What was the genesis of In the Flesh – did you go to the BBC with it?
I got onto a BBC Writers Room scheme called Northern Voices about four years ago. I wrote a little one-page outline of the idea of In the Flesh. The programme was to be mentored for a year, during which you had to write an original drama pilot, and that’s what I wrote. The script got into the hands of BBC North and [producer] Hilary Martin and [script editor] Simon Judd, and that’s how everything started. It got down to the top bods in the BBC and they were like, “Right, let’s do it.” It was a great experience: it was the first TV script that I’ve done, and it’s been a bit of a whirlwind.
How much has it changed from your original idea?
Not a lot to be honest. It went through a lot of drafts but the main idea –there’s been a zombie apocalypse, a war between the living and the dead; the zombies have to take this medication; and they’re being treated and reintegrated into society – didn’t change at all. My main character, Kieren Morgan, is a young lad who killed himself then came back from the dead, eating people’s brains, and then he’s been treated – he didn’t really change that much.
Of course a lot of the other characters came later, but the foundations of the idea are just the same.
I’m a massive horror fan, and a massive sci-fi fan. I grew up with the George Romero canon, and it was when I was watching a very standard zombie movie late at night I came up with the initial idea. It was the usual thing: there’s a bunch of survivors in the zombie apocalypse and they’re shooting all the zombies. I started to feel quite bad for the zombies. The survivors were killing them with such relish, but these zombies weren’t evil – they just needed brains. They were dead, not evil beings. They were someone’s son, someone’s daughter – and I wondered what would happen in a gritty reality if a zombie apocalypse happened in Britain. The government would try to find a way to treat it.
I think you have to incubate yourself so you don’t nick it consciously or unconsciously, so anything from the zombies’ perspective, I wasn’t going to watch. I thought it would influence what I’d write, and I wanted to write something very different and what was my own. I loved Zombieland and The Walking Dead, because they were was from the point of view of the survivors. Anything from their point of view I could still watch. Any films or literature that was from the zombies’ perspective, I couldn’t watch, but I am looking forward to catching up on my zombie-perspective genre stuff: I can’t wait to see Warm Bodies and things like that.
What do you think you’ve brought to the table that is going to grab an audience that’s seen a lot of genre on television particularly in recent years?
Hopefully my way in is the gritty reality and naturalism of a high concept idea about the zombie apocalypse, and then them being treated and put back into the community. It’s a drama and it’s quite a dark drama as well. When people have that sort of zombie perspective kind of thing, you can treat it quite comedicly. I haven’t done that – it’s Ken Loach meets George Romero. We wanted it to be very Northern, very cinema verité, so you could watch it hopefully and still love it, even if you weren’t into zombies. We have quite a lot of genre stuff, but it’s much more of a gritty reality take on that genre.
Is it a humour-free zone then?
It’s not as humour-free as say The Walking Dead – there are some humorous scenes – but there are never bits of “wink wink I’m a zombie”. The humour comes hopefully more from the characters and the situation. You’ve got a community care officer who’s taking care of all the partially-deceased sufferers in the village, and she’s only been on the job for two weeks! It comes from an Alan Bennett sort of humour. It is a dark drama, but it does have elements of humour.
There’s a sequence at the end of episode 1: in the village, there’s a vigilante group called the Human Volunteer Force, which grew up when the rural areas were under attack by the zombies, and it’s still going, even though they’re a bit redundant. There’s a database of all the zombies who are living there, and the chief vigilante gets this name. He goes over to this very domestic cul-de-sac and you think he’s going to get the main protagonist. It was one of my favourite sequences to write, and [director] Johnny Campbell has pulled it off with aplomb. It’s better than I imagined it.
Another one is a domestic scene between Kieren and his sister: it’s in his bedroom, and it’s the heart of the show. She hasn’t seen him for four years; he killed himself and she never got to say goodbye. He’s now back as a zombie, and she’s part of the Human Volunteer Force. It’s a brother and sister scene, and because I’ve got a younger sister, it was really personal to me. I was choking up watching the scene on screen: both the actors – Luke Newberry and Harriet Cains – they were Kieran and Jem. It was awesome seeing it on screen for the first time.
Oh yes: it’s scratching the surface, this first series. It’s a three-parter, and we wanted to tell a very contained story within it. Because there is this group out there, the Undead Liberation Army, if we were lucky enough to come back, we can deal with that. We never get to know why the rising happened: we had too much story to tell with Kieran coming back to his family, and then his best friend coming back.
There’s a wider world out there that we would attempt to look at if there were any more. I tend to see it as the prologue, and if we were lucky enough to get series 2, that would be chapter one – sort of like Battlestar Galactica, which began with a three hour movie then went on to a series. This is a very dramatic introduction, but an introduction all the same.
For Galactica to work, you didn’t need to know all the details of the Cylon War; in this, does the audience need to know the causes of the apocalypse, or do we just accept that it happened?
In In the Flesh you’re thrown into this world; this has happened. I hate it when shows don’t trust the audience. We’re really trusting the audience; there’s a little bit of exposition, but we only flash back to one incident in the rising, and that’s from Kieran’s point of view. His medication makes his memory go back. We never have a sequence of the war because I think if you get into too much detail about that, it’s not dramatic. You want to be moving forward in the story. I think the story is dramatic enough not to need the flashbacks.
Do you know how it all kicked off?
I do, yes. I do know what’s happened, but that’s not touched on in series one. It might be a great disappointment; sometimes it’s better not to know! It means we’ve got somewhere to go. It’s alluded to just a tinge, but unless you do repeat viewing, you won’t get it.
The zombie genre comes with a lot of rules, so you have to be quite concrete whether it’s a virus or not. You have to be quite clear if it’s a virus, or something from space, or something religious, to write any sort of story. The development process was great: I was getting those questions from the director, the executive producers and the actors so it was great to be able to fill them in.
With this show, it’s quite good, because the characters don’t know why the rising happened. When you don’t know something, anything can come and fill the vacuum so that’s why this Vicar who controls the village has so much sway. He has an answer – it may not be the answer for the show, but he has a concrete answer that people are looking for. In a zombie apocalypse you’d be asking why it happened, and because science, in our show, is all a bit wishy-washy, religion and this very fire-and-brimstone, believer in Revelations vicar comes up and says he knows why: they’re all demons from the depths of Hell. It’s a simplistic view, but it is a view!
It was quite shocking doing research on this. I read the Revelation of St John [the last book of the Bible], and there’s a lot of talk about the dead, and the judgements of the dead. It’s incredible stuff. That’s our Vicar Oddie character: he’s completely sure why the rising happened, that these people are imposters, they are the Horsemen of the Apocalypse personified, and Death and Hell will come with them.
And have no souls?
They have no souls and must be judged. Vicar Oddie is clear: they must be judged. It’s God’s law they must be judged, and in Revelations, they talk about this. He’s very sure about it.
I’m not with Vicar Oddie on it, and I’m sure Kieren, my protagonist, isn’t, but that is a very clear view, and it’s a view that really influences and really causes chaos in this community that In the Flesh is set. If someone says you’ve got to judge the dead, what does it mean? You’ve got to go and kill these zombies. There is no grey, there’s only black and white. He’s a real literal, and he believes it. He can’t be reasoned with – he knows the truth. He’s not evil – he says he’s protecting humanity by telling the vigilante groups to go and judge the dead. They don’t want another rising. It’s great that we can examine these areas of grey in a zombie show!
It’s been great; when Johnny Campbell came on board, we mind melded. And I have to thank the BBC. They’ve been bold and gone, “do it”. It’s a weird concept, and we didn’t want it to be watered down. We wanted to have a strong vision and a strong authorship on the show.
I’m so proud of it: it’s great to see your thing which hasn’t been changed that much. I wrote it with a little bit more gore, but I understand that it’s BBC Three so you can’t show it, but Johnny does a very good job of leaving it to the imagination, which is worse, I think.
Thanks to Jenny Brown for her help setting up this interview