❉ With season 2 round the corner, an appreciation of the first series of Alfred Pennyworth’s early adventures.
“Set in England in an imaginary version of the 1960s, Pennyworth is marbled with knowing winks to the much-lauded golden age of ‘60s and ‘70s British film and television.. Front rank is Jack Bannon as Alfred. Nicknamed “Alfie”, it’s not at all surprising that he walks and talks with all the swagger of a young Michael Caine. In the DNA of its title character, Pennyworth from the off references such iconic 1960s characters as Callan and Harry Palmer. In some scenes, Alfie even wears a similar fawn raincoat to the one Palmer favoured.”
It’s a long time since I’ve felt the burning need to evangelise publicly about a TV series. Pennyworth (2019 – ), very loosely based on the early adventures of Alfred Pennyworth, Bruce Wayne of Batman’s English butler, is such a production. It so comprehensively pushed all my cult TV taste buttons that I couldn’t quite believe it. With the second series due to drop on 28 February, I thought now would be a good time to proclaim Pennyworth’s many and varied virtues.
The show is created and overseen by the partnership of Danny Cannon and Bruno Heller. They oversaw the ridiculously successful Gotham (2014-19), a five-season foray into the early career of Batman’s Commissioner Gordon (the hypnotically wooden Ben McKenzie) and the origins of the Dark Knight’s most famous (and not so famous) grotesques: the Riddler, Catwoman, Penguin, the Joker et al. With Gotham concluded, going into Alfred’s past was a logical extension of the same idea, but the tone is rather different. Set in England in an imaginary version of the 1960s, Pennyworth could only have been written and directed by two people – Cannon’s in his fifties, Heller is 62 – who grew up on the much-lauded golden age of ‘60s and ‘70s British film and television.
From the top down, the series is marbled with knowing winks to TV and film enthusiasts of a certain age. Front rank is Jack Bannon as Alfred (formerly most well known as the son of Morse’s boss, Fred Thursday, in Endeavour (2013-18)). Nicknamed “Alfie”, it’s not at all surprising that he walks and talks with all the swagger of a young Michael Caine. He’s working class, old fashioned and honourable, with an honest cockney charm, but as an ex-SAS soldier-turned-security consultant, lethal and ruthless when the occasion demands (and possibly suffering from PTSD). In the DNA of its title character, Pennyworth from the off references such iconic 1960s characters as David Callan (ex-soldier, cockney, killer) and Harry Palmer (ex-soldier, cockney, spy). In some scenes, Alfie even wears a similar fawn raincoat to the one Palmer favoured.
Elsewhere, there’s an episode called ‘Lady Penelope’ (which doesn’t have a Lady Penelope in it, but you get the idea by now) and, most tellingly, there’s an Eero Aarnio globe chair in the apartment of Martha Kane (Bruce Wayne’s mother-to-be), an extra is seen wheeling along a penny-farthing, and, at one point, Alfred says “Be seeing you.” There’s even a mention of the Flying Squad, under their very well known nickname of “The Sweeney”, as well as an old lady toting a machine gun (à la Goldfinger (1964)). All of this is incidental so, if you don’t get the references, it doesn’t harm your enjoyment of the series one jot. Those in the know, however, will be squealing on their sofas in delight. Cannon and Heller clearly know exactly what they’re doing.
These well-chosen references are an indication of the quality on show. Consider the set-up: Alfred’s is a Britain where the country’s international, and national, prestige wasn’t broken by the Suez Canal debacle (the prime minister even looks like Anthony Eden, whose political career was finished by Suez in 1957). The vibe is very much of resurgent, unquestioning 1950s respect for the ruling class – with an accompanying whiff of Dickensian working class poverty – trying to smother the social innovations of the 1960s, dismissed as the work of “deviants” and “traitors”. (Naturally it’s a double standard, as the prime minister uses call girls – Profumo, anyone? – and Lords father and protect bastards and murderers).
Perhaps this is why Alfred’s Britain is so harsh: Political prisoners are tortured in the Tower of London, crippled and thrown onto the streets; televised hanging-drawing-and quarterings on Bank Holidays are part of everyday life, and criminals are either imprisoned in stocks or hung in metal cages to die above the streets of central London. In such a febrile atmosphere, the fascist Raven society and the socialist No-Name League compete to bring about a revolution.
Caught between the two is where Alfred and his two ex-SAS mates Deon ‘Bazza’ Bashford (Hainsley Lloyd Bennett) and Wallace ‘Dave Boy’ McDougal (Ryan Fletcher) usually find themselves, sometimes at the instigation of Thomas Wayne (Ben Aldridge), here a CIA agent, and adventuress Martha Kane (Emma Paetz). It’s probably no secret that these two eventually marry and become the parents of Bruce Wayne, but in Pennyworth they’re at the stage of indulging in Beatrice and Benedick-style sniping which, thinking about it now, should have forewarned me that they were going to get together.
Woven around the struggle between the Ravens and the No-Names is a theme that elevates Pennyworth above disposable entertainment. Class is as the centre of the whole drama: very early on, Alfred falls in love with Esme Winnikus (Emma Corrin), an heiress. This Romeo and Juliet-style match is frowned on by the couple’s fathers, butler Arthur Pennyworth (the magnificent Ian Puleston-Davies) and rich churchman Evelyn Winnikus (Jasper Jacob, deceptively amiable). A lot of the drama and fun in the first series comes from seeing Pennyworth’s unwritten law of no mobility between the classes broken: Esme is often in danger because of Alfred’s dangerous profession, a situation which eventually has tragic consequences. Later, Alfred, having provided sterling service for the Crown, beds the Queen (a simmering Jessica Allergy), which has to be the ultimate victory in the class war.
It’s in the forces ranged against Alfred that class barriers are most entertainingly broken: Lord James Harwood (Jason Flemyng, clearly relishing every minute), head of the Raven Society, is crippled by government torturers and ends up as the ‘pet’ of a street urchin called Jack Wild (do you see what they did there…?). He’s rescued by his working class Manchester henchwoman, the amusingly world-weary Bet Sykes. Now, there isn’t exactly a distinguished line of musicians-turned-actors, but in the hands of the singer Paloma Faith, Bet – a nightmarish cross between Vic Nicholson and another Bet, Coronation Street’s Elizabeth Lynch – the bouffant killer is arguably the best thing in Pennyworth. Her finest moment comes when, kidnapping the Queen on a game shooting expedition, she curtseys then commands the monarch to “Drop the fucking gun!”
Showing how effortlessly the series can flip the class theme from comedic to pitch black, a plot-line concerning Alfred’s father plays out in a totally unexpected but entirely logical way in the last episode. I really didn’t see it coming but it makes total sense, and is so good it has a touch of Shakespearean tragedy about it. The only slight misstep story-wise is a narrative thread involving Aleister Crowley (Jonjo O’Neill, terrifyingly low key) trying to convince Thomas Wayne to sell his should to the Devil (yes, you read that right). It doesn’t go anywhere, but the chances are it may be picked up again in Series 2.
Equally, the only place where the production’s reach exceeds its grasp is during a political rally for the Ravens in Victoria Park. A few shots reveal that there clearly aren’t enough extras to represent the support the party supposedly commands, but the director does his best to shoot around the limitation.
The icing on this rich cockney cake for me, though, is the use of music. When Pennyworth starts, to the accompaniment of Paint It Black by the Rolling Stones and Tin Soldier by the Small Faces, the action is firmly located in 1967; when To Hell With Poverty by Gang of Four and Pigbag by Pigbag kick in in nightclub where Alfred works, they reinforce the idea that this is a rather different 1960s than the one we’re used to. By the time the series ends to the accompaniment of a triumphant My Way by Sid Vicious, you’ll be totally in love with the series’ freewheeling approach to Britain’s musical and political history. It can only be a matter of time before Parklife, with its cheerful cockney narrator who’s not a million miles from our Alfie, erupts on the soundtrack. I can’t wait.
If all this sounds absurd, it’s done with such commitment – from Jack Bannon down to the most fleetingly seen, passing extra – that you go along with it. The series’ collective tongue may be hovering just shy of the inside of its cheek, but that’s all part of Pennyworth’s appeal. I guess the most apt description of its style would be very darkly comic in a very English kind of way, an approach that works so well because the cast all play it completely straight.
Alfred is back for Series 2 on StarzPlay on 28th February. “Lahvley!”, as he might say.
❉ Watch Pennyworth – Season 1 on Amazon.co.uk Prime Video: https://amzn.to/3bw2mRR
❉ Robert Fairclough is a film and TV journalist and blogger and a regular contributor to We Are Cult, ‘Doctor Who Magazine’ and ‘Infinity’. He is the author of books on the iconic TV series ‘The Prisoner’, and co-author (with Mike Kenwood) of definitive guides to the classic TV dramas ‘The Sweeney’ and ‘Callan’.