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.

The scenes of drinking, puking and giving fruity-voiced poetry readings become repetitive, so the flashbacks to his explosive marriage to Caitlin (Essie Davis), at home in Wales, come as colourful relief. I suspect the programme is trying to wring some sympathy out of Thomas’s lot – tortured by creative genius – but when he says he feels like a seedy old ham it sounds more like a moment of self-realisation than an opportunity for the viewer to disagree.

It’s all over bar the counting, but before the next election let’s hope someone comes up with a better way to conduct the apparently mandatory television “debates”. RTÉ’s Prime Time Election Debates (Sunday-Wednesday) are calmer than TV3’s bunfights, and they’re astutely moderated, with Claire Byrne in particular being razor sharp throughout. But they’re not much more insightful, and the debates featuring the candidates for the European seats are framed so that they stay on local issues. It’s a frustrating editorial choice.

Monday’s debate starts with a moving scene-setting report about a woman looking for a medical card for her young son, who has a disability. Fine and appropriate if the subsequent debate is for the Dáil, but these are European elections. I know most of us still have a tenuous grasp about what our MEPs do, but I’m guessing that sorting out medical cards isn’t in their gift.

Brian Crowley, of Fianna Fáil, has been an MEP for 20 years, and whatever else he has been doing out there he’s no slouch when it comes to being re-elected. He comes home, he says, every weekend and typically sees about 100 people with medical-card issues. It seems we bring our own brand of parish-pump politics, whatever the parliament.

In response to the report, Phil Prendergast, the Labour MEP, talks about being a midwife and how, having delivered babies with Down syndrome, she empathises with the mother in the film. In what parallel universe is that bizarre diversion a pitch for a job in Europe?

Tuesday’s debate veers for a short while in a more relevant direction, with candidates stating the European political grouping they’d be voting with – we have 11 MEPs out of 751, so it’s important – but that route is quickly cut off with a question about where the candidates stand on another very national issue: rent control.

Emer Costello, another Labour MEP, tries to ignore the rent question and persists with Europe, saying that she’ll be in Aldi. That’s what it sounds like, anyway. In my defence, it has been a tedious evening of soundbites about candidates wanting to be “messengers for Ireland in Europe”, as if they were well-paid carrier pigeons, or repeatedly saying what they’ve been hearing “at the doors”.

She is, of course, referring to Alde. Well, not of course. I expect even after all these hours of European electioneering most of us are fairly clueless about the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe – or any of the other voting alliances in that parliament. This feels like a lot of wasted airtime.

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