Monday 23 April 2018

TV: Full of gory panache, lurid story far from dreadful

The cast of Penny Dreadful
The cast of Penny Dreadful

John Boland

Sky Atlantic's new blockbuster series, Penny Dreadful, plainly cost more than a penny and is far from dreadful, though I'm not sure what it's meant to be. It takes its name from those lurid Victorian stories in serialised form that were aimed at working-class adolescents, but its immediate antecedents are the similarly adolescent X-Men movies with their mishmash of Marvel comic superheroes coming together to battle evil.

Mind you, some of the people encountered in Penny Dreadful, which was created for the Showtime cable channel by John Logan, are of more dubious character, not least Victor Frankenstein, who has strayed in from Mary Shelley's novel, and Dorian Gray, whose hideous portrait was last seen in Oscar Wilde's novel.

But, as you will gather, it's that kind of a series, with vampires courtesy of Bram Stoker, sharpshooters from a Wild West show, intrepid adventurers in the tradition of Indiana Jones, an alluringly mysterious female psychic and a motley crew of other characters.

In other words, anything goes and it's entirely up to you whether you choose to follow Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton) in his search through dank and dark London for a daughter who's been abducted by ghouls.

Eva Green is the psychic in question, Josh Hartnett is the hired gunslinger, while the first episode also had an amusing turn from Simon Russell Beale as a shifty Egyptologist.

It's all done with a fair amount of gory panache and, if you've nothing else to occupy you on a Tuesday evening, I won't stop you watching it, though I much preferred Sky Atlantic's new Friday night offering, Mr Sloane, a six-part comedy series created and directed by Robert B Weide, hitherto best known as producer-director of Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm, for which he won a cluster of Emmys.

That was a quintessentially West Coast American show and so it was brave of Weide to attempt a series that's set in Watford at the fag-end of the supposedly Swinging Sixties and that has as its main character an overweight, middle-aged office drone who's just been sacked from his job and whose wife has just left him.

But the good news is that the extended pilot episode hit all the right notes, from its persuasive feeling for period to its quirky and often very funny gags – not least the failed suicide in the opening scene from which the hapless antihero dusted himself off to answer the phone as if nothing had happened, telling his caller "Sorry, I got hung up on a broken pipe".

It helped that he was played by Nick Frost with a winning blend of comedy and poignancy and that the supporting players were also so good – especially Olivia Colman, as the wife who'd left him so that she could "find herself", and Ophelia Lovibond, as the spirited young American whom he meets in a hardware shop and on whom he immediately develops a crush that's subverted by various toilet-based mishaps.

I sneaked a look at the second episode, which was just as amusing and engaging as the first, and I've high hopes that the series will stay that way to the end of its six-week run.

In an interesting week for drama, the original Swedish version of Wallander returned to BBC4 for a final series. No one has come close to matching Krister Henriksson in the title role (certainly not the ponderous Kenneth Branagh), though four years after he last played the part it apparently required some coaxing before he agreed to do it once more.

Perhaps that accounted for his look of fatigue in last weekend's opening episode, though maybe he just felt defeated by the storyline, which involved a sinister naval incident from the past and which really wasn't very interesting. Still, if you've never seen this version of Wallander, earlier episodes are available on Netflix and are really awfully good – indeed, the best of all Scandi mystery dramas.

Dylan Thomas: A Poet in New York (BBC2), with a script by Andrew Davies, had an expert feeling for early 1950s Manhattan and a commanding lead performance by Tom Hollander, though after a while I wearied of the drinking binges, the soul-searching and the poetic earnestness of it all. Maybe if I liked the verse better it would have meant more to me.

Imagine: Philip Roth Unleashed (BBC1) had Alan Yentob interviewing the great American novelist, who recently announced that there'll be no more books from him. "Now that I don't write, I just want to chatter away", he told Yentob, though if you removed all the archive footage from this first hour of a two-parter, the chat hardly ran to 10 minutes. Interesting, though.

More interesting, in fact, than Desperate House Buys (RTE1), which spent fifty-something minutes telling us what all of us already knew: that prices are rocketing upwards in Dublin, while auctioneers in rural Ireland can't give houses away.

Rebecca and her Italian partner Matteo were likeable interviewees as they searched for an affordable house, but I didn't really need to hear about the travails of estate agents, those self-appointed, swaggering Masters of the Universe during the insane years of the Celtic Tiger.


RTE2's latest comedy import, Sullivan & Son, is set in a Pittsburgh bar, thereby reminding viewers of such other pub-based American sitcoms as Cheers and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, these reminders do this new sitcom no favours.

Steve Byrne is the big-city lawyer who returns to his hometown to take over the bar formerly run by his Irish father and his penny-pinching Korean mother, which leads to all sorts of tired ethnic gags, many of them more than a little racist.

There's none of the wit of Cheers here, nor the raucous incorrectness of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, just predictable putdowns from stock characters. You can safely give it a miss.

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