JEKYLL AND HYDE
They're calling 'Indiana Jones, but scarier..." Ian Berriman is on set for ITV's thrill-packed new take on Jekyll And Hyde
ITV’s new take on the tale.
Not often does someone snag a showrunner job by accident, but that’s pretty much what happened to Charlie Higson after he was called in for a chat by ITV. “I pitched it by mistake!” the author/ former Fast Show star explains. “ITV wanted their equivalent of Doctor Who, their own in- house family drama. They said, ‘ We want something big and bold with elements of fantasy, horror and adventure. It needs to be a known brand, something quintessentially British, but something you could do a twist on. I said, ‘ So something like Jekyll And Hyde?’ and they said ‘ Brilliant! Can you write us a treatment?’ I said, ‘ I’m not pitching the bloody thing, I’m just trying to work out what you want!’ And they said, ‘ That’s exactly what we want.’”
Having accidentally landed the gig, Higson had to figure out an approach that would work in what we’ve come to think of as the Doctor Who/ Merlin/ Primeval timeslot. The key to unlocking it: considering Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde as the source from which superhero stories stem.
“It was the birth of so many things which are still current now,” Higson says. “That whole idea of the alter ego, the secret personality – it feeds into all that superhero stuff.”
Tom Bateman stars as Robert Jekyll, a descendant of the original doctor whose powers – super- human strength, speed and near- invulnerability – are the result of a genetic inheritance he initially has no knowledge of.
“I came up with this idea that the Jekylls have always had this ability to change who they are, but it’d laid dormant,” Higson explains. “Through taking potions the original Jekyll awoke something latent within him, and the grandson’s inherited the same thing. He starts to change in the first episode and doesn’t know what the fuck’s going on!”
There’s an obvious issue with spinning family- friendly fodder from Stevenson’s concept, of course. Though the book’s discreet about Hyde’s crimes, he’s certainly a murderer. We’re also given an account of him brutally trampling a child underfoot.
“Perfect idea for a kids’ series,” Higson laughs, “the most evil man in the world! He can’t do too terrible things. Here it’s more about letting go of repression, doing all those things you’d like to be doing but think, ‘ I’d better not, I’m a nice respectable person.’ Jekyll and Hyde have the same aims but go
about it very differently, and once Hyde’s let out of the bag he’s hard to control. It’s that Incredible Hulk thing really, in that he’s desperately trying not to let the Hulk out and you as the audience are going, ‘ Come on! Go green!’”
Finding someone who could master both aspects of the part was a challenge. Producer Foz Allan explains that Bateman won out because he was one of the few auditionees who could – and yet still remain likeable.
“It’s a big ask,” Allan admits. “We saw 40 or so young actors, but very few could do both. Then we had a couple who could, but their Hyde was too dark. Tom is fantastically affable, and you sense that in his Hyde. You want to spend time with this guy. You couldn’t have cast Anthony Hopkins in The Silence Of The Lambs, something genuinely horrible and cold. It would have destroyed the show.”
Another key aspect of the set- up is the time period. Rather than “doing a Sherlock”, Higson plumped for locating the series in the ’ 30s – an era he knows well from his Young Bond books.
“I felt there was a lot we could feed into that,” Higson says. “The great thing about the ’ 30s is it was the birth of the modern horror film, so I’m trying to put in my version of all those Universal monsters. There’s a version of Frankenstein, a Dracula figure, zombies and werewolves…”
For Foz Allan, the series also has a flavour of another franchise initially set in that era: “I think it’s Indiana Jones, but scarier.”
Time to take a quick stroll around some of the sets at Jekyll And Hyde’s studio base. First up, part of Jekyll’s London home. A portrait of his grandfather hangs on the wall, as do mounted boars’ heads – a subliminal reminder of the family’s struggle to overcome beastly impulses?
Next, a swish art deco office which would suit any high- ranking civil servant… if it weren’t for some of the more outlandish ornaments, like a cabinet crammed with animal skulls. A document on the desk detailing “Operational Commitments” is stamped “TOP SECRET”. This is the territory of Richard E Grant’s Sir Roger Bulstrode, head of MI0, a shadowy governmental organisation whose modus operandi recalls Torchwood, or Being Human’s Men in Grey.
I’m trying to put in my version of all those Universal monsters
“Their job’s to remove monsters and anything supernatural from the public domain so people know nothing that’s going on,” Higson says. “In the first episode there’s this young guy joining who says, ‘ Are you pulling my leg? There aren’t any monsters!’ And Richard E Grant says, ‘ That’s because we’re so good at our job…”
In keeping with the dualism at the heart of the tale, MI0 is just one of two diametrically opposed organisations that Jekyll/ Hyde becomes entangled with, the other being Tenebrae ( Latin for “shadows” or “darkness”) – basically a league of monsters.
“These two organisations are competing for his soul,” Higson explains. “If he goes to his Hyde side he’ll lean towards Tenebrae; if he goes to his Jekyll side he’ll lean the other way. But he doesn’t trust either.”
Incidentally, not all of those monsters are updates of the Universal horror pantheon, as Foz Allan reveals: “There’s a7’ 4” man with a huge lobster claw. There’s people who kiss you to death. The Harbinger is a dog with a man’s head. Then there’s Mr Wax and upside- down- face lady…” If nothing else, it sounds like this series has the makings of a fantastic range of action figures.
Stepping into Jekyll’s lab, a dingy, faintly Batcave- ish subterranean space, we discover that dualism’s expressed in the sets too, when designer Catrin Meredydd points out something we hadn’t spotted: “We decided that one half was very much tiled and ordered and like the Underground system, and the other was rock face, unhewn, a wilder side of him.”
It also exists in the form of not one but two love interests. On the one hand there’s “nice girl” Lily, played by Stephanie Hyam.
“She becomes the embodiment of everything pure and good that Jekyll wants to preserve,” Higson explains. “But the triggers for Hyde are hormonal – fuck or fight – so anything that might arouse him too much he has to back off from. So he’s constantly getting into situations with Lily where he has to pull away because he doesn’t want Hyde to emerge.” Then there’s Bella, played by Natalie Gumede. “She runs this criminal empire from a pub, and is dealing with crime and violence every day, so he can relax and be himself. When he’s Hyde he goes and hangs out with her. But she doesn’t just accept that – it’s like, ‘ You only turn up when you’re drunk!’ So there’s a lot of fun to be had with that.”
The importance of interweaving believable relationships with the fantastical elements is something Higson came to appreciate after his previous experience of genre TV, the 2000- 2001 revival of Randall And Hopkirk ( Deceased).
“I loved doing Randall And Hopkirk, but I didn’t quite manage to pull it off,” Higson reflects. “What Russell T Davies managed to do with Doctor Who, really cleverly, was keep all the fantasy and sci- fi, but marry it with a very real, strong dramatic core with Rose and her family. So I’m trying to make the relationships strong and interesting so you can buy into that, and then accept all the more fantastical stuff.”
If ratings are good, Higson has plenty of ideas for where the show can go next: “I had to do rough storylines for series two and three to prove it has legs.” So why should people tune in?
“Because it’s the sort of thing that I’d have loved to watch when I was 14. There’s a lot of fighting, lots of monsters, a lot of CGI and stunts. It’s a big, bold, exciting, fantasy action- adventure series of the type that
we don’t make enough of here.”
Hyde was known to overreact to spilt beer.
Tom Bateman plays the respectable Jekyll, and the uncontrollable Hyde.
Richard E Grant heads up MI0, the government’s monster- control division.
The new show is set in the ’ 30s for a modern horror, Indiana Jones feel.