Saturday, June 16, 2007 by

A creature of dangerous unpredictability has returned to our screens. A person of hidden debauchery, of masked wantonness, of hitherto unexceptional virtues suddenly and dramatically revealed to possess capacity for unspeakable acts of irresponsibility.

But enough, as the man himself would say, about Angus Deayton. He was on later. First there was, for want of a better topical phrase, a feral beast to deal with. And one whom, for want of a bolder topical phrase, ran intergalactic rings around all other of this week’s Saturday night TV contenders.

Seven days after the best episode of Doctor Who since, well, since the last one he wrote, Steven Moffat finds himself once again facing a charge of insurrectional inconsistency. How come, the court wishes to know, scripts of the quality of Jekyll, Doctor Who, Joking Apart and Press Gang can be the work of the same individual responsible for (at the last count) 1,458 episodes of Coupling? Is there another Steven Moffat, perhaps, who maniacally inhabits the body of the other whenever faced with the task of penning another single entendre about sexual dysfunctionalism or a cheap knob gag?

At least, for the moment, such regrettable tendencies are relatively dormant and the other, better Moffat appears to have gained the upper hand. For Jekyll was a sparkling creation from start to finish: beautifully crafted, impeccably played (albeit with one exception) and, rare for any kind of Saturday night telly, hugely daring.

Indeed, it didn’t feel like Saturday night telly at all, a domain not hitherto known for having much truck with elements as subtlety, language and slowness. Here were values commonly absent from contemporary BBC1 entertainment and more likely to be found propping up earnest BBC2 mini-series or BBC4 docu-dramas. It was about as far from Any Dream Will Do as it’s possible to get.

The extraordinarily measured pace, the tiny cast, the wordy dialogue: it was astonishing to see such things on television at all, let alone on the noisiest night of the week. Throw in prostitution, assault, a pregnant lesbian and a giant black van straight out of Benji, Zax and the Alien Prince, and you can imagine viewers switching off in droves.

Which they might well have been, and could continue to do so as the weeks go by. But that’s assuming the potent sci-fi guffery, the continual edge-of-the-seat hokum, the terrifyingly addictive central conceit and the fact that everyone loves a rogue counts for absolutely nothing. Which is, you’d hope, doubtful. Failing that, him off of Cold Feet is in it.

A rich brew, this, of old-style storytelling and unambiguously modern sentiments. Our titular anti-hero was shown both quantifying and qualifying his unique double life with cutting edge technology. Ancient undertones were complemented by up-to-the-minute overtones: satellite tracking, Dictaphone, everything downloaded, everything photographed. Innate, primeval urges rubbed up against contemporary signs and symbols. This was a very three-dimensional world, into which tantalising hints of a fourth repeatedly invaded.

There was also a lot of exposition, as befits an opening episode, but most of it well-handled, as befits a particularly accomplished opening episode. Taking the audience’s familiarity with the main premise as a given, Moffat began by treating it with almost comical contempt – a pre-titles sequence saying everything but showing nothing – then cosmetic stoicism – James Nesbitt at great pains to “manage” his transformations – and only going full tilt for the grotesque half of the way through.

This structure was perfect. The depths of Hyde’s monstrosity were plumbed only when the viewer had begun to feel they’d got a notional hold on Nesbitt’s alter ego, and hence could be even more shocked by the real thing. What followed was brave for its faith in believing an audience would tolerate an absence of histrionics at the same time as a very long exchange of dialogue, building not to a cathartic climax but the threat of unfinished business. You expected Hyde to rape the girl; he didn’t. You expected him to kill the boy; he didn’t. In both cases what he actually did – chatter on and on and on – was ineffably more frightening.

Nesbitt’s contrasting persona weren’t of themselves particularly groundbreaking in their inventiveness – it was more in the contrast between them that the brilliance lay. Jackman never smiled, but only, you suspect, to better call attention to the fact that Hyde did nothing but. Jackman talked down to everyone around him. Hyde talked at people, with inexhaustible menace. In both instances, the contrast worked.

One juxtaposition that didn’t work, though, was that between Jackman/Hyde and his wife. Here was the one weak performance of the piece. Gina Bellman achieved a remarkable feat of seemingly unable to “do” neither shocked nor indifferent. As such it was dangerously hard to care for her character – you felt more concern for the children, even though they did little in the episode except play with toys and shout.

Thankfully everything and everybody else moved with the precision and ease of a grandfather clock, forever whirring itself up ready to strike. Contemplating what happens now and where Moffat will take the story next is to entertain over-expectation. The bar has already been raised dizzyingly high that anything less than spectacular will undoubtedly seem disappointing.

Still, on a night when not one (Deayton) but two (the Master) other villains of old showed their hand, our twin-tracked toothy Janus triumphed over all. Long may his, but not necessarily their, ruinous reign continue.


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