UK TV review: Pennyworth
Ivan Radford | On 26, Oct 2019Reading time: 4 mins
When is a Batman prequel not a Batman prequel? When DC decides to make a series about his loyal butler, Alfred Pennyworth. It’s an unexpected, unnecessary addition to the Dark Knight’s televisual canon, which doesn’t offer much fresh insight to the Caped Crusader’s back-story or impact the comics in any notable way. What is does do, however, is offer some top-notch spy thrills with a suave attitude, slick pacing and hugely enjoyable performances.
When Epix gave the green light to the Warner project, which hails from the same creators as Fox’s Gotham (Bruno Heller and Danny Cannon), the Pennyworth name was no doubt meant to add brand recognition, with Bruce’s dad, Thomas Wayne, also making an appearance. What the name actually does is threaten to weigh down the whole thing, as you keep an eye out for the odd mention of Batman characters and other DC fan service. As the first season unfolds, though, it soon becomes clear that the series isn’t interested in that all.
Alfred, when we meet him, is in his 20s, a former British SAS soldier who is trying to start over by launching his own security firm. As a stepping stone, he works in a nightclub as a bouncer – a gig that leads him to cross paths with Thomas Wayne (Ben Aldridge), a customer, and Esme (Emma Corrin), a dancer.
Both of them prove key figures in Alfie’s life. Wayne soon hires him to carry out some shadier work, roping him into a gang war between The Ravens and The No Name League – two secret societies trying to direct the future of the country (the former by toppling the government, the latter by saving it from the former). Esme, meanwhile, accepts his offer of a date and the pair fall in love.
What ensues is a tale of espionage and romance that inevitably sees them cross paths in ever twisting ways. Those ways don’t always work as well as you might like, particularly when it comes to the treatment of Esme, and some characters are a little too cartoonish – the fantastic Paloma Faith steals whole scenes as the warped villain Bet Sykes, but her litany of quirks and violent passions are a little too overdone to convince. The back-and-forth between the two groups, from Anna Chancellor’s highfaluting doctor to Jason Flemyng’s aristocrat with a nose for trouble, can become a little repetitive, and you can’t help but wonder why Martha Kane (a brilliantly sassy Emma Paetz) is more interested in Alfie than Thomas.
But all of these quibbles are easily forgotten once the show kicks into gear, and it does that from its very first episode – from the opening credits, designed by Danny Yount, the series oozes confidence, with David E. Russo’s music fusing Sherlock swagger and John Barry pastiche to classy effect.
At the heart of that style is Jack Bannon, who is magnetic as Alfred. Looking cracking in a suit, chatting no-nonsense with a grin and threatening people with a twinkle in his eye, he’s perfectly cast as the former butler. He’s the one thing that benefits from the Batman connection, as he leans into the Michael Caine version of Alfred who won hearts in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. But it’s more than an impression of a young Alfie, and Bannon finds superb range within those parameters, jumping from cocky cockney to scarred war veteran and finding time for lovestruck teen in between. He’s smartly cut as a mercenary willing to do the dirty and emotionally vulnerable as a man who doesn’t want to carry out violence, but nonetheless finds it unavoidable.
Bannon’s accompanied by an excellent cast, from Aldridge’s do-gooder Wayne (who, for some reason, is spending more time being a spy than he is helping to clean up Gotham City) to Corrin’s heart-warming Esme. Ryan Fletcher and Hainsley Lloyd Bennett provide nice counterparts to Alfie’s leading man command, one a sidekick with a drinking problem and the other a playboy with a calm focus. Dorothy Atkinson (fresh from Mum) is moving as his mother, Mary, while Ian Puleston-Davies brings surprising depth to his dad, Arthur, a butler who disapproves of his relationship with Esme. Danny Webb, meanwhile, brings Guy Ritchie-esque menace to crime lord John Ripper.
You can tell that they’re all having an inordinate amount of fun – even Jessica Ellerby’s The Queen is clearly enjoying herself when she pops up – and that mood is infectious. From the larger-than-life characters to the cool period vibe, Pennyworth is delightfully easy to watch, whether you’re a fan of DC or not. Is it a Batman prequel? No. Does it need to be about his butler? No. Is it entertaining? Absolutely.
Pennyworth: Season 1 is available to watch online in the UK on STARZPLAY, a streaming service that costs £4.99 a month. The platform is available on Virgin Media On Demand or through Amazon Prime Video Channels, both as an add-on subscription to your existing account.