Things I Learned From… Being Human

So BBC Three’s most successful series so far, Being Human, has finally shuffled off this mortal coil. It leaves behind a lot of fans, a US remake, and a whole lot of questions about what the final shot of the season finale really meant  (for those who didn’t see it, think Inception…)

Fantasy and supernatural drama, for adults and for children, has a long and glorious history in Britain. Even before the era of TV, Britain was the land of the ghost story, the legend, the haunted burial mound and the sprite in the well. Perhaps this stems from the collision of so many ancient cultures – and their rich and conflicting myths – as Britain was settled and re-settled before, during and after the Roman era. Perhaps it’s to do with the influence of the Welsh, Scots and Irish on English culture, or the many dangers that “the wild” held in a land of widely varied habitats and changeable, threatening weather.

What we hadn’t mastered, until Tony Whitehouse showed the way, was moving that rich world of the supernatural into the very urban, inter-connected, cynical world of the 21st Century. Being Human places the ghost, the vampire and the werewolf into our everyday reality, and manages to preserve the threat they present while mining absurd humour and touching moments from their new surroundings.

The vampires in particular – always the most predatorial of the myths, at least until they were made vegetarian and sparkly for teenage romances – are both dangerous manipulators and killers, and pathetically deluded, self-important posers, who, as Mitchell points out, have been claiming their time is about to come since the Dark Ages. The werewolves are victims of their inner beast, but some of them are pretty monstrous as humans too. The ghosts, anchored by past regrets, may be a lot less dangerous, but they’re quickly revealed as the emotional heart of the impromptu ‘families’ that spring up throughout the series – and that gives them power for good and for ill.

Their habitat has changed from the dark forest to the crummy bedsit and the minimum-wage job – but isn’t that pretty much where we dump our ‘outsiders’ now? The threats to their existence come not from witchfinders and wolf hunters, but from the press, the curious, and most of all, the people they love. And wasn’t that always the way?

‘Reinventing’ or ‘reimagining’ a classic story or myth is a process of getting to the core of the story and finding out what it’s really “about” at this moment in time.

Are the Sherlock Holmes stories about a brilliant detective and his assistant, or about two men who don’t really fit into their society, and find a job that allows them to interact with it from the outside? Is Robin Hood really about robbing the rich and feeding the poor, or about a world that’s crumbling from the top down, and an attempt to build a new, fairer, more stable society?

Maybe, maybe not. A story varies depending on when you try to tell it. Medieval Robin Hood ballads bear little resemblance to the story we tell today, and we view Victorian tales of derring-do in Africa and India very differently to the way their first readers did. Every time we tell a story, we filter it through our own culture, preoccupations and preconceptions. That’s one of the reasons we can keep telling the classic tales – every telling is a new story.

So if placing a werewolf, a ghost and a vampire in a crummy flat in Bristol can create an entire new mythology, what could you create by filtering a classic story or character through your unique point of view…?

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Fully Wolf And Fully Human

“… I thus drew steadily nearer to the truth, by whose partial discovery I have been doomed to such a dreadful shipwreck: that man is not truly one, but truly two.”

Robert Louis Stevenson, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

 

So many great characters have a dark side.  From Luke Skywalker tempted by the dark side of the Force to Bruce Banner trying to tame the Hulk within, we love watching another human being wrestle with their darkest impulses – and sometimes what we love best is watching them lose.

The dark side of man is deeply woven into European myth, and reaches its peak in those two classic nightmare figures, the vampire and the werewolf. Though human in appearance (at least part of the time), they’re at the mercy of an uncontrollable animal nature that threatens to well up when they’re exposed to certain cues – the full moon, the smell of blood – and overwhelm them.  They’re dangerous to others, and at best can only exist on the margins of society, where their true nature can be hidden or controlled.

Or can they?

While developing Wolfblood, I wanted to take a whole new approach to the animal nature.  Because I believe mankind is, as Dr. Jekyll observed, “truly two” – or five, or twelve, or any number of facets.  We all carry within us all kinds of apparent contradictions.  We can be gay and devoutly religious: a career woman and a dedicated mother; conservative on some issues and virtually libertarian on others.  And as long as we openly acknowledge the different facets of our personality, and appropriately towards those around us, that’s a good thing.  It’s the interactions between the differing facets of our personality that make us who we are.

So the characters in Wolfblood don’t fear and hate their animal nature.  It’s a valued part of them.  This, of course, meant making some story-telling decisions on how that animal nature is expressed, because once they’re ‘fully wolf and fully human’ (as I told everyone, a lot more times than they needed to hear it!)  the old rules don’t apply any more.

So we rewrote the werewolf myth as a gift rather than a curse, a natural ability rather than an unnatural one, something that empowered our characters rather than tormented them.  Is transformation pleasant or unpleasant?  How much control do they have over when it happens? How far do they remain themselves in wolf form? What part do wolf senses and instincts play in their human lives?  All up for grabs in this new world…

The best part of all this, of course, is that we were able to pick and choose from existing werewolf stories, taking the elements we found useful and discarding others – and there are plenty of myths and legends still waiting to be explored!