Batman prequel Pennyworth might seem like the apotheosis of superhero TV, forming an entire series around the younger years of Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred – but by creating its unusual alternate-universe 1960s setting and a plot that doesn’t actually revolve around Batman at all, Pennyworth actually ends up as an entertaining side dish for one of the greatest comic book heroes ever.
“I was definitely like ‘What the f**k, they’re making a story about the butler? The old man? This is weird,’” star Jack Bannon, who plays Alfred “Alfie” Pennyworth in the series, told RadioTimes.com.
“It’s a standalone thing if you want it to be, I think,” added singer/actor Paloma Faith, who plays the sadistic Bet Sykes in the series.
“I think there’s talk isn’t there, of there being too many spin-offs of Marvel and DC together,” continued co-star Ben Aldridge, who plays the younger version of Bruce Wayne’s doomed father Thomas. “We’re getting bored of them.
“But I think as soon as I read this I knew this was completely different.”
Though perhaps completely different isn’t quite the right expression – because fans of Batman movies will note from an early stage that Bannon’s Pennyworth isn’t an entirely new take on the character, with the actor instead taking his lead from the popular incarnation created by Sir Michael Caine for Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy.
“It’s not an accident that he sounds a lot like him. My first self-tape audition was just a dreadful impression of Michael Caine, really,” admitted Bannon, whose natural speaking voice isn’t a million miles away from the one he affects in Pennyworth. “So I knew it was something that they weren’t necessarily petrified of.
“And then when I spoke to them they said, ‘Well he’s the best one.’ And also he’s the man who said ‘I’ll play a butler as long as he’s ex-SAS.’ So that background that we explore in the series we owe to him anyway.”
Showrunner Bruno Heller also wrote the character with Caine’s trademark diction in mind, with Alfie’s lines kept short and “almost phonetic,” according to Bannon, which made his job a bit easier from the start.
“It was a starting point and that was about it really,” he said. “I always try and start, I think, when I get a script, working out how the person sounds, and then build from there. The hard bit was not just doing a cheap knock-off version.
“Michael had so much personality. And it’s not just Batman stuff – obviously he’s played Alfred, but also we’re set in the ’60s and he was like the film star of the ’60s, wasn’t he? There was a wealth of stuff there.”
Co-star Aldridge, meanwhile, had rather less to work with, apart from a wealth of scenes where Thomas Wayne was gunned down in an alley in front of his son across multiple Batman adaptations.
“I watched those scenes and thought ‘Oh yeah, now I actually get to play who he is,’” Aldridge said.
“So, yeah, good to fill in that backstory for sure. They said in an audition that they wanted him to feel like Cary Grant, that he should feel like this American movie star plonked in the middle of London, who’s a bit of an alien.
“So I went away and watched North by Northwest, and tried to concentrate on being a bit like that in the look and feel and sound of him.”
Faith, meanwhile, was creating a new character entirely as the villainous Sykes, which gave her a lot more free rein.
“All I was told was to research Myra Hindley, the famous Northern serial killer of kids,” Faith told us. “And to research female killers in general.
“And I think what I took from that was this desensitised approach to life and death in equal measure. But then also there’s that Northern humour in her lines.”
In other words, then, there’s a lot to make Pennyworth stand alone without its Batman background – and if fans are just watching it for Easter Eggs and flash-forwards, they may be disappointed.
“You sort of resign yourself to knowing it’s not going to happen for ages! “ Faith said.
“But I don’t think you miss it either,” added Aldridge. “There’s so much that happens in it.
“It’s not like you’re ever waiting for Batman or for the references to happen.”
Oh well – at least we’ll always have the Michael Caine impression.
All episodes of Pennyworth are now streaming on Starzplay, accessible through Amazon Prime Video and other On-Demand systems