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How The Fades captured the mood in 2010s Britain

The cast of BBC drama The Fades. The Fades' main cast: Mac (Daniel Kaluuya), Anna (Lilly Loveless), Paul (Iain De Caestecker), Neil (Johnny Valentine) and Sarah (Natalie Dormer).
The Fades' main cast: Mac (Daniel Kaluuya), Anna (Lilly Loveless), Paul (Iain De Caestecker), Neil (Johnny Valentine) and Sarah (Natalie Dormer).

WHEN a TV programme is killed off before its story is fully told, it’s a painful moment. No matter the talent involved in its making, or the awards earned, the show joins an ignominious collection, condemned to be quickly forgotten. But some make such an impact their memory lives on. The Fades is one of these.

Broadcast on BBC 3 in 2011, this horror drama focused on Paul (Iain De Caestecker), a troubled teenager embroiled in a war between vengeful spirits trapped on Earth (which the show takes its name from) and the Angelics, a cadre of psychics trying to defend humankind. Blessed with the power to heal others and shoot fire from his hands, he can sway the conflict for either side. The eponymous monsters are uniquely original; initially insubstantial they can be trapped by walls and closed doors, leaving them isolated and embittered at those blissfully unaware of the spirits haunting their homes. But they also have a Pokemon-like ability to evolve when they drink blood, allowing these spiteful spirits to regrow bodies. But rebirth comes at price: they must continue their cannibalism to survive, putting humanity on the menu.

Serious talent was involved in making the show. It was written by screen and stage heavyweight Jack Thorne (Skins, His Dark Materials, Kiri) and boasted a gifted young cast who went onto enjoy success elsewhere in Tom Ellis, Natalie Dormer and Iain De Caestecker. Notably it also starred Daniel Kaluuya before his stratospheric rise to Hollywood stardom as Paul’s best friend, Mac. Alas, talent and quality doesn’t always equal longevity. Despite bagging a best drama BAFTA and boasting enthusiastic viewers, it fell victim to BBC budget cuts after just one six episode series, which left frustrated fans dangling on the edge of a cliffhanger.

While like Buffy the Vampire Slayer – a gifted teenager fighting supernatural forces in a sleepy town – The Fades differs because it focuses on the fallibility of men. At its heart is a beautifully sweet friendship between Paul and Mac, who spend their days talking about girls and movies. Kaluuya imbues his uber-nerd with charm while dropping enough geeky references to fill the Death Star. Like Sam Raimi’s Spiderman 2, Thorne links the emergence of powers with the onset of puberty in all its sticky reality. As well as their love of Star Wars, the boys bonded over a lack of positive male role models: Paul’s dad walked out on his family, while his best mate is bullied by his father.

Tearing Paul in opposing directions are the factions’ rancorous ringleaders, who try to fill the paternal gap in his life. On the Angelic side, Neil (Johnny Valentine) aims to eradicate the new menace, while Fades leader John wants his emerging species to top the food chain. Despite being bitter enemies, they are both driven by loneliness, anger and despair. For example, anti-hero Neil lives on society’s fringes as part of his mission. When cell members Helen (Daniela Nardini) and Sarah (Dormer) are killed, he loses perspective and spirals into violence, which shockingly culminates in the murder of Paul’s girlfriend, Jay. Meanwhile, isolated John (Joe Dempsie) haunted the Earth for decades after his death in World War II, his bitter resentment further fuelled by watching his wife grow old and die.

The show’s negative characterisation of both sides captured the mood in the early 2010s UK following the fallout from the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions, which resulted in a crisis of confidence for western democracies. The righteous clarity of who was ‘good’ or ‘bad’ was washed away by a tsunami of doubt, recriminations and self-loathing. How much was Thorne influenced by the Chilcot Inquiry, which investigated Britain’s role in Iraq and was held while the programme was being made? Like the Battlestar Galactica reboot and Marvel’s Civil War mini-series, The Fades reflects the era’s cynicism and explores the questionable actions done in the name of defending democracy.

Image from BBC drama The Fades with Iain De Caestecker and Sophie Wu.
Paul with the tragically doomed girlfriend, Jay (Sophie Wu).

Paul is only able to resist these frightening forces because of a strong female-lead support system. His formidable twin sister Anna (Lily Loveless) hides her softer side under a ferociously snarky persona and clashes with understanding mum, Meg (Claire Rushbrook), who patiently holds her family together. Meanwhile, murdered Angelic Sarah is dragged through hell when she suffers the creature’s horrifying reverse lifecycle, lurching from undeath to born again flesh addict. Jay’s killing, however, is a problem. It’s a testament to the strong writing and Sophie Wu’s performance that her death was truly shocking. But it was also an example of ‘fridging’, when a harmful act is included to cynically provoke a reaction. While her murder galvanised Paul, it still leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.

Thorne envisioned three series and it would have been fascinating to see what happened next. Considering the nature of the 'monster', my hope is that Jay would make a redemptive return. While the abrupt cancellation saw The Fades join an infamous TV pantheon, it’s fondly remembered by fans who yearn to know Paul and co.’s fate. Perversely, I can’t help thinking it has fulfilled its purpose by capturing the UK’s bitter and brittle psyche in 2011.



The Fades is still on BBC iPlayer and can be found here.

An interview with Jack Thorne on the SFX website.

Natalie Dormer talks about the show's cancellation here.


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