Jekyll and Hyde: what went wrong?

From viewer complaints and rogue scheduling to tragic real-life events, it sometimes felt like ITV's cancelled monster mash was as cursed as its protagonist, says Huw Fullerton

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Even before it started, Charlie Higson’s Jekyll and Hyde faced an uphill battle. Rebooting a told-to-death story with a largely unknown cast on a channel (ITV) not known for sci-fi or fantasy drama, the series looked set to follow in the footsteps of other failed forays into the genre (such as the similarly-themed ITV series Demons).

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For my part, I thought it was a doomed attempt to imitate the weekend success of Doctor Who, a show that only works because of its immense backstory and ability to go anywhere and do anything from one episode to the next. How could a resolutely Earth-bound series on a comparably small scale compete with that?

Actually, Jekyll and Hyde hit screens with a respectable 4.3 million viewers but while many fans took to the series’ fun mix of action and Gothic others didn’t, and by the second episode it had shed a million of its viewers, continuing to slide in the ratings as the weeks went on.

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Tom Bateman in the title role as the grandson of the original Dr Jekyll

More troublingly, the series faced claims that it was too dark and adult for its teatime slot (6:30pm for episode one), with the premiere coming in for particular criticism for a sequence where Robert Jekyll’s adoptive family are burned alive, plus general scenes of violence. Following hundreds of complaints, Ofcom eventually opened an investigation to find out “whether the programme complied with our rules on appropriate scheduling and violent content before the watershed.” (via Guardian)

Meanwhile, series creator and head writer Charlie Higson was hitting out at anyone complaining on Twitter, telling viewers they needed to “grow up” and blaming the Daily Mail for the outcry. Presumably this didn’t help.

Shunted around in the schedules and losing more of its audience, Jekyll and Hyde was later pushed again for the Sound of Music Live and ended, with little fanfare, in a double bill on the 27th December, while everyone else was watching Christmas TV. The ratings for the finale were about 1.8 million, and overall for the series it had averaged 2.6 million viewers – not bad, but not Doctor Who numbers either.

Given the collection of catastrophes striking the series, it was no real surprise to anyone when it was announced on Tuesday that there won’t be a second run (though Higson had said that he’d planned out at least 2 more series, and according to his Twitter account he’d been scouting locations for future episodes).

Distilling all this down, it’s easy to see the show as a victim of unfortunate circumstances, poor scheduling and plain bad luck. If only it had avoided these issues, been placed in a more appropriate time slot and thereby found the right audience, it could have been a big success and brought sci-fi fans to ITV in droves for the first time.

But I don’t think that’s the whole truth. For one thing, Higson has said on numerous occasions that the series was written with its teatime slot in mind, so the furore around its adult content wasn’t down to an accident. Whether you agree that the series was too violent or not (I didn’t think it was much worse than certain Doctor Who episodes), it clearly misjudged what many viewers would find acceptable.

And while the unfortunate real-life events and scheduling issues affecting the show couldn’t have been foreseen, I can’t help but feel that if Jekyll and Hyde had been an amazing production, it might have weathered the storm. As it was, it didn’t.

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Jekyll and Hyde creator Charlie Higson

This was not a universally-loved critical darling failing to find an audience due to bad luck – while some reviews were positive, others called it “a camp, fetid mess” (The Telegraph) or “badly acted” (The Independent), and its loss of audience interest can’t be entirely blamed on bad scheduling. After all, a huge chunk of viewers never came back after episode one. The show didn’t work because it wasn’t interesting or unique enough to get enough people to watch it (though there will doubtless be many who mourn its loss).

Exactly why it wasn’t compelling enough may be more complicated, but to put it in the words of Higson himself a few months ago (when he spoke to me and other journalists on the set of Jekyll and Hyde), sometimes things just don’t come together.

“It’s very hard to analyse why something will work and why something won’t,” he said. “Nobody ever sets out to make a crap television programme, or film, and sometimes, you know, it’s intangible. 

“You think, ‘it’s slipped through my fingers but I don’t know what quite went wrong’.”

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The answer may elude him for some time to come.