically on a mission to freak people out. Then there’s Amy who, with her one-liners and Violet Elizabeth Bott dresses, feels like the writer and wardrobe department are a little too taken with her. However, look at Kieren’s parents, particularly his dad Steve. They’re forever, and somewhat powerlessly, trying to put a sunny spin on things (Steve, passing the local paper over, reads out the headline: “‘The Give Back scheme – a winner’!”). In a similar vein there’s Philip, always destined to be someone else’s lieutenant, and cursed with enough self-awareness to know he’s lacking the kind of charisma he needs to fulfil his ambitions. And of course, Kieren himself. Our leading man is mostly on the back foot, allowing himself to be buffeted by events. By the end of this week’s episode he is finally taking the initiative, but he’s been a slow starter.
So I’m going to stop worrying about changes in Roarton, because in fact all of the new arrivals have been good for the show. In The Flesh has just won a Bafta, but BBC3 as we currently know it, will soon be gone. I’m sure at least one of them will rise again.
If A Poet in New York (BBC1 Sunday, 9pm) is an accurate reflection, Dylan Thomas – played here by Tom Hollander – died from over-indulgence. He over-indulged in booze, while those around him saw his genius as reason to be over-indulgent of his excesses. This film, which cannily composited our man on 21st century Welsh balconies into 1950s uptown New York, tested my patience. In fact, it made me bilious. I didn’t like a single character in the production and as the self-pitying, self-important Thomas poured another drink and intoned another weighty truth about life, I got the sweats.
It’s probably an indication of how shallow I am that I found far more to enjoy in the pronouncements of the fictional Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) in Penny Dreadful (Sky Atlantic Tuesday, 9pm). Some of his lines were peaches: “Do not be amazed at anything you see.” And: “To save her, I would murder the world.” The latter was in reference to his missing daughter, Mina. And with that piece in place, you can take a stab (which happens a lot in this) at the game the show is playing. Like Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s comic-book series The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, it’s a pea souper of a tale mixing together out of copyright characters from Victorian fiction. I enjoyed it a lot. Although, in reality, a lot of chasing and fighting, it was earnestly done. Some subverted religious iconography, eloquent dialogue and a turn from Simon Russell Beale flattered our intellect. That and the fact everything was in burgundy, the short-hand colour for quality and richness. I’m buying.
Which leads us rather too neatly into Four Rooms (Channel 4 Sunday, 7pm), back for a fourth series. Its stock of dealers has changed over the years, beginning with four, 12 last time around and now settling upon eight. We meet half of their number this week: Gordon Watson, Celia Sawyer, Alex Proud and David Sonnenthal. The game continues, that little drum roll upon every cash offer and the pun-filled narration (“Will the colour of Alex’s money match John’s palette?”). Fastidious Gordon is my favourite, and I like the bit where he asks a man flogging a Joshua Reynolds’, “Would £30,000 make you less crazy?” David, meanwhile, is painted as more of a bruiser. “Don’t really know much about baroque angel wings,” he says, possibly speaking for us all, “but I like ’em and I want ’em.”
- I’m taking a fortnight off reviewing TV shows, but I’ve concocted a couple of ’emergency’ features which – if I know how to work this thing properly – will appear on the site over the next two Fridays. Here’s a peep at next week’s…
- Who reminds me a lot of Brookside‘s own cult leader, the similarly named Simon Howe. Coincidence? ↩