The truth behind Penny Dreadful’s bloody return

As the Victorian horror drama comes back for a second series, writer John Logan explains the thrill of delving into the darkest recesses of human nature

John Logan’s CV is big on action – he wrote the screenplays for Gladiator, The Last Samurai and Skyfall, and he’s been working on the next Bond movie, Spectre. So when he says that Penny Dreadful – his first series for television, which sees characters from Dracula, Frankenstein and The Picture of Dorian Gray sharing the screen – was inspired by Wordsworth, it comes as something of a shock.

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“About 13 years ago I started diving into Wordsworth, which led me to the other Romantics and eventually to Mary Shelley and reading Frankenstein again – which I hadn’t read since I was in college,” he says. “Then I spent ten years thinking about it, because if you’re going to use those characters you’d better get it right.”

“Penny Dreadful”, of course, is the term for lurid Victorian tales of sex and blood – and Logan’s first season, the most nominated show at this year’s Bafta Craft Awards, didn’t disappoint. The main story, which involved Timothy Dalton’s explorer Sir Malcolm Murray trying to save his daughter Mina from the Vampire Master, may tip its hat to Bram Stoker, but once Sir Malcolm turned to Victor Frankenstein for help, while Dorian Gray seduced anyone who moved, you realised how much fun Logan was going to have. 

That’s not to say he’s not taking some things very seriously. “Allthe big-name characters have been satirised so often, but I avoided any winking or irony,” he says. “I’m taking those characters as seriously as I would take any character. They feel pain, elation and horror the same way you do. What makes them monsters is their most human features.”

To link them all together he created Eva Green’s mysterious, sensual heroine Vanessa Ives. Vanessa was at the heart of season one but it was easy to be dazzled by the monsters around her and the quest for Mina Harker. In season two she comes into her own.

“At heart it’s a show about women. To have a character who could be literally and figuratively corseted and yet want to release the things inside her – romantic, supernatural or erotic – was really compelling to me,” he explains. “This season has been built around Vanessa’s complicated childhood, when she learnt to read tarot cards and made enemies who are going to start showing up like thunder.”

The feminist tinge to Logan’s writing is part of the show’s modern edge. “That 15-year period in British literature where, in quick succession, you had Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, The Island of Dr Moreau, Dracula, The War of the Worlds and The Hound of the Baskervilles, was about the late Victorians’ incredible anxiety,” he argues.

“They saw other world powers suddenly exceed their manufacturing. They saw an empire beginning to crumble. It’s like America right now. If you look at Dorian Gray you do think about cosmetic surgery; if Mary Shelley could look at cloning and organ replacement she would feel she had foretold the future.”

He’s got the next season planned out… but admits structure has been challenging. “You want a cliffhanger each episode,” he explains. “But if I get stuck, I turn to Dickens. You may be on page 700 of Bleak House, but at the end of each chapter you cannot wait to turn the page. There is a pulp sensibility there that I embrace fully.”

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Penny Dreadful season 2 begins on Sky Atlantic tonight (Tuesday 5th May) at 10:00pm