Tag Archives: Charlie Higson

Jekyll and Hyde: What went wrong?

It’s never much fun seeing a show get axed – particularly if it hasn’t been on air for very long. So much time, effort, money and emotion goes into development and execution that the act of cancellation can seem like a wanton act of cruelty.

If only the programme had more time to build an audience, argue the talent behind the show. A bit of editorial tinkering, a couple of new cast members, a new slot in the schedule and just maybe…

Unfortunately, TV is still – for the most part – a numbers game and shows that don’t capture the audience’s imagination don’t survive, no matter how much pre-launch promise they had.

Richard E Grant was among the better-known names in the cast
Richard E Grant was among the better-known names in the cast

A case in point is Jekyll and Hyde, ITV’s reimagining of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novella The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which has just been cancelled after its 10-episode first season.

Having opened to a reasonable (but not amazing) 4.3 million viewers, it withered away to just 1.8 million by the end of the run, not enough to justify its Sunday teatime family slot.

So what did the show get right and where did it go wrong? In this column, we draw on the power of hindsight to explore the reasons Jekyll and Hyde didn’t perform as hoped.

Pre-launch proposition
On paper the show looked strong. Based on a well-known Gothic brand, it had the kind of name recognition broadcasters crave when launching a new series. It also had Charlie Higson in charge of creating and writing the show. Higson, whose credits range from The Fast Show to the Young James Bond series of novels, has proved himself a success both in front of the camera and behind it.

Casting
Rising star Tom Bateman (pictured top) played both Jekyll and Hyde, having previously impressed in Da Vinci’s Demons and The Tunnel. The failure of the show can’t be pinned on Bateman’s performance, but he will need another lead role before we can tell if he’s poised to elevate to the same rank as the likes of Aidan Turner (Poldark) or James Norton (War and Peace). The supporting cast was generally good and, a positive point, diverse. Veteran actors Richard E Grant and Donald Sumpter were decent additions.

Premise
This is an area that didn’t really work out for the show. Higson tried to build a mythology of supernatural heroes, villains and monsters around the central character’s dualistic existence. But there were two problems. First, the show seemed too overt in its desire to go after the Doctor Who audience (even the opening titles echoed the BBC’s sci-fi series). Second, it demanded too much of the audience in too short a space of time. This is a common theme at the moment. Having seen the success of franchises like Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Doctor Who and Game of Thrones, broadcasters are trying to build and deliver imaginative worlds in super-fast time.

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Did Jekyll and Hyde demand too much of its audience?

The problem is that it can take decades for these worlds to develop sufficient solidity for fans to buy into them. It will be interesting to see if ITV has more success with a similar project, Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands. Arguably, the mash-up approach of shows like Penny Dreadful or Dickensian is a better way to build a new story system. Or maybe it’s better to focus on a simple narrative setup in season one and then expand at a later stage (like The Walking Dead).

There’s also a point worth making about the value of borrowing a ready-made mythology from books. The Last Kingdom and Outlander, both based on popular novels, have worked but original series The Bastard Executioner didn’t. The link between ITV’s Jekyll and Hyde and the original Stevenson work was really in name only, so it falls into the latter group.

Characters
The central character’s dualism didn’t quite come off, despite a whole-hearted performance from Bateman. In the original Stevenson story, Hyde is unequivocally bad. There is a Faustian thing going on – science meddling where it shouldn’t. In ITV’s show, the dualism was muddied. At times, it wasn’t clear how bad Hyde really was. He functioned in a way that almost seemed to suggest that he had some level of awareness of his condition. The transitions between Jekyll and Hyde didn’t quite work either, so the sentiment we felt towards one half of the character bled into the other.

When Hyde aggressively kissed a woman he didn’t know in episode one (yeugh), it coloured our perception of the central character’s good half too. Somehow the show didn’t quite manage to capture the authenticity of the original book (or the pathos of Bruce Banner’s relationship with his own alter-ego The Hulk). More generally, the female characters didn’t resonate especially well. The love interest, the lawyer’s eccentric sidekick, the villain’s moll and the larger than life club owner needed a touch of Happy Valley or Doctor Foster.

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Some of Jekyll and Hyde’s creatures were realised better than others

Locations/sets/creatures
Jekyll and Hyde was a pretty show, mixing attractive period backdrops with an exotic storyline set in the Indian sub-continent. It was easy to drift through two or three episodes watching the show’s sumptuous sets, so no particular criticisms here. The cast of creatures was a little more variable in quality. This is an inevitable challenge when trying to design monsters people haven’t seen before. TV also still has to contend with the fact that theatrical movies are still the quality benchmark in terms of cutting-edge CGI/SFX.

Scheduling
A lot was made of the suggestion that Jekyll and Hyde was ‘too scary’ for its family teatime slot. Some critics argued it should have been aired after the watershed to avoid upsetting children. Higson become embroiled in a spat with UK newspaper The Daily Mail on this point that probably poured fuel on the fire. The bottom line is that the scheduling of the show was over-ambitious – but that wasn’t the reason for its decline.

If the UK audience had liked the show but felt it was airing at the wrong time, they would have recorded it and watched it later when their children were in bed. In fact, the controversy around the show’s scheduling was as likely to bring an audience as drive it away. It didn’t, for example, capture the imagination of teenage boys the way HBO’s ultra-violent fantasy Game of Thrones does. IMDb’s modest rating of 7/10 pretty much tells it as it is.

Bad Luck
ITV took the decision to postpone an episode of Jekyll and Hyde after the terrorist attacks in Paris at the end of last year. That was the right call but any hiatus in scheduling is bound to impact a show’s momentum.

None of the above is intended to discourage bold and adventurous commissioning or creative risk-taking. But the fate of Jekyll and Hyde is a warning that fantasy is fiendishly hard to pull off.

For other opinions on the show, see this Radio Times summary or this take from The Indepedent.

At least one person out there was heartbroken that the show ended – and no, it wasn’t Charlie Higson.

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Writers go global

Hans Rosenfeld
Hans Rosenfeld is currently writing Marcella

At timing of writing this column, the C21 Drama Summit is taking place at the British Film Institute in London. In among the numerous producers, broadcasters and distributors attending the event, there has also been a star-studded line-up of screenwriters.

In no particular order, the summit attracted the likes of Stephen Poliakoff, Frank Spotnitz, Harlan Coben, Tony Jordan, Sarah Phelps, Paula Milne, Anna Winger, David Farr, Hans Rosenfeld, James Dormer, Charlie Higson, Simon Mirren, Clive Bradley and Chip Johannessen.

What’s interesting about these scribes is the unusual and idiosyncratic journeys that many of them are currently embarked upon. Rosenfeld, for example, is one of the main architects of acclaimed Scandinavian series The Bridge. But now he is writing an English-language crime series set in London, called Marcella. Winger, meanwhile, is an American who lives in Germany with her husband Joerg. Between them they created the well-reviewed period spy drama Deutschland 83, currently airing in Germany on RTL and around the world.

If it seems odd that an American co-wrote D83, then consider that British writer Paula Milne (The Politician’s Wife) has just done something similar, delivering The Same Sky to ZDF in Germany. In this case, she wrote scripts in English that were then translated into German by director Oliver Hirschbiegel. Clive Bradley, meanwhile, is an English screenwriter who has just finished working as the co-writer on Trapped, a pan-European coproduction set in snowy Iceland.

Deutschland 83
Deutschland 83, created by married team Joerg and Anna Winger

Harlan Coben, a novelist, has just written his first TV drama, The Five, in collaboration with Danny Brocklehurst (Shameless, Clocking Off). Farr, meanwhile, is a playwright adapting a John Le Carre novel The Night Manager for TV. In one of his anecdotes at the Summit, Farr talked of meeting Le Carre in a north London pub and having to pluck up the courage to tell the great man the last 100 pages of his novel wouldn’t work on TV. Sarah Phelps must have felt just as nervous when she met Hilary Strong of Agatha Christie Ltd to discuss how she would go about adapting Christie’s classic novel And Then There Were None.

Poliakoff’s session was enlightening, providing an insight into the way he has honed his skills as a writer-director. While many would think of him first and foremost as a playwright and screenwriter, Poliakoff spent much of his session discussing the directorial dimension of his latest project Close to the Enemy. Casting, rigorous rehearsals and location selection were as significant to the realisation of Poliakoff’s vision of the series as story and dialogue.

Stephen Polliakoff
Stephen Polliakoff is working on Close to the Enemy

Frank Spotnitz, an American residing in Europe, was at the summit to discuss his latest project for Amazon, The Man in the High Castle, while Chip Johannessen provided insight into the adaptation of Israeli show Prisoners of War into his hit series Homeland. Simon Mirren was in town to talk about the creation of Versailles, the English-language, French production of a quintessentially French subject. That seems a long way from where his career started – as a writer on Casualty.

So what does all the above tell us? Well, it shows that the idea of the writer as a solitary creature is something of a myth. While part of the job inevitably involves shutting the study door and blocking out distractions, just as much is dependent on a willingness and ability to interact with other parts of the production chain.

At the same time, the shift towards international coproduction (in order to realise ambitious creative ideas) means writers have to be surefooted on the international stage. It’s noteworthy just how many of the above scribes have had to collaborate across borders or set scenes abroad. Milne talked about watching rushes of The Same Sky after her words had been translated in German, and having to make a judgement on whether the emotional impact of the dialogue had survived the shift to a new language. Rosenfeld, meanwhile, discussed the support he needed to ensure Marcella’s London life was authentic.

Chip Johannssen
Chip Johannssen turned Prisoners of War into Homeland for Showtime

Another theme throughout the summit has been the way the current era of ambitious international drama production allows writers to cut loose creatively. Farr talked about how writers used to be scared to set a scene outside – let alone in a foreign country. But this concern has been blown away as dramas head for increasingly exotic climes.

This freedom is also evident in the range of literary reimaginings currently on show. Charlie Higson’s interpretation of Jekyll and Hyde (in which he injects his own mythology), Tony Jordan’s literary mash-up Dickensian and James Dormer’s reworking of the Beowulf saga are all examples of how traditional budgeting and commissioning constraints have fallen away.

Of course, a key implication of the above is that writers need to be trusted to deliver against bold objectives. And this is creating a challenge for the scripted business. Understandably, the broadcasters and distributors that put up millions of dollars to make drama projects a reality are anxious to ensure they work with proven writers. This is causing a logjam, with the best writers often booked up for years to come.

While this is good news for those writers who are in demand, the clear message is that the industry needs to improve the flow of new writing talent coming through. C21 and Red Planet are both playing their part with scriptwriting competitions, but there needs to be a more formal solution to this issue if the drama business is to keep up its extraordinary creative momentum.

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ITV’s Jekyll & Hyde: Striking a balance

Perhaps best known as a writer and star of sketch comedy The Fast Show, it’s unsurprising that Charlie Higson is adding comic relief to Jekyll & Hyde’s range of monsters and villains. He and the forthcoming ITV show’s exec producer explain why they believe they’ve achieved the right tone.

As Charlie Higson recalls, Jekyll & Hyde came about completely by accident. Called in to pitch ideas for a new ITV family drama that was quintessentially English but that would also appeal to an international audience, he suggested a series based on the iconic characters made famous by author Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 gothic novel.

At this stage, Higson hadn’t even read the original story about a lawyer who investigates the strange relationship between his friend Dr Henry Jekyll and the evil Edward Hyde. But to his surprise, he walked away with a commission.

Higson: 'We’re really pushing for it to be as cinematic as possible. It looks good, sounds good and has great music'
Higson: ‘We’re really pushing for it to be as cinematic as possible. It looks good, sounds good and has great music’

“I wasn’t even pitching an idea,” the actor and writer says, “but they said it would be perfect. So having gone to this meeting to tell them I didn’t have any ideas and couldn’t possibly do it, I came away with a commission. Then having written the treatment, I fully expected them to say ‘thank you’ and go elsewhere because I don’t have a long history of producing top primetime drama. But they wanted something different and were happy to take a punt with me.”

The resulting show, produced by ITV Studios, launches this month on ITV. The story, set in 1930s London, focuses on Robert Jekyll, the grandson of the original doctor, who comes to learn of his real identity, his family history and his curse. In Jekyll & Hyde’s opening episode, Jekyll is a newly qualified doctor living with his foster parents in Ceylon (Sri Lanka). But strange things start to affect him, and when he’s contacted by a lawyer in England concerning his family’s estate, he travels to London – where his past begins to catch up with him.

The series also features a number of spooky creatures, ghouls, zombies, werewolves and vampires as Jekyll faces a conflict between battling real-life demons and the monster within.

ITV Studios director of drama Francis Hopkinson (Lucan, Wallander) executive produces with Higson. The series producer is Foz Allan (Robin Hood) and its distributor is ITV Studios Global Entertainment (ITVSGE).

Higson, who has acted as a showrunner on the series, writing about half the scripts himself, says he was inspired by the return of Doctor Who as the basis for a family drama surrounded by fantastical elements. “I grew up in the 1960s, which was a fantastic time for experimental fantasy TV – a lot of which ITV made, like The Avengers and The Prisoner,” he says. “There were some great shows that were quite out there but hugely popular. Then we hit the 70s and it all became realist, kitchen-sink drama.

Richard E Grant adds Hollywood clout to the cast
Richard E Grant adds Hollywood clout to the cast

“When I did Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased), a BBC remake of the 1960s ITV series, I wanted to bring back that style of fantastical show. It’s not set in the real world on any level. But quite soon afterwards, Russell T Davies brought back Doctor Who, which did everything I’d been trying to do. What he did very cleverly was ground it in a strong, recognisable family drama so it wasn’t just for 10-year-old nerds and sci-fi freaks. You cared about the characters.

“That was definitely the vibe ITV wanted for Jekyll & Hyde, where you have all the mad, fantastical horror elements but it’s rooted in drama.”

Reading the book, Higson says he was struck by its modernity. Rather than featuring the traditional gothic tropes of crumbling castles in medieval Europe and “mad monks and sinister, depraved counts,” Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde has a very contemporary idea at the root of its story.

“It’s about the fact that we all have dual personalities – the one we show to the world and the beast inside,” Higson explains. “We all have terrible thoughts and fantasies but we show a different side to the world. It’s a very modern psychological story about all of us.

“So much modern drama is based on someone presenting a respectable front to the world while doing these terrible things they don’t want anyone else to know about. That’s exactly what Breaking Bad and Homeland are. The Sopranos is just a a guy trying to preserve his ordinary family while nipping out to kill people.”

The writer, best known for his work on comedy sketch series The Fast Show and as the author of the Young Bond novels, also draws parallels with comic book superheroes: “There’s the idea of an alter-ego who does all the things you wish you could do and there’s a secret identity that nobody knows about. The Incredible Hulk is Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Tom Bateman (centre) plays Dr Jekyll and his sinister alter ego
Tom Bateman (centre) plays Dr Jekyll and his sinister alter ego Mr Hyde

“I thought I could take this and push Jekyll & Hyde into a superhero story. I’ve created a world where there’s an organisation called MIO, a secret government network whose job it is to catch and destroy all monsters. But against them is Tenebrae, a group of monsters trying to regain their supremacy. Our central character, Robert Jekyll, is trapped in the middle. It’s a constant battle for his soul in which he flips both ways.”

Considering Higson’s television career, it’s no surprise that there’s also a plentiful helping of comedy in Jekyll & Hyde. “I like humour and it’s a useful way of telling stories, particularly if you’ve got quite daft things happening,” he explains. “Things like this don’t work when people are utterly serious and straight-faced. That’s why cheap fantasy and horror films are awful – everybody’s so terribly earnest while these ludicrous things are happening.

“As long as you’re not laughing at what you’re doing, people can have a laugh in it. Also, if you see some huge monster come at you, you might think, ‘fuck me’ and have a laugh about it.”

Though television dramas are becoming more serialised, Higson says he and the production team didn’t want the prospect of alienating viewers coming to the show halfway through its 10-episode run. As a result, the overarching story is complemented by an enemy-of-the-week format, with many of the creatures inspired by the classic monster movies of the 1930s and 1940s – Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man and The Mummy.

With a brief to create a drama with wide appeal for a family audience, featuring a mix of genres (in this case action, adventure, fantasy, horror and comedy), Higson says the production of Jekyll & Hyde was “massive. It’s 10 hours, very big budget. We’re doing the four most expensive things you can do – period drama, stunts, lots of CGI and a lot of foreign locations.”

Encouraged by ITV and ITVSGE to write a big and bold series, Higson didn’t think it would be made that way, perhaps substituting the mountainous scenes he had set in Ceylon for a location in Wales. But the broadcaster and distributor were true to their word, sending the production to film scenes in Sri Lanka.

The series features 'mad, fantastical horror elements'
The series features ‘mad, fantastical horror elements’

“They wanted it to look like money had been spent on it,” he says. “That was part of the appeal for me. Whatever you do on TV, it takes a lot out of you and takes a long time. It’s a large chunk of your life and uses up a lot of energy, imagination and ideas. At my time of life, if I’m putting this effort into something and it’s going to take a couple of years, let’s go all out for it. The stakes are high but, if it does well, everyone’s very happy.We’re really pushing for it to be as cinematic as possible. It looks good, sounds good and has great music.”

Executive producer Hopkinson says there are very few writers who are able to pull together shows of this kind, citing Howard Overman (Merlin, Atlantis) and Steven Moffat (Doctor Who, Sherlock) as fellow exceptions alongside Higson. Moffat created another version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde for BBC1 in 2007, the extremely dark Jekyll, with James Nesbitt in the title role.

“These family dramas have to be thrilling and silly in equal measure and take themselves seriously,” he says. “That’s quite a difficult balancing act to pull off and that’s what Charlie was able to do. He got the tone right.

“We’d been trying to develop something for ITV’s teatime slot, a slot that doesn’t exist anywhere except for Britain. In every other country, it would play at 21.00. We’d been looking for some time and talking to ITVSGE about what to do, as they were putting up some of the money. We had six or seven projects in contention but when I saw Charlie had written an Agatha Christie episode, I felt he could be the fresh voice we were looking for.

“And from the moment he said it was about the grandson of Jekyll, you could see he’d found a way to use the basic premise of the original novel but create something broader and more colourful. ITV commissioned it very quickly.”

Hopkinson describes his role in the series as the person stopping the show “getting too nerdy” and ensuring it can attract a broad section of viewers. “If I don’t understand something, there’s a whole swathe of audience who won’t understand it. I deliberately looked at it in a slightly different way from if I was doing a detective show. I was slightly more objective.”

'We’re doing the four most expensive things you can do – period drama, stunts, lots of CGI and a lot of foreign locations,' says Higson
‘We’re doing the four most expensive things you can do – period drama, stunts, lots of CGI and a lot of foreign locations,’ says Higson

Discussing the logistics of the production, he adds that filming in Sri Lanka gave him sleepless nights owing to the under-developed filming infrastructure in the country. “It was slightly unchartered waters,” he says. “On Christmas Eve I got a call to say the village set we’d built had been washed away in the monsoon.”

Jekyll & Hyde also uses large amounts of CGI, not only for Jekyll’s transformation into his alter ego but also to create the cast of monsters that turn up in each episode. “The difficult thing is watching something where you have no idea what you will be seeing at the end of it,” Hopkinson says. “The script says ‘creature who is half-man, half-dog,’ but all you’re seeing is a man in a green suit.

“One thing we all agreed on was that the episodes had to work in their own right without special effects, and if they did that, the special effects would enhance them. If we’d relied on the special effects to make it work, we’d have been in trouble. So everyone knew what they were getting and that it could work without special effects.”

Higson is also pleased with the cast that Jekyll & Hyde has attracted, pointing out the star quality of Richard E Grant (Downton Abbey, Withnail and I), Donald Sumpter (Game of Thrones) and Natalie Gumede — best known to British audiences for her turn in ITV soap Coronation Street.

Casting the male lead to play both Jekyll and Hyde, however, proved troublesome until a young actor called Tom Bateman came to audition. “We saw just about everyone, every hot young male actor, including names I didn’t think would come in,” Higson says. “It’s not one great role, it’s two. But there were only a couple who convinced as Hyde. It’s hard to do posh and tough — you’re in danger of looking like a public schoolboy who’s got drunk at a party. But as soon as Tom went into Hyde, I knew this was the guy.

“It’s a very high-concept show and if you don’t buy into the central character, it all falls down around him. He’s been absolutely fantastic, incredibly energetic and enthusiastic and just spot on. You genuinely feel for him when things are going badly and he’s quite scary when he’s Hyde. That’s hard when you’ve got monsters arsing about all over the place and a lot of madness. It was important to us that people bought into it on an emotional and dramatic level and he’s got old-school leading-man, matinee idol appeal.”

Wth the show designed as a returning series, Higson is now preparing storylines for season two, having dreamed up ideas for three seasons ahead of his original pitch. Describing the show as an “all-year-round machine,” he adds that he’s adjusting to the demands of a huge primetime drama.

“I’d been out of heavy-duty TV for a while, concentrating on writing books and spending time with my family, but I really wanted to come back and do something big on TV,” he says. “It was the scale that interested me and it came together pretty quickly.

“It’s not just crazy monsters all over the place. They’re organically part of the world it is set in and at the heart of it are very real, physical stories and personal drama for the central characters. It’s been a lot of fun making it work.”

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