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Benjamin Poore, Jekyll and Hyde: The Victorians’ Last Gasp?

2016 January 3
by lucinda matthews-jones

Benjamin Poore is Lecturer in Theatre in the Department of Theatre, Film and Television at the University of York. He is the author of Heritage, Nostalgia and Modern British Theatre: Staging the Victorians (Palgrave, 2012) and Theatre & Empire (Palgrave, forthcoming). Ben is currently working on a monograph on Sherlock Holmes and stage adaptation in the new millennium.

According to Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian, we’re rapidly heading towards ‘peak reboot’: the point where the number of mythic and pop culture figures who can be reimagined for a modern age ‘is running dangerously low’.[1] Bradshaw mentions Sherlock, Merlin and Charlie Higson’s current Jekyll and Hyde adaptation for ITV among the symptoms of this approaching ‘TV remake apocalypse’.[2] One thing you can certainly say about this ten-part Jekyll and Hyde adaptation, which is drawing towards the end of its run, is that it’s aware of the current reboot mania, and continues to raise the stakes with its rampant intertextuality. But what I also want to suggest is that the series, which updates the action to the 1930s, is preoccupied with the persistence of the Victorians’ influence in the twentieth century.

Recent television history points to the difficulty of making a Jekyll and Hyde adaptation into a successful and long-running series. My DVD copy of Steven Moffat’s Jekyll (BBC, 2007), set in modern times, optimistically subtitles the six-part series ‘Season One’, but a second series was never made.[3] In the U.S., NBC’s Do No Harm, which reimagined the Jekyll and Hyde story as a medical drama centred on neurosurgeon Dr Jason Cole, was cancelled after an unlucky 13 episodes.[4] It’s not too difficult to see why Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella might be intractable material for an extended television series. Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is, of course, structured as a detective story, and no-one could nowadays be expected to be ignorant of the mystery’s solution. Without the mystery story’s element of suspense, adaptations have to rely on other narrative hooks. Both Moffat’s Jekyll and Higson’s Jekyll and Hyde are sequels to Stevenson’s work, showing us Jekyll’s descendants in different generations, and inviting us to find out whether history will repeat itself.

But a further problem with the modernised reboot is that the audience is no longer Victorian, and the prospect of a fall from respectability – from ‘the very pink of the proprieties’, to use Enfield’s phrase from the novella – no longer represents a moment of extreme jeopardy.[5] In order to address this, both Moffat’s Jekyll and Higson’s Jekyll and Hyde ratchet up the tension by placing Jekyll at the centre of international conspiracies to harness Hyde’s powers.

Another issue for any updated adaptation of Jekyll and Hyde is the largely unseen nature of Hyde’s evil in the novella, and how that translates to contemporary mores. Certainly we can still agree that Hyde’s witnessed acts, the trampling of the child and the murder of Sir Danvers Carew, are depraved moments of sadism. But multi-part television adaptations, because of their extended narratives, have to expand on the limited events depicted by Stevenson. At the same time, particularly in the current case, they have to pay careful attention to the limitations of pre-watershed television; the series has already been censured on the grounds of being unsuitable viewing for mid-evening on a Sunday.[6]

So, what does a modern adaptation show Hyde doing? One solution is provided by the recent TV movie starring Dougray Scott, where a contemporary Hyde becomes a straightforward serial killer.[7] The other solution goes hand in hand with the conspiracy plot that I mentioned: Hyde is not the real evil, he’s only relatively naughty, a loose cannon, a rebel. In the current Jekyll and Hyde, the shadowy Tenebrae represent a true global conspiracy of monsters, and they want to use Hyde’s powers. Hyde, therefore, is reduced to smashing a few glasses, threatening other shady characters, and generally strutting around with a sneer and a sardonic quip. This Hyde’s evil is essentially a bad attitude; not for him the gleeful crushing of children, nor yet the murder of a Member of Parliament, and certainly there’s no room for non-consensual sexual behaviour. In other words – and this may be where Higson, the hugely successful writer of the Young Bond series of books for young adults, knows his market best – Hyde is bad in the ways that a twelve year old child longs to be bad.

What is fascinating for me, however, is the way that the series looks back at the Victorians from half a century’s distance. Despite Higson’s familiarity with the 1930s period setting from the Young Bond books, there are few references to the Hungry Thirties of social and political history in the series so far. One of the rare exceptions was in a recent episode when the Home Secretary, Sir Marian, announced with some distaste that he was dining with the German Chancellor, who is a vegetarian (guess who’s coming to dinner, indeed). The reason for the 1930s milieu is that the story focuses on Henry Jekyll’s grandson, Robert Jekyll, who has been brought up in obscurity in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), where he discovers his extraordinary, inherited powers. On finding out that his adoptive family have been hiding his true nature from him, Jekyll flees to London.

It’s at this point that the Victorian references start to amass. Jekyll soon comes across his grandfather’s old laboratory assistant, Garson, in a drinking den that in Victorian times was the Empire music hall. Before long, Jekyll and Garson are discovering the secret passageways of Henry Jekyll’s abandoned but very well preserved Victorian townhouse. In flashbacks which seem to emerge from the fabric of the house, we see the young Garson and Henry Jekyll as they were in the 1880s. Garson and Robert also trace Robert’s grandmother, a former star of the Empire music hall called Maggie Kendall, who gave birth to Henry’s illegitimate son, Louis. This is another similarity with Moffat’s Jekyll: both sequels manage to write Stevenson himself into the narrative.

There’s still more Victoriana, if you’re looking for it. Captain Dance, the Tenebrae who has tracked Jekyll’s family down in Sri Lanka, is accompanied by a vampish woman with an eastern European accent called Fedora (Fedora is, of course, the role made famous by Sarah Bernhardt in Victorien Sardou’s eponymous 1882 play; but she also wears a Fedora hat, in case we don’t get the allusion). We discover that Captain Dance has a silent daughter who keeps to the shadows, named Olalla, like the title character in Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story of 1885.

Most strikingly, episode 5 takes Jekyll and the solicitor Max Utterson out of the city, to investigate the appearances of a mysterious hound. The correspondences with Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles are unmistakeable, especially as Jekyll and Utterson as an investigative duo are balanced in a way that evokes Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce’s Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. Episodes 4 and 5 also weave in references to ‘The Great God Pan’, Arthur Machen’s classic late-Victorian Gothic tale.

In episode 6, the series even revived the Victorian legend of Spring-Heeled Jack, explaining his reappearance in the 1930s by introducing Burton, the engineer’s apprentice, whose grandfather fought crime in the original Spring-Heeled Jack costume. The presence of Spring-Heeled Jack suggests that Higson’s Jekyll and Hyde is in many ways adapting Victorian penny fiction, and emulating the penny weeklies’ complex, sprawling plots, mythical characters, sudden deaths and unexpected resurrections. In embracing these juvenile qualities, I’d argue, this Jekyll and Hyde is in some ways more like a Victorian ‘penny dreadful ‘ than the actual TV series Penny Dreadfulis – but that’s a subject for another post.[8]

All these Victorian references in a 1930s setting draw on the understanding that if the characters in Stevenson’s novel had really lived in the 1880s, they would have survived into the 1930s, long enough to see the success of the Universal horror films that reinvented Victorian Gothic for the age of the talkie. There’s a double nostalgia at work here, I think: recalling the 1930s, but noticing that people in the 1930s still inhabited a world that was built by the Victorians. Much of that environment, and the outlook that went with it, was very soon to be swept away by the second world war. Watching the series, I can’t help but think of George Bowling, the protagonist of George Orwell’s prescient 1939 novel Coming Up For Air. As he reminisces about the world of his childhood, circa 1900, he recalls Penny Monster sodas, and reading penny weeklies.[9] And, as he awaits Hitler’s bombers, he asks, ‘Is it gone for ever? I’m not certain. But I tell you it was a good world to live in. I belong to it. So do you’.[10]

References

[1] Peter Bradshaw, ‘We are hurtling towards TV remake apocalypse. Prepare for the worst’, The Guardian, 4 December 2015 <http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/dec/04/tv-remake-apocalypse-prepare-worst-film-icons> [Accessed 8 December 2015]
[2] Bradshaw.
[3] Jekyll, dir. by Matt Lipsey/Douglass Mckinnon (BBC, 2007) [on DVD]
[4] Do No Harm, created by David Schulner (NBC, 2013) [on DVD]
[5] Robert Louis Stevenson, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (London: Norton, 2003), p. 10.
[6] Jasper Jackson, ‘ITV refuses to reschedule Jekyll and Hyde despite more than 500 complaints’, The Guardian, 26 October 2015 < http://www.theguardian.com/media/2015/oct/26/itv-jekyll-and-hyde-complaints-ofcom> [Accessed 8 December 2015]
[7] Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, dir. by Paolo Barzman (Genius Entertainment, 2008).
[8] Penny Dreadful, created by John Logan (Sky Atlantic/Showtime, 2015) [on DVD]
[9] George Orwell, Coming Up For Air (London: Secker & Warburg, 1971), p.40, p.90.
[10] Orwell, p.35.

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