Britain is a mess, divided into political factions. This (un)familiar situation is the state of play in the second series of DC’s Pennyworth, which documents the adventures of a young Alfred Pennyworth in his days before ironing Bruce Wayne’s Batsuits.
Starring Jack Bannon as Alfred and Paloma Faith as sociopathic villain Bet Sykes, the show’s jumping off point is the detail from Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, where Alfred’s past as an SAS soldier surfaced. Pennyworth then leaps even further, whisking the audience to an alternate timeline where 1950s/60s Britain is a drab quasi-fascist state teetering on the brink of political collapse.
A stew of intrigue, violence, and antiheroism is just the place for Alfred to hone the skills which will make him a perfect ally for the world’s greatest detective. That is, should they ever meet, as the show’s second series plunges Alfred – now a successful club proprietor in Soho – into a second English Civil War contested between the far-right forces of The Raven League and the Queen’s loyalists. With season two due to air weekly on StarzPlay from February 28, Bannon and Faith reveal why the show is perhaps the most provocative and unique foray into the DC universe.
Alfred’s backstory has “no rules”
With comic adaptations there are concerns about sticking to the character’s canon. Here there’s less canon and more Danny Cannon, the executive producer and director working with fellow exec producer and writer Bruno Heller to toy with the legend. “It’s a DC London,” explains Bannon. “There are no rules.”
Bet Sykes is an atypical DC villain…
In the first series Bet Sykes was based “quite heavily on [serial killer] Myra Hindley”. Now Sykes’ look has moved away from any obvious influence, as she’s a uniformed officer within a fascist organisation, but Faith suggests she’s a mould-breaking foe.
“She is an alternative to what we are used to as a female villain in the DC universe. We’re used to female villains as women who are essentially using their sexual power, or male sexual desire, as their only manipulative tool,” says Faith. “Bet is the opposite – she’s multi-dimensional. She’s a disordered person having disordered relationships. If diagnosed by a psychologist, she’d probably have quite a lot of mental health disorders, but I like that about her because it gives her depth. Her power doesn’t come from clichés, it comes from being a very well-rounded character with a history.”
…but the slang use needs to be toned down
Pennyworth is the most aggressively British show on television, more British than if Antiques Roadshow and The Great British Bake Off were crammed into the same tent and narrated by Del Boy. Hardly a sentence slips by without it being illuminated by some neon-lit vernacular; this poses problems for overseas audiences. “We try to add more slang and that’s been fun,” says Bannon. “But because it’s made for an American audience you can’t be too obscure, because they don’t really understand what you’re on about half the time.”
Faith jokes she’s worried her northern accent is “too Coronation Street” when she’s aiming for “Alan Bennett”. Her accent has even ended up making more work for her: “It feels like every time I go too northern, I’m called in for additional dialogue recording to overdub the words. They say, ‘We don’t understand what ‘owt’ is. Don’t say ‘owt’, just say ‘Nothing’.”
Alfred is a top shagger
Few of us have ever wondered how often Alfred Pennyworth swung from chandeliers before he started cleaning them in Wayne Manor. In the first series Alfred was engaged (his fiancé was murdered), had a dalliance with barmaid Sandra, and a fling with Queen Elizabeth II – at the start of the second series he’s ghosting HM when she repeatedly calls him. And his romantic escapades show no sign of slowing: “There are some new characters he gets involved with that he perhaps shouldn’t,” explains Bannon.
Alfred’s bed-hopping antics, Bannon reveals, have resulted in him taking the flak. “Quite often I’ll be on set in the morning and Jane Walker, our makeup designer, will look at me and tut. I say, ‘It’s him! It’s not me!’”
If Paloma Faith had her way, the show would be banned
In a series where Britain has descended into fascism, public executions are entertainment, and occult worship is weaponised, Faith’s appetite for darkness is somehow still unsatisfied.
“I make suggestions to Bruno [Heller] about where I’d like my plot to go and he thinks I’m too dark and too sinister,” laughs Faith. “He says, ‘I’m glad you’re not the writer. This would get banned immediately’. I always ask for something worse. Give me something more horrific!”