How the U.K. Being Human tweaks vamps, wolves and ghosts

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

The super-popular British sci-fi series Being Human is coming to BBC America this month, and I got a chance to talk to writer/creator Toby Whithouse about the show, which centers on flatmates who happen to be a ghost, a werewolf and a vampire who's on the wagon.

Engaging, dark and wickedly funny, the show had me hooked in minutes. That's hardly surprising: Whithouse wrote "School Reunion", one of the most popular David Tennant episodes of Doctor Who, as well as an episode of Torchwood and quite a bit of No Angels. As an actor, he was a series regular on the popular 1990s BBC show House of Eliott. He revealed a bit about how the show came to be, how he decided on the mythology for the characters and why BBC shows are so popular here.

Here's how BBC America describes the series:

George (Russell Tovey) and Mitchell (Aidan Turner) work in anonymous drudgery as hospital porters. They lead lives of quiet desperation under the burden of a terrible secret: Mitchell's a vampire and George a werewolf. Deciding to start life afresh and leave behind the dark side, they move into a house, only to find that Annie, the ghost of a woman killed in mysterious circumstances, haunts it. As the monster threesome deals with the challenges of their new life together, they're united in their desire to blend in with their human neighbors.

Being Human just began airing in England this January, and it hits the states on July 25, but the show has already had quite a journey. "It was a very odd process, really, because we don't do pilots in this country at all," Whithouse said in an exclusive interview. "For some reason BBC Three ... decided to do this series of pilots. We'd already been developing Being Human just as a normal series. Suddenly this opportunity to do this as a pilot came up. In a way we felt it improved our chances."

When the pilot aired, it "got this extraordinary response that we were completely unprepared for," Whithouse said. But when the BBC gave them the green light to make the series, many of the cast members were otherwise employed. "Apart from George the werewolf [Russell Tovey], pretty much everyone else changed," he said.

Though the mythology is the same in the pilot and the series, the tone changed quite a bit. "The benefit of doing the pilot was that it gave us a chance to re-examine certain aspects that didn't work," Whithouse said. "One of the things we didn't feel worked in the pilot was the portrayal of the vampires. They were just kind of too ... they were very Anne Rice in the pilot. And we felt that, because we'd gone to such lengths to make everything else so believable and realistic, we felt that that just wasn't in keeping with the rest of the show."

As with many BBC shows, there are quite a bit of nudity and profanity: In the three episodes I screened, I lost count of the rear ends I saw. They don't seem to be quite as, dare I say, prudish as American television.

I asked if there would be any changes to the show before it was broadcast on BBC America. "To be honest, I don't know if there have been any cuts," Whithouse said. "I haven't been told about them. ... As far as I know, we haven't."

I asked Whithouse what he thought it was about British series that is so appealing to American audiences. "I don't really know," he said. "Having said that, I think it works both ways. I would be able to say to you, 'Why is it that American dramas are just so much better than the British dramas?' And, I think, ultimately, it's because we get to see the cream of each other's output. We get to see things like The Wire and The West Wing and Deadwood and all of that kind of thing. And you get to see Doctor Who and Life on Mars and Robin Hood. And, I think, consequently, there might be a lot of the stuff that comes out of America that might not be very good, that we just don't get to see. And vice versa."

As for the show's mythology, there are a thousand different versions of vampires, ghosts and werewolves out there: vampires who can or can't be seen in mirrors, the ones in Twilight who don't have fangs, ghosts who are visible or not, werewolves who catch their lycanthropy from a bite or inherit it from family members.

Whithouse talked about how he decided on his version of the myths. "The thing is that, because there is so much, it really allowed us to cherry-pick the aspects we wanted," he said. "For example, the vampires in Let the Right One in are very different from the vampires in Twilight or the vampires in Interview With a Vampire. ... And because everyone has a different idea of what they do and a different idea of their attributes, ... the bottom line has to be what gives us the best story. For example, I was quite insistent that one of the things we have about our vampires is that they can't be seen in mirrors. And my producer, his heart sank when I said that, because, production-wise, it's an absolute nightmare. There are reflections in absolutely everything. ... I was insistent, because that would give us a lot of story potential that we've used in quite a few of the episodes."

In fact, there is a reference to the vampire Mitchell (Aidan Turner) having been an extra in Casablanca. He can't be captured on film, but he does knock over a table, which you can see.

Based on three preview episodes, the show seems to have a very dark view of death. Whithouse laughed when I asked him how that developed. "It's very difficult to say, really," he said. "There is a line in the pilot, when Annie [Andrea Riseborough in the pilot, Lenora Crichlow in the series] says to Mitchell [played in the pilot by Guy Flanagan], 'You've seen death, haven't you?' I remember when I wrote that scene, and I really didn't know what I was going to say. It's one of those things were you suddenly find yourself writing something without any real awareness of where it came from. And she says this line, 'You've seen death, haven't you?' He says, 'Yes.' She says, 'You've seen the corridor? You've seen the men with sticks and ropes?' And I wrote that and thought, what on Earth does that mean? So I kept it in, because I liked it. I thought, as a line, it worked quite nicely. And it's funny, because it's something that's really sort of captured people's imagination. And I think the less we explore it the better, because what people imagine is always much more scary. If we kind of explore that further and give you a view of the afterlife, some people might find it scary, but some people will find it less interesting than what they were imagining."

Whithouse made a point of mentioning another reason there is a long tradition of leaving things up to the imagination in British sci-fi. "The budgets for British sci-fi shows have always been absolutely tiny," he said. "Consequently, we've had to develop a kind of technique of writing in such a way that it's very low-fi. Because we've never been able to have very flamboyant, expensive special effects in this country. You know, there's a monster scratching on the other side of the door, but you don't see it."

Whithouse said he is currently writing the last two episodes of the second season, which begin filming soon.

Being Human premieres on BBC America on July 25 and will air Saturdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT.