Toby Whithouse Interview, Part One

Being Human recently received a full-series commission, following the BBC3 airing of the pilot. I had no option but to celebrate by asking its creator Toby Whithouse (pictured right) a few questions.

First, some history. Toby trained as an actor at The Guildhall School of Music and Drama. His first play, Jump Mr Malinoff Jump, won the 1998 Verity Bargate award. It was the opening production at Soho Theatre in 2000, and has since been adapted for radio. His second play Blue Eyes And Heels was produced there five years later. For television he has written on Where The Heart Is, Attachments, Hotel Babylon, Doctor Who, Torchwood, The Armstrong and Miller Show. He wrote Other People for the C4 Comedy Playhouse season. And then, of course, there's Being Human...

What can you tell us about the genesis of Being Human as a concept? Did it spring from that hold-it-in-your-hand idea of "A vampire, a werewolf and a ghost share a house"?

I was approached by Touchpaper - an Independent TV company. They wanted to develop a drama series about a group of friends who buy a house together. To be honest, I wasn't exactly electrified by the idea. I rather felt this was territory that had been visited often before - in shows like This Life - so was on the verge of saying a polite no.

But then strangely, completely unbidden, three characters kind of dropped into my head. It was very odd and believe me it never normally works like that. But there they were, these three characters, fully formed. So I wrote their biogs (a couple of pages per character, describing their background and personalities, their lives and loves) and gave them to Touchpaper. They liked the characters, so we started developing the project.

There was still something missing. We spent months knocking ideas around, trying to get a story-line for the first episode, but nothing worked. We decided to have one last meeting and if nothing came of it, we'd call it a day. And half way through I said "You know, what we could do... is make George a werewolf, Mitchell a vampire, and Annie a ghost..."

I should explain, that suggestion didn't exactly come out of nowhere. I'd been developing an idea for a odd little rom-com about a werewolf, called Mild Thing (I literally just cringed). It was a bit of a guilty secret pleasure. I had grown up addicted to comics and British Sci-fi and Hammer Horror and John Wyndham and so on. But for years there hadn't been a place for that genre on British TV.

Anyway. Strangely, the three characters transposed very easily into supernatural creatures. Mitchell, in his original incarnation, was a recovering sex addict. That translated easily into a vampire who has decided to renounce his nature and is struggling to live a life without blood. George was punctilious and house-proud and fastidious and cautious. Again that worked well for someone who constantly strives to keep the 'chaos' of his curse at bay. While Annie was shy and awkward and lacking in confidence, and there can be no greater knock to someone's confidence than having died.

I wrote a version of the script that was wildly different to what eventually hit the screen. This early draft was really more of a sit-com. The characters were much more established - they already had the house and nice jobs.

After it was done, myself and the producers looked at it and we all agreed it wasn't quite right. So I started again from scratch. I moved all the characters much further back in their stories, and changed the whole tone of the show. I'd written the first version as a comedy, and for the next version I decided that tonally it should be more like a low budget American Independent film. As soon as I did that, it was actually the easiest script I ever wrote.

To what extent did being the creator of No Angels, and writer for the likes of Hotel Babylon and Doctor Who, make it easier for you to then dangle the idea under BBC noses, like some glorious carrot?

Well, in this case, it was the BBC that commissioned the initial idea of the flat-share in the first place. So the door was already open. But in answer to your question, ultimately it's the quality of the script and the strength of the concept that will determine whether or not it gets made... one would hope. Though it'd be disingenuous of me to say that being connected with successful shows doesn't help.

Have sci-fi and horror elements become more accepted in British TV drama? If so, what can we attribute to that change?

I think you can trace it back to Doctor Who, which proved that something high concept can cross into the mainstream and pull in the viewers. If the return of that show hadn't been the success it was, I think sci-fi and fantasy would still be in the wilderness. Before, had you pitched a supernatural or sci-fi project to a broadcaster, they probably have called Security. But suddenly there was - if not an appetite - then certainly a cautious interest in those types of show.

For broadcasters, viewing figures will always be the bottom line. They will follow success, and so unsurprisingly, they wanted to see if they could replicate the popularity of Doctor Who with other formats and shows. Being Human, Primeval, importing Heroes, remaking The Prisoner, Survivors and Blake's 7 - it's unlikely any of these things would have happened if Doctor Who hadn't been such a hit.

Tomorrow, in Part Two: the pressures of publicly-aired pilots, and how Being Human got the green-light for a full series...

The original Being Human BBC press office page

The BBC press office announces the full-series commission


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Anonymous said...

I wonder if Toby realises what a huge demographic he has missed out on with Being Human. Tweenagers and under 15s are not supposed to be watching post 9pm stuff on a night before school - but the bits they have sneaked a peek at, have left them hugely more excited about Being Human than Dr Who.
Although I understand the reasons for chosing this slot and wanting to explore big adult concepts - I think that (with respect) this choice does underestimate this age group.
Think of the huge success of the film adaptation of Twilight.

Being Human is superb and the only thing on TV for a long time to keep me gripped one moment and truly laughing out loud the next.

Excellent juxtoposition of serious stuff with humour. Funniest example - the knock on the door and 'little bit of wee'.

Well done Toby.

: )

Anonymous said...

I think teenagers are free to appreciate being human if they want to (where exactly are these 15 year olds in bed before 9pm?? I certainly wasnt! I was up til 11 watching sopranos and six feet under at that age!) but cynically aiming the show at that demographic would only end up dumbing down the show, frustrating older viewers and patronising the younger ones.. everybody loses.

and the show needs all its sex and violence.. that's what makes it good.. its bare-faced honesty about the facts of being human/ a little bit more than human!