In the Flesh: the braindead, with brains

The zombie peace process in Northern Ireland seems to be the inspiration for a fine zombie comedy-drama.

Given contemporary television’s obsession with what we eat, how to cook it and what it does to us, it takes a lot to stand out in the schedules. Credit really must go to the creativity of the minds who devised two distinct and provocative programmes centred around unusual eating habits this week.

Technically speaking, In The Flesh was not your typical food programme, given that it was a dystopian drama about zombies, but the comparison is far from fatuous. Zombies (alongside cannibals) are one of popular culture’s great barometers of contemporary anxieties around the dehumanising effects of mass society. George A Romero’s genre-defining films famously established the braindead cannibals as the ultimate symbol of the all-consuming greed of the modern capitalist consumer.

A run-down of subsequent, and enduringly popular, zombie stories provides a comprehensive overview of society’s underlying panics, with the list of fears extending to include biotech (28 Days Later), reality TV (Dead Set) and even high-school bullying (Dance of the Dead). Today, planning on how to survive the zombie apocalypse is one of the recurring memes among the group who consider themselves the most discerning consumers of them all: young, culturally smart, eco-conscious and politically cynical hipsters.

BBC3’s In The Flesh, however, is an impressive and smart take on the genre. From the pen of young playwright Dominic Mitchell, and clearly inspired by similar hit comedy-drama Being Human, it moves the action to a society that has survived the zombie outbreak relatively intact, but which is still rocking from the ideological and spiritual ramifications of a civil war between the living and the dead.

Mitchell’s background is as a satirist and he has a sharp eye for detail. The word ‘zombie’ is never used: instead, survivors are recovering from Partially Deceased Syndrome (the cause of which is so far unexplained), which necessitates that they wear heavy make-up and contact lenses to re-enter a society that they once terrorised and into which they are being re-assimilated as well as re-animated. Normal society, meanwhile, has seen an outbreak of religious fervour and is governed by the paramilitary Human Volunteer Force (HVF), credited with quelling the outbreak following the failings of a weak and distant government.  The series is seen through the eyes of Kyle, a teenage suicide reanimated through PDS and haunted by memories of atrocities committed while in a zombie-like state, as he adjusts to life in this traumatised, rather than destroyed, new world.

In a clever inversion of zombie tropes, which normally take a nihilistic glee in the breakdown of civilisation, sometimes coupled with a utopian hope for its recreation, In The Flesh is set in a society which is pragmatically restructuring itself amid bitterness, disillusionment and suspicion. Although set in a small Welsh village, you suspect that it is perhaps peace-process Belfast that Mitchell has in mind, with pointed references to the role of toleration and anti-discrimination legislation to manage animosity between the defeated zombies (some of whom refer to it as ‘The Uprising’) and the victorious HVF, who feel betrayed by the society they fought to protect and which now seems increasingly embarrassed by the group’s religious fervour and battle-hardened paranoia.

Quite where Mitchell is going with this remains to be seen (this was the first of three episodes) and perhaps he is simply borrowing from broader contemporary culture, but it is all pulled off with a rare brio and a deft sense of humour. There is a simple craft at work that is a joy to behold: one scene where Kyle’s devoted yet timid family suddenly leap to his defence with the honed military zeal of, well, zombie-attack survivors was as surprising as a year’s worth of silly whodunits, while the confusion of survivors trying to relate to loved ones who had betrayed them twice (in life and death) was beautifully portrayed.

The disappointing conclusion of BBC1’s recent Mayday offered a stark reminder that a lot of sterling dramatic work can be undone by an unhappy finish but, if Mitchell can show over the remaining two hours that he can do more than good set-ups, then In The Flesh could prove to be an outstanding contribution to British drama as well as the zombie genre.

Given that he was competing with a fictional universe where humans are reduced to brain-dead cannibalism, then, it was therefore a real (if dubious) achievement for food writer Stefan Gates to have produced the most bleak foodie show of the week, Can Eating Insects Save The World?

Gates is, in fairness, a charming presenter who specialises in unusual foodstuffs – he has presented children’s food programmes Gastronuts and Incredible Edibles, alongside the more adult-orientated Cooking in the Danger Zone (an episode of which focused on the local cuisine of Chernobyl). He’s no Jamie Oliver-style campaigner but, even so, this was a programme which left a foul aftertaste. Gates, confronting the challenge of how a soaring world population could feed itself, took himself off to the Far East to ponder whether the high-protein insects eaten there could provide an adequate option if only we could get over the ‘yuk’ factor.

The problem with the programme was that the answer was palpably a resounding ‘no’, although he spent an hour insisting otherwise. Gates, despite his warm gap-yah enthusiasm, couldn’t really escape from the fact that insects, even in Thailand and Cambodia, were the preserve of Western tourists and the ultra-poor who would starve without them. The only insect-eaters he could seem to find who didn’t view munching on grasshoppers as a symbol of grim desperation were very young children (ignoring the fact that there are probably plenty of enthusiastic bug-eaters in Britain’s playgrounds) and a UN nutritionist. Gates didn’t even seem to be troubled that the process of getting the insects was painstakingly labour-intensive and largely outsourced to, er, starving children. Hmmm. Pass me the laboratory-grown steak, please.

Despite the dubious Malthusian underpinnings, this could’ve been a fun and insightful look at cultural attitudes towards food and disgust. Yet ultimately you felt that even if disaster did strike and we had to resort to eating insects to save humanity, you didn’t have to be a zombie to hope that we’ll have turned our gnashers on the world’s ample stock of patronising posho foodies first. 

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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