With Penny Dreadful at an end, creator John Logan looks back at the show’s greatest bites…
PENNY DREADFUL, WE hardly knew ye. In an age where hit TV shows seemingly trundle on forever — The Walking Dead look like they’ll never get to sit down — John Logan’s gloriously gory and vastly underrated Gothic horror finished its run this summer after just three seasons. The end, when it came, was so sudden that there was much speculation among fans that Showtime, the network behind the show, had pulled the plug. The dreaded C-word was mentioned.
“It certainly wasn’t a cancellation,” says Logan. “It just seemed right. And I knew it would be very difficult for some of the fans, because it’s such a full stop. I mean, the words ‘The End’ come up and that’s what it is. It was an ending.”
If you didn’t catch Penny Dreadful during its all-too-brief run, you missed one of the most original shows on TV (and have no excuse now for not giving it a go). A gorgeous, big-budget ode to literary horror, Logan’s masterstroke was (as with Alan Moore’s The League Of Extraordinary
Gentlemen) bringing together a number of characters from classic Victorian literature. So Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) would rub shoulders with Frankenstein (both scientist and monster, played by Harry Treadaway and Rory Kinnear), Timothy Dalton’s Sir Malcolm Murray turned out to be the father of Mina Murray aka Mina Harker aka a main character from Dracula. And with Frankenstein and Dracula (who would eventually show up in Season 3, played by Christian Camargo) on board, The Wolf Man wasn’t far behind in the guise of Josh Hartnett’s Ethan Chandler — real name Ethan Lawrence Talbot, a nod to the Universal Pictures iteration of the character.
An all-star monster mash, especially one caked in claret and featuring enough shagging to keep Mr Skin in business for eons, seemed like an easy sell, but from the beginning Logan struggled to get the project off the ground. “Even when I would talk about it with Showtime or Sam Mendes [Logan’s producing partner], it was
difficult to try to explain the tone I wanted to achieve,” he says. “All the words I used were the worst possible words: ‘elegiac’, ‘haunting’, ‘eerie’. It was hard to get right.”
Enter his secret weapons: first, Juan Antonio Bayona, director of The Orphanage and A Monster
Calls, shot the first two episodes. “He set a template that was exactly what we were looking for,” adds Logan. “Serious, perhaps earnest, a bit mournful, with occasional Technicolor flashes of exciting violence and shock.”
And then there was Eva Green. While many focused on the ‘name’ characters, her damaged psychic Vanessa Ives was a Logan original, and the true lead of the show. From the iconic séance sequence in the second episode, when Vanessa is possessed by demonic entities, Green took the show by the scruff of the neck. “She’s a hell of a trouper, that Eva Green,” laughs Logan. “That scene was intended to say to the audience, ‘I know you think this is a show about Frankenstein and vampires and werewolves. It’s not. It’s a show about this woman and her battle with the devil.’”
Not only was Logan showrunner, but he wrote all 27 episodes (only enlisting the services of a co-writer twice). That level of control — rare on any TV show — allowed him to shape Penny
Dreadful as a very personal story. “Speaking as a gay man who realised I was gay before it was cool to be out, I understand what it is to feel you cannot be yourself and to feel constrained by a society that does not love you, or value you in any way.” It was also a stealth feminist TV show. As well as Vanessa, Billie Piper’s prostitute Lily, Patti Lupone’s Dr Seward and Helen Mccrory’s Season 2 antagonist Evelyn Poole were where the true power lay. “The reason I chose the Victorian era was because of the corset. It was literally and figuratively about the corseting of women,” he explains. “And the female characters get stronger and stronger as the show goes on. It was always intentional that by the last year it would be a symphony of female voices.”
As it began with Vanessa, it was only fitting it end with her, vampirised after falling for Dracula’s bulging fangs, and asking Ethan — her champion — to end her life. It was all about Vanessa’s arc. And when that came to an end in the final episode, so did the show. “The story really only had one outcome,” says Logan. “When Vanessa would achieve the apotheosis, that would be the finale of drama. I just knew it would have to end. I talked to Eva about it, and she was completely cool.”
Logan has moved on (to Alien: Covenant with Ridley Scott), but he’s justifiably proud of his creation. “I think we ended the story with grace, and for all the characters with a certain amount of dignity and beauty. To keep it going for reasons that were venal or less than artistically motivated would be an act of bad taste.” Or, if you will, dreadful, something the show conspicuously managed to avoid. So why start now?
Literary characters reimagined alongside new creations in Penny Dreadful. Rory Kinnear (Frankenstein’s monster) with his ‘creator’, John Logan. Below: Logan with Eva Green.