ITV is getting into the spooky Halloween spirit early this Sunday, with the premiere of its new action-adventure series, Jekyll & Hyde. It may air at 6.30pm, but it’s not quite the cheerful, child-friendly show you might expect. In fact, almost everything about it is unexpected. Based on the classic novella by Robert Louis Stevenson yet also its own beast, this is Jekyll & Hyde – but not as you know them.
The obvious point of reference for such a show is BBC’s Doctor Who, which straddles Saturday teatime with charming success – and it’s not something that ITV is afraid to admit. Introducing a preview of the show at the BFI this week, the channel’s director of drama, Steve November, nodded to the Time Lord as a guide for the programme’s tone, not to mention Indiana Jones and Harry Potter.
Something unnerving but entertaining? It’s a difficult ask. The Daily Mail has already begun to run news stories decrying the fact that a man is beaten to death in the opening minutes of the first episode (something that’s far from dwelt upon).
“That’s exactly what we wanted,” says November with confidence at the event. “We didn’t want to patronise children.”
“We knew it was going to be at 6.30,” says creator Charlie Higson. The Fast Show writer might seem like an odd choice for a supernatural Sunday afternoon series, but he’s had experience with young audiences and the boundary between acceptable and inappropriate, from his horror series The Enemy to the Young Bond books.
“I have a feel for what kids like,” he says. “Kids love horror, they love gore and death and all of that stuff.
“Some of the younger kids may not,” he acknowledges.
He agrees that it’s important “never to talk down” to younger audiences, even when “there are lots of adult things” in there. After all, modern kids “have been exposed to a lot more stuff than we were at that age.”
The process, meanwhile, was very careful and regulated.
“We took a very responsible attitude to it,” he continues. “At the script stage things were toned down, at the filming stage things were toned down.”
Series producer Foz Allan highlights Pirates of the Caribbean as an indicator of how to avoid over-stepping the mark. There’s action and death on screen, yes, but “not in-your-face gore”; like the Disney franchise, there is “no blood unless its plot”.
“Five degrees one way, it’s a kids show and people walk away from it,” he observes. “Five degrees the other way, it’s a horror show and people are upset by it.”
The boldness of Higson’s adaptation doesn’t just extend to the tone, though: the story itself has been changed dramatically. Tom Bateman (of Da Vinci’s Demons) stars as Dr. Robert Jekyll, the grandson of Stevenson’s original doctor, who is raised in Ceylon by another family, with no knowledge of his ancestry. As far as he’s aware, he has a strange condition, one that sees him get scarily strong during moments of stress.
If it sounds like The Incredible Hulk, that’s because it is: Marvel’s green giant followed in the footsteps of Stevenson’s tiny story, a study of the dual nature of man as much as a chance for some blockbusting action. Higson goes full circle with the notion of Hyde as superhero: here, his superhuman power can help save a child from an out-of-control truck, or floor an opponent in a street fight.
But his abilities attract attention and so Jekyll is summoned back to London, where a lawyer – an old friend of the family – informs him that he is the heir to a large estate. At the same time, he crosses paths with romantic interest Lily and, in a seedy bar, landlady Bella, who’s not afraid to stand up to the roughest of customers.
Bateman is a good fit for the role, able to switch between the innocence of Game of Thrones’ Jon Snow and the scowling charisma of Jason Statham. It’s testament to his physical performance that the programme doesn’t rely on CGI to portray Hyde, instead taking advantage of Bateman’s menacing grin.
“We wanted him to be sexy,” comments ITV’s Creative Director of Drama, Francis Hopkinson, the third part of the trio that brought the tale to the telly. “We didn’t want fangs and hairy teeth.”
If the theatricality of that double role raises eyebrows, it’s nothing compared to Richard E. Grant, who has no fear in hamming it up as Mr. Bulstrode – the head of a secret government department whose job it is to hunt down such monsters. (On the other side of that mission is Tenebrae, an organisation keen to recruit them as warriors.)
“I wrote that part for myself!” admits Charlie, who soon realised he didn’t have the time to do it. But Richard E. Grant was a natural choice for the role – “We were pushing on a very open door,” says Allan – and was more than up for the blend of fantasy, sci-fi and horror.
As the plural “monsters” suggests, we soon discover Jekyll isn’t the only strange case in town: the show is full of them, from harbingers of doom (part-man, part-dog) to figures with gigantic lobster claws, werewolves and other such oddities.
The scope of the show – far bigger than the title implies – is realised well by director Colin Teague, with the production team placing an emphasis on big sets and practicality where possible to bring the period to life (the ever-ubiquitous Double Negative take care of the larger CGI backdrops). The time in question? The 1930s.
It’s no coincidence, admits Higson, who seized the chance to write about things he loves: ghouls and other ghastly creatures. Setting the story during Universal’s horror heyday gave him a chance to do his own versions of The Mummy, Wolfman, Dracula and others.
“It’s a monster show,” says Allan, happily.
“I didn’t want to get too meta-textual,” adds Higson, with a hint of his inner child still shining through.
To bring all this to life, though, is an obstacle even for a show with sizeable budget – something that the new Doctor Who has managed to overcome with a mix of cheesy nostalgia and wit. ITV’s Jekyll and Hyde doesn’t quite make the same leap, with parts of its visual effects sticking out like a sore, mutated thumb. The feel, then, is sometimes less Indiana Jones and more Stephen Sommers’ mediocre monster mash-up Van Helsing.
But the serial nature of Jekyll & Hyde puts the project in good stead: unlike Sommers’ brash, cliched movie, this has the time to add in more nuance and depth, even as it introduces yet more critters. There is less subtlety here than in the recent adaptation of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, which grounded its visual effects in everyday objects, but that’s the point: this is trying to be the kind of matinee you would find in a cinema during the 1930s.
Higson, who fondly recalls those “stiff upper lip” outings, certainly has the mind to come up with something similar – the same one that gave his young 007 over-the-top villains to face and sent chills through paperback spines with The Enemy’s popular sequels.
ITV, meanwhile, has the sense to allow his creativity to run wild, something that’s apparent from just how much is packed into the opening hour. It’s all over the place in an endearingly ambitious way.
But Higson is a smart writer who thrives on parameters, whether that’s adult horror for kids or rebooting a secret agent without ruining the whole canon.
He even thinks of advert breaks – something relatively new for the BBC veteran – as a tool, rather than challenge, when we raise the subject.
“I actually like the structure of writing to an ad break,” Higson tells us. “It makes you think about your acts, as it were, what your peaks and troughs are going to be and where you’re going to put those big moments in.”
“The other thing you can use it for is the idea that you’ve gone away and come back and things have happened,” he adds.
Higson didn’t write the full 10 episodes – “I had five other writers, very good writers. I then did a final pass to put it all together because there’s quite a lot of ongoing stories.” – but his unmistakable imagination runs through it, fuelled by that youthful enthusiasm.
“We said ‘It’s a lot to write’,” recalls Hopkinson, “and he said ‘What’s an ITV hour? 15 pages less. I can write that!'”
The result is a rip-roaring, door-kicking, car-lifting spectacle, one that feels occasionally uneven and sometimes looks fake, but nonetheless feels like something new and different; Jekyll & Hyde isn’t just a departure for fans of the book, but for ITV. However the rest of the series pans out, long may that willingness to bring such imagination to the screen continue.
Jekyll & Hyde is on ITV 1 on Sunday 25th October at 6.30pm and will be available to catch up with post-broadcast on ITV Player.
All photos: DES WILLIE and JON HALL