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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.”
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.”