When it comes to producing weekend TV teatime drama I would say that the BBC more or less had the market cornered. Obviously Doctor Who springs to mind as the frontrunner but other hits have included the incredibly popular Merlin and the cancelled-before-its-time Atlantis. Meanwhile the last success that I believe ITV had in this area was several years ago with the first couple of series of Primeval.
However ITV are trying to reach a family audience once again with their new adaptation of Jekyll and Hyde; which is set in the 1930s and focuses on the grandson of the original Dr. Jekyll. The origins of the series came when ITV approached Charlie Higson about creating an action-adventure drama for an early evening slot. The one thing the channel wanted the show to be was a recognisable story that was quintessentially English and Higson immediately thought of Jekyll and Hyde.
The two issues were that Higson had never read Jekyll and Hyde and that Robert Louis Stevenson’s central character was the third most adapted in literary history. Despite this by focusing on Jekyll’s grandson Robert I think that Higson has found a new way to tell this tale. Higson has slightly changed the mythology of the tale by having the original Jekyll fathering an illegitimate child whilst under the Hyde persona. This child then went onto have a child of his own who was adopted by a family in Ceylon and grew up to be Robert Jekyll.
One thing I admired from the opening scene of Jekyll and Hyde were its production values and no expense has seemingly be spent in terms of the budget. The fact that the opening scenes take place on location in Sri Lanka gives Jekyll and Hyde a cinematic quality that it maintains throughout. These initial scenes also give us an insight into the character of Robert Jekyll who has been raised by his adopted family and unaware of his true heritage. However his tendency to drastically change his temperament is established in an early set piece when he tries to kill a young girl whose life he’s just saved.
The story gets moving when Robert’s heroism makes the papers and catches the attention of London lawyer Max Utterson who has been dealing with the Jekyll estate. Robert’s journey to London doesn’t exactly go too well especially when the pills that he’s been using to stave off the Hyde persona are stolen from his hotel room. This leads to a fantastic fight sequence in a seedy nightclub where we finally see Hyde in full force as he brawls with the regulars and catches the eye of one of the club’s employees Garson. It seems that the wise old bartender may know more about Robert’s heritage than anybody else and I’m sure we’ll learn more about this as the weeks progress.
As well as writing several horror stories for children, which provided excellent training for crafting Jekyll and Hyde, Higson also wrote a series of Young James Bond novels. This may explain why one of Jekyll and Hyde’s side stories involves a secret service whose job is to get rid of anything supernatural or monstrous. The MIO Unit is run by the debonair Bulstrode who will eventually come face-to-face with Robert Jekyll after his imminent arrival was foretold by the completely terrifying harbinger.
One of the primary concerns that was brought up at the screening of the first episode I attended was whether some of the content in Jekyll and Hyde would be too much for children to take. Indeed some of the monsters that the MIO encounter are rather gruesome and may actually scare some adults more than their offspring. However I concur with Higson’s assertions that children are a lot more capable of handling this sort of material than we give them credit for and I believe that the most Jekyll and Hyde will do to these children is slightly spook them.
What I like about Jekyll and Hyde is the fact that it has the same sort of themes as its BBC rival Doctor Who whilst at the same time not being as dialogue-heavy as the sci-fi classic. I believe that generally Charlie Higson’s drama will be easier for them to understand as most of the dialogue is pitched at the right level. Additionally there are no scenes that are overly talky and instead Jekyll and Hyde focuses as much on action as it does on character. I do think that it has just the right mix of both with the big set pieces being well-punctuated by scenes in which the characters explain their various motivations.
However at the moment I don’t think the characters are as fully formed as they possibly should be with some feeling quite thinly drawn. This is especially true of Jekyll and Hyde’s almost pantomime-like villain Captain Dance whose despicable actions are never really explained. Meanwhile I feel that the wise old Garson and Jekyll’s timid love interest Lily aren’t given that much time to develop. But at the same time I think this first episode does do a good job of establishing the lead character’s relationship to Stevenson’s original story and why it is his origins have been hidden up to now.
Credit must go to Tom Bateman for taking on the dual role of Robert and Hyde as I feel he succeeds in both incarnations of the character. What I like about Bateman’s performance is the way in which he keeps a little bit of Hyde in Jekyll and vice versa therefore it’s more believable when he suddenly launches into a full on brawl in with a crowd of rowdy punters. Richard E Grant was suitably melodramatic as MIO’s head honcho Bulstrode and he seemed to enjoy chewing up the scenery. I also personally enjoyed Christian MacKay and Ruby Bentall as Utterson and his secretary Hils as they excelled at providing the comic relief amongst all the dramatic set pieces.
While I feel it’s too early to judge whether Jekyll and Hyde will be a hit for ITV it certainly has all the elements it needs to succeed. The fact that Higson is confident that he knows his audience speaks volumes as I think Jekyll and Hyde has exactly the right tone to appeal to a family audience. Despite it being rough around the edges I think the excellent production values coupled with a fine lead performance will be enough to rake in a regular audience on a weekly basis. I feel the only issue going forward will be the fact that a series consisting of ten episodes may mean that the story is stretched out a bit too much. But I do have faith in Higson’s storytelling abilities and I’m happy to report that Jekyll and Hyde shows a lot of promise as a family drama that could potentially run and run.