The M/C Interview: Toby Whithouse on vampires, werewolves, ghosts, and ‘Being Human’

08.23.10 8 years ago 2 Comments

As with comic books, I’m somewhat slow to find TV shows during their first run on whatever channel airs them, often catching up with them on DVD instead.  I’m that guy who picks up trade collections to read comics, catching up with something like “Y The Last Man” once it hits book form, and I’m the guy who discovered “Deadwood” as a group of DVD box sets instead of on HBO.

As a result, when I’m sent shows on DVD, I’ll almost always give them a try.  If the premise even slightly appeals to me, I’ll throw the first disc on and see if anything hooks me.  With the show “Being Human,” I hesitated briefly because I had a hard time imagining how anyone would wring fresh life from a show about a ghost, a werewolf, and a vampire sharing a flat in London.

That’s where Toby Whithouse comes in.

Whithouse is the creator of the series, and after seeing what he did with that very, very basic premise, I was happy to hop on the phone with him to discuss the show’s first two seasons and where he might be headed with it in the future:

Drew:  Hi, good morning.  How are you, sir?
Toby:  I”m very well, Drew.  How are you ?
Drew:  Very good.  So I finally caught up on the show and I really enjoyed it.  It”s one of those shows where you hear the initial premise and you think, “Well, that”s like the most obvious setup for something in the world.”  Then it becomes about what you end up doing with the characters and the situations, and you realize it’s not that basic thing at all.  Can you talk about the evolution of it and specifically how you sold it to BBC?
Toby:  Basically I was approached to devise a show about three college graduates who decide to buy a house together.  And the series would detail the stresses and strains that this puts on their relationship.  I was pitched the idea and I thought, “Well, that is possibly the dullest idea I”ve ear heard,” but completely unbidden… and believe me it never normally works like this… but completely unbidden, I had these ideas for three characters and they arrived completely formed and just as I was about to turn the job down, there they were.  Mitchell was a recovering sex addict, Annie was a kind of borderline agoraphobic and George was this very anal house-proud guy who had anger issues and liked to compartmentalize all these aspects of his life and so on.  I was really pleased with these characters, and I wrote pages and pages and pages of bios for them, and we were very happy with the way they were all working and sitting together.  But for the life of us, we couldn”t come up with an idea for the first episode.  So we decided we were going to have one last meeting and then if nothing came of that, we were going to call it a day.  In the meantime, I was always a huge comic book and sci-fi and horror fan, and that was always secretly the kind of show I wanted to write.  So we were getting towards the end of this meeting and nothing was working, so then in a slightly kind of a kamikaze move I said, “What we could do is turn George into a werewolf because if nothing else that would give us a story for the first episode.”  And then from that moment it seemed a very natural progression that if George was a werewolf then Mitchell, the recovering sex addict, could be a vampire and Annie the agoraphobic could be a ghost rooted to the house.  What it meant was that the bedrock of the show was character and the supernatural archetypes were added later on.  And I think had I been approached to write a supernatural show, I don”t think we would have ended up with anything like “Being Human.”  I think we would have ended up with something perhaps not quite so textured.  But as I say, it meant that the bedrock of the show, the foundation of the show, was character, and I think that”s hopefully what people have responded to.
Drew:  That”s fascinating.  That”s not at all how I would have expected the development to have worked.  So yeah, that throws me because you would think seeing the show… I know in American television, that definitely would have been the other way around.  Somebody would have pitched that show or they would have said, “It”s ‘Supernatural’ or it”s ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer.'”  They would have been chasing something.  I can tell that your characters to you are the key here because even as you build your first season arc with Herrick as the bad guy, there”s still a driving sense through the entire thing that what”s most important is the three of them and how they relate.
Toby:  Absolutely.  Yeah, yeah, yeah.  Yeah, without a doubt.  And their friendship is the thing that is in a way the spine of the show and the thing that they”ll return to and the thing that ultimately saves them in both series one and series two.
Drew:  How did the casting come together on these three?
Toby:  To be honest, it was pretty straightforward.  Russell Tovey, who plays George, we had him in the pilot, and you know… he”s just extraordinary.  So it was a no-brainer keeping him.  I don”t know if you know it, but we did a pilot of it over here and Herrick and Mitchell and Annie were all played by different actors.  And one thing that we felt from the pilot… and all of them were absolutely amazing, but one thing we felt that we misjudged in the pilot was our handling of the vampires.  And you know the ambition of the show has always been to… bizarrely, given the premise… but the ambition has always been to have the show be as realistic as possible.  And to a certain extent we felt that we”d been quite successful with that in the pilot.  Then the moment that Mitchell goes off to see the vampires, it”s like he”s gone into a different show.  The vampires in the pilot were very kind of Anne Rice.  It was all kind of lace and frills and sort of moustache twirling.  And we felt that was just inconsistent with the rest of the show.  So when we went to a proper series, that was something we wanted to address and so we felt we wanted to go in a different direction with the casting, which is in no way any statement about the original actors.  And so Aidan, who plays Mitchell, he was just somebody that our amazing casting director found.  He was a complete unknown in this country.  He”d never done anything.  He”d been in a soap in Ireland and done kind of various bits and bobs.  And our casting director just plucked him out of obscurity.  And I remember being sent the casting tapes, you know, for my vote.  And I”d make…and this is terrible because I used to be an actor, and so I really should know better… but as I was going through them and going, “Oh, no.  Terrible.  Ugly.  Stupid face.  Get them off of my television.  Blah, blah, blah.”  Then we got to this guy, Aidan, and I just wrote down, “This is Mitchell,” because he was just streaks ahead of… there was no competition.  He was absolutely magnetic onscreen.  And again with Lenora as well, who plays Annie.  Just the moment she came in and the moment she spoke her first line you just felt… you just get that enormous sense of relief when the right actor arrives.  So it was a very kind of straightforward process because they were all so extraordinary.
Drew:  Has your third season started to air yet in the UK?
Toby:  God, no, I haven”t finished writing it yet.
Drew:  Oh, you”re still writing.  Wow.
Toby:  We”re about five weeks into filming the third series, and it”ll start transmitting in January 2011.
Drew:  With you focused on the third series in the UK, have you had much involvement with the proposed US remake?
Toby:  No, at the moment I”m quite happy to… my priority has to be the UK version.  And believe me, that”s taking up 24 hours a day at the moment.  So in regard to the American version, I”m sort of a happy bystander.  My feeling is that they understand the marketplace infinitely better than I do, so I think it”s probably best left to them.
Drew:  With you still actively involved in the UK series, does it… is it strange to you to think that somebody will be using characters based on your characters and telling stories sort of concurrently to what you guys are doing?  This isn’t something you’re done with yet.
Toby:  A little.  I can”t honestly say that I find it too much of distraction.  I think that, as I say, getting the UK version right is my priority.  Even after three series, it”s still a daily struggle to, you know, tonally you want to get it right and so, no, I”m not allowing myself to get too bothered by it.  And at the moment they haven”t shot their first scene yet so at the moment… I”m going to believe it”s happening when I”m sitting down and watching it.  That”s always been my attitude.
Drew:  I”ve always loved the British television model vs. the U.S. model.  I love how the writers are empowered in the English system because you guys end up being genuinely the writers of the series, not just a random episode here and there.  I also love the short orders.  Do you… is it only renewed as you finish a series and then you sit down and you talk about, “Will there be a next series?”
Toby:  Yeah, ultimately.  I mean, what tends to happen is that a decision about a recommission normally happens during the transmission of the previous series, which I think is fair enough.  I think it”s not a charity.  They want to see whether the audience is responding to this series, and then we”ll make a decision accordingly.  That doesn”t bother me.  That”s always been the way we”ve done it over here.   So, you know, if there”s going to be… we don”t know at this stage whether there”s going to be a fourth series, but we”ve started to kind of jot down some ideas and we”ve got a meeting with the BBC, you know the first of what will be many meetings with the BBC to discuss the fourth series, but also the other thing is in the U.K., we don”t… it”s very difficult to option actors for more than the next series.  We tend not to be able to option actors for much longer than that.  So it means that often when I start thinking about the next series, I don”t even know which characters I”m going to have.
Drew:  With you not knowing for sure that you”ll be coming back for another series, do you tend to write each series with a resolution where if this were the ending, this would be a satisfying place for you as the creator to walk away?
Toby:  Um…
Drew:  Because I liked how the first series ends.
Toby:  I generally tend not to think too much about myself.  I tend to try to imagine what would happen to the audience and how they”ll feel.  I mean, when you get to the end of series two, that is as big a cliffhanger as you can possibly get.  So I think had we not been recommissioned, I think that would have left a lot of people feeling very unsatisfied.  I think what you want to do is you want to finish certain stories off and then set other balls running.  And also the other thing is I know from having grown up watching these shows… to be honest, I hope I understand the audience in that the audience of high concept shows have very fertile imaginations, so even if the show comes to an end they”ll carry on making and creating stories for those characters.  And, you know, once a series ends, in a way the characters then become the property of the fans, and I think there”s something rather lovely about that.
Drew:  Well, thank you so much, Toby, for taking the time today, and I look forward to digging into season two as it airs here.
Toby:  Well, I hope you enjoy it.
You can pick up “Being Human: Series One” on DVD and Blu-ray now, and “Being Human: Series Two” is currently airing on BBC America.

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