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Penny Dreadful: Exquisitely Gothic, Cinematic Drama

Updated on June 20, 2016

Fascinating Victoriana

Vanessa Ives and Dorian Gray at Kew Gardens
Vanessa Ives and Dorian Gray at Kew Gardens

Why Penny Dreadful Is so Mesmerising

Hands up if you are a fan of Penny Dreadful. Keep your hand up if you enjoy binge-watching Penny Dreadful in a post-midnight gothic fest.

I remember feeling completely mesmerised by the show's promotional posters as I was walking through London: I really wanted to watch that show!

The posters promised drama, intrigued, fascinating Victoriana, beautiful costumes and a stellar cast.

Unfortunately I wasn't a Sky customer so I simply gave up the idea of ever being able to watch it. That's the thing with channel-exclusive content: it is very rare for it to cross over to other channels.

With a heavy heart, I bade farewell to Penny Dreadful and its dreadfully wonderful delights. Good thing that NOW TV came to the rescue (see full review) which meant that I could access Sky content on a pay-as-you-go basis.

Season 1-3 Super Trailer

Penny Dreadfuls


I actually didn't know until recently what Penny Dreadfuls were, did you? Just in case, here's a reminder: they were cheap and thrilling pamphlets in the second half of 1800 telling shocking serialised stories for an eager public lusting after bloody stories. The British Library defined the penny dreadfuls (also called penny bloods) as a literary phenomenon.

Showtime's Penny Dreadful, the TV series, was partly inspired by those but mainly draws from a wealth of horror literature from the late 1800s, more specifically Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Bram Stoker's Dracula, Rober Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray. Creator John Logan wanted to bring the characters from this book to life and give them a cinematic treatment.

Penny Dreadful: The Literary Origins

Penny Dreadful's Cinematic Credentials


John Logan (screenwriter for Spectre, Gladiator and The Last Samurai among others) chose film directors rather than TV veterans to shoot episodes in the series. With Sam Mendes as producer and working at the same time on Skyfall, Penny Dreadful was going to compete with feature films for production value. Film directors Juan Antonio Bayona, Dearbhla Walsh, Coky Giedroyc and John Hawes were chosen to shoot episodes. The first series was aired in 2014.

Movies to Watch if You Like Penny Dreadful


In case you need to wet your appetite for more gothic stories, you can do no wrong watching the film adaptations of the books mentioned earlier, plus a couple more titles for your entertainment.


These are the most noteworthy titles:

  • Bram Stoker's Dracula (Francis Ford Coppola, 1992)


  • Dorian Gray (Oliver Parker, 2009)


  • Sleepy Hollow (Tim Burton, 1999)


  • Crimson Peak (Guillermo del Toro, 2015)

To note, Christian Camargo (Penny Dreadful's Dr Sweet) also appeared in Duncan Roy's The Picture of Dorian Gray (2007) as Henry Wotton. For Twilight fans, you may remember him as Eleazar Denali in The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 1.

On a side note: wouldn't it be amazing if Tim Burton directed an episode of Penny Dreadful?

Eva Green as Vanessa Ives

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Eva Green as Vanessa Ives, series 3, screenshotThe mysterious Vanessa Ives - screenshot
Eva Green as Vanessa Ives, series 3, screenshot
Eva Green as Vanessa Ives, series 3, screenshot
The mysterious Vanessa Ives - screenshot
The mysterious Vanessa Ives - screenshot

Shakespearean Actors


Penny Dreadful's cast has an impressive theatre background.


Simon Russell Beale (egyptologist Ferdinand Lyle) is a multi-award winning Royal Shakespeare Company's veteran and has been collaborating with Sam Mendes for a few decades. He appeared in My Week with Marilyn (Simon Curtis, 2011), Into the Woods (Rob Marshall, 2014), An Ideal Husband (Oliver Parker, 1999).


Rory Kinnear (Skyfall, Spectre, The Imitation Game, Quantum of Solace) is an award-winning Shakespearean actor who brings emotional depth and self-awareness to Doctor Frankenstein's Creature. By the way, he was fantastic as Mack the Knife in The Threepenny Opera at London's National Theatre - he has a great singing voice too!


Last but not least the iconic Sir Malcolm, skillfully played in all his nuances by Timothy Dalton, who not only performed with the Royal Shakespeare Company but had been treading the boards since he turned 16. He dressed to kill as James Bond in The Living Daylights (John Glen, 1987) and Licence to Kill (John Glen, 1989). (source: IMdB)

Special mention: Eva Green

A special mention goes to Paris-born and French native speaker Eva Green, who performed in French theatres and is one of only a handful of French actresses to play a Bond girl - Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, 2006). She was discovered by Bernardo Bertolucci who cast her in The Dreamers (2003) and worked with Tim Burton in Dark Shadows (2012) – she certainly has a penchant for gothic films. (source: IMdB)

Special Mention: Helen McCrory

Helen McCrory also has extensive theatre experience and worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company with big names like Joseph Fiennes, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Damian Lewis (source: IMdB).

Madame Pescucci Maison de la Mode

Screenshot from Penny Dreadful: costume designer Pescucci gets a namecheck
Screenshot from Penny Dreadful: costume designer Pescucci gets a namecheck

Penny Dreadful Costumes and Sets

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Screenshot from Penny Dreadful - Dorian Gray's houseScreenshot from Penny Dreadful - Dorian Gray dances with Lilly
Screenshot from Penny Dreadful - Dorian Gray's house
Screenshot from Penny Dreadful - Dorian Gray's house
Screenshot from Penny Dreadful - Dorian Gray dances with Lilly
Screenshot from Penny Dreadful - Dorian Gray dances with Lilly

Amazing Costumes


Talking of special mentions, why not look at Gabriella Pescucci's amazing costumes? Oscar-winner Pescucci worked with cinema titans such as Pier Paolo Pasolini, Federico Fellini, Sergio Leone, Martin Scorsese and Tim Burton. Feast your eyes on her beautiful creations in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Les Miserables, The Age of Innocence, or the TV series The Borgias.


We shouldn't forget the special effects team, hair and make up team... but this is not an Oscar acceptance speech! If you get the chance, though, look at Penny Dreadful's excellent Production Blog for more behind-the-scenes facts.

Penny Dreadful Locations


Whether you're a Londoner or if you are a fan of London and its film set locations, you probably welcome a familiar London view on Penny Dreadful with a little “Squee!” exclamation of delight.


These are some of the London locations featured in Penny Dreadful:

  • Grand Guignol (a set recreation of Wilton's Music Hall)


  • Dorian Gray's home, 24 Park Crescent (near Regents Park)


  • British Museum, where our heroes first meet Ferdinand Lyle


  • Kew Gardens, where adventure awaits for Dorian Gray and Vanessa Hives


  • Natural History Museum, a source of distraction for a distressed Vanessa, who meets Dr Sweet for the first time there

Penny Dreadful London Locations

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Penny Dreadful location: Natural History Museum (screenshot)
Penny Dreadful location: Natural History Museum (screenshot)
Penny Dreadful location: Natural History Museum (screenshot)

Penny Dreadful: The Grand Guignol

He Bites More Than He Can Chew: Ethan Chandler

Ethan Chandler: he has a biting problem - Josh Hartnett, screenshot
Ethan Chandler: he has a biting problem - Josh Hartnett, screenshot

High Production Value

Penny Dreadful is a feast for the eyes (and yes, by that I also mean Josh Hartnett). You can see that each detail, whether it's historical references or realistic props and prosthetics, is carefully researched and tested for maximum impact on the screen. Special effects, coupled with extraordinary delivery and a rich script paying homage to a Victorian language style, transport you to 1891/2 London and regale you with thrills that cheap certainly ain't.

Should Penny Dreadful Win an Emmy Award?

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