Penny Dreadful: a supernatural take on Sherlock Holmes’s London

Despite the occult elements, Sky Atlantic's new Victorian Gothic horror series is instilled with the atmosphere and spirit of the great detective's adventures, says Paul Jones


With its forays into candlelit opium dens and down dark cobbled alleys, the Victorian London of Penny Dreadful is one that would have been familiar to Sherlock Holmes. And while the detective would draw the line at the supernatural elements that look set to define the series, he’d recognise the pioneering scientific spirit of Harry Treadaway’s Victor Frankenstein and the grotesqueness of the mystery Timothy Dalton’s Sir Malcolm Murray finds himself embroiled in on the search for his missing daughter Mina.


At one point, Eva Green’s enigmatic Miss Ives even subjects Josh Hartnett’s down-at-heel gunslinger Ethan Chandler to a bit of deductive analysis that could have been lifted straight from the pages of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories.

“Expensive watch but threadbare jacket – sentimental about the money you used to have. You eye is steady but your left hand tremors – that’s the drink, so you keep it below the table hoping I won’t notice. You have a contusion healing on your other hand – the result of a brawl with a jealous husband, no doubt. Your boots are good quality leather but have been re-soled more than once. I see a man who has been accustomed to wealth but has given himself to excess and the unbridled pleasures of youth. A man much more complicated than he likes to appear.”

Sherlock Holmes might have had few dealings with the occult but the same can’t be said for his creator and the first episode of Penny Dreadful has the flavour of one of the modern-day, swashbuckling tribute novels that have seen either Doyle or his detective taken down an eldritch path by authors who were well aware of the writer’s own spiritualist leanings.

But while Penny Dreadful could quite reasonably be described as a romp, the class you would expect from a show backed by Sam Mendes and created by Skyfall writer John Logan is evident. It looks as lusciously cinematic as you’d hope, the dialogue remains on the right side of that fine line that divides acceptable Gothic Victoriana from schlock and the performances from a collection of Hollywood stars are another reminder that these days TV is where it’s at.

Some have said Penny Dreadful is slow-paced – the result of giving movie makers eight hours to do a job they’re used to doing in two – but I didn’t see that at all. An episode that introduces you to four main characters, a handful of equally intriguing others, mysticism, vampires, resurrection and the apparent return of Jack the Ripper in under an hour can hardly be accused of being slow. I was impressed that it managed to make room for more thoughtful scenes among all that.

What the rest of the series holds remains to be seen but this was a strong, fun start, instilled with much of the atmosphere and spirit of Sherlock Holmes – even if the mysteries weren’t quite so elementary.

Penny Dreadful continues on Tuesdays at 9pm on Sky Atlantic