Horla Review (January 2020)

 

TO BE COUNTED UPON?

Clare Ramsey appraises the BBC’s recent ‘Dracula’ as created by Mark Gatiss & Steven Moffat

NOW that the dust has had a little while to settle on his coffin and we’ve all had time to draw blood (I mean breath) the moment seems opportune for a review of the BBC’s recent Dracula.

Just how good / bad was it? And do we / don’t we want more?

Opinion during its screening – on three consecutive nights at prime time on BBC1 – was more sharply divided than may have seemed the case at first glance.

Divided

Reviews in the UK’s London print press were almost swooning in their adoration of Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat’s adaptation of Bram Stoker’s story of the Prince of Darkness.  ‘Dazzling’ wrote Victoria Segal in the Sunday Times,  while the Daily Telegraph’s Anita Singh piled in with four stars.  Carol Midgley at the Times (daily), seemingly determined not to be outdone, went one better with five. 

It was, therefore, interesting to encounter a letter in its columns panning the production from no less a figure than actor Steven Berkoff (left), who, has, of course played one or two villains in his time. 

His acidic paragraph ‘Deadbeat Dracula’ which was published ‘below the fold’ (i.e. down-paged)  by the Times, on January 3, seemed to receive little further attention.For those who missed it, this is how It read: 

‘Having witnessed the BBC’s opening episode of Dracula, I fear Bram Stoker will be joining the undead, writhing and twisting in his coffin, after the criminal abuse of his iconic novel. To interpret it is open to everyone, but to rewrite Stoker’s very finely written text, replacing it with cheap sub-Noel Coward dialogue is barbarism. To add gross CGI effects cannot but reinforce the thought that there is little artistic sensibility left in the contemporary British soul.’

Criticised

Stakes were out for the show elsewhere, noticeably at the website the artsdesk.com  whose Adam Sweeting awarded it a mere two stars from a possible five. (‘Horrific, and not in a good way’.) The long number of comments from posters below Sweeting’s piece were mostly supportive of his take. Many of the posts criticised Gatiss and Moffat for a lack of loyalty to Stoker’s text – their interpretation being described as ‘absolute twaddle’ by one poster. Some posts defended the writers’ right to reinterpret the text, but when I last checked these seemed very much in the minority.

This  reinterpretation, or re-imagining, seems to be the issue that has upset so many, and it needs some unpicking.

Firstly, it’s hardly rare for screen productions to differ from the books and stories on which they were based. For example, Alfred Hitchcock’s movie The Birds bears next to no resemblance to Daphne Du Maurier’s short story of the same name, which is set in farming country in the county of Devon in rural south-western England. (Du Maurier was appalled. Hitchcock couldn’t see the problem. But they buried their differences, more or less.)

A screen production (be it TV or cinema), of necessity, requires a different treatment from that given and received in fiction of the reading kind. Time, alone, prohibits a faithful re-telling of the book, particularly if the book happens to be a long one.

(Continued next column)

However, I also feel that a line exists which, if crossed, means that a declared ‘adaptation’ should actually be made to stand on its own feet and not ‘trade’ on the original brand. In fairness, I don’t think Gatiss or Moffat ever claimed they were going to stick to Stoker’s story. But, somewhere in the hype, the fact that this wasn’t going to be Dracula as we knew it seemed to get lost.

Problem

The problem, it seems to me, is that a vampire story that is like Dracula but not actually Dracula takes us into the territory of Hamlet without the prince, and, with it, the large number of weak and silly vampire stories and drama that are out there (most lacking any kind of bite). 

Gatiss and Moffat’s production was unquestionably a pick and mix job. Would the BBC have lavished them with so much prime time if the count had been left out? I think not.

Historically, we’re accustomed to Christopher Lee (left) sinking fangs into the necks of actresses showing a reasonable acreage of shoulder. Gatiss and Moffat’s camply sardonic count (played by Danish actor Claes Bang), however, was a lot more interested in lawyer Jonathan Harker.

This was a significant divergence from Stoker’s text albeit one that can’t have come as any surprise to viewers of the BBC’s Sherlock (a Gattiss-Moffat production) and the rather lame Gatiss-devisd adaptation of M.R. James’ short story ‘Martin’s Close’ which aired on BBC4 on Christmas Eve and featured a very twee Judge Jeffreys (of the notorious hanging tendency). This disappointing little drama, which I’ve reviewed elsewhere on Horla, had – once again – the distinction of being very warmly reviewed by the Times London (four stars) while being  panned at theartsdesk.com (‘a listless, uninspiring affair. Hairs on the back of one’s neck refused to bristle. The spine remained obstinately un-tingled’). 

Moments

There were, I thought, some very good moments of horror TV in the BBC production – Bang emerging from the body of a wolf at the gates of a nunnery in a tense stand-off being one of them. Likewise, the semi-circle of nuns showing themselves armed with stakes by way of a response to Bang’s revelation of his naked self. This was a great piece of Tarantino-style theatre. In fact, much of the production seemed to owe a debt to the American film-maker (left). Some of the interior shots of Dracula’s castle, including one very effective staircase panoramic, also had me thinking of Scorsese’s Shutter Island. Bang’s red eyes, meanwhile, seemed a nod to the – often uneven in quality – Hammer horror films of yore (which, I think I’m right in saying, Gatiss has acknowledged as an influence).

But was this drama scary? Or even surprising? I thought not. The updating of the story for the last of the three episodes – which we encountered in the ending of the second – seemed a stunt straight from Sherlock

And as for ‘fear’. Well, I felt very little of that. The world-weary, ‘matey’ style of our count, complete with lines and looks that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Roger Moore-era Bond movie, rather pulled the rug from this Dracula in terms of dread.

I suspect this drama will be sold to markets outside the UK . Therefore I’ll try to avoid anything that might constitute a ‘spoiler’, particularly as far as the ending was/is concerned. But the online site of the Radio Times suggests that viewers didn’t like the way the final episode went. Those who stayed tuned through the first and second parts seemed, according to the RT, to miss the earlier, historical trappings. 

But was it really the final episode? One suspects not. The same Radio Times piece suggested Mark Gatiss has more instalments  in mind. Given his popularity at the BBC, it seems not unlikely that the corporation will indulge him.

Many fans, perhaps principally those who followed Gatiss and Moffat through their re-imagining of Holmes and Watson, will doubtless count themselves in.

Stoker purists will certainly count themselves out. 

 

Credit: photo of Quentin Tarantino by Gage Skidmore, Wikipedia.