Charlie Higson interview: Jekyll & Hyde, scaring kids, monsters
As Jekyll & Hyde arrives on ITV, we chatted to creator and novelist Charlie Higson about kids’ horror, VFX budgets and more…
Charlie Higson is currently a very busy man. After the press launch of ITV’s Jekyll & Hyde, he has to rush off to a VFX meeting (“If an episode’s got shit special effects in it,” he jokes, “it’ll be your fault because you kept me too long!”). Then he’s straight on to filming his second Professor Branestawm adaptation for the BBC, appearing at live events to mark The Fast Show’s twenty-first birthday, and, at the end of this month, bringing out the final instalment in his YA horror series, The Enemy. That’s a full plate by anyone’s standards.
Incidentally, Higson is eating from a full plate as we chat, multi-tasking interviews with the consumption of a modest Jenga tower of posh chips and bijou burgers.
Given the speedy turnaround on Jekyll & Hyde, which went from nought to ten episodes in a little over a year, does he feel any kinship with the story’s creator, Robert Louis Stevenson, said to have written the novella in three, feverish, drug-crazed days? “Did I put myself into a fever? I’m too old for that shit! When I was younger and I had more energy I could do things like write at 2 o clock in the morning whilst drunk, but not anymore, not these days.”
It did all happen quickly though? “One thing I need to clarify is that I didn’t write the whole series. I had five other writers who’ve done an episode each, but as with the likes of Steven Moffat [on Doctor Who], I’ve done sort of final pass over the whole thing to pull it all together. There was a certain amount of writing as we went along.”
Higson’s grateful for the speed, he says. “It meant that ITV didn’t have a chance to talk themselves out of it!” Jekyll And Hyde is something of a risk for the channel, he explains. “Because it’s not the sort of thing they’ve ever made in-house before. They have done fantasy series but they tend to be from production companies so it was quite scary for them on that front.”
That said, there is a circularity to this bold new venture for ITV, a sense of coming home. “I was in some ways trying to recreate what I loved as a kid growing up in the sixties, with shows like The Avengers, The Prisoner, The Champions, Adam Adamant, all these fantastic shows which had strong elements of fantasy and humour in them, and amazingly, most of them were made by ITV. It’s kind of a return to that.”
Scary, funny and packed with punch-ups and action, you can certainly see the connection. Set in the 1930s, Jekyll & Hyde tells the story of the original Dr Jekyll’s grandson, who, afflicted by the same monstrous condition, travels from his adoptive home in Sri Lanka to seek out the mysteries of his past in London. It’s a ripping yarn inspired not only by Stevenson’s original story, but also classic monster stories of the period.
“One of the reasons I wanted it set in the 1930s,” Higson says, “was because that was the era of the great Universal monster movies and I wanted to do version of them all, Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolfman, The Mummy, Zombies, all those classic monsters.”
Isn’t he worried that all that might be considered too much for the family teatime slot? In a word, no. “Kids will be happy with it,” says Higson. “They love all that stuff.”
“I never, in all my kids’ books and making this, want to patronise kids and dumb it down. They want to feel they’re watching something a bit more grown-up. My feeling is that there’s enough of a fantasy element to it. It’s set in the 1930s, so it’s not contemporary and it is obviously in a slightly heightened world, and that buys you the ability to perhaps go a bit further. We don’t do squirting blood and gore and torn-off limbs, it’s very tastefully done.”
It certainly won’t be the first time ITV has shown scary material pre-watershed either, Higson argues. “The James Bond films have traditionally been shown on ITV Christmas Day afternoon. Interestingly in this country, James Bond films have always been seen as great family fare, they’re full of torture and death and all sorts of unsanitary things going on!”
“I’ve always maintained it’s good to scare children,” Higson concludes, “In a safe way. It’s good for kids to learn about fear and how to cope with it. And also fear is thrilling. We all remember the shows we watched as kids that terrified us, they’re the ones that stick in our mind and that we really enjoyed.”
What terrified Higson as a child, sat cross-legged on the floor in front of the TV?
“There’s a fantastic episode of The Avengers where Emma Peel goes into this house and every time she goes into a room and through the door, the rooms keep switching around. It’s like a house of cards. That, I really enjoyed. It was quite spooky and sinister because it had a sort of nightmare quality to it. I’d love to watch it again. Someone the other day told me what the episode was called, but I completely forgot. Now you, as Den of Geek, you should know!”
l’ll have to Google it later, I apologise. (Then do, and find out it’s series four, episode twenty-three, The House That Jack Built.)
“Also, the Patrick Troughton Doctor Who with the Yetis [The Web Of Fear], which recently resurfaced, that really stuck in my mind. For years I couldn’t work out why I hadn’t seen clips from it and people weren’t talking about it. It was only when it resurfaced that I realised it had been wiped. I haven’t actually got round to watching it again now because I don’t want to spoil my childhood dreams of how brilliant it was!”
As the writer of Ninth Doctor 50th anniversary short, The Beast Of Babylon, and with a long list of screenplays and novels behind him, Higson would seem to be a shoo-in for guest-writing an episode of Doctor Who. For whatever reason, he’s yet to. Perhaps his role on Jekyll & Hyde, clearly an attempt by ITV to compete with the BBC’s family-friendly hit export, might burn that bridge…
What does he think about all the recent reports on Doctor Who‘s so-called failing ratings? “I do think it’s a shame that it got moved to that later slot, because you’re not going to get the new viewers, kids can’t watch it live. I think that’s a shame. It’s interesting with Doctor Who, Steven [Moffat] looks almost like he’s making it more for the American download market now than for kids.”
The foreign market is similarly in Jekyll & Hyde’s sights, according to Higson. “We always knew it was going to be pre-watershed, but also something that we wanted to sell abroad. Nobody else [overseas] really does the sort of teatime family slot, so it had to work as a broader, later-night show as well.”
Has it been written in such a way that all ten episodes could be watched in a single binge? “Yes,” says Higson. “There’s an ongoing story, but it’s also different enough each week that you’re learning new stuff and it’s not just the same thing week after week and you’re left thinking ‘This is the same plot as last week!’ I much prefer that model of ongoing story, because I write novels as well so we’ve taken a sort of novelistic approach to the series.”
“It’s interesting the way that is changing,” he continues. “Steve [November] and some of the other execs at ITV were a little bit nervous of that, saying they don’t want there to be so much story that if it’s been on for three weeks, someone thinks ‘Oh, I can’t catch up!’. So I said ‘Does that mean you haven’t had any new viewers for Coronation Street in the last fifty years?’” Higson laughs.
It’s important to get a new show’s place in the schedule right, I suggest, because it affects audience expectations of content. One issue with series one of the BBC’s Atlantis was that it felt like a teatime show but aired closer to half-past eight, where it couldn’t help but feel lightweight.
Higson agrees. “It’s never good for a show to be moved around. We always knew roughly what our slot was on this and we’re hoping to stick to it.”
It’s an interesting time for ITV to take up teatime family drama, isn’t it? Does Higson believe that event television, families making an appointment to sit around and watch a show together, still exists?
“It’s tricky,” he says, “you can still create event television.” Game Of Thrones is one example. “You don’t want to be the person at work or school the next day with everyone saying ‘Oh my God, did you see the Red Wedding?’ and you’re going ‘Stop! Stop! Stop!’ You have to watch it when it goes out.”
“Also, obviously, TV companies make the likes of Strictly Come Dancing and X Factor, which you have to watch when it goes out and you don’t want to catch up with it a week later, because things have moved on, so it’s trying to position it like that. We definitely structured this series with a lot more ongoing story so that people would want to know what’s going to happen.”
Changing tack, I ask how the constraints of budget affect a big, visual, fantasy show like Jekyll & Hyde. The limitations can be a creative boon, he suggests. “I wanted to do the equivalent of a werewolf episode,” remembers Higson. “Where possible, I wanted to use British folk myths rather than imported American ones, and there’s a lot of places in the country that have the legend of the Black Dog.”
“It became obvious that when it was a Black Dog, we actually had to have a real black dog, we weren’t going to be able to do it digitally, because it was just too many shots. We could do a bit of a transformation but I wanted a big fight at the end—because Hyde is our superhero—between him and the werewolf, and we couldn’t have him fighting an actual dog!”
“So I had to come up with the idea that Hyde kind of manages to get him in a halfway stage, halfway between dog and man, so we could use some prosthetics. I got an idea from Greek mythology of the werewolf getting his power from the Earth, so if Hyde can lift him off the ground, he turns back into a man. It becomes quite interesting then. You can tap into mythology and get round the fact that we couldn’t afford a full-on digital black dog!”
It’s interesting that Higson describes Mr Hyde, Dr Jekyll’s monstrous alter-ego, as a superhero. With his violence and drinking and so on, he’s not exactly Captain America, is he?
“No, he’s a superhero in the Incredible Hulk mode. The idea of good and evil and right and wrong is a very strong thread through the series. It’s something that Jekyll is wrestling with all the time, even though he turns into the world’s worst evil man, he’s conscious of what’s going on and we’re never really glorifying that. There’s a strong moral core to the series.”
How does the show go about making a traditionally evil character seem heroic? “For that very problem, what I did was to create people who are even worse. Monsters who are much more nasty and horrible, so that he’s allowed to kick the crap out of them.”
Yet he’s still not concerned about making the show too scary for a young audience? Not a bit of it. “You’ve got monsters in there, but kids love monsters!”.
Jekyll & Hyde starts on Sunday the 25th of November at 6.30pm on ITV.