Arts & Books

TV review: A truly wonderful schlocky horror show

Eva Green in Penny Dreadful (Jonathan Hession/SHOWTIME)

Something I enjoy about Penny Dreadful (Sky Atlantic, Tuesdays, 10pm) is imagining what happens when the director shouts “Cut!” Nine times out of 10, I see the cast bursting into laughter. Such as when Billy Piper opens this new series naked and dripping wet – rising from a bath of electrified water, resurrected as the Bride of Frankenstein.

“Cut!” cries the director. Dr Frankenstein collapses in a fit of giggles. “For goodness sake, put something on, love,” says the Monster, unplugging his bolts. And poor Billy wonders why her agent keeps putting her forward for this sort of camp nonsense.

Actually, Penny Dreadful should be renamed Penny Wonderful. It’s a sublime reimagining of Victorian pulp fiction horror stories – each of them coated with blood and undressed for passion. The show plays merry havoc with old myths, contorting their plots, but it captures the spirit of the Victorian age rather well. It was not, as we’ve been led to believe, a time of puritanism.

The Victorians enjoyed gore, were fascinated by the meeting of religion and science, and rather enjoyed sex – which is why the “penny dreadful” illustrated novelette was such a popular form of literature. Penny Dreadful not only borrows from Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker, but also from the Grand Guignol theatrical tradition that thrilled audiences with severed heads and gushing blood. Sky Atlantic’s modern, steampunk version is absolutely not for the young or the faint of heart. But it’s must-see television for Catholics who like to be spooked. At the centre of Penny Dreadful is the very Christian story of a woman, played tastily by Eva Green, battling to save her soul from the Devil.

Billy Piper, meanwhile, plays a prostitute who dies of TB and is rescued by Dr Frankenstein to be a mate for his monster. You’ll note that this is a nifty combination of Billy’s two most prominent roles: in Doctor Who and Secret Diary of a Call Girl. This has to be one of the most unfortunate cases of typecasting in history. I would say that it’s a waste of talent. But it really isn’t.

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (22/5/15).

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