“It’s not like in films, is it?” said Annie the ghost, in the most recent episode of Being Human, the blackly comic BBC drama that is, by a long, long way, the best thing I’ve seen on telly this year. She’s right. Being Human, like Buffy before it, brilliantly subverts horror and fantasy film conventions while also being a totally effective horror fantasy. It’s funny, it’s scary, it’s sexy, it’s intelligent, it’s heartbreaking, and at times it’s genuinely unsettling. Oh yeah, and it’s about a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost who share a house in Bristol. And I absolutely and utterly love it.
The basic premise of Being Human is simple: Mitchell, an Irish vampire who’s been that way since the first world war and is trying to stay off the blood, and George, a reluctant werewolf, are determined to lead normal “human” lives working in a hospital. They’ve moved into a house in Bristol only to find an unexpected roommate: a ghost called Annie, who used to live there with her fiancé Owen, now the boys’ landlord. Most of the time, the boys are the only ones who can see her – although as she gets more confident, she becomes more visible to everyone. And she particularly wants to make contact with Owen, who now has a new girlfriend and seems to have moved on completely. George, meanwhile, is convinced that his wolfish secret means he can never have a girlfriend, and Mitchell is trying to deal with the reappearance of his old colleague Lauren, whom he turned into a very enthusiastic vampire.
I’ve always loved supernatural stories, although even when I was a kid the only fantasy stuff I liked was of the magic realist variety. I loved Diana Wynne Jones and E. Nesbit; I never liked “straight”, pseudo-epic fantasy like Tolkien. Magic is only magic in contrast. I liked stories in which magic things happened in our world, or to people from our world, or, at a pinch, in a world very similar to our own but with magic as a normal part of life. I have absolutely no tolerance of fantasy in which everyone wears faux-medieval garb and speaks in portentous archaic language. I like stuff in which the supernatural stands out in contrast to the ordinariness around it, where the events are fantastic but the people seem real. That’s one of the reasons why I loved Buffy, and why I love Being Human. The characters have jobs (apart from Annie, who spends much of the time – in the early episodes, at least – making cups of tea she can’t drink). They try to have relationships with ordinary people. They don’t spend their time, like the vampires in True Blood, poncing about in stupid clothes and/or brooding. They watch telly (Mitchell insists on watching Casablanca because, as he gleefully explains, “I’m only in it!“) and smoke fags. And, in Mitchell’s case, they try to avoid fellow vampire Herrick.
Comparing Herrick to the usual cheesy gothy vampire villains shows just how good Being Human is. He’s not a smouldering sexy vampire king. He’s a cheerful, podgy middle-aged police officer. Like the Mayor in Buffy, he’s a brilliant villain because he’s so incredibly banal. And, like the Mayor, he’s in a position of power that allows him to cover up all the strange, supernatural things (like, in his case, vampire murders) that are going on in town. But Being Human doesn’t ignore the whole sexy vampire thing. In fact, it deals with it brilliantly, especially the ickier scenes between Mitchell and Lauren (memo to Alan Ball, who should be given a copy of the Being Human DVD the day it comes out – this is how you do slightly disturbing bloody vampire sex scenes).
And, like all the best horror, there’s genuine sadness in Being Human, a sense of loss and of isolation that balances the (excellent) jokes and the gore. This is mostly because not only are the characters fantastic, but so are the actors. George is perfectly played by Russell Tovey, an enormously appealing actor who I would watch in just about anything – he’s goofy and sweet and very funny. Lenora Crichlow is perfect as insecure Annie – she nails the character’s vulnerability and she’s brilliant at the comic bits too, especially when Annie is trying to be scary (she looks to films for tips, but can’t quite manage to put on a suitably scary voice). And I should probably be careful about what I say about Aidan Turner, who plays Mitchell, seeing as he’s from Dublin and will probably turn out to be related to one of our readers. Suffice to say he’s perfect for the role – charismatic, foxy and – which prevents him ever falling into brooding hunky vamp cliché- genuinely funny.
It’s hard to talk about Being Human properly without packing this post full of spoilers, but the twists of the plot – especially in the most recent episode, which was absolutely superb – mean that it would be a crime to spoil anyone who hasn’t watched yet. I’d love to write more about the evolution of Annie’s troubled character, about Herrick’s schemes, about the delightful George’s quest for love. I would actually like to just recap the glorious episode in which Annie makes friends with another ghost called Gilbert, who died in 1985 and who introduces her to the wonderful concept of “Gilbert Fun” (it involves proper ’80s indie dancing and having earnest discussions about Nietzsche to the sounds of Fun Boy Three). But I can’t do it without revealing too much, so just watch it. It’s not hard to find each episode (suffice to say that I don’t have BBC3, but I’ve managed to watch it all every week). And after the brilliantly infuriating cliffhanger ending of last week’s episode, I can’t wait until the series finalé on Sunday. If only I could be sure there’d be another series…
ETA: It’s just been announced that there will indeed be a second series (thanks for the heads up, Colm)! Huzzah!