Charlie Higson’s Jekyll and Hyde Is “Downton Abbey With Monsters”

By Stuart Black Last edited 39 months ago
Charlie Higson’s Jekyll and Hyde Is “Downton Abbey With Monsters”

This Sunday ITV brings back one of London’s most enduring Victorian monsters with Charlie Higson’s glossy new teatime reboot of Jekyll and Hyde.

That trailer doesn’t quite do justice to the lavish feeling of the 10 part show, which begins in 1880s London then fast forwards to sunny Ceylon, before heading back to the capital in the 1930s. It’s surprising just how much Higson chucks into the pot: Indiana Jones style action, a secret service that deals with the paranormal, extended riffs on Empire and English gentility, plus a gallery of old and new comic book monsters (including a 7ft French man with a lobster claw for a hand). Basically, ITV have finally found their answer to the BBC's juggernaut Doctor Who, cleverly tapping into a literary icon while swapping pseudo-science for the supernatural.

"I've described it as Downton Abbey with monsters,” says Higson who wrote and helps produce the show. “It’s got that very Britishness at its core: set in the 1930s so it’s got the period drama that people love… but what I felt was really fun was to take that and fill it full of mad monsters and crazy acting.”

Besides London's Victorian fantasy writers, Higson takes a cue from Hollywood too: “One of the reasons I set the show in the 1930s was that it was the golden age of Universal horror movies. I wanted to do my versions of all those great monsters: Frankenstein, Dracula, the wolfman, zombies, the mummy... I’m just putting in all the stuff I love.”

Basically, ITV have finally found their answer to Doctor Who

If Higson waters down the central character to cram everything else in, that’s okay — we know Jekyll and Hyde well enough already. Tom Bateman plays the lead(s) and keeps it simple: repressed and tight-lipped as Robert Jekyll (the grandson of Robert Louis Stevenson’s original Henry) then nostrils aflare and eyebrows arched when he turns into Hyde. He’s not terribly beastly for the most part with the altar-ego here emerging at times of stress, anger and arousal (it is a fairly frisky interpretation), so he’s really closer to a character like the Incredible Hulk.

London looks fantastic in the show – in both senses of the word, as it mixes smoggy Victoriana with stylised 1930s modernism. Real locations help create the aesthetic with Eltham Palace, Fitzroy Square and Senate House all used well. But the production team found it hard to scout enough from that era still in existence, which meant using sets and CGI as well as locations outside the capital like Chatham Docks and Rochester. Higson says: “We very much wanted to be based in London, to use as much of it as we could, but it’s very hard filming in London, very hard finding any bits that you can still use.”

It’s always interesting to see how different writers interpret Stevenson’s richly allegorical tale of the English gent with the dark side. The original novella saw the priggish Dr Jekyll metamorphosing into the unhinged Hyde after experimenting on himself with a serum as he tried to repress his baser urges once and for all.

Higson defends his choice of dumping that version to go with the grandson instead, saying: “The problem with the book is that you can read it in one sitting and if we’d done a straight adaptation that would have been episode one then we’d have had nine episodes where the central character was dead and everyone would be sitting around getting on with their lives.”

Like the book though, the new TV show uses the device of transformation as an allegory about the internal conflicts found in people and society rather than trying to investigate actual conditions like dissociative identity disorder or schizophrenia. Stevenson actually burnt his first, more realistic version of the story, opting instead to create a flexible myth that allows readers, and re-writers like Higson, to stretch the text so it can fit all sorts of interpretations.

And arguably, this is why such a thin tome has had such as a profound and lasting effect on our culture. Higson points out that it’s the third most interpreted literary character of all time, after Dracula and Sherlock Holmes, which are intriguingly from the same decade.

And you only have to flick through the newspaper to find modern day Jekyll/Hyde dichotomies: from paedo politicians to our dear pig-frotting leader. Or, for a most instantaneous theatrical version, just sit and watch a group of suited city boys downing pints on Friday night before they turn into hissy red-eyed hooligans you do not want to meet on the tube. Essentially, the Scottish writer created a key to help unlock the mysteries of the ever-conflicted Englishman.

This is the third most interpreted literary character of all time, after Dracula and Sherlock Holmes

It’s a curious fact that the original story came out in 1886, only two years before the Jack the Ripper murders. And if it wasn’t for the fact that Stevenson had the alibi of a holiday cruise around the Pacific to recover from the cocaine-fuelled fever in which he wrote the story, he might be higher up the list of suspects. (Is it almost too perfect an alibi?)

The novella’s effect was profound from the moment of publication and the ripple effects can still be seen today, most notably in the current superhero fad (which Higson's show is also inspired by). DC’s Batman is hugely indebted to the tale with the most intelligent take being Christopher Nolan’s recent trilogy as it focuses on the inner struggle of a man trying to redirect his chaotic inner rage and fear into a semi-demonic altar-ego. Meanwhile, Marvel’s Hulk and X-Men’s Beast are both straight rip-offs with only the green and blue make-overs concealing that fact. For a more sophisticated reading try Breaking Bad.

ITV’s reimagining of the story is just the latest attempt to do justice to a novella that is tantalisingly nearly great on the page. Very few of the near-constant film, stage, radio and TV adaptations have got it right. Our favourite is 1931’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in which Hollywood makes a fair stab at recreating Victorian London’s brothels and back streets. The film won Fredric March an Oscar for his dual performance and while he’s deliciously hammy in both roles, it’s his semi-simian Hyde who steals the prize as he bounces off the walls. The film’s enormously inventive special effects are still pretty special today, as you can see below.

Higson was highly conscious of the need for strong transformation scenes in his new series, but wanted to do something different too: “We wanted Hyde to be sexy and didn’t want him to be a hairy monster with big fangs and big teeth. But at the same time I knew that anyone tuning in for the first time would be saying ‘right I want to see the transformation’ so I came up with the idea that as he transforms he goes through a monstrous phase and then comes out the other side as Hyde so we know he has that monster within him.”

This amounts to some sparingly used vein-throbbing, which is a bit of a let down making the central character less scary and less compelling. But Bateman is watchable and there are suitable nightmarish visions sewn into other parts of the show — people with heads upside down, parasites in eyeballs, undead warriors. As a nakedly commercial family show, a smart writer like Higson is as good choice to have on board since he more or less knows how far to push the envelope. As he says (with tongue firmly in cheek): “Kids love horror, they love gore and death and violence and monsters and all that stuff, with Halloween coming up they’re going nuts for it honestly. Some of the parents might get a little bit upset and some of the smaller kids too, but you know — fuck ‘em.”

Jekyll and Hyde airs on ITV1 on this Sunday — 25 October at 6.30pm

Last Updated 24 October 2015