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