Television: Oozing and schmoozing their way through the week

‘Penny Dreadful’, starring Timothy Dalton and Eva Green, is giddy with layers of melodrama. The same can’t be said of our politicians

Knowing potboiler: Timothy Dalton and Eva Green in Penny Dreadful

Knowing potboiler: Timothy Dalton and Eva Green in Penny Dreadful

Sat, May 24, 2014, 01:00

On an unseasonably warm February evening I took a short cut through Henrietta Street in Dublin and found myself walking through the set of Penny Dreadful (Sky Atlantic, Tuesday). Fake snow covered the street, and women in grubby Victorian clothes stood around clutching Styrofoam cups of coffee. And although it looked a bit eerie at twilight there wasn’t a speck of gore to be seen, unlike the opening episode of the Gothic thriller, which oozed blood in nearly every atmospheric scene.

Penny dreadfuls were cheap Victorian books full of sensational stories of death and the supernatural. The first episode of Sky’s series lives up to the promise of that title, with enough plot teasers to pack out the eight-part drama.

The daughter of a famed explorer, Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton), is lost in “the demi-monde”, which is peopled with half-dead creatures and evil spirits. Together with Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), his assistant or relative – their relationship is unclear – he sets out to find her with the help of a cowboy showman, Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett). Penny Dreadful is a coproduction with the US network Showtime, where it began last week, and a big American star such as Hartnett is a viewer magnet for that audience.

No other television potboiler is as full of knowing ingredients and literary references: Dr Frankenstein is the explorer’s go-to pathologist, Dorian Gray pops up next week, and Jack the Ripper is blamed for the first murder (of many). There are also any number of 19th-century obsessions, from Egyptology to tarot cards, all bubbling away in a giant cauldron of sticky gore. If Little Nell were to wander through the foggy streets holding hands with Tiny Tim we’d have a full house for Victorian bingo.

Penny Dreadful is beautifully cinematic, especially given the short turnaround time since February; TV production schedules are punishing these days. It’s giddy with layers of tightly controlled melodrama, the acting is good – especially that of the almost luminous Green, who projects an unnerving stillness – and Dublin, pretending to be London, has never looked so Gothically murky.

The cleverly titled Desperate House Buys (RTÉ One, Monday) should throw some light – not sparkly fairly lights but high-wattage kliegs – on the property market, exploring how it has moved from stagnation a year ago to what is portrayed here as a desperate scramble. The documentary features atmospheric music, swooping aerial shots – it’s always cloudy in Boyle, sunny in Dublin – and interviews that lay bare the urban-rural price divide. In Roscommon you can buy a house for the price of a car. In Dublin we follow a couple as they pay €500,000 for a suburban semi.

The economist Ronan Lyons briefly gives some analysis, but in this snapshot programme it’s mostly Dublin estate agents looking delighted and talking the market up. They’re salespeople on commission: what do you expect? For all their chat they appear to know little more about the market than the househunters – although maybe the subtext in Desperate House Buys is that nobody has a clue what’s going on.

A Poet in New York (BBC Two, Sunday) is probably as affectionate a portrayal of Dylan Thomas as you could expect. The biopic of the Welsh poet is directed by Aisling Walsh, with Tom Hollander as Thomas. (Flashes of Rev break through, and his accent sounds only sporadically Welsh.) It concentrates on Thomas’s final months, during a poetry-reading tour of New York. By then he’s a messy drunk, boringly narcissistic and self-pitying, and cruel to those around him – including the women who inexplicably fall into his bed.

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