For the better part of five decades now, the ITV network has been trying to find something to pit against the eternal appeal of the BBC’s Doctor Who. Back in the 1970s the campaign started with Timeslip and The Tomorrow People and then later moved on to Sapphire and Steel and most recently the big-budget Primeval. They’ve all had varying degrees of success (I’m a huge fan of Sapphire and Steel for example) but none of them have come even close to dethroning the Time Lord from his position of preeminence in the field.
If the pre-publicity for Jekyll & Hyde is to be believed then this was to be the network’s latest attempt to come up with a credible rival to Doctor Who. In which case I would have to say that despite being created by the talented and successful Charlie Higson, then its aim is spectacularly off.
While it’s true that the two shows both inhabit the same broad genre of fantasy action and adventure, that’s pretty much where any comparison ends. Ever since it began, Doctor Who has been intended as a family show – which means that it has to work for children and for their parents alike. While it’s always liked to scare the younger viewers with monsters it always does so in a reassuring context, not the least of which is the jovial presence of the Doctor himself. The times when the show has got into the most trouble over the years is where it got too grown up and horrifying for the children, or too juvenile and clowning-around for the grown-ups, or too self-indulgent for general audiences and newcomers when it concentrated too much on pandering to its longtime fans. That illustrates how difficult it can be to achieve and maintain such a balance and that it doesn’t happen by accident. Russell T Davies once said that the 2005 reboot of Doctor Who was the most consciously demographics-led project he had ever worked on, and its success was proof and justification of the approach.
If Jekyll & Hyde has been market researched then I’d love to know what the results were that led them to the incarnation of the show that arrived on the screens last Sunday evening, because I can’t figure it out. It’s incredibly dark (and I don’t just mean in terms of on-set lightning, although that too) and had a really hard edge to it that seems designed to upset children and anger adults in turn.
It’s not the fantasy horror elements that I’m referring to, although the depiction of the half-dog, half-human Harbinger creature was certainly far scarier than anything we get to see in Doctor Who these days, not least because it was depicted not in some fantasy environment but rather set on a typical inner city backstreet meaning it was right in the sort of everyday milieu familiar to viewers. The creature was then apparently shot to death by a man with a gun (mercifully off-screen, although the action was clear and the draped cadaver carted across the frame in the next shot) which is in turn upsetting in itself. Still, that’s nothing worse than you get to see in a typical 12A certificate Harry Potter film these days.
No, the bit that was genuinely much nastier came a few minutes later when two characters – the kindly Dr Najaran (Ace Bhatti) and his big-hearted wife Gurinder (Lolita Chakrabarti) – were taken hostage in their 1930s Ceylon home, tied up, tortured and interrogated and then left to burn alive after their home was set on fire as their son lay unconscious on the floor beside them. There was no last minute rescue (unless episode 2 belatedly retcons the events) and the scene instead ends on a close-up of the face of the man responsible, apparently a deranged British colonial officer (Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell’s Enzo Cilenti). Their deaths leave the main character – Dr Robert Jekyll – orphaned and alone once more, since Dr Najaran and his wife were his adopted parents.
Jekyll quickly finds out his true family lineage when he arrives in London and is told by solicitor Maxwell Utterson (Christian McKay) that he’s actually the grandson of Dr Henry Jekyll, the man whose tale was told by Robert Louis Stevenson in the 1886 novella Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. What have the twisted genetics of the Jekyll/Hyde creature resulted in after two generations? Well, in the very handsome Tom Bateman it turns out. His Jekyll is a medical doctor like his grandfather and adopted father, but one who has to take regular medication to keep his temper in check because you wouldn’t like him when he’s angry. And of course the series wastes no time in making him angry, in almost every scene that follows.
We really don’t like him when his rage boils up: it’s like watching someone who on the surface is a respectable husband and father, but who then drinks too much and turns into a violent wife beater and child abuser behind the closed doors of his home. That’s a terribly real and awful reality for too many people, especially young children brought up in violent homes, and the idea that such a figure is meant to be our hero despite these outbreaks of anger and violence is a genuinely troubling one. Other riffs on the Jekyll/Hyde tale have avoided this potential pit fall by making it very clear that Jekyll is one character – decent, nice, upstanding, even-tempered to a fault and even a bit wet as a result – and the brutal, murderous Hyde very much another. It means that Jekyll can still serve as a hero figure albeit one brought down by tragic scientific arrogance and hubris, while we can boo and hiss Hyde for all the atrocious acts of violent crime that he commits.
That’s harder to do with this latest Jekyll & Hyde because initially at least the two are bound up in the same persona and switch around in an instant. An early scene has Jekyll using his superhuman strength to lift a ten-tonne truck off a trapped little girl – but he then places a foot on her chest and starts to crush her. Later, he reacts badly toward his beloved adopted parents at the railway station and starts to physically assault them. And when he arrives in London, he commendably saves a woman from being attacked by a gang of thieves – but then forces himself on her with a savage kiss that implies it could easily have gone much further had good sense not intervened.
All this leaves us with the question of what the true character of our main protagonist is. Are we supposed to like him regardless of the Hyde elements of his characters, because at many other times he can be a handsome, charming and caring individual? Well, the same can be said for many psychopaths, paedophiles, wife beaters, rapists, drug addicts and violent criminals – and while they might all be valid subjects for a literary treatment, I can’t say that I have any taste for them as the main hero protagonist of a ‘family’ show. Unfortunately there are no other candidates around – everyone else in the cast is either an eccentric or a villain. Jekyll is it as far as heroes go here, and as good an actor as Bateman is I’m afraid I wasn’t willing to sign up for that.
There are other strange facets to this show, not least the 1930s setting which is impressively realised by a quite sumptuous production with all the men looking terrific in their overcoats, suits and hats and the women impossibly glamorous in their fur coats and high heels. To anyone who loves the period then this evocation of the period is all money very well spent; but on a young audience it will be totally lost. The 1930s are such an unimaginably alien time and place to anyone under the age of 50 that it’s no more real to them than anything George Lucas used to conjure up via green screen from a galaxy far, far away. Unfortunately the period detail is then technicolored with a comic book sensibility which rather ruins it for the grown-ups watching as well.
With its set-up of various secret societies, shadowy agencies and criminal masterminds enacting evil masterplans in the teeming backstreets of pre-war London, the show feels like Higson is trying to recreate a sense of classic old pulp adventure serials of the period – Sexton Blake, Dick Tracy, Dick Barton, Fu Manchu et al – complete with their lurid over-the-top peril and larger-than-life characters, but at the same time shot through with a knowing cartoonish wink so that everyone knows they’re not to be taken too seriously. Unfortunately, while that sense is clearly present in Jekyll & Hyde it’s not confident enough to really put itself out there and the end effect is too subtle even for grown-ups while completely lost on the younger audiences who never had the benefit of reading the old pulp serials in the first place. It means that instead of providing the tension-relieving humour that is such a key part of the Doctor Who formula, the show remains largely unrelentingly dark and scary and frightening.
To put it another way, Higson seems to have written a show whose demographic is pretty much a target audience of one: himself. He’s writing this from the mindset of a 50-something-year-old using cultural references and tropes from when he was a child. Unfortunately the world has moved in from there and it makes this end result unsuitable for today’s younger viewer. Actually, the fact that it’s clearly very much one person’s (Higson’s) vision and not something that’s been focus grouped to within an inch of its life is something I would generally commend, and having spent almost all of this review criticising Jekyll & Hyde from all sides, it’s time to say some nice things in its defence because there’s actually plenty to like..
If you forget about this being positioned as ITV’s latest riposte to Doctor Who and regard it as a dark, satirical drama for the older teens and young adults (which is the sort of market that Higson writes his series of horror novels for) then the series has much to commend it. As mentioned above, the way that the 1930s period (and even a brief flashback to the darker, more monochrome 1880s) is pulled off through elegant cinematography and CGI-enhancement is really excellent. The FX work for the Harbinger creature is top notch – in many ways, its convincing photo-realism is part of the problem – and the stylish direction by Colin Teague together with the physical stunt work is all top notch.
Bateman is good as Jekyll, although his jowl-quivering in the earliest outbreaks of Hyde-level anger are at best intentionally funny and at worst embarrassingly clichéd depending on your view. But he’s not alone, as Cilenti’s eye-twitching close-up after burning up the Najaran home is a pure slice of ham – presumably intentional and a part of the comic book mise-en-scène. In a similar vein, the attempt to evoke the 1930s setting, the character and sequences set in colonial Ceylon veer dangerously close into a pastiche representation of the racism of the time. At least Richard E Grant is commendably reliable, although he’s playing a very familiar ‘menace with a glint in the eye’ role here as Sir Robert Bulstrode, a British Intelligence officer hunting down supernatural phenomena including Jekyll himself.
A fair amount to commend it, then – but it’s no Doctor Who rival or family show for an early evening spot. Even before the first episode aired I picked up a lot of coded references in reviews, such as “so full blooded in fact that it may be on the edgy side for some of its intended teatime audience” in the Radio Times, which is their way of saying “this really shouldn’t be on at this time of the evening.” The first instalment aired at 6.30pm on a Sunday evening, and I still remember when that used to be the time for Songs of Praise with Thora Hird and Highway with Harry Secombe!
When Doctor Who took a darker turn – and it never got anywhere near this dark – the BBC decided it would be best to push it into the post-8pm slot on a Saturday evening. Younger children protested when it meant they couldn’t stay up to watch it live, but the choice was a canny one by the schedulers as it felt right to put it at the transition point between general light entertainment (Strictly Come Dancing) and grown-up drama with blood and gore (Casualty). What the ITV schedulers were thinking by trying to fly Jekyll & Hyde at 6.30pm is beyond me, but then this is the same network that has squandered the very real family audience possibilities presented by Thunderbirds Are Go! with a bizarre 8.30am Saturday morning slot firmly marooned in kids’ television territory.
No wonder there have been over 700 complaints from viewers in the two days since the first episode aired. Predictably, the Daily Mail has also waded in with a typically even handed (that is to say, spittle-flecked rant) column on the show’s nastiness. Not that Higson has exactly helped matters with his combative responses to the criticism: asked about people making complaints about the show being too scary he responded simply ‘f*** them’ which is not exactly a charm offensive. He developed his thoughts further on Twitter:
Seems to be a veritable twitterstorm of tweets in support of #JekyllandHyde telling scaredy cats to grow up and get with the modern world.
Let’s ban everything that might give children nightmares. Clowns, Santa Claus, big dogs, that dressing gown on the back of the bedroom door.
We can’t protect our children from being scared but we can prepare them for it by exposing them to harmless scares so they learn how to cope.
All sorts of lurid stuff being said about Jekyll that’s not in it. Won’t be surprised to read about how we show someone eating babies.
He has a point – especially when mentioning how the Daily Mail describes images from the show as being too horrific only to then print those same images in the newspaper alongside the story so children can get to study them in detail! – but the debate has always been between ‘harmless scares’ that help children made sense of the adult world, and genuinely traumatising experiences that can do real harm. Context is everything, and I confess I think Jekyll & Hyde fails in that regard whereas Doctor Who has 52 years of collective experience to fall back on and know exactly where to pitch the scares. Which is just as well – can you imagine what the right wing press would be saying if this was a BBC show under fire like this right about now? The discussions over the Corporation’s charter renewal would be toast.
Sadly, Jekyll & Hyde – for all its strong points – has ended up in an awkward place. It’s just too old for young children, but not old enough for adults along the lines of Steven Moffat’s own take on the Jekyll mythos which he made in 2007 long before taking over the reigns of Doctor Who. That six-part mini series starring James Nesbitt was dark and violent and blackly comic – and unequivocally for grown-ups, airing in an appropriate post-watershed slot. It had a firm grasp of what it wanted to be and pulled it off single-mindedly without compromising Moffat’s vision.
Jekyll & Hyde has also taking an uncompromising view, but it doesn’t seem to have such a clear self-image in mind in the first place about what it is that it’s trying to be. Moreover, the schedulers appear to have completely misjudged it, thinking of it as some light tea-time fantasy fare while actually getting something much darker and nastier. The end result is not a happy state of affairs, and that’s a great shame as it’s potentially a golden opportunity missed.
Jekyll & Hyde continues on Sunday early evenings on ITV. The full ten-part series will be released on DVD in the UK on December 28 2015.