A love letter to ‘Pennyworth’
Jack Bannon as Alfred Pennyworth
Warning – this article contains significant SPOILERS for both seasons
Pennyworth is a TV series set in the DC Comics universe, about how Batman’s butler, Alfred, met Bruce Wayne’s father. Alfred Pennyworth is an ex-SAS soldier (it’s always the bloody SAS, right?), a Malaya veteran-turned private security contractor. Thomas Wayne’s a socialite / CIA agent, working in a counterfactual London during a period I’ll describe as an amalgam of the 50’s and 60’s (imagine The Krays meets 1984 with a twist of the opening scene from Austin Powers, except the Beefeaters carry machineguns). There are public executions on the telly and riots in the streets.
Anyway, I loved Pennyworth so much I thought I'd blog about it. Violent, sweary, kinky and surreal, it also features a superb cast of British character actors (yes, that really is Felicity Kendall as a witch). It’s a series where the Queen of England, a dominatrix and two ex-SAS men find themselves in a Mexican standoff in a suburban sitting room. And that’s before a man in a rubber gimp suit jumps out of a cupboard with a knife. And it has Paloma Faith, playing an evil henchwoman I’d describe as a mixture of Myra Hindley and Rosa Klebb. Who'd have known what a great actor she is? My only concern is worrying if some younger viewers are missing out on the juicier cultural references, but if my review leads to anyone under 30 checking out ‘The Ipcress File’, ‘Sapphire and Steel’ or ‘The New Avengers’ then my work here is done.
Paloma Faith as Bet Sykes
‘My Name is Michael Caine’
In Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dark Knight’ Batman trilogy, Alfred is played by Sir Michael Caine. Jack Bannon, who plays Alfred, must've prepared for the role by watching everything Caine starred in prior to 1980. Skinny as a rake, preferring tight-fitting suits, roll-neck sweaters and pencil ties, Bannon lacks Caine’s physicality, instead choosing to riff on his deadpan, adenoidal London accent. This, depending on your taste, might be deeply irritating or endlessly amusing. Growing up with Sir Michael as a fixed cultural reference point, I fall into the second category. “I'm sorry love,” says Pennyworth in a very Cain-like voice, just before blowing off an old lady’s head. I think the series deliberately wants to evoke every hardman thriller Caine ever made, from the Harry Palmer movies through to ‘The Black Windmill’ and ‘Get Carter’. Nihilistic violence in depressing post-war landscapes, drawn in dreary greys and browns. Murder in wintry seaside resorts. Bent coppers. The grudging acknowledgement of a stifling class system. Betrayal as a constant. Pennyworth revels in this noirish stuff, the fantastic story elements of the story making them refreshing and new. Conversely, I accept some might find it a messy blend of competing elements. YMMV. Oh, and there are some awesome Caine Easter eggs I spotted.
1. The camera settles on a sign for ‘Micklewhite Street’ several times. Sir Michael Caine’s real name, of course, is Maurice Micklewhite.
2. In Season One, Pennyworth ends up in prison. When Aziz goes to visit him he regally descends from his cell like ‘Mr Bridger’ (played by Noel Coward) in the 1969 Michael Caine megahit ‘The Italian Job’. Bravo whoever snuck that in there!
It’s deeply, strangely, English
Check out these opening credits. I think they’re great; stylish, cartoony and gritty. Whoever's responsible for Pennyworth’s art direction deserves a medal for capturing a strange sort of faux-Englishness that’s shamelessly inauthentic… yet totally appropriate. Pennyworth has no idea if it’s set in the 50s, 60s or even early 70s, nor does it care. Instead, it simply cherry-picks things about thirty-odd years of England it finds cool; bondage, tweed, guns, burlesque-style lingerie, Beefeaters, Soho nightclubs and dingy pubs (Alfred’s east End local is called ‘The Severed Arms’). Upper-class characters speak like people in a 1950s public information film (“this pudding is simply scrumptious!”). Aleister Crowley’s still knocking about doing his Satan schtick (despite dying in 1947) and George Orwell is tortured to death by a fascist from the ‘Raven Society’. There’s even a cannibalistic gangster / mortician called Mister Ripper, while Polly Walker plays a Cynthia Payne-style madam. It’s all deeply silly, a joyful celebration of English weirdness (yes, English – Pennyworth isn’t wildly ‘British’ to my mind). Pay attention, and you’ll be rewarded with tantalizing glimpses of oddity – the man in the cuddly bear suit wandering around a gentleman’s club? The lady with a pram filled with piglets? Lashings and lashings of surreal What-The-Fuckery!
We don’t know much about the rest of Pennyworth’s world, except of course the Americans are pulling the strings. There are clues, though; a TV report reveals the Netherlands have ceded from the ‘Greater Reich’ and émigré British fascists are welcome in Germany. Britain is a three-way split between the Establishment, with Jessica Ellerby having lots of fun playing an alternative Queen, along with the leftish ‘No-Name League’ and aforementioned Raven Society (led by the ever-reliable Jason Flemyng as wannabe dictator Lord Harwood). This being Pennyworth, Harwood’s nose was cut off in season one (under torture in the Tower of London, of course,) so Harwood spends Season Two wearing a splendid prosthetic hooter. Made of gold. Anyway, all of these factions are completely self-interested and ruthless, Alfred finding himself cast as a Rick-from-Casablanca gun for hire from his nightclub in the Soho neutral zone. But, with civil war looming, he has to choose a side. Yes, he’s a trope – Alfred’s a lovable rogue / mercenary type in the Han Solo mould, but it’s done with such panache you don’t care.
Ramon Tikaram as Chief Inspector Aziz
I was also interested in Pennyworth's take on Race. In this alternative Britain, the far-right have Black and Asian activists too – there’s no suggestion the fascists have an agenda based on racial superiority (which you'd kind of expect). The salons of the powerful are genuinely multiracial. Scotland Yard’s Machiavellian head detective is from an Asian background – Chief Inspector Aziz (played by a suave Ramon Tikaram), something which would have been near-impossible in the real 1960s Metropolitan Police. Ironically, this dystopia has managed a fairly utopian level of post-racial harmony. There might be some Batman / DC canonical reason for this piece of world-building, but I’m not a comics guy so apologies if I’ve missed something. Still, I enjoyed it as a feature and not a bug. Maybe I was expecting there to be a nod, at least, to the issues around real-world Britain’s often fractious post-war race relations.
Anna Chancellor as Frances Gaunt
Where to start? Sarah Alexander, Ben ‘Fleabag’ Aldridge, Emma Corin, Ian Puleston-Davies (you might remember him as the naked miner from ‘Chernobyl’) Simon Day, Danny Webb, James Purefoy (who – SPOILER – provides one of the only super-hero moments in the series), Anna Chancellor, Felicity Kendall…
Anna Chancellor is one of my favourite characters, playing Raven Society deputy Frances Gaunt (imagine Margaret Thatcher running the Women’s Institute). She ends up in a command bunker with Lord Harwood, trying to persuade him not drop nerve agent on London. These scenes play out like a campy version of ‘Downfall’, with Harwood the angsty teen and Frances his gently cajoling mum. They are, truth be told, rather crappy would-be dictators – all piss and wind and silly uniforms. All they needed to do was shoot at a wacky camera angle, and they’d fit right into an original 1960s Batman episode! On the other hand, the No-Name League’s leader, Udine Thwaite (Sarah Alexander), is a bit of a smiling assassin who’ll happily watch her husband executed at dinner if it means she gets her own way. Ensemble, character-actor led casts were a staple of British drama in the 60s and 70s, from ‘Z-Cars’ to ‘The Sweeney’. It’s another tradition Pennyworth was wise to adopt.
In fact, my only regret about Pennyworth is they haven’t announced a third season. Well done, to all involved, and thanks for the fun.
Pennyworth, in the UK, is available on Starzplay.