“Why do people assume death is fair? It’s totally random – just like life.”
Dead birds are falling from the skies. In the dark night streets, a woman is attacked by a weird grey skeletal figure with yellow eyes. A teenage boy awakes from nightmares of the end of the world, wetting his bed, and sees grey cadaverous shades of the dead everywhere he looks. The recently dead roam a forest, light blaring from their torsos, seeking one of the few places left to ascend since man invented concrete.
Welcome to the world of The Fades, trailered so cryptically and effectively on BBC3 recently. “That looks cool, “ I remember thinking of the hyperdramatic but undetailed trailers, set my Tivo to record it and promptly forgot it existed. Yesterday I found my recording, watched it, and realised that this has the potential to actually be rather interesting.
Much has been made of this as a new ‘cult’ youth drama, much in the vein of Misfits and actually from the same channel that produced the sleeper hit Being Human. The Fades certainly does have this kind of potential, but it’s aiming at a far younger ‘youth’ audience than either of those shows. While the heroes of Misfits are young, they’re clearly older than school age; and the vampires and werewolves of Being Human must be pushing thirty (or far older if they’re vampires, whatever age they look). By contrast, The Fades has a hero who’s still in the sixth form, presumably between 17 and 18 years of age. The result is that, with its supernatural weirdness and teenage hero, this feels like nothing so much as one of those classic spooky children’s dramas that both BBC and ITV did so well in the 70s and 80s, updated to include swearing, sex references and some genuine horror.
That post-watershed slot might sadly lose it some of the teenage viewers it might otherwise have got; but in these days of Sky Plus and iPlayer, I doubt that. The fact that what seems ostensibly like a teenage show has so much in it that could be deemed ‘adult’ is presumably down to the writer. Jack Thorne is a playwright who cut his TV writing teeth on Skins, another show that tries to show a realistic portrait of British youth, then graduated onto working with Shane Meadows on the excellent This is England 86.
Those influences show; while 80s teenage dramas were all about gritty portrayals of joblessness (hello, Tucker’s Luck), and Skins is all about hedonistic fun laced with social reality, The Fades brings precisely those approaches to a typically freaky, Children’s BBC-like tale. Nominal hero Paul (Iain de Caestecker) is a believable and likeable teenage nerd; witness his hilarious attempts to smoke in a vain attempt to impress the friend of his sister he has such an obvious crush on. Or his convincingly irritating family – his mum smirks at his frustrated assertion that he’s “trying to be a man”, and his sister (Lily Loveless, worlds away from the lesbian earth mother type she played in, yes, Skins) is a constant source of patronising embarrassment.
Again as in classic children’s spook shows, Paul is accompanied by a wisecracking best friend whose primary function is to be the comic relief. Mac (played brilliantly by Daniel Kaluuya out of, guess what, Skins) is a horror fanatic whose pop culture musings on Nightmare on Elm Street and The Sixth Sense, delivered in a marvellously deadpan way, counterpoint a real horror story happening to his best mate that he can’t even see.
As in many classic children’s spook shows, our heroes become involved while messing about. An unwilling Paul has been dragged into an abandoned underground shopping mall by Mac, desperate to find ‘”weird objects” for a horror film he wants to make. Tumbling down an unforeseen escalator, Paul finds himself in the middle of a mysterious confrontation between gun toting nutter Neil (Johnny Harris, previously terrifying as Lol’s rapey stepdad in This is England 86) and the terrifying skeletal figure we saw attacking Natalie Dormer in the pre-credits sequence. Dormer is somehow involved; her character, Sarah, is already dead by this point. But she’s got top billing, she played Anne Boleyn in The Tudors, and anyway this is the sort of show where death isn’t really a handicap to further appearances.
Like any sensible teenage nerd, Paul is terrified and runs away. But he can’t escape, as he begins to suffer the same scary dream visions Sarah used to have – visions of the end of the world, with him as a lone survivor in a corpsescape where ashes rain down thick and fast. From here it just gets madder and madder; Neil turns up unannounced in Paul’s bedroom to act as a sort of Obi Wan Kenobi mentor, as Paul begins to see the shades of the dead on street corners. Some of the dead, Neil explains, can’t ‘ascend’, and linger on Earth; this makes them act “shitty”. They disintegrate into ashes if a living person ‘passes through’ them; we see this happen as Paul stumbles through one in in an underground subway, and she crumbles into precisely the kind of ashes that have been haunting his dreams.
Paul, it seems, has some kind of ‘purpose’; perhaps he’s the Muad’Dib. Later, Neil shows him hordes of the dead trying to ascend, but it looks like Sarah’s just missed the boat. She can still talk, it seems – for now. But only Neil and Paul will be able to see her. But she’s not the one they have to worry about; that scary skeletal grey thing that killed her – and nearly sucked out Neil’s eye with its green tongue – is “something new” that has the potential to end the world. It’s already killed not just Sarah, but Neil’s other sidekick – a welcome return for This Life’s Daniela Nardini, as a pistol-packing, faith healing Scottish vicar, and I hope she’s not dead for good!
All of this is great stuff in itself, though as of part one, who knows what it can all mean? It’s reminiscent of so many classic children’s spook dramas, from King of the Castle through Moondial to Century Falls. But what makes it even better is the Skins-like sense of realism about what it’s like to be a teenager, that presumably gave it its post-watershed slot. Aside from the swearing, and sex references (when Paul starts telling Mac about his dreams, Mac automatically leaps to the conclusion that they’re of the wet variety), there is plenty of wince-making accuracy to Paul’s position as the school’s introverted nerd. “Nobody even notices us,”comments the more excitable Mac, shortly before a slightly comic bit of business ends up with them hiding in a cubicle of the girls’ toilet while a girl does her business next door. “That’s probably the most sexual thing that’s ever happened to me,” notes Mac. Elsewhere, Paul is in therapy because of his bedwetting, but is understandably unkeen to reveal what’s been happening to his therapist, and he has a massive, possibly requited crush on his sister’s best friend, much to his sister’s malicious amusement.
This blend of classy supernatural drama with teenage realism makes The Fades like the sort of drama I would have killed to have seen on Children’s BBC when I was a teenager. It’s all very well having your hero as a teenage boy but if those central teenage boy things like sexual frustration, swearing and wet dreams don’t get mentioned, how much can you truly believe in the character? This has all that in spades, plus some genuinely witty dialogue, taut direction and scary special effects. It’s only part one of the first series, so who knows how good it’ll be, but I thoroughly enjoyed this, and if there’s any justice, BBC3 will have another Being Human-style hit on its hands. Not sure yet if I’ll blog on this episode by episode, but if the next one is as good, I very probably will.