SDCC: Pennyworth is the Next Big Thing for DC Television

Producers Bruno Heller and Danny Cannon worked together on FOX's "Gotham" and are now putting their knowledge and experience with DC material to create the most exciting new show in the DC universe, "Pennyworth" (airing Sundays on Epix).

The show takes a more organic approach to the spy genre, as opposed to a more cartoonish style that one might expect from a comic book television series. Heller wrote the show with Michael Caine's head cannon in mind regarding Alfred Pennyworth's time as a member of the SAS, and goes one step further by having the show take place immediately before what will eventually become the London in the V for Vendetta stories.

"There's a little bit of camp in every version of Batman, so you can't take it too seriously," he says, comparing the DC show to myths that often have hundreds of versions of them in the cultures from which they originate. In addition to drawing on the rich source material of DC comics, he has also taken the opportunity to create his own original characters including Paloma Faith's Bet Sykes, a layered villain from the north of England.

"I really wanted to create a great, female villain that was not an apologetic villain, that had a sort of female power. There's a tradition in England of strong, Northern women. I grew up with those sort of women. It was like turning a traditional English working class attitude into a superpower. Paloma brings so much natural intensity, humour, angst, and depth to the part that a lot of what you see on screen is just Paloma bringing it. As soon as we saw her do it we knew that she was the one to play it. For me, as much as she's a villain, she's the heroine of the piece. Her and Martha [Wayne] are two poles of the kind of female sensibility of the show."

Bruno Heller Interview:

Paloma Faith is best known in the UK as a successful popstar with an eccentric charm. She is also a superb actress, as even the "Pennyworth" pilot is enough to demonstrate. On the most surface level of  her performance, Paloma had to learn a new accent to bring her character to life. But this cultural different between herself the character goes beyond just a manner of speaking.

"I'm actually the only real Cockney on the show. I'm from East London, where the show is based, but I'm also the one that had to learn a new accent. I did live in the north of England for three years and this show is gonna show Americans a little bit about British culture. In the same way you have state by state differences, we have a very strong difference between North and South. I think that there's a much more 'community' attitude in the north of England. The fact that [Bet] has a sister is really important because they have a really ingrained idea about family and community mucking in together. In the south, we're a bit more singular and we don't talk to our neighbours and stuff like that."

Given the shortage of female villains, it's important to not only create a high quality one but to be mindful of the harmful tendencies they tend to fall into. The writing on "Pennyworth" is what has laid the strongest foundation for this and all the other facets of the show to thrive.

"For me coming from the perspective of being a female villain in 2019, I had my own agenda about how I wanted to portray a villain that's female. I have always had issues with the idea that a lot of fear for female villains in previous history has been based in sexual power. I think that women have a lot more going for them than sexuality. I really wanted to explore the ideas of this character being complex, human, and relatable as well. The first image we see is kind of funny, almost. The first image of the whole series is Bet Sykes torturing a guy that's much bigger than her and he's terrified. For me, that's kind of an in-joke. It's very shallow and as the series progresses, you realise that actually people are scared of her for a good reason. She has a reputation, she's very powerful, intelligent, manipulative, and also, it's very difficult to differentiate in our show between who's a hero and who's a villain. Everyone has a go with being both. There's moments where she's your favourite and there's moment where you see Alfred Pennyworth and you think, 'You idiot!' Outside of the comic book universe, it deals with really important things about being a human being and lots of echoes of the current situation in politics in the Western world."

Paloma Faith Interview:

Paloma Faith may bring a significant name-power to the show, given her already established success and fanbase. However, her casting truly stems from the abilities she has to play the many nuances of the character effectively. "Pennyworth" producer Danny Cannon admitted to not even knowing who Paloma was when she first auditioned.

"Bruno was adamant about that. There [aren't] enough female villains and on 'Gotham,' we did that so many times. There's something about a female villain that gets to your core. They're just deeper people, maybe that's it, maybe it's the depth, maybe it's the power they have over men. Guys can just go at it but a woman will say one thing and destroy you. The body language of Paloma was something we worked on because I said, in silhouette, without a word spoken she should have her own body language. This was something I got from 'Gotham' where when Penguin walked and stood there or Cory [Michael Smith] came in, there's a body language that if we were making a silent film or showing this without subtitles in [a foreign place], everyone would get exactly what's going on, so I talked about that with Paloma. I was embarrassed when I saw her self-tape that I didn't know who she was. I just saw this woman in leopard-skin pants on a leopard-skin couch with palm tree wallpaper and I was like, 'Who the fuck is that?' Then she started speaking and I said, 'That's her.' When I met her I was like, 'Who are you?' and everyone was like, 'YouTube it, you idiot!' We talked about how, the first time you see her, she'd have that bag and the only movement she would do [would be a slight tilt of the head.] When you're in her presence, something unnerves you and you're terrified because she has made you from a hundred yards away in three seconds. She doesn't need to run, she doesn't need to be violent because she knows who she is and that rage is so deep down within her that if she decides to take out one percent of that, you should be scared of that. If it all comes out, empty the building."

Danny Cannon Interview:

When selecting the headlining talent for what has the makings of a big-name comic book show, one may expect that the roster of auditioning actors would be already-established celebrities. The "Pennyworth" producers have prioritised skills over name-recognition, which brings us to the top-billed star, Jack Bannon. Despite being an actor who is new enough to not even have his own Wikipedia page at the time of the show's premiere there's no question of why he has the part when you first see the pilot. He plays the many nuances of Alfred Pennyworth to perfection, whether he's the tender lover, the polite and polished doorman, or the deadly man of action in battle and espionage.

"He's much younger in this, which is great," says Bannon about the newer take on the character. "He's a badass. From my point of view, we've never seen him swaggering around. He's with the loves of his life, his losses, all those kinds of things. I spoke to some SAS guys and we had some great stunt coordinators and really great stunt men who made it look great because I'm not that strong, and some brilliant camera men who use their tricks of the trade to sell it all. It was a lot of fun and I didn't draw too much blood."

The relationship between Alfred Pennyworth and Thomas Wayne is at the forefront of the show's developing mythos. Much of Batman's story would not be possible without Alfred being there to assist him, which he does out of his loyalty to the Wayne family. However, this is a relationship that has never been explored so deeply on-screen. This makes it all the more crucial that Bannon work well alongside Ben Aldridge, who portrays Thomas Wayne.

"Ben's fantastic," says Bannon. "We luckily get along very well. It's a chance meeting that throws Alfred and Thomas together. Thomas' sister is at Alfred's place of work and Thomas comes to get her. That's quite exciting that they may never have met if that hadn't have happened. Their relationship is like a mutual intrigue, I think. They're weary of each other but they need each other. I see it as two tigers circling each other and they're kind of scoping each other out. Thomas has money and status and Alfred needs that at this stage in his career because he needs to stop being a doorman and get his business off the ground. Ben always hates when I say this but Thomas is a bit of a wimp so he needs Alfred's skills and badass abilities to get him out of trouble."

Jack Bannon Interview:

Tragic backstories are a staple of superhero origins, and Batman's parents have been killed in live action numerous times. Now, "Pennyworth" is venturing into unchartered waters by showing DC fans a whole new side of Thomas Wayne. Ben Aldridge was excited to take on the character due to his love of the 1960's as a time period and also for the strong writing and creative vision of Bruno Heller.

"It's a collaborative process with Bruno. He wrote the pilot and was responsible for writing the rest of it and I was responding to what's on the page. He really has free reign. We know the end point of where [Thomas Wayne] ends up: dead, obviously. But then he's referenced throughout the comic books as being very moral and philanthropic and a hero in that sense. There's that strong moral fibre to him and he's definitely going to get there but I think we're seeing him in his earlier days and in a different way. In the comic books he works in medicine. In our version he's in a much more covert world, kind of a bit of espionage and he has to make some morally compromising choices. He's given some tasks and various things to do that he finds very difficult because he has this upright, moral backbone. You get to see him struggle with that. In terms of fleshing the character out, Bruno has a very strong idea of what he wants on the page and then you can fill in a few blanks but he's there as part of our process to talk us through it. The look and feel of [Thomas] was exciting. In an early audition they started talking about Cary Grant and how they wanted him to feel like this 1950's film star, very much fish-out-of-water, Hollywood film star plonked into a very gritty London and I was like, 'Great, I can go back and watch those films and be specific about the accent.' All of the costumes as well were really fun so it's a nice period to study and be part of. I'm obsessed with that period as well. One of my favourite TV shows is 'Mad Men' so it felt like inhabiting that world was a dream come true."

Ben Aldridge Interview:

Having now screened the first episode of the show, I can confidently say that it has all the makings of being the greatest DC TV show to date. The period elements are all superbly crafted, from the costumes, sets, the colour grade, and the extra authenticity added by filming in London all create a lush backdrop for a rich story full of high quality character content. In just one hour, the audience is treated to an in-depth introduction and journey that establishes who Alfred is, where he comes from, and what he is working towards in a manner that other shows made for America typically spend an entire first season to establish. Thomas Wayne takes a (literal) backseat to Alfred but already it's clear that their tension and chemistry will be intriguing to watch unfold and develop. Bet Sykes is an iconic villain whom I look forward to seeing wreak more havoc, and with the promise of Martha Wayne being an important character introduced later in the season the adventures have only just begun.

"Pennyworth" Pilot Review:


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