CHRIS NEWTON reviews the revamped Dracula BBC 2020 miniseries adaptation, starring Claes Bang and Dolly Wells
With their three-part TV series, showrunners Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss gave us both a faithful(ish) interpretation of Bram Stoker’s classic and a re-vamped, 21st Century Dracula.
This approach divided critics and viewers alike, but there was no denying how bold and inventive their take was.
Arguably their most daring move was to make Dracula – who is largely absent from the eponymous novel and most film adaptations – the main character.
In 2017, when asked which Doctor he would most like to take a trip in the TARDIS with, Moffat replied: “Absolutely none of them. He’s an adrenaline junkie. He’s erratic, he’s not safe. I’m a coward. I would not journey with any of those unreasonable men. They’re all maniacs.”
Interestingly, the same could be said of Sherlock Holmes, another literary behemoth that Moffat and Gatiss famously brought to screen. They’re clearly attracted to these dangerous, narcissistic geniuses. Yet where the Doctor has human companions and Holmes is anchored by Dr. Watson, here we have a different kind of charming, charismatic dandy. One with absolutely no moral compass, and no human companion to guide him towards the light.
Or do we?
Episode One: The Rules of The Beast
Original BBC Transmission date: 1 January 2020
Synopsis: In a Romanian convent, a harrowed husk of a man relates the horrific details of his imprisonment at the hands of Count Dracula.
Dialogue Triumph: ‘When you stand in the deepest pit, alone without hope or help, and yet still know right from wrong. When there is only darkness and despair and yet you feel humming in your blood the difference between good and bad. When you are beyond rescue or reward or judgement and you still look evil in the face and say ‘No! This far but no further! No!’ Whose voice is that? Who is with you in that darkness?’ – Mother Superior
Trivia: Moffat and Gatiss are best known for writing (and in Gatiss’ case, starring in) Sherlock and Doctor Who. Unsurprisingly, there are references to both of these in Dracula BBC 2020. Sister Agatha refers to ‘a detective acquaintance in London’, whilst Mina Harker refers to ‘the adorable barmaid at the Rose and Crown’. In the Doctor Who episode ‘The Snowmen’, set in 1892, Clara Oswald works as a barmaid in a London pub of the same name.
Interiors were filmed at the legendary Bray Studios in Berkshire, shot on the same soundstages as Hammer’s 1958 Dracula.
Scariest Moment: There are plenty of visual horrors, from the un-dead springing from their boxes, to Dracula’s wolf transformation, but the most chilling moment of the episode is when Jonathan Harker succumbs to his vampiric lust after tasting Mina’s blood. ‘Please… Let me!’
Episode Two: Blood Vessel
Original BBC Transmission Date: 2 January 2020
Synopsis: Dracula travels to England onboard The Demeter, picking off the crew one by one to sustain himself throughout the journey. But who is the mystery passenger quarantined in Cabin No.9?
Dialogue Triumph: ‘There is a Vampire on board this ship! I am Sister Agatha Van Helsing of St. Mary’s Convent, Budapest. Captain Sokolov? You are relieved of command.’ – Agatha
Trivia: Before his Sherlock fame, Mark Gatiss was known for his work with The League of Gentlemen. His League co-stars, Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton, went on to create the critically acclaimed ‘Inside No.9’, which is referenced in this episode with mysterious ‘cabin no. 9’.
Patrick Walshe McBride’s ill-fated character, Lord Ruthven, is named after the eponymous villain in John Polidori’s ‘The Vampyre’.
Scariest Moment: ‘It’s me. I’m in Cabin No. 9.’
Episode Three: The Dark Compass
Original Transmission Date: 3 January 2020
Synopsis: Count Dracula arrives in Whitby 123 years later than planned, but Dr. Zoe Van Helsing and the Jonathan Harker Institute are waiting for him. Van Helsing claims to know Dracula’s greatest fear – but does he?
Dialogue Triumph: ‘Dying is the only remaining novelty. Every other human experience is catalogued somewhere in your endless chattering libraries. Nothing comes fresh. Every living instant is shop-soiled and second hand except that one moment in life that no one can report back on.’ – Count Dracula
Trivia: Renfield’s descent into madness is touched upon when the lawyer ‘solves’ a cryptic crossword (‘unscrupulous doctor deployed tanner’s knife ’) with the words ‘Dracula is my lord’. The correct answer is actually ‘exsanguinate’. The crossword itself is set by ‘Sphinx’, which ‘Inside No.9’ fans will know is Steve Pemberton’s setter pseudonym, in reference to the masterpiece that is ‘The Riddle of the Sphinx’.
Zoe Van Helsing’s leap across the table to tear down the curtain and expose Dracula to sunlight is a straight up homage to Peter Cushing’s same leap in Hammer’s Dracula.
Scariest Moment: ‘Peekaboo…. Bloofer Lady… Peekaboo!’
Dracula on BBC: What can we expect of new series?
(In the months up to the release of BBC’s Dracula, there was much speculation about it would be like. This article was first published on Spooky Isles on 25 November 2019 about his thoughts – was he right or wrong? Read on and find out!)
A three-part adaptation of Dracula starring Claes Bang, from the men behind ‘Sherlock’ is set to air on the BBC this winter.
From the teaser released last month, and from what creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat have said in interviews, CHRIS NEWTON has figured out what we can expect from the count’s latest incarnation…
Off the back of the pairs’ 21st Century take on Sherlock Holmes, which itself followed Moffat’s modernised version of another Victorian Gothic masterpiece – ‘Jekyll’ – I was braced for a revamped Dracula, and half expected the show’s title to be ‘Count’.
But it’s easy to forget that, prior to Moffat’s tenure as Doctor Who showrunner, he was famed as a Doctor Who writer for penning ‘the scary ones’.
If you need remining of this, it’s worth noting that my list of 10 Scariest Moments in Doctor Who features three Moffat stories (which put him on a par with the legendary Robert Holmes). Not to mention Gatiss’ excellently atmospheric 2005 story The Unquiet Dead and the more genuinely frightening elements of The League of Gentlemen – particularly the Christmas Special, an Amicus style portmanteau episode which featured a fantastic vampire story.
Respect for the Subject Matter…
From the visual nods to Nosferatu (1922) in the aforementioned Christmas Special to Gatiss’ incredibly in-depth A History of Horror documentary (part two in particular, Home Counties Horror, focuses on the Hammer Dracula films), the Sherlock stars’ love of the genre – and the character of Count Dracula – are well documented.
My fears of a modern day Dracula were unfounded, as the 2019 iteration of the tale will remain in 19th Century Transylvanian shadows and Victorian London gloom.
Whilst the writers have been notoriously coy about exactly what makes their version unique, the teaser trailer afforded us glimpses of Renfield, The Demeter, Jonathan Harker and, of course, the red eyed, fanged count himself, so it looks as though it’s staying fairly faithful to Stoker’s novel. I’m personally praying to see Whitby onscreen. It was regular childhood holidays to the Yorkshire seaside town and its ruined abbey that sparked my lifelong love of vampires.
…And a healthy dose of irreverence
It was a great twist, over sixty years after the novel and following several screen adaptations, for Hammer’s Dracula (1958) to begin by pulling the rug from beneath the viewer’s feet with the early revelation that John Van Eyssen’s Harker was, in fact, a vampire hunter come to kill the count in his own castle.
It surprised them further still by having Harker, a main character in the novel, killed off within the first quarter of the film. After all, if you’re resurrecting a well known tale, it needs a certain amount of reinvigoration.
Gatiss has already described their version as “extremely faithful and entirely faithless at the same time.”
The most notable difference that we know of being that Claes Bang’s Dracula is going to be the main character in his own series.
It’s certainly a gamble, as one of the things that makes the novel so chilling is the absence of its titular character.
Especially in London, Dracula is rarely glimpsed, but his oppressive presence is felt by everyone, which gives the story its inescapable atmosphere of dread. I always felt that Brian Fuller’s ‘Hannibal’ never quite worked, primarily because he took the wonderfully peripheral, menacing and, while we’re on the subject, not entirely un-Dracula-like Dr. Lecter and made him a protagonist.
Too immoral to be a hero, but defanged enough to lack the menace Anthony Hopkins brought to the same role. Interestingly, Hopkins was only onscreen for sixteen minutes in his Oscar winning performance in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), just as Christopher Lee was only in Dracula (1958) for seven minutes. Nevertheless, their characters presence seems to haunt every scene. Will Dracula work front and centre?
A soundtrack to die for
The music will be provided by David Arnold and Michael Price, who were also the composers on Sherlock.
Whilst you probably remember the series for its bombastic theme tune, the score was incredibly textured, with some beautifully maudlin and melancholy moments.
Series Two, especially. I recommend revisiting Irene’s Theme and getting excited about these two doing gothic horror.
A Dracula for a new Generation
“It’s like Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee had a child.” Gatiss said of Claes Bang. The Danish actor was their first choice for the role after they saw him in The Square (2017).
When asked what we could expect from his take on the iconic count, Gatiss and Moffat commented, tongues firmly in cheek, “vampirism, blood drinking, tallness, handsomeness, Danish-ness.”
Of the character himself, Gatiss said, “He’s the first Byronic vampire. He’s the first one to set pulses racing.” So it would stand to reason that tallness and handsomeness were top of their list. The trailer looked fantastic, full of gore and gothic delights, but Bang’s brief appearance at the end was the only thing which left me with doubts.
Was that an estuary accent? It’s a far cry from Lugosi’s “children of the night”, but then the writers have said they want to break away from the campy perception of the character and restore him to his terrifying roots.
Perhaps he will be to Dracula what Christopher Eccleston was to Doctor Who in 2005?
Time will tell. There have been so many interpretations of this character and his story over the last century. Some have become cultural icons, whilst others have faded into obscurity. As Van Helsing himself would remind us, “we learn from failure, not from success!”