You don’t have to be an incurably curmudgeonly exemplar of terminal middle age to observe that an average night’s scheduling on either one of the UK’s two main ‘yoof’-catering TV channels, E4 and BBC3, is apt to provide some extremely sound reasons for nipping off now to go find the nearest dark, ill-lit hole in the ground in which one may bury one’s head in despair for, say, the next thirty years -- by which time hopefully humanity will have come to its senses. Obviously, as you’ve probably guessed, I am precisely that type of middle-aged curmudgeon -- so normally I give both these stations as wide a berth as I possibly can. But something unexpected has been happening of late in regard to both channels’ dealings with the horror/fantasy genre: the estimable Charlie Brooker probably started it with his excellent Big Brother zombie spoof for E4 from a few years back, “Dead Set”. Then BBC3 struck back with “Being Human” in which Toby Whithouse’s spin on domestic flat-share comedy-drama saw a ghost, a werewolf and a vampire sharing a house in first Bristol, then Barry Island, with interesting and frequently funny and gripping results. Since then, Howard Overman’s unmissable “Misfits”, in which a bunch of youths doing community service in the capital find themselves suddenly endowed with superpowers, has taken “Dead Set’s” mix of ribald humour and bloody horror to new levels of gloriously inventive insanity during the course of its three series on E4 thus far … And now BBC3 has responded to the challenge with what is quite possibly the best yet – “The Fades” is certainly a contender for best TV horror of the year; but one thing’s for sure, it’s no longer possible to avoid either channel when considering the best TV has to offer in drama these days, and the horror genre increasingly seems to be at the very epicentre of this televisual trend.
“The Fades” is the brilliant brainchild of former playwright turned TV writer Jack Thorne. You probably know his work if you’ve ever watched any of the edgier Brit dramas of recent years, such as “Skins”, “Cast Offs” or his two collaborations with Shane Meadows, “This is England 86” and ”This is England 88”. After five years of, by all accounts, torturous development, spawned in what started out as a misguided and ultimately failed attempt to ‘mash-up’ acclaimed US teen drama series “Freaks & Geeks” with “Ghostbusters”, Thorne instead emerged with six gripping, entirely self-written one hour episodes of what is undoubtedly one of the most original, unpredictable and flat out best-looking shows to appear for some time on British TV: a scary, horrific, suspenseful and twist-laden plot hatches across these dark but humorous six hours, with every episode seemingly producing new developments and unexpected wrinkles on some otherwise familiar horror-fantasy themes. But there’s also a large dollop of the sort of filthy humour we’ve come to know so well from “Misfits”; and name me another show in which there is anything near as bat-shit bonkers-insane as the concept behind the idea of someone sprouting a full-on giant pair of angel’s wings every time they ejaculate after masturbation!
“The Fades” is that kind of show: crazy, gratuitous, daring, but most of all just utterly gripping, with a slow burning plot that erupts into apocalyptic chaos by the final episode. Thorne makes sure to provide a cast full of diverse, interconnected characters you come to care about, and who develop and change across the series as a whole, while any one of them might suddenly be offed at a moment’s notice.
At the centre of the storm are a pair of socially awkward outsider teenagers, Paul (Iain De Caestecker) and his best friend Mac (Daniel Kaluuya --Tealeaf from “Psychoville”). These two are such geeky misfits that even twelve-year-old lower formers bully them. Some people just aren’t ready for their constant diet of film references and character quotes, least of all Paul’s scarily disdainful twin sister Anna (Lily Loveless from “Skins”) -- who despises her brother and his loser friend, mainly because they're an embarrassment to her position as head of the in-crowd at their local comprehensive. Anna’s bullying boyfriend Fred (Brandon Robinson) is also constantly on hand to make the duo’s lives hell. Paul’s doting mother (Claire Rushbrook) worries about him; he’s been having problems ever since his and Anna’s father left them, but it’s Paul who wakes from nightmares screaming, regularly wets the bed, and has since been required to visit a psychiatrist once a week to talk through his problems. All this extra attention just makes Anna hate him even more. Mac is secretly in love with Anna though, and Anna’s older best friend Jay (Sophie Wu) has a thing for Paul, but has to keep it secret lest Anna ever found out.
So far, so teen drama normal.
But when Paul and Mac start hanging out at a local abandoned supermarket, Paul witnesses an incident involving a horrific emaciated ghoul of some kind, who attacks a girl and leaves her for dead. It then injures another man who appears on site with a gun and seems to already know of the monster and to be involved in hunting it. Paul is traumatised when he realises that he has experienced the scene before … in one of his bedwetting-inducing nightmares. He starts to have recurring fits in which he repeatedly has visions of himself in the midst of some sort of apocalyptic conflagration. It feels like a scene from the future … and it is a future in which he is to die at the hands of a mysterious figure that emerges from the noise and light and clouds of swirling ash and dust at the end of the world. If that isn’t odd enough, Paul is also being haunted by a zombie-like ghost girl who starts following him everywhere he goes but who no-one else can see.
Struggling to cope with what he at first assumes to be delusions born of madness and which even begin to freak out Mac, despite the coolness of having a best friend who is essentially the real-life equivalent of Heather Langenkamp, Paul’s life goes from prosaically weird to just completely insane weird when the man with the gun from the supermarket incident suddenly turns up in his bedroom, and tells him that he is in fact something called an Angelic.
The Angelics are a race of medium-like humans that can see all the trapped souls who remain on Earth after death rather than ‘ascend’ as they’re meant to. The world is dotted with “Ascension Points” to which the newly dead are drawn by an inner light. But recently these Points have started ‘failing’ for reasons unknown, and once their inner light goes out the spirits are trapped forever. The process seems random and those who are left behind to wander the Earth – the Fades -- are doomed to observe humanity all around them while cast out in a limbo, without being able to interact or be seen or felt by anyone in the corporal world. These Fades still age and decay in their ghost state though -- which means that after a while, some of them start to look pretty grotty.
Angelics, though, can see these Fades and communicate with them, and some Angelics have other powers as well, such as the ability to heal wounds (after which, the disease or pain is extracted in the physical form of a moth, which then emerges, rather surreally, from the mouth of the Angelic healer!) or in some cases they can even see the future. It turns out that this gruff, taciturn man who Paul keeps encountering – Neil (Johnny Harris) – and his Angelic associates believe Paul to be an important, powerful cog in a war that is about to break out between the Angelics and a rebel Fade, who seems to be gathering around him an army of the dead who are breaking loose of their limbo and developing the power to exist and interact on an earthly plane. These Fades seem intent on killing the Angelics, and it turns out that Paul, as possibly the most important and powerful Angelic of all, is number one on their hit list!
This rather straightforward sounding dramatic supernatural scenario gets further embroidered and elaborated as the episodes pass, with Paul trying to negotiate a fraught path between his apparent destiny as revealed by the Angelics’ prophesies – that of the last hope for the survival of the human race -- and just trying to deal with normal teenage stuff, like having a girlfriend and the awkwardness of first time sex (which gets even scarier when you have to consider what might happen at the crucial moment, given a past history involving giant angel wings!). The increasingly fanatical Neil wants Paul to become the ultimate weapon in a battle to destroy the killer Fades, whose new-found corporality seems to have been induced by the discovery that eating human flesh makes them physically immanent. But Paul is unsure of what course to take: in many ways Neil seems as unstable and dangerous as the flesh-eating ghosts and his desperation takes him to disturbing psychological places as the odds begin to seem more and more stacked against the Angelics winning their fight with the rebel army.
While Paul tries to cope with this double life and make sense of the demands Neil and the other Angelics he’s recently been introduced to are starting to make on him, those around him are also being affected by events: Paul and Mac’s history teacher Mark (Tom Ellis) has split up from his wife Sarah (Natalie Dormer), but can’t afford to move out. When she goes missing, he suspects her of having gone off with Neil, who is a former friend and the man whom he thinks she previously had an affair with; but Mark is unaware that Sarah is also an Angelic and was murdered by the Fades’ leader who’s now on a crusade against their kind. Increasingly coming to accept the idea that Sarah may in fact have been murdered, Mark starts to seek solace in one night stands, which Sarah’s Fade, although unable to communicate with her estranged husband, can only observe with increasing heartbreak!
Meanwhile, as the rebel Fades start cannibalising the living and more and more adults and schoolchildren in the area go missing, pressure starts to build on DCI Armstrong (Robbie Gee) to make a breakthrough in the case which began with Sarah’s initial disappearance. Some of his colleagues are borderline racists and think he’s only been promoted in the name of ‘all that affirmative action bollocks’. On only the most circumstantial of evidence Armstrong feels pressured into arresting Mark for his wife’s murder, since he also knew all the missing children through his association with the school. The investigating detective is also Mac’s dad, and Paul’s apparently happy-go-lucky, Star Wars-quoting nerdy friend (oh, sorry – Mac says you can’t ‘quote’ a film, only a character in a film) turns out to possess a troubled family life in which his mum seems to have left the family home and, under increasing strain at work, his dad seems to be finding it ever harder to communicate with his son, who has retreated into a world of video games, comic books and film trivia.
Some of these subplots struggle to find full realisation once the main story arc starts to kick in around episode four. Mark’s sudden elevation as the Police’s number one suspect in the murder case seems to get thrown away in the mix somehow and Armstrong’s struggle to prove himself amongst his suspicious white colleagues also doesn’t ever get quite enough time to smoulder as much as it could have done. If anything, the series’ only fault is that it isn’t twice as long, which would have given it enough time to build its character’s backstories and slowly reveal the interconnections between them in the way US series (which generally seem to run for at least 13 episodes) tend to get the opportunity to do more often. There is certainly enough going on here to justify a lengthier run than just six episodes, but cost is usually the main culprit in keeping episode counts down in UK drama. The cinematography of Stephan Pehrsson (who’s recently been instrumental in giving DOCTOR WHO a whole new filmic sheen across series 6) is beautifully atmospheric and directors Tom Shankland (director of the small indie horror hit “The Children”) and Farren Blackburn do sterling work in bringing to fruition a storyline that moves from classic influence to classic influence with seemingly graceful ease and without feeling the least bit strained. What starts out as homage to “The Sixth Sense” but crossed with a zombie genre pic eventually reveals influences that rage from Cronenberg’s “Scanners” and “The Brood” to Clive Barker’s “Hellraiser”.
The show gains a whole new lease of life when the rebel Fades’ objective is revealed mid-series: eating flesh doesn’t just give them purchase in the corporal world, it is the first stage in a process of being reborn as flesh. This occurs when the ghost-form melts into a womb-like cocoon filled with sticky amniotic fluid, out of which the new human form emerges. Unfortunately, these ‘reborns’ still must subsist on the flesh of the living and are apparently immortal; when the leader of the Fades emerges reborn as the man from Paul’s visions -- the one who kills him in the midst of that apocalypse of ash -- the final battle for control of the Earth seems about to take place.
With its constantly evolving narrative (there’s a lot I’ve purposely omitted to mention for the sake of those who may have missed the series and want to catch up on DVD), tense suspense-laden episodes, gritty horror imagery and often quirky fourth-wall breaking humour (the episode recaps involve Mac talking to the audience directly about ‘what they’ve missed’. At the end of episode 5 for instance, he is kidnapped by Paul’s therapist and bundled into the boot of a car, so the next episode starts with Mac whispering the events of ‘the story so far’ to camera while cramped up in the darkened boot space!), “The Fades” was the most consistently riveting series of the year and deserves more than the tiny audience share it got on BBC3 (I don’t know how much the iplayer might have helped bump up the figures, but BBC3 shows generally struggle to get above the million mark). The cast is strong and every character complex; not all of them make it to the end in one piece. There are no simplistically good or evil people, here: Paul gets confused, makes dreadful mistakes, and puts lives at risk needlessly; Neil starts out seeming sympathetic but gets more and more violent and deranged, while at the same time he might well be proved essentially right in his diagnosis that Paul’s quest to find a way to re-open Ascension for the remaining Fades is fundamentally misguided. Paul’s initially hateful and eternally sarcastic sister (Lily Loveless plays possibly the most unlikable girl on British TV at the start of this series) actually begins to seem more and more understandable and even quite funny by the end; and even the flesh eating Fades themselves, directed by Polus their reborn leader, who eventually takes human shape as Joe Dempsie, turn out to have an understandable grievance against the Angelics, even if fanatical hatred has turned them into a force that has to be stopped before they destroy humanity. The six episodes form a complete coherent narrative arc with a beginning, middle and an end, but there are enough potential threads to be taken up again if a second series were to be commissioned, and an ambiguous final scene in episode 6 could be interpreted as either a cliff-hanger for another series or as a bleak and gritty final ending, all depending on whether the BBC prove willing to stump up the cash for series two.
The 2-disc DVD release of “The Fades” from 2 Entertain features a lot of ‘extras’ material, but all of it coming in bite-sized chunks spread across the two discs. Every episode has its own extra scene which appears to derive from an idea which was to have seen each episode ending with a quirky exchange between Paul and Mac in Jenny’s Restaurant. Here they would discuss various odd topics over chocolate and strawberry milkshakes. The idea was evidently completely edited out of the final episodes in the end, but the scenes seem mainly to act as conduits for Mac’s quirky, surreally loquacious form of geekdom, and feature him discussing how Disney’s “Jungle Book” is the best film about madness ever made (a kid, raised by wolves, who imagines animals can talk, dance and sing) and pondering whether female vampires menstruate, among many other idle but curiously over-thought ideas. There is a series of deleted scenes with introductions by producer Caroline Skinner and director Tom Shankland, a reel of outtakes, and interviews with cast members Johnny Harris and Natalie Dormer. Disc two features a bunch of featurettes about the making of the show, covering the make-up, production and costume design as well as the genesis of the series and the literary influences on writer Jack Thorne. One quirky extra even sees Mac explaining various aspects of the plot in his own inimitable, highly voluble style.
“The Fades” was a surprise revelation this year and this DVD set is an excellent, worthwhile addition to any horror fan’s collection.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!