No, not a sequel to Her, but a new ITV supernatural drama.
Pick the bones of Stephen King’s
Carrie and it’s a story about burgeoning womanhood; about puberty, menstruation, sexuality. ITV’s new “domestic horror”, HIM, is not as gruesome as Carrie – it is, after all, on ITV – but screenwriter Paula Milne is trying to achieve something similar: to take King’s exploration of female adolescence and flip it in the direction of men.
“What it is, really, is a metaphor for teenage boys’ rage,” she tells SFX. “I have three sons and a daughter and I’ve been married twice, and divorced twice. I wanted to do something that showed how difficult life can be for a child going through divorce. Especially young men, who find it difficult to articulate emotions. And when families break up, I think they’re placed at a vulnerable position at that time, in trying to find out who they are, and how they fit into new dynamics. Like Carrie, I wanted to use this power he has as a metaphor for that, and whether or not he could control it, and whether it would all end in tragedy.”
That power is some form of telekinesis, an ability which 17-year-old HIM (played by newcomer Ffion Whitehead) has inherited from his grandfather, and is struggling to suppress ever since the divorce of his parents, played by Katherine Kelly and James Murray. Now both remarried with new families, he finds himself caught between their two homes – and an enemy to his parents’ new, respective partners. Cue teenage angst, cue “acting out”, cue knives floating above stepfathers’ heads...
based on lIfe
“HIM was very much based on my youngest son,” says Milne, “and the sort of teenage turbulence that he hit [during my divorce]. But at the same time, Steven November, who is the commissioner at ITV, asked me, ‘Why is he called HIM? He never has a name’. And I said, ‘Because he’s all our sons.’ People have to watch and be like, ‘I know that kid’.”
Domestic drama comes naturally for Milne, who has built her career on straight, often political shows like 2012’s White Heat, and 2013’s The Politician’s Husband; both of which aired on BBC Two. Yet to blend that kind of grounded drama with the supernatural was a whole new challenge for her.
“I think [supernatural] things carry more impact if they’re set against an ordinary background – the kind of mundanity of suburbia, if you like. But I did research [the supernatural elements], because the genre has its own appeal to an audience so you want them to buy into that.
“The research itself was very interesting,” she adds, “because to make it credible you have to park your disbelief and your scepticism and approach it as if it were true... People do want it to be true in some ways. People who believe in it and conduct exorcisms and so forth have told me that pubescence is a ripe and optimum time if [telekinesis] is going to occur. I think it’s no coincidence that the horror genre often revolves around young people in some stage of alienation. That, to me, is very much the stripped down engine of what the genre is.” Although far from the days of The Prisoner,
The Avengers and even – yes – Primeval, HIM does represent something of a shift in ITV’s attitude towards sci-fi, fantasy and horror; with the past few years having seen such supernatural stabs as Midwinter Of The Spirit,
The Oaks, Afterlife and, of course, last year’s doomed Jekyll And Hyde. Even so, ITV is still a mainstream channel, with an arguably broader tone than, say, the BBC or Channel 4. Was there a limit to how far she could push the horror?
“Well, I’d already processed what I wanted to do – setting it in suburbia, extended families, divorce and such. So to some extent, wherever I’d taken it, that was going to be a component in it. And I’m sure that suited them! It wasn’t going to be so completely ‘far out’ that they
He’s like all our sons. People have to watch it and be like, ‘I know that kid’
would lose their mainstream audience. But at the same time, having said that, it was quite brave to introduce something quite different, in that they hadn’t done anything quite like that before. It’s not quite creeping floorboards and doors opening when no one’s there. It’s rooted around one specific power.”
Does she feel that ITV commissioning HIM says something about how mainstream the supernatural has become?
“I would say so. Television is very dictated by genre. And the sort of safety net of genre has traditionally been crime shows, thrillers, hospital dramas and so forth. And perhaps horror has been neglected, because special effects have mainly taken it over. I think two things have kind of happened together. The first is, I think, seeing popularity in contemporary culture, like The Blair Witch
Project and Twilight. Seeing how they reach and impact on an audience has kind of spilled more over into TV.
“The second thing is because the digital stuff is now much more affordable. We did a lot of effects on camera but we did a lot in postproduction. And before that, it would’ve been horrendously expensive. It’s much more doable than it used to be. I remember taking my kid on the set of Doctor Who once and he burst into tears because it was all polystyrene...” As you can imagine, dramas like The
Politician’s Husband don’t feature a lot of supernatural special effects. How did Milne find writing HIM’s powers?
“What was fun was to show how some of the scariest things are those that come out of the ordinary. There’s one scene where the scary thing is just a bag of tools on a ladder, and there’s a blade sticking out, and [HIM] is realising you could actually slice someone’s skull with that. He just about manages to control [the urge to], but it’s important to show that he’s capable of that.”
Told over three episodes, HIM will push its titular teenager to the limit. It will tear him between broken homes; it will make him the bane of hostile step-parents, the unwanted baggage of his actual parents; it will confuse him with feelings for a stepsister he’s barely met; it will thrust upon him generations of immense, supernatural power – and expect him to control it. Surely this won’t end well?
“I had to pile stuff on him,” says Milne, “so he had nowhere to go. People who are boxed into a corner have a habit of coming out fighting. And from that, the central thrust of the story is, ‘Will he control it?’ And because of what the audience understands and perceives the horror genre to be, this will eventually have to become a matter of life and death – whether he uses his power in terms of violence or not. It builds and builds to that – the frustrations and emotions that he cannot control.”
HIM is on ITV from October (date TBC).
It was fun to show how some of the scariest things come out of the ordinary
HIM has Carrie-like powers – but will he use them for good or evil?
Ffion Whitehead takes on the role of the boy with no name.
Simona Brown is stepsister Faith, who HIM begins to feel attracted to.
Former Coronation Street star Katherine Kelly plays HIM’s mum Hannah.