Thursday 5 December 2019

Why hasn't 'Penny Dreadful' become the new 'Game of Thrones'?

The cast of Penny Dreadful
The cast of Penny Dreadful

Ed Power

As the the first season has its finale and a second season is announced, Ed Power asks why 'Penny Dreadful' which was largely shot in Dublin, has failed to set Ireland alight.


The failure of Penny Dreadful to capture the public imagination is a considerable surprise. This lusty tale of vampires, werewolves and demons up to very bad things in the pea-soup streets of Victorian London boasts a gilded cast, including Josh Hartnett, Eva Green and Timothy Dalton, and is written by John Logan, co-writer of the script for the most recent James Bond movie, Skyfall.

In theory it ought to be the new Game of Thrones: a genre property that breaks down traditional boundaries and conquers the mainstream.

Instead, it has proved a slow-burn cult affair and its muted finale will have done little to suggest much will change in season two (that Penny Dreadful will have a second run of episodes was only confirmed this week).

Penny Dreadful
Penny Dreadful

Especially surprising has been its low profile in Ireland – it was, after all, shot entirely in Dublin, with familiar neighbourhoods standing-in for the gothic labyrinths of 19th Whitechapel and Westminster. If you were in central Dublin late last year you would inevitably stumble upon a Victorian street tableau recreated in breathtaking detail. Seldom has a major production unfolded so visibly before our eyes –  yet its arrival on Sky Atlantic has barely been commented on.

The difficulty with Penny Dreadful is that it is easier to admire than tumble in a swoon over. The murk and dank of the late 19th century are gorgeously evoked – the show is so musty you can almost smell the tuberculoses rising like the damp. However, this authenticity is at a price because, half the time, it's literally impossible to tell what is going on.

The set of 'Penny Dreadful' on Dame Lane just off Dame Street in Dublin. Picture: Steve Humphreys
The set of 'Penny Dreadful' on Dame Lane just off Dame Street in Dublin. Picture: Steve Humphreys

In episode eight's big action pay off, for instance, Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) stormed the vampire nest where daughter Mina Harker (Olivia Llewellyn) was held. Cue a gory fight : Murray and sidekicks versus a deluge of pale, scary vamps. This ought to be a blast - and maybe that would be the case if you could actually have seen anything beyond blurred shadows taking potshots at one another.

Moreover, Logan's script is deeply talky; even when characters are strangling or biffing each other over the head they appear incapable of shutting up. For example, in the resolution of another major plot-line tonight poor "Oirish" immigrant Brona (Billie Piper, armed with a toe-curling accent) was asphyxiated by Dr Frankenstein, so he could provide his monster with a bride. The scene in which the good doctor (Harry Treadaway) placed a cushion over Brona's face ought to have been arresting – or at least disturbing – but his monologuing went on too long, diluting the horror.

There was one stand-out surprise, although, going by Twitter, fans saw it coming weeks ago. Approached by detectives hired to bring him back to America Ethan Chandler (Hartnett) was revealed to be a werewolf (with those sideburns, we'd suspected from the outset). There was a nice sense of denouement, though the transformation sequence was over too quickly: we wanted more of Ethan growling and baring his fangs and the cutaway to a full moon felt like short-change.

Will lack of buzz kill of Penny Dreadful? The likelihood is that it's too early to say. Showtime (in association with Sky) has invested considerably in the series and is presumably of the opinion audiences will come on board steadily rather than overnight. Certainly it makes for absorbing viewing, provided you can attune to its somnolent pace and bleary plotting. There are an awful lot of handsomely attired people mooching about to no clear purpose –  a fact that may sink Penny Dreadful before it has a chance to spread its wings.

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