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PENNYWORTH gets 7/10 In for a penny, in for a pound


Season 1 Episodes 1-4

Created by Bruno Heller
Starring Jack Bannon, Ben Aldridge, Emma Paetez

7/10

A prequel of a prequel, the second from the DC TV universe (after Krypton), seems like an odd idea. Making one about the butler of a superhero seems like an idea ripe for parody, one which Teen Titans Go to the Movies (2018) actually did parody. However attach the name of Bruno Heller to it, who’s past successes include Rome, and the previous Batman prequel Gotham, and suddenly Pennyworth becomes much more interesting.

A young Alfred Pennyworth (Jack Bannon) is a returned soldier, trying to make ends meet by working security at a London nightclub. He comes to the aid of a wealthy American, Thomas Wayne (Ben Aldridge), one night. Soon Alfred and Thomas are swept up in a cloak and dagger world, as the forces of the fascist Raven Society and the socialist No Name League wage a shadowy war for the soul of England.

Not all the issues with Pennyworth relate to its prequel for a prequel status. The first episode has a rather crude bit of queer coding for a henchperson, which, although period and genre appropriate, is rather an unsightly reminder akin to a vestigial tail. Pennyworth does take steps to address the balance (such as a nice nod to Turing’s sexuality in ep 3), but hopefully takes further steps to rectify, making it a motivation for character development rather than an implied flaw. The other major issue is a significant event at the end of the fourth episode. Although it is hard to address this without spoilers, comic book fans should be able to recognise this trope fairly easily once it does occur, and also recognise the issues with it. In 2019 we should be able to serve better motivation for characters, and better treatment to female characters especially.

However, there’s so much that is right about Pennyworth that it makes up for those faults. The world it creates is delightfully odd, harkening back to the strange and eccentric Britannia of The Avengers (1961), The Prisoner (1968), or even Kingsman (if you want a more modern comparison). It’s an alternate universe of blimps and barrage balloons, public stocks, cool nightclubs, and eclectic secret societies struggling for power in the streets of swinging sixties London. There’s more than a touch of Cool Britannia here, and it provides the perfect background for Heller’s eccentric characters to play in, but he also brings a much darker and violent edge to it.

Bannon is in his element, bringing the spirit of a young Michael Caine to the forefront, without falling into imitation. He has the charm, but also the rougher edge that the younger incarnation requires, and seems perfectly at home in a 60s cut suit swaggering through the London streets. Paloma Faith also puts in a good turn as the sadistic Bet Sykes, a Nazi enforcer in the guise of upper working class housewife. She manages to capture both the quirkiness of the series, and satirically say something a little damning about the growth of far right politics.

Pennyworth acts as a mixing pot for elements of spy, crime, social, and even class drama of the period, creating something unique. The comic book references are remarkably light, with only a few names acting as connections to Batman lore (Thomas Wayne, Martha Kane, and Alfred Pennyworth), and seem only there to mobilise a ready fanbase. A pity, as Pennyworth‘s strange world of duelling societies and English quirkiness, is compelling in its own right. Much more so than you would expect, from wondering what Batman’s butler did before he butled.

DAVID O’CONNELL

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