Mark Lawson: Penny Dreadful is a bookish thriller for the post-literate age

The lavish budgets and look of new period drama Penny Dreadful so belie the title of that they suggest a new genre: the “million-dollar dreadful”.

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Released in weekly episodes, aimed at a new mass audience, prone to sensational plot twists – the similarities between Victorian literature and contemporary television have made them a tempting comparison for cultural historians. Few conferences on popular TV pass without a delegate declaring that a living Dickens would be writing for EastEnders, although today’s Little Nell would doubtless have to endure a custody battle and a siege at the Queen Vic before being killed off during a ratings crisis.

Rather than imagining what the Victorian writers might have done with modern shows, Penny Dreadful reverses the process. An eight-part UK and US co-production involving a headline talent from both countries – the producer Sam Mendes and the writer John Logan (Skyfall, The Aviator) – the period drama, set in London in 1891, is an echo chamber of 19th-century literature. A loose stew of historical and textual allusions (smog, dissected bodies, Romantic poets, Egyptology, photography, vampires, spiritualism) contains more solid offcuts: the characters include Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), galvanising new life in his laboratory, and Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney), an artist obsessed with sex and death.

Lower down the list of debts than Mary Shelley and Oscar Wilde are Rudyard Kip­ling and H Rider Haggard, whose respective books The Man Who Would Be King (1888) and King Solomon’s Mines (1885) inform the main storyline of an explorer, Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton), searching for his missing daughter. Murray, who has a mountain in Africa named after him, is assisted by Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett), an American chancer discovered in a touring Wild West show. His surname is probably another allusion, as Raymond Chandler was born in 1888.

In an era that is commonly considered post-literate, the show takes a risk by weaving in so many literary references. Yet it should be just as successful with an audience that is under-read but well viewed, as these tropes of classic fiction are mostly familiar. A scene in which someone deduces Chandler’s character from his appearance can play, depending on your frame of reference, as a quotation from Arthur Conan Doyle or from Sherlock or Elementary.

The Victorian periodicals were accessibly cheap, as the nickname “penny dreadfuls” proclaims. Mass-audience drama is forbiddingly expensive to produce and, if screened on Sky Atlantic, pricey to watch. But with Penny Dreadful, you can see where the money went and only the most committed Murdoch refuseniks would resent the subscription. Initially planning to direct, Mendes was occupied with the James Bond franchise and Simon Russell Beale’s King Lear, but his production role here included booking SRB for an enjoyable turn as a lisping hieroglyphics expert at the British Museum. Replacing Mendes behind the camera for the first two episodes, J A Bayona (best known for the Spanish horror film The Orphanage) conjures some beautifully spooky images. Seen from behind, a black-clad figure kneeling in prayer seems at first to have been decapitated; Dorian’s naked, bloody seduction of a TB victim is reflected in miniature in a camera lens.

As might be expected from Logan’s work for screen and stage, the scripts are clever and elegant (he wrote the play Peter and Alice, which, playing games with J M Barrie’s and Lewis Carroll’s characters, may have been a dry run for this show). The first two episodes are subtly structured around recurrent images: blood (consumptive, virginal, murderous) and energy. The arrival of gaslight and the prospect of electricity are crucial in the first storyline, in which illumination fails suddenly on three occasions.

The biggest challenge for historical dialogue is to achieve a balance between realistic speech of the epoch and contemporary comprehensibility. Logan opts for a slightly heightened rhetoric – “To save her,” cries the explorer about his daughter, “I would murder the world!” – and the regular use of rather antique Englishisms, including “assuredly”, “ephemera” and “capricious”. The actors audibly relish the dialogue (there will be no Jamaica Inn-like rumblings about mumbling). Timothy Dalton, an actor recently underused, lends a splendid resonance to Sir Malcolm, using deep, Scottish tones that seem to channel a 007 predecessor, Sir Sean Connery, perhaps through the medium of his performance in the film of The Man Who Would Be King.

Victorian literary pastiche, such as Julia Davis’s Hunderby for Sky Atlantic and Mark Evans’s BBC Radio 4 show Bleak Expectations, is often comic or satirical. Penny Dreadful has some Indiana Jones-style fun in the Haggard-esque adventure sequences but generally takes its sources seriously, even with regard to supernatural elements. Among the other literary presences raised by Logan is – through a ghostly woman in white – Wilkie Collins.

In the current industry fashion, the first programme is labelled: “Year one, episode one”. That formula cockily assumes a future but, in this case, it feels justified. The lavish budgets and look of the show so belie the title that they suggest a new genre: the “million-dollar dreadful”. In fact, this is a million-dollar delight.

“Penny Dreadful” is on Tuesdays on Sky Atlantic at 9pm

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. 

This article appears in the 21 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Peak Ukip