By Michael Deacon5:17PM GMT 08 Jan 2010
We’re at a cramped, unsettlingly hot studio in Bristol for the recording of BBC Three’s comedy drama series Being Human and the crew has spotted an incongruity in the props. The scene being filmed is set in the early morning, yet on the doormat inside the characters’ house is a pile of letters. ‘Bit unrealistic,’ mutters one member of the crew drily. ‘Need to be about four o’clock in the bloody afternoon for those to be there.’
It’s touching, in a way, that the crew is so concerned about realism, given that their show depicts the adventures of a werewolf, a vampire and a ghost who share a house. But a lot of care clearly goes into the making of Being Human, which is probably one reason why its first series, shown early last year, was a hit. It got enthusiastic reviews and good ratings, by the standards of BBC Three: the final episode of series one was watched by around 1.1million people, and the show is said to be one of the most popular on the iPlayer. In autumn the series was repeated on BBC One.
Tonight, it returns for series two. Which is remarkable, really – because the BBC had planned to abandon it after the pilot episode. Being Human’s success is a lesson about the power of the internet, and of the viewer.
‘In 2008, the BBC made six drama pilots, including Being Human,’ explains Toby Whithouse, the show’s creator and writer, ‘but before those were aired, they announced that the one they were going to turn into a series was Phoo Action.’ (A diabolically unfunny kung-fu pastiche.) ‘But the Phoo Action pilot went out and I think it’s fair to say the reaction to it wasn’t positive. Then Being Human went out and the reaction was extraordinary: there was an online petition for it to get a series, the BBC was lobbied with emails, and the messageboards on SFX [a sci-fi website] and the BBC’s Points of View site went into meltdown.’ This response, he adds quickly, was ‘completely unbidden’ – it wasn’t orchestrated by the cast and crew.
At any rate, it evidently paid off: soon afterwards, the BBC quietly dropped Phoo Action and commissioned Being Human instead. ‘What the BBC couldn’t have predicted,’ says Whithouse, who also wrote the 2006 School Reunion episode of Doctor Who, ‘is that the show delivered a specific type of audience the BBC had been trying to attract for a long time, and suddenly here they were, kind of presenting themselves to the BBC: mobilised, internet-savvy, committed.’
And in most cases – perhaps more significantly – young. Its supernatural subject matter has obvious youth appeal: after all, the Twilight novels and films (about hunky vampires) are monstrously popular with teenagers, just as Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a decade ago. Sinead Keenan (who plays Nina, the girlfriend of George, the werewolf) recalls that, when her agent told her she’d be auditioning for a show about a werewolf, a ghost and a vampire, she replied, ‘Right. Is this for children’s TV?’ She was, she admits, ‘a bit dubious. Then I read the scripts, which were amazing, and it was almost as if the werewolf-vampire-ghost thing was incidental – really it was about their relationships and how they cope with their afflictions.’
As Russell Tovey (who plays George) suggests, the problems the central characters face are easy for a teenage viewer in particular to identify with. ‘Being made a werewolf changes George’s life: he has to try to fit in, to find his place,’ says Tovey, 28, whose best-known other role was in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys (the play and the film). ‘George just wants to be an average guy, to fit into the crowd. So he’s going through what an adolescent would go through. It’s the same for Annie [the ghost, played by Lenora Crichlow], as she’s very insecure.’
All the same, insists Whithouse, who’s 39, the show isn’t written with a young audience specifically in mind. ‘There are certain shows on certain channels that do try to appeal to a teenage demographic, and I think that always looks a bit suspect, like a dad dancing at a party,’ he says. In autumn Phil Redmond, the creator of Grange Hill, complained that TV ignores teenage viewers, but Whithouse disagrees: ‘An enormous amount of time and money is spent trying to attract teenagers and it’s usually in the wrong way.’ The shows that teenagers most enjoy, he believes, are dramas such as Spooks and Casualty – in other words, shows that aren’t patronisingly aimed at them.
In the first series of Being Human, the three housemates – all of whom are peace-loving, and desperate not to harm or frighten ordinary people – had to defeat an evil vampire called Herrick. In the new episodes, the threat to them will come in human form: a scientist whose gorily sinister plans will become clear as the series unfolds. ‘It’s darker this year, and a bit more gruesome in places,’ says Aidan Turner, 26, who plays Mitchell, the vampire (who refuses to drink human blood). Incidentally, Turner adds that he can’t stand filming on long nights – our interview takes place on-set in October – because he has Seasonal Affective Disorder. Not terribly robust, for a vampire.
Whithouse is rather more robust, at least in argument: he says he, ‘absolutely loathed Twilight. The worst film I’d ever seen. If you’re not going to be seduced by Robert Pattinson’s cheekbones, there’s very little in that film for you.’ That’s a brave thing to say, given that it’ll outrage 99 per cent of the Western world’s adolescents. And Twilight fanatics are fiercely protective of their heroes. ‘They are,’ says Whithouse, laughing, ‘but so are the fans of Being Human. I think my fans could take their fans any day.’