The Victorian horror mash-up is filled with scenery chewing, snort-inducing silliness, says Camilla King. So why does she love it so?
Please allow me to introduce you to Penny Dreadful, the Golden Globe, BAFTA and Critics’ Choice award winning TV programme written by Bond screenwriter John Logan (Skyfall and Spectre) that you’ve probably never heard of, and almost certainly haven’t watched.
I base this claim scientifically on its low viewing figures and the fact that I’ve only come across one other person who regularly tunes in, and that is my husband. And I practically have to force him to watch it with me (he’s a faint-at-the-sight-of-blood type) because it scares me absolutely witless.
As the show’s title suggests, it has a lurid storyline that creates a mash-up of Gothic fiction’s greatest hits, the first series pitting Dracula‘s Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) and new character Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) in a battle for the soul of poor Mina Harker, their daughter and best friend respectively, from the clutches of the Master Vampire (Count Dracula has been saved for season three). Along for the ride are Dorian Gray, Victor Frankenstein, Van Helsing and an assortment of other friends and foes.
The casting is wonderful, with a fair amount of scenery chewing which only adds to the viewing pleasure. Helen McCrory is a clairvoyant with ulterior motives, Billie Piper plays a Northern Irish prostitute (or at least I think that’s what the accent was meant to be), Josh Hartnett is Ethan Chandler, a rootin’ tootin’ cowboy werewolf, Rory Kinnear embodies Frankenstein’s monster, and Simon Russell Beale is the foppish Ferdinand Lyle, a linguistics expert with an accent inspired by real-life playwright Tom Stoppard (truly).
Production values, direction and music are all of a ridiculously high quality, which helps balance out a plot that is frequently snort inducing. While ‘allo-Mary-Poppins-style cockney accents abound, and the language and clothing (Dorian Gray and your modern-day rock-boy outfits, I’m looking at you) often jar, it’s a rare programme that can offer up a scene with a possessed Eva Green, suspended in mid-air, shouting “you fucking cunts” that leaves the viewer simultaneously horrified and weeping with laughter.
At its heart, Penny Dreadful is an examination of the capacity for good and bad within everyone and it’s skilfully done. I mean, who hasn’t wondered whether they’d be strong enough to fight the will of an extremely creepy naked and tattooed vampire who insists on spinning round the crucifix on their bedroom wall and sending spiders teeming across the room, all while they say their bedtime prayers? I know I have. Characters are often not what they seem, undergoing nail-biting transformations across seasons one and two, and no one is safe from writer John Logan’s axe.
It’s a genre that demands a bold approach, and Penny Dreadful is certainly unafraid to chuck everything at the wall to see what sticks. The result is a brash, hilarious, at times touching and frankly brilliant piece of television. Although I admit that at the end of every single episode I have shouted, “Why am I still watching this? Why?” The answer is that it’s totally compulsive viewing. If you like a good scare and enjoy a side helping of silliness, give it a go.
Oh, and if you think you’re a horror aficionado who won’t be unnerved by such nonsense, think again; I’m not sure you’ve really known true fear until you’ve seen Timothy Dalton rendered as a ventriloquist’s dummy, brought to life by a human heart and a dash of black magic, trying to possess the actual human Timothy Dalton with its blinking dead eyes and evil flappy dummy mouth. *shudder*
Season three of Penny Dreadful is airing on Sky Atlantic now. Episode five starts tomorrow at 10pm.
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Freelancer in the arts. Unwilling expert on Batman, dinosaurs and poo (there are children) and running widow of @UpDownRunner. Lover of music, cake and lady stuff. @millking2301