Friday 28 October 2016

Don't miss out on the frightfully brilliant Penny Dreadful

Josh Hartnett in Penny Dreadful
Josh Hartnett in Penny Dreadful

GAME of Thrones is the most talked about, most illegally downloaded television series in the world at the moment. So wey-hey, woo-hoo and bully for Game of Thrones

Frankly, pound for pound (of flesh), litre for litre (of blood) and acre for acre (of naked female bodies), I’d prefer Penny Dreadful any day of the week.

This no doubt qualifies as heresy, punishable by nothing less than burning at the stake by the gazillions of GoT nuts worldwide who persist in the unshakeable belief — and persist in their efforts to persuade the rest of us to adopt that unshakeable belief — that it’s The Greatest TV Show of All Time (TM and © Fanboy Bores Inc), rather than merely an extremely well-made, if rather po-faced, rambling and ultimately shallow cod-historical fantasy romp.

It’s as if The Wire, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Mad Men, The West Wing and House of Cards (the first season, anyway), not to mention numerous unheralded classics of British television, simply never happened.

Nobody would ever stake such a ridiculous claim for Penny Dreadful — and thank goodness for that. Some might even say it’s not as good as American Horror Story. But they’d be wrong.

In preparation for its return on Sky Atlantic last night, I re-watched the entire first season over the bank holiday weekend and was struck all over again by just how much pure fun it is. If anything, and I know this sounds perverse, the fun factor is increased by the fact that Penny Dreadful plays everything extremely straight.

It owes a debt to, among many other sources, the 1950s’ and early-’60s’ Hammer horror films. Hipster revisionists (who mostly weren’t even around when the films were released) like to describe them as camp, when they’re anything but. They took themselves deadly seriously. So does Penny Dreadful, but not at the expense of entertainment value.

Creator John Logan, who’s somehow managed to pen every single script while continuing to co-write the James Bond movies, clearly respects as well as loves his chosen genre, and that sparkles through every episode, including last night’s brilliant season two opener.

Penny Dreadful is everything the botched film of Alan Moore’s graphic novel The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen wasn’t: a delirious plundering/mash-up of famous characters from macabre Gothic fiction, with a few original ones (Timothy Dalton’s team leader Sir Malcolm Murray, Eva Green’s enigmatic Vanessa Ives, Josh Hartnett’s American sharpshooter, and as we now know, lycanthrope, Ethan Chandler) thrown in.

The first season wasn’t faultless; Oscar Wilde’s immortal hedonist Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney), also a character in The League as it happens, mostly felt surplus to requirements.

He barely appeared in last night’s episode, though, which delivered on Logan’s promise to go bigger, better and more complex (not to mention two episodes longer) this year with a stunning scene involving Ethan and Vanessa being attacked by bald, naked, yellow-eyed witches unleashed by the terrifying Madame Kali (Helen McRory, just as great here as she is in Peaky Blinders), whose link to Vanessa looks like forming the gristly meat of this season’s story arc.

Elsewhere, Frankenstein’s Creature (Rory Kinnear — simply magnificent) persuaded his creator (Harry Treadaway) to construct him a mate from the corpse of consumptive prostitute (and Ethan’s former love) Brona. You get the feeling that’s one relationship that’s not going to be rosy. Unless it’s rosy red.

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