Steven Moffat (2007)
An interview I did with Steven Moffat for Death Ray at the time his ITV series Jekyll was aired in 2007. This was before he took over Doctor Who, and before he did his similiarly updated version of Sherlock holmes. Once again, this piece featured in the pages of Death Ray.
There are few stories that are as widely known as The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr.Hyde, that tale of one man’s wayward inner goblin rising up to rut and pillage in starchy Victorian London. Published in 1886, it is one of the most widely adapted stories of the modern era. Within months of its publication, stage versions were being performed on both sides of the Atlantic. It’s been made into a film more than fifty times in versions ranging from the deadly serious to porn. There’s been the obligatory dalliance with Abbot and Costello, fun with Tom and Jerry, and bunch of TV adaptations to boot.
Redoing this may not seem a stunningly original idea, but it’s a good bet for a sure audience, the adult equivalent of the new Robin Hood series. And writer Steven Moffat, whose star is riding high at the moment, has a clever take on it. This is a sequel, as he tells us. Or a continuation, as director Douglas Mackinnon would have it.
“The reason we’re doing it as a sequel really,” says Moffat, “is as a means of making the story modern day. When you decide to bring the story into the present you’ve got a decision to make – do you just blatantly put it in the modern day or do you say it’s a descendant? And we opted for descendant. That means there’s a lot of mystery around the name Jekyll. I didn’t want it like in a lot of Jekyll and Hyde films where you get someone going round calling himself Dr. Jekyll and no-one reacts to it.”
Moffat felt that as the story is so well known it would be very hard to construct a world where the book is unheard of, so instead they decided to incorporate the novel. The later episodes reveal through flashbacks that Jekyll was real (in which, says Moffat, they pronounce the name with Stevenson’s preferred long ‘E’ “I’ll have several weeks of posh television critics telling me ‘What a shame you don’t know that it’s pronounced Jeekyll’ until that bit’s shown”) and told his story to Stevenson (played by Mark Gatiss).
“The main character’s name is Tom Jackman, otherwise he’d have a problem checking into a hotel and would look a bit thick not knowing what’s happening to him. He discovers later that he is the descendant of Dr. Jekyll.” In fact, Moffat takes it even further, and has Jackman reading the book to try and puzzle his way out of his predicament.
Lead director Doug Mackinnon is infectiously enthusiastic about the show.
“I don’t know what happens inside that head of Steven’s, but it comes out in a very coherent and wonderful way on the page, I mean, if Steven adapted a pound of cornflakes, it’d be good! There’s this wonderful entry point with the word ‘Jekyll’ that then launches into this extraordinary journey. I just read the first ten pages and I was like ‘fuck’!” he says coyly “you just feel privileged that you can go and watch something like this, let alone direct it.”
Moffat’s name is a respected one in telly-land. He’s been working in the business since the early 90s, but is perhaps best known for his work on romantic comedy Coupling. He’s also penned four of the best episodes of new Who – The Empty Child, The Doctor Dances, The Girl in the Fireplace, and Blink. So if anyone can pull this off, it’s him, because Jekyll is a tall order. It’s a tent-pole project for the BBC’s summer schedule. Six hours of TV don’t come cheap these days, especially TV that features lions, helicopters, and underground bases.
“There wasn’t an easy day on Jekyll,” says Mackinnon. “If we didn’t have lions, we had a huge piece of performance, and then there were the practicalities of Jimmy being in virtually every scene, and the transformation taking an hour in make-up – it’s a lot to organise. But we had a great crew and a great script, and on a project like this you know that as long as you get the story home, you’ll be all right. This is for a telly audience,” he continues. “So it might not be totally up the street of Death Ray’s readers. What a Telly audience wants on a Saturday night is to be a little bit frightened and to have a bit of a laugh as well. It’s a bit of a relief to find Hyde has a funny side. And occasionally even the violence is heightened, it is that Charlie Chaplin that said ‘If it bends it’s funny, if it breaks it’s horrific’?”
Things, like limbs and genre boundaries, do both in this series. It’s this volatile mix of comedy, adventure, romance, mystery and fantasy, the magic formula for big drama, that make a show like Hyde difficult to pull off, and requires not only a talented writer but a very accomplished lead. Both director and writer are both highly praiseful of James Nesbitt as Jackson/Hyde. “I’m not altogether sure who your next choice is if Jimmy doesn’t want to do it,” says Moffat, citing Nesbitt’s audience pulling power and not unimpressive acting range – we might now see him as the Yellow Pages’ charming, emasculated dolt (a type that populates our post-feminist advertising) – but let’s not forget Murphy’s Law and Sunday, Bloody Sunday. Or indeed, those scandalous headlines of a few years back – Nesbitt has plenty enough dark side of his own to draw on.
Despite this need for a wide range of hooks, Moffat’s been clever with it, and the core purpose of the tale remains.
“It’s an absurd and extreme metaphor,” he says. “The way it worked back in Stevenson’s day, it was a metaphor for repression, quite possibly repressed homosexuality, because you never know what Mr. Hyde does, he just goes away doing terribly bad things, probably involving little boys. Nowadays I think it works differently. You’re a middle-aged bloke – behaving himself, monogamous, clean living, changes the nappies, we do it, we love it, that’s how it is. But that’s not how men are wired, they never have been. Get them drunk and Mr Hyde comes out. It’s a very masculine idea, is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Nowadays you really do think you’re fenced into a domesticated, very feminised world, which you largely love, but it’s not quite you. And you have this horrible suspicion that your wife probably prefers the devil-may-care bastard you used to be, as opposed to the balding, fat twat you evolved into at her seeming request.”
So, Moffat’s new Hyde is a metaphor for the self-control exercised by men in order to live in a new world they don’t properly fit.
“It is, and that self control is incredibly important and decent, it’s the strongest thing about us, I’m not somehow suggesting it’s not good – in the end Tom Jackman is the stronger one – but you can’t pretend that the creature isn’t prowling about beneath the flab. A lifetime of restraint, that’s what you sign up for now. But that’s alright, you don’t want to do those bad things, but you do want to fantasise about doing them.
“That’s why men have always got some fixation with some kind of violent past-time. Whether it’s Playstation, or Rugby, or watching appallingly violent movies, we have a craving for those days. We also have cravings for the big comfy sofa, and your kids and your loving wife. But I think every man occasionally looks out of the window and thinks ‘I could be out there’.”
Ah, so we men are dogs now, when we still wish to be wolves. This is the divide in the show – milksop Tom, so duty-bound that his wife is a bit sick of him, and the totally selfish, atavistic Hyde, “this libidinous extrovert, this showboating twat, that does anything he feels like and loves it,” as Moffat describes him.
But as we’re all new men now, we also have a new Hyde. He is not a monster. He is not evil but, as Mackinnon puts it, “If you go out for a pint with Mr Hyde, you know you’re going to get entertainment, the only trouble is that the the entertainment could be you.”
“He is completely crude, completely unformed, he’s all lust and appetite and no education or civilization,” Moffat explains. “He’s primal, and physically he’s phenomenal, where as Tom Jackman is not.”
Oh yeah. He has superpowers. And fangs, but we’ll get to that later.
“You can’t just keep him a cartoon,” continues Moffat. “I suppose in the first episode he is, he behaves to expectation. He’s a mad, funny, scary but actually quite charming loon. But that’s not enough, he gets trapped into having to make choices as well. It’s about him growing up, not necessarily becoming nice, I don’t mean that, but he does have to face a complex world, which challenges his very simple assumptions. He becomes a much more complicated creature. At the beginning he just wants to go out boozing and shagging. He doesn’t necessarily want to do evil things, unless someone gets in his way, because Hyde has never been about that. He’s not plotting world domination, he couldn’t give a toss about world domination.”
Crucial to this portrayal of Hyde is the fact that he and Jekyll do not look very different, unlike most previous versions of the characters. Even in the original novel he was small and ugly (though not monstrous) –the medieval concept of inner evil reflected in the outer form hanging on into the Victorian age.
“Even in the good adaptations, you often get a ludicrous looking Mr.Hyde,” says Moffat. “I mean, Spencer Tracy’s brilliant, but Mr.Hyde looks terribly hairy, and he’s by no means the most ludicrous Hyde. He slathers his way up to a bar and people just talk to him. Well you wouldn’t, you’d say ‘Fuck off out of here, you troll!’ We had to have a credible human being. Our Hyde might be a quite scary guy, but he’s a man, he’s not an orangutan in a suit.”
“The most important thing was getting the transformations right, because just by using the word Jekyll you’re setting up a huge expectations in people’s minds,” adds Mackinnon. “Immediately people want to know what Hyde’s going to look like. We looked at quite a few different versions, but if we put a big stubbly nose on Jimmy Nesbitt would get us laughed at for all the wrong reasons. Within the show, initially when Gina Bellman meets Mr Hyde for the first time she thinks it is her husband, just done up a bit, and that’s what I wanted people to feel.”
There’s another reason for having a slightly better-looking James Nesbitt as Jackman’s alter-ego.
“Nobody ever goes the route of the original story now – the twist at the end is that Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde are the same person, and that’s really not going to play anymore,” Moffat says. “So for my money the closer you make them look like each other, the more interesting it is, the creepier the idea that it’s a different man looking back. And the more exciting acting challenge it is too. There’s a little bit of prosthetic involved, but it really is just Jimmy being two different people.”
Apart from – and this is where Death Ray gets a bit edgy about this otherwise nifty update of the books themes – when he turns into a fanged superhero.
“Mr. Hyde morphs into whatever situation he finds himself in,” says Mackinnon. “So if he’s chatting up a woman he’s the most charming man in the world, but if he has to kill a lion or two, then the fangs come out. His powers evolve into the moment. I think that’s an intriguing prospect.”
Or maybe it’s a bit daft. Either way, there’s a hod-load of SF and SF friendly mystery in the story beyond meta-abilities. Much about genetics, a century-old conspiracy, a secret society that’s been tracking Jackman all his life, something about the cure for cancer, underground bases and the possibility Hyde is the next stage in human evolution. There’s also the mystery of how Jackman is descended from Jekyll when he didn’t have any offspring, a connection between Jekyll and Jackman’s wife, and Jackman’s twins. So it appears UK SF is out of the closet at last. For the last decade TV execs have tied themselves in knots to avoid the vile words “SF” and “Fantasy”, but this is the fifth telefantasy out of the Beeb since 2005. Unlike the bad old days, not once do Moffat or Mackinnon cringe and say “Do you mind if you don’t call it science fiction?” or something ludicrous like “It’s not SF, it’s a psychological thriller.” This sea change is not, as you might think, down to Doctor Who, according to Moffat.
“This was on the stocks before Doctor Who. But I was doing Coupling at the time, so I had to finish that, and then when Doctor Who came out they hauled me in for a couple of episodes and that took up some time, so it’s been delayed by Doctor Who rather than caused by it! I don’t think one show ever ushers in a new era, eras just arrive, and suddenly it’s as if television drama doesn’t have to be ugly people arguing in the rain about the government. I’m not saying you shouldn’t have that, but you can have mad, entertaining loony stuff. And it’s interesting because cinema always has that strand, but television doesn’t.
I remember being sat outside the lion’s den with Steven Moffat. and we had Jimmy sat on the roof of a van with a dead lion, and Steven turned to me and said ‘Are we really doing this?’ and I said, ‘Yes we are!’” – Doug Mackinnon
“But it’s tough, there is a legitimate point for not calling something sci-fi – that for an awful lot of the audience if you say ‘science fiction’ or ‘fantasy’, they won’t watch; it’s not snobbery, it’s just true. If you want to do shows like Doctor Who, or Jekyll, you want girls to watch – women control the remote controls in most houses. That’s why one of the subtlest and most important points of the remodelling of Doctor Who was to appeal hugely to girls. But all you have to do to make the distinction go away, and it has gone, is to have a few shows that are called science fiction that people enjoy. If we associate sci-fi with a lot of Americans in uniforms strutting around metal sets, then probably you’re not going to get the girls. But if you think science fiction or fantasy means Buffy, or Doctor Who, which is romantic and funny and sexy, then they will watch. I suppose what we’re fumbling round here is a definition of a sci-fi show that succeeds – it’s one that doesn’t feel terribly different from a mainstream show. The dialogue’s quite similar, the characters are the same people, I think some writers behave as if sci-fi has a different set of narrative rules, where everyone wears silver and people don’t use apostrophes, and that’s quite hard for a mainstream audience to cope with.”
Will Jekyll, then, be like the current crop of excellent British SF, and get the girls and therefore their tame, biddable husbands also, watching? As Mackinnon puts it “We’re in the hands of millions of strangers.”
Jekyll is on every Saturday, BBC1 at 9.00pm. Also keep an eye out for Doug Mackinnon’s first feature film,The Flying Scotsman, about cyclist Graeme Obree, playing from June 29th countrywide.
Did you know…?
One of Jekyll’s most difficult sequences to shoot was one involving three lions… Mackinnon: “Difficult? A lions’ den, a seven-year old boy and Jimmy Nesbitt? Hmm. We went to this private zoo that supplies animals to the entertainment industry. The lions we worked with are effectively wild, so curiously enough I said I needed my monitor far away! We used all sorts of tricks, shot by shot, so no-one had to go in with the lions. There were over 50 special effects, some simple, some complex. I like to see stuff that is a mix of very traditional and very modern effects.”
Did you know…?
Pretty much every man and his dog has played Doctor Jekyll at one point or another (but not necessarily Mr Hyde or whatever other alter-ego the particular spin on the tale required). Among them are: John Barrymore, Boris Karloff, Fredric March, Spencer Tracy, Michael Caine, John Malkovich, Jack Palance, Adam Baldwin, Udo Kier, Ralph Bates, Anthony Perkins, Kirk Douglas, David Hemmings, John Hannah, Tony Todd and David Hasselhoff (in a musical. Yes, really).
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was the result of a nightmare followed by several days of frenzied writing by Robert Louis Stevenson, days in which he penned two different versions of the book (the first, some versions of the story have it, he burnt). In it, Dr. Jekyll creates a potion that is supposed to purify his good side, but instead unleashes a dark aspect of himself that he revels in. A story about a man who allows himself to be overwhelmed by his unconscious desires, it prefigures Freud’s theories of the id by two decades.