My notes on Season One of Pennyworth. NB: spoilery.
It’s a coincidence that this ten-episode ‘season one’ – with a barely feature length pilot/episode one – landed as Joker, in which Douglas Hodge plays Alfred the Butler as a brutal git, was making a surprising big-screen splash, since it’s a prequel show from some of the folks (Bruno Heller, Danny Cannon) behind Gotham, which had slotted between Smallville and Krypton in the DC flashback stakes. Made for cable, which means some extreme violence (a head blasted off by a shotgun), bare breasts (but not on any key cast) and a lot of swearing that doesn’t ring true for the characters or the supposed period, this casts rangy Jack Bannon as 26-year-old Alfred Pennyworth, just out of the SAS with a case of mild PTSD (repped by a ghost comrade) and trying to start a security firm with his tagalong mates Bazza (Hainsley Lloyd Bennett) and Dave Boy (Ryan Fletcher). An issue with all of these before-the-story-you-know sagas is that they work up their own take on the material in a way that doesn’t join up with any other version – here, the reasoning seems to be that if Alfred can be played by Michael Caine in the Christopher Nolan films, then he must have been an Alfie in the 1960s.
Originally, the comics’ Alfred was a fat cockney clown called Alfred Beagle – but he was rebooted very early on as the thinner, drier, posher character most familiar between Alan Napier’s and Michael Gough’s reading of the roles – remember when he died and came back to life as an amnesiac super-villain called the Outsider? Along the way he picked up the new surname – though I’d be interested to know whether that’s really lodged in pop consciousness to give this show a brand-name recognition factor akin to the place-tagged Smallville, Gotham or Krypton? It’s always niggled that Bill Finger (presumably) didn’t know a British butler would be called by his surname, but we don’t get to that here – indeed, it’s Alfred’s Dad (Ian Puleston-Davies) who’s in service, while the younger Pennyworth is a nightclub bouncer who gets mixed up in secret agent derring-do and even works as a contract killer.
In the Adam West show – in keeping with an America where the major Eastern seaboard city isn’t New York – the capital of Britain was a fogbound place called Londinium, and its police operated out of Ireland Yard. The V for Vendetta-influenced 1960s Britain here is similarly an alternate universe version with – of course – airships, but also televised public hangings (which include disembowelling), 2010s-style colourblind casting which means that even crowd scenes of establishment types or at fascist rallies include racially diverse faces, stocks for thievery and indecent exposure, a Prime Minister (Richard Clothier) with a MacMillan tache, an apparently unmarried Queen (Jessica Ellerby) who has sex with Alfred to reward him for rescuing her (she also has an Edward VIII-type deposed uncle, the Duke of Windermere) and other signifiers that this is remote from our actual history, most notably a simmering Civil War between the fascist Raven Society and the socialist No Name League but also a still-alive and not-bald Aleister Crowley (Jonjo O’Neill).
It evokes a lot of things I like – The Avengers, Edgar Wallace krimi, Hammer films – but misses the charm and fun of its sources. Bannon does a good Caine, but he’s rather an unlikeable protagonist – and his major arc involves a tiresome bit where he’s given a posh girlfriend (Emma Corrin) for four episodes before she’s killed to motivate him for the rest of the season. The only other pre-existing characters are Thomas Wayne (Ben Aldridge) and Martha Kane (Emma Paetz), who meet while he’s a CIA infiltrator and she’s a true believer in the No Name League – they get a sub-plot brush with the Devil courtesy of an Eyes Wide Shut/Devil Rides Out bash at Crowley’s place that puts a darkness in both of them. The pilot brings on Jason Flemyng as a possible Big Bad, the Raven Society boss Lord Harwood, but he gets defeated early, tortured (nose and feet cut off) and cast into the streets as a beggar before an arc of getting himself back together and beginning a revolution. Maybe Heller and Cannon were trying to grapple with Brexit in the vision of a Britain where an appalling and cruel elected government has to fend off schemers and thugs from the right and left, and all communities are riven by dissent – Pennyworth senior joins the Ravens, and in the last episode comes close to assassinating the queen while suicide bombing a victory celebration after his son has helped defeat the uprising.
The breakout character is Bet Sykes – referring to Coronation St and Dickens – played by Paloma Faith, who has a Myra Hindley look and a British soap opera Northern accent and is Harwood’s fixer-enforcer, but also nurtures a weird crush on poor murdered Esmé that turns her into a semi-sympathetic handy psychopath sometime ally. Faith is splendid, and nicely matched by Polly Walker as her dominatrix sister. It keeps going back to class issues, and works an interesting seam of resentment – Alfred’s hidden enemy (Charlie Woodward) is an officer who sets out to ruin his life because the men laughed when Alfred called him ‘Doris’, a privileged psychopath who needs his nanny to come with him when he kills people, and protected by his establishment father. With Danny Webb as Whitechapel undertaker/underworld boss John Ripper, Salome Gunnarsdottir as Thomas Wayne’s trainwreck sister Patricia, Dorothy Atkinson as Alfred’s Mum, Ramon Tikaram as Inspector Aziz (who occasionally gets the disappearing-vigilante treatment later suffered by Commission Gordon) and Anna Chancellor as a slightly more reasonable fascist. Most episodes are titled for ‘60s female icons, for no distinguishable reason – Cilla Black, Sandie Shaw, Julie Christie, Lady Penelope, etc.
I liked Gotham because it was superbly cast (apart from Bruce) and was quite happy to go nuts every five minutes, but this sounds terrible, really crass.
Maybe they’re thinking of Sean Pertwee’s ex-services Alfred more than Caine’s? Or would they merge into one in the memory?
I actually liked Pennyworth a fair bit, despite myself. I thought it had a weird punky edge (the way I described the show was it’s as if Michael Caine actually was the characters he protrayed in the 60s (from Alfie to Carter) in a James Bond series written by Joe Orton and John Braine, directed by Peter Walker.)
I suspect it was planned to be released after Brexit had occurred as that seems to be the resonance it’s trying to evoke, if not embrace.