TV preview: In the Flesh | The Lady Vanishes | The Challenger

In The Flesh, starring Luke Newberry. Picture: BBC

In The Flesh, starring Luke Newberry. Picture: BBC

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QUESTION: What’s the best way of surviving an onslaught of zombies? Answer: Refusing to engage with popular culture on any level.

IN THE FLESH

Tomorrow, BBC 3, 10pm

THE LADY VANISHES

Tomorrow, BBC1, 8:30pm

THE CHALLENGER

Monday, BBC2, 9pm

More ubiquitous and malignant than even Sue Perkins, zombies are bloody everywhere at the moment. From The Walking Dead to Warm Bodies and practically every piece of modern horror fiction in between, the brain-guzzling undead are second only to vampires in an over-saturated market of zeitgeisty ghouls. So you’d be forgiven for rolling your eyes in anticipation of BBC 3’s new zombie drama IN THE FLESH. But wait! This one comes with a novel twist! And it’s a rather good one.

Taking place in the aftermath of a zombie uprising, it depicts a world in which, having being cured of their nasty affliction, reanimated corpses attempt to reintegrate into society via a government-backed rehabilitation scheme. The focus rests on Kieren Walker (his surname an in-joke for zombie fans), a wan young sufferer of Partially Deceased Syndrome who’s tormented by harrowing flashbacks to his untreated past.

After being released from hospital – where patients partake in support groups and restore their human appearance with contact lenses and flesh-tone mousse – Kieren returns to the bosom of his family in a northern village riven with anti-undead feeling. Given that zombies almost always function as an allegory for something or other, here they’re depicted as victims of knee-jerk prejudice, epitomised by Rev star Steve Evets’ hate-spewing militia, the Human Volunteer Force (basically the EDL/BNP with guns). Naturally, they’re as rabidly single-minded in their crusade as the zombies were in theirs.

If this sounds heavy-handed, writer Dominic Mitchell actually succeeds in exploring his premise with mordant wit and intelligence. A satirical social-realist take on familiar horror territory, it echoes the recently departed Being Human in its efforts to explore the hardships of unfairly vilified “monsters” living on the margins of society. Its ruminations on bigotry also recall HBO’s vampire romp True Blood, although stylistically they couldn’t be more different.

Bathed in mistily desaturated colours, its bleak depiction of a world gone mad is anchored by a sensitive performance from Luke Newberry as Kieren, whose fake tan and forlorn demeanour suggest a human mannequin at a closing down sale. Ricky Tomlinson also turns up as a nosy neighbour, thus adding to the general Ken Loach via George A. Romero feel. Watching Jim Royle coping with a thwarted zombie apocalypse is pleasingly absurd and disturbing.

Despite being gilded in the moody emo trappings that every youth-skewed fantasy drama must come with these days, In The Flesh rarely feels earnest or corny. My only major qualm is that, by referring to his zombies as “rotters” throughout, Mitchell makes his characters sound like sub-par Terry-Thomas impersonators whenever they’re mentioned. Mind you, they are a bunch of cads, that zombie shower.

Why bother remaking a Hitchcock classic? It’s not as if you’ll feasibly improve upon his work. Although it’s based on an obscure novel, THE LADY VANISHES is to all intents and purposes a Hitch original. And yet the BBC’s latest adaptation surgically removes everything that was good about his 1938 film – mainly the droll humour, amusing characters and sparkling sense of playfulness – and turns it into the sort of dull, bland, turgid thriller he would never have dallied with in his prime. It’s like painting over the Mona Lisa with a pencil sketch of Emma Bunton.

As superfluous as Hammer’s failed 1978 remake, it takes the bare bones of this familiar story – spoiled young socialite searches for a missing spinster on a train full of people who appear to be conspiring against her – and locks them into a dreary parable about British xenophobia and entitlement. Tuppence Middleton and Tom Hughes – recently seen to greater effect as the psychotic Julian in Dancing On The Edge – make for a pair of colourless, pretty leads, while the surrounding glut of character actors deliver the sort of “Who’s just blown off in my pantry?” performances familiar from countless make-weight Agatha Christie adaptations.

Better by far is THE CHALLENGER, a solid co-production between BBC Scotland, the Science Channel and the Open University in which the magnificent William Hurt stars as Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman. Tracing his determined quest to uncover the truth behind the 1986 Challenger space shuttle disaster, it’s a classic David versus Goliath tale in which our irreverent, dishevelled hero takes on the stonewalling mendacity of the authorities who desperately tried to evade responsibility for this tragedy.

A thorn in the side of the Presidential Commission tasked with investigating its causes, Feynman is a tenaciously independent spirit who refuses to accept the pussyfooting excuses offered in NASA’s defence. And thanks to his tireless studies, he eventually helped to make the space programme safer.

It would be very easy for a story of this nature to descend into a quagmire of Hollywood cheese. And yet despite a couple of hokey eureka moments, The Challenger tackles its fascinating subject matter with a satisfying degree of control and charm. And Hurt’s wry, understated, entirely believable performance is an absolute delight. As far as studies of ethical and political dilemmas in which brilliant boffins investigate engineering data are concerned, it’s a lot more compelling than most.

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