Comics On TV

Pennyworth Revels in the Early Adventures of Batman's Butler

Stars Jack Bannon, Ben Aldridge, and Paloma Faith and executive producers Bruno Heller and Danny Cannon explain why Alfred Pennyworth is owed his due.

by | July 27, 2019 | Comments

It is definitely the question people ask when they hear about Epix’s new series Pennyworth: “Why make a show about Batman’s butler?” The answer may lead to one of the smartest programs based on a comic book character to debut during this golden age of television. And when Rotten Tomatoes put the question to showrunner and executive producer Bruno Heller, he said the fun of making Pennyworth is in the challenge of answering it.

“It’s sort of like making a transcendent cheese sandwich,” he said. “Not because the expectations are low, [but] because it’s hard to see, initially, what you could do with that.”

The series opens with Alfred Pennyworth (Jack Bannon) freshly discharged from the army and ready to start a new life as the head of his own security firm with some of his mates from the service. But a chance encounter with American millionaire Thomas Wayne (Ben Aldridge) puts his future on a decidedly different course.

For Bannon, who said he felt “defensive” for Alfred now that he plays him, suggested the reason to make a show about the character stems from another question buried in the Batman mythos: “He is the guardian and teacher to the greatest superhero of all time. How does he know that stuff? How does he know how to be knowledgeable and understanding of the trauma, and the fighting evil, and all this?”

“There’s a whole world to Alfred, which is what we explore,” Aldridge added. “But also, the series explores Thomas and Martha Wayne, [Batman’s] parents, which we know very little about, obviously, because we only ever see them die. So, it kind of fills in all of those blanks.”

The blanks, as it happens, also offer Heller a format steeped in DC Comics lore without masks and superpowers.

“I love superheroes, [but] I don’t really know how to write them,” he said. “Alfred is a real person. Him and Commissioner Gordon, they’re kind of human beings in the canon.”

Their humanity in the face of theatrical villains and masked vigilantes made them great anchors for television series set in wilder worlds. Although, the wildness of Pennyworth is based less in the superhero tradition and more in a British mode, which is fitting for the character.

For fellow executive producer Danny Cannon – who also worked on Gotham – the blanks in Alfred’s story allowed him to try something different: a DC show set in 1960s London.

“[It is] a place that both myself and Bruno knew rather well,” he explained. “[We] also had a vision on what that world should feel and sound like.” Alfred was uniquely suited to open that world up.

Their vision of a DC Comics London will be one of the things viewers will immediately note about the show, both in its style and the way it offers clues to the story under Alfred’s feet. Small anachronistic details creep into the margins and the sort of “nevertime” Gotham used starts to appear.

“It’s as if it’s sort of a dream London where anything, any point in the history of the country, can be there, but anchored in the ’60s,” Heller said. And as Alfred finds himself pulled deeper into Thomas’ world, a very specific event in British history seems drawn into the setting.

Paloma Faith in Pennyworth (Epix)

(Photo by Epix)

But first, we need to talk about Bet Sykes. Played by Paloma Faith, the dedicated contract killer immediately takes possession of any scene she appears in. For Faith, the character as written by Heller reminded her of people she knew.

“Growing up in London, there had been a couple of times in my early life where I’ve actually met real gangsters, and their wives have this very distinctive, very nuanced way … usually, they’re very glamorous and empowered, but majorly insecure at the same time,” she explained. “So, it was like kind of trying to channel that. They were always a bit threatening.”

When viewers first meet Bet, that threatening edge will be immediately apparent, but they will soon discover a gentle side to the character as well.

“She’s got a very sort of distinct differentiation between when she’s at work and when she’s not at work,” Faith said. “Having had a career that’s very public myself as a musician, I can really empathize with that idea of putting on your work face and putting on your home face. That played into the way that I played her.”

And just as Gotham humanized the Riddler, Barbara Keen, and other seemingly manic foes, Bet quickly becomes a layered and interesting character.

“She’s still a human being,” Faith said. “[She] craves human touch, and connection, and to be understood.”


Pennyworth keyart (Epix)

(Photo by Epix)

The show’s willingness to give Bet that depth makes her something of a mirror to Alfred – right down to their willingness to commit violence.

“I think it’s something that will always be with him,” Bannon said. “I think he’s grown up, essentially, in the Army, his formative years anyway. And it’s a little bit like a strange addiction. He knows it’s bad for him, but he keeps being drawn back.”

“I also think they’re all quite desensitized in the world of this as well, because it is a violent world,” added Faith. “So, [it’s] their perception, and then we have to sort of shift ours when we view it.”

And as Faith’s comments suggest, Pennyworth is more violent and graphic than most of its DC-inspired cousins (Swamp Thing comes close). To Heller, reaching for a new level of on-screen violence was an important evolution.

“There’s an honesty when you portray violence, as shocking as it is, to make it shocking,” he explained. “That’s what violence is really like.”

As opposed to the comical sound effects of Batman ’66 or the relative bloodlessness of network shows, Heller said the violence and its implications were important to convey and establish early.

“What happens is you bleed, you die,” he said. “It’s not meant to be sensational. It’s just meant to be true to both the sensibility of the myth and the reality of violence.”

Despite the violence on display in the series, Pennyworth is filled with humor – from the absurd to the driest of quips worthy of Batman’s butler. It was an element of the show which surprised the cast once they began to see finished episodes.

“I know the jokes were there,” Aldridge said, “but there were other moments I hadn’t read as funny at all.”

In the first episode, some of these moments involve a gun-toting granny, the owner of the club where Alfred and Thomas meet, and a very unusual torturer.

“Alfred says at one point, ‘Life is either a tragedy or a comedy, and I prefer to have a laugh.’ And that’s kind of true,” Heller said when asked about juggling the show’s grimmer moments and funnier elements. “There has to be light, because on one level it’s a very bleak and dark view of the world. So without shafts of light, you’ve just got darkness as opposed to shadows and light.”

“For me, when I think about being British, the most proudest thing about it is the humor, for me,” Faith added. “So it’s so important that it’s in there.”

Jack Bannon as Alfred Pennyworth in Pennyworth (Epix)

(Photo by Epix)

Which brings us back to the question – why make a series about Batman’s butler? Because he offers a uniquely British story to the DC Universe, one that also features an examination of British class struggles.

“I feel like in America, you’re kind of raised to believe that whichever class you come from, you can achieve anything,” Faith said. “I remember being sort of the 17-year-old literature student, being like, Oh, the American Dream — like, never heard of the possibility until then of being able to actually sort of contradict the class you were born into.”

In the British tradition, social mobility is much harder. And into the 1960s, it was something parents actively discouraged their children from attempting.

“The ’60s was the first time where people were starting to live their own lives and have their own ideas, and Alfred is the perfect guy to break away from the military and from their old-school way of thinking,” Cannon said. “He’s filled with optimism and a new energy, and he’s looking towards the future.”

Nonetheless, Alfred will face obstacles in finding that future simply because of the station he was born into.

“One of the things that you notice when looking at past portrayals of Alfred is that, to a degree, Michael Caine was the first guy who played the character as he would be in real life – which is working class,” Heller said. “And that servant class was always in a weird, anomalous position of serving the upper classes, but never being able to cross that line. Alfred is someone who has lived his own life and does not want to be servile, does not want to be dependent on the largess of the aristocracy. So that conflict is built into the character.”

“It’s a strong theme in our show, and a strong theme in British culture in general,” Faith added.

The conflict will also be writ large in the series as tensions in the country lead to sectarian violence and the potential for a British Civil War, the event seemingly imported from history into the 1960s of Pennyworth.

Ben Aldridge as Thomas Wayne in Pennyworth (Epix)

(Photo by Epix)

At the same time, Bannon admitted that Alfred is “blown away” by his new wealthy American associate, Thomas: “He talks differently, he looks different — [Alfred has] never really seen anyone like that.”

Thomas’ movie-star quality may offer some clue as to why Alfred will ultimately become a butler and work for the Waynes. Granted, it will take more than good looks and a seemingly endless supply of cash to bond Thomas and Alfred for all time — but then, that is the story the series is setting out to tell while also sowing the seeds of a class war.

And as all moderns series consider their conclusion from day one, the cast and producers of Pennyworth jokingly suggested its natural endpoint will either be the birth of Bruce Wayne or his conception. Although, Faith suggested Bruce’s birth could come with a further revelation.

“I’d love to see Jack dressed as a baby coming out of Martha,” she joked. “Alfred’s actually his dad, and you’re [playing] the baby!”

“That’s very meta and crazy: Me in a little bonnet,” Bannon said.

Pennyworth premieres July 28 at 9 p.m. on Epix. 

Like this? Subscribe to our newsletter and get more features, news, and guides in your inbox every week.

Tag Cloud

reboot cops king kong cinemax Heroines 99% young adult crime movies comics international Indigenous Universal crossover dceu richard e. Grant laika spider-man YouTube Red Infographic french 73rd Emmy Awards sequel Comics on TV police drama Amazon Studios Sundance Fox Searchlight Hallmark Christmas movies Showtime BET Awards Creative Arts Emmys American Society of Cinematographers Sony Pictures Nat Geo 2017 FX indiana jones best Winter TV Classic Film Premiere Dates 4/20 Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt james bond Writers Guild of America TCA boxing Quiz Mary poppins zombie children's TV trophy golden globes Marvel Studios GLAAD directors hispanic heritage month TV cancelled TV series RT21 Winners Comic Book war vs. The Purge Trivia Marvel Television TCA 2017 summer TV Netflix Podcast First Reviews Comedy Central jamie lee curtis casting heist movie Britbox archives marvel cinematic universe Crackle USA Network Calendar based on movie hist fresh finale CW Seed Mindy Kaling Biopics IFC mcc book adaptation new zealand Sci-Fi zombies Brie Larson Hallmark witnail CBS All Access mob Mary Tyler Moore diversity kids New York Comic Con APB Warner Bros. political drama doctor who SXSW 2022 Superheroe Cartoon Network TCA Awards game of thrones cancelled television name the review Arrowverse slasher cancelled Food Network Pop TV movies all-time Photos twilight summer preview canceled TV shows MSNBC Character Guide Turner Classic Movies Song of Ice and Fire live event new star wars movies movie joker adventure canceled breaking bad ViacomCBS Oscars ESPN blockbuster suspense sopranos Alien The CW transformers supernatural Tubi YouTube Premium technology Best Picture Set visit Year in Review cancelled TV shows Horror unscripted Sundance Now social media screenings ABC Sneak Peek PaleyFest south america Cosplay award winner Crunchyroll Logo Awards space Pixar Instagram Live HBO Go CNN Pacific Islander genre Black History Month theme song 2018 Disney marvel comics Funimation free movies Tags: Comedy cartoon independent Star Trek Lifetime Christmas movies golden globe awards art house 72 Emmy Awards versus BBC America Spike scary movies Hear Us Out black comedy Film Fargo Dark Horse Comics Hollywood Foreign Press Association scorecard dexter CMT Comedy IMDb TV japanese spider-verse Best Director LGBT sag awards The Arrangement Chernobyl TV Land king arthur Certified Fresh Broadway VICE festival SDCC Best Actor Marvel teaser rom-coms ghosts talk show action-comedy DC Universe Geeked Week Opinion saw Star Wars 2019 MTV Oscar classics ratings Christmas Spring TV Star Wars Celebration christmas movies spanish language superhero Marathons legend scene in color book Super Bowl high school renewed TV shows mutant Ghostbusters Apple TV+ Polls and Games Box Office Binge Guide revenge Best and Worst GIFs 93rd Oscars USA know your critic target scene in color LGBTQ Esquire disaster Acorn TV italian jurassic park rotten rt labs critics edition Interview feel good HBO wonder woman MGM Spectrum Originals GoT what to watch interviews The Witch dramedy 94th Oscars Schedule docudrama Captain marvel Anna Paquin South by Southwest Film Festival Avengers Ellie Kemper Animation Stephen King basketball toy story stoner spy thriller Shondaland Emmy Nominations Legendary mission: impossible Watching Series hidden camera Thanksgiving hispanic NBA CBS singing competition stop motion Summer sequels Music mockumentary Mystery WGN video scene in color series Epix dreamworks video on demand slashers 20th Century Fox NYCC Netflix Christmas movies reviews biography Pride Month Amazon blaxploitation Rom-Com razzies Fantasy rotten movies we love trailers WarnerMedia Action DC Comics justice league The Walking Dead Mudbound universal monsters Holiday Rocketman BAFTA Tumblr zero dark thirty psychological thriller Walt Disney Pictures cooking comedies See It Skip It Rocky Masterpiece HBO Max 2021 comic books comiccon ITV Freeform nature Countdown binge toronto Neflix romantic comedy Film Festival TCM Drama Pet Sematary football Black Mirror black foreign Fall TV Election summer TV preview rt labs Family child's play Western Amazon Prime romance historical drama BBC One A24 streaming movies spain Turner 45 films Tokyo Olympics green book Image Comics 21st Century Fox Video Games spanish obituary monster movies Columbia Pictures debate science fiction Starz anthology Martial Arts Syfy VOD thriller OneApp Bravo El Rey History facebook asian-american SundanceTV sitcom HFPA Lionsgate true crime travel satire Apple crime thriller pirates of the caribbean Reality Competition popular E! Fox News Superheroes Trophy Talk PBS docuseries news Television Academy venice Peacock blockbusters Wes Anderson Sundance TV ABC Signature The Walt Disney Company dragons streamig Cannes Lifetime animated Amazon Prime Video sports Rock new york Grammys Baby Yoda critics adaptation leaderboard VH1 Kids & Family royal family kong Paramount Pictures The Academy werewolf women halloween tv ABC Family Adult Swim latino 79th Golden Globes Awards Paramount Paramount Network YouTube lord of the rings documentary Comic-Con@Home 2021 remakes live action festivals Prime Video 1990s superman AMC Exclusive Video Universal Pictures Nominations President Disney streaming service comic book movie Nickelodeon Best Actress gangster anime Sony aapi rt archives godzilla dark television Hulu telelvision scene in color film series Travel Channel NBC series Extras streaming Tarantino 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards IFC Films dogs aliens halloween Pirates 90s biopic Elton John target Apple TV Plus emmy awards tv talk 2015 007 TBS TCA Winter 2020 dc DGA 71st Emmy Awards cults Mary Poppins Returns Shudder obi wan E3 Emmys X-Men cars concert parents Trailer PlayStation medical drama TLC Musical adenture documentaries TNT A&E DC streaming service TruTV TIFF YA strong female leads australia Lucasfilm Tomatazos quibi a nightmare on elm street Valentine's Day serial killer worst movies crime drama stand-up comedy Awards Tour period drama FX on Hulu DirecTV Holidays Vudu FOX 2020 nbcuniversal indie deadpool hollywood fast and furious Red Carpet FXX Pop TV SXSW natural history robots game show prank National Geographic TV renewals Academy Awards TV One broadcast ID psycho Disney Channel Discovery Channel Teen Television Critics Association kaiju boxoffice Ovation worst comic book movies olympics Country Paramount Plus chucky nfl Chilling Adventures of Sabrina batman AMC Plus scary criterion comic discovery BET politics OWN RT History critic resources Musicals Native 24 frames Focus Features die hard posters San Diego Comic-Con 2016 japan Disney Plus vampires BBC spinoff composers miniseries Endgame elevated horror harry potter Reality Disney+ Disney Plus MCU cats Women's History Month Toys franchise screen actors guild First Look