Fifty years after the UK – and possibly the world – began to encounter angry and dangerous spirits, some defenses and protocols against the restless dead have been found. Children – who can see and hear the ‘Visitors’ more than adults – find themselves more attune and if they show a strength of those gifts, they are trained from an early age to hone those skills. Lucy Carlyle lives in a northern hamlet and when her gifts are spotted, she’s taken into the ranks of formal parochial investigators. Lucy’s mother is glad to see the back of her and Lucy is lonely but moves through the ranks. Her best friend is fellow-trainee Norrie and together they make plans to escape to London and join a proper agency together to fight the ghostly threats.
However, fate is not that kind and Norrie is traumatised during a mission gone wrong for which Lucy is unfairly blamed… and so it’s only Lucy who heads to London with dreams of something better.
But joining a reputable agency isn’t going to be easy for a young girl alone in London – even with her considerable gifts, Lucy does not have the formal rank and qualifications needed. Spotting an advert for an independent outfit, she arrives at the very unassuming front door of Lockwood and Co and a whole different adventure is about to begin where Lucy’s talents may literally be the only thing between life and death… and not just her own.
Lockwood and Co. is set here and now, except… it very much isn’t. Based on the books by Jonathan Stroud (adapting the first two of his five books in the series – The Screaming Staircase and The Whispering Skull) Joe Cornish (Attack the Block, Ant-man etc) has extended another appealing arm of the fantasy genre and come up with something that should be a decent hit for Netflix.
As with alt-history ventures, there’s some interesting takes on how a central theme would ripple out on a cultural level. To fully get a grasp on the world-building, you have to pay strict attention to the opening credits which flash by with a series of newspaper clippings telling how the world seem to change in the early 1970s (fifty years ago!) with a sudden mass-escalation in apparitions and more deadly spiritual encounters leading to many more deaths and protocols to monitor them. The events of ‘the Problem’ (and its impact on a society now justifiably afraid of the dark and what goes bump in the night) seem to have created a becalming of the technological frontiers that we might take for granted in the same timeframe. Though it’s a version of approximately 2023, you won’t see a cell-phone here nor any kind of widely-available computer systems… there’s limited ‘modern’ street-lights, the cars are certainly basic, the VHS-format remains cutting-edge entertainment and google is just your local library. People tend to carry swords around with them, as the iron and steel seems to defend against all things ethereal, but while everyone might fancy themselves as an Erol Flynn, the only people who seem to use them well have been explicitly trained to do so. However, there are stylish institutions and imposing buildings and it appears cult-comic 2000AD is around in its original form, albeit a few decades later than in our world?
Aimed unapologetically at the very heart of the ‘Young Adult’ audience it’s bio-engineered to appeal to current trends. Though the result is thoroughly decent and enjoyable enough to want to binge-watch its eight episodes over a week, Lockwood and Co. still feels designed by an algorithm that even manufactured a name that’s the sum of its parts and influences..
Aimed unapologetically at the very heart of the ‘Young Adult’ audience it’s bio-engineered to appeal to current trends. Though the result is thoroughly decent and enjoyable enough to want to binge-watch its eight episodes over a week, Lockwood and Co. still feels designed by an algorithm that even manufactured a name that’s the sum of its parts and influences. There’s Torchwood, Locke and Key, Buffy, a sense of The Sarah Jane Adventures, a certain alt-history Pennyworth vibe and – of course – Harry Potter, not to mention Scooby-Doo if it had a more nihilistic bent. The same audience that liked Warrior Nun and Sabrina will likely find much to appreciate here. Combine all that with ‘schools’ teaching the arts of tackling unsettled spirits and, yes, the Hogwarts comparison is unshakeable. But it all takes a little while to settle – and though there’s some justification in the world-building (young people find themselves more attuned to tackling the spirits than adults so tend to end up being trained as front-line defenders), there’s definitely an air of kids just playing at being grown-ups that’s initially hard to shake in the early episodes.
Cameron Chapman is the titular Anthony Lockwood and does well in his first real tv role, though the character’s over-confidence and aloof, cocky demeanour does make him feel like the kind of upper-class toff who deserves a good tweaking (as Rowan Atkinson might say). Swishing around in a long coat and a wry smile, he’s basically a mixture of David Tennant’s Doctor and John Barrowman’s Captain Jack, but without the former’s seasoning or the latter’s inuendo. Ali Hadji-Heshmati essays George Karim, a character altered partly in name and ethnicity from the original books (where it was George Cubbins) but who largely serves the same purpose as the less-action-orientated but research superwiz whose gifts are sometimes taken for granted by his friends. (If it’s a familiar triptych in fiction then there’s at least an organic chemistry that develops between the regulars as the episodes move forward).
But it’s Ruby Stokes as Lucy Carlyle as an actor clearly on her way to a big career, if this and her role in Bridgerton are anything to go by. An ingenue figure who is 15 as a character but looks 13 in some scenes and early twenties in others, she has the air of a young Florence Pugh and the series really chooses to pivot around her, giving her the most backstory and exploring her northern origins. Though London-born, she manages Lucy’s a northern accent well and it’s her confidence in the role that anchors most of the show. It’s notable that Joe Cornish has a history of picking young, talented actors and giving their careers a notable push up the call-sheet.
The cinematography and interesting use of lighting creates a London that’s just a little askew in time, though anyone familiar with its less commercial corners may recognise some streets and riverways. Equally the fight choreography, particular with the various rapiers, is consistently far better than it has any right to be. The VFX are fairly solid throughout: the undead swirling around in an ethereal mist but not lacking nails and teeth and its clear a great deal of time has been taken in post-production.
If you’re willing to go along with it, Lockwood and Co. navigates its familiar tropes and tone and improves as it progresses and though it keeps that Young Adult vibe throughout, there’s growing levels of darkness and complexity that do start to consolidate once the mission statement is out there. (Watching the first episode it’s hard to imagine that by the last episode there’ll be dialogue concerning a fashion accessory that goes “Yeah, I stole it off a dead dalmation…”). Perhaps wanting to capture too many different audiences, there is the slight problem of wanting to be a bit of everything – for the most part the language is kept to an all-ages level of snark and occasional saltiness, but later episodes do have some examples of more noticeable swearing which may make it not quite the family-viewing that some may have assumed by its Harry Potter-esque marketing. But this is 2023 so maybe a one-off ‘fuck’ and ‘prick’ really won’t cause many ripples.
Engaging enough to watch, it will be interesting to see if the ratings and reviews get it a second run in a competitive market. If it does, it’s tempting to think another season would be better and build on its strengths and underlying conspiracy theories…
- Production Design / VFX8