In 1977, over the Christmas holidays, the BBC broadcast Count Dracula, an epic-length television production (later recycled as a three-part serial) scripted by Gerald Savory, directed by Philip Saville and starring Louis Jourdan as the Count, Frank Finlay as Van Helsing, Judi Bowker as Mina and Susan Penhaligon as Lucy. Despite the claims of Francis Coppola, Count Dracula remains the most faithful adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel, incorporating more of the book’s characters, incidents, dialogue and even imagery than any other big or small screen take. Three decades on, the BBC transmitted another bash at a Dracula. Your first reaction might well – like mine – be ‘what, again?’. But, on reflection, Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula is now fifteen years old and the only real adaptations in the interim have been loose, Guy Maddin’s silent movie ballet Dracula: Pages From a Virgin’s Diary and an Italian modern-dress miniseries with Patrick Bergin. Without making a fuss, the BBC have recently tended to slip at least one brand-name horror into the Christmas/New Year schedules, taking stabs at The Hound of the Baskervilles in 2002 and Sweeney Todd in 2005, with a Holmesian serial killer ‘original’ Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking in 2004.
Various UK TV adaptations of Dracula have been mooted. A few years back, a Stephen Gallagher script with Vincent Cassell attached to star was sidelined by the BBC when it was rumoured ITV were mounting their own Dracula with Gary Kemp. The one which actually got made was scripted by Stewart Harcourt (who has written for Peak Practice and Marple), directed by Bill Eagles (returning to UK TV after episode gigs on CSI, Surface, Invasion and Battlestar Galactica) and built around the brooding, currently hot presence of Marc Warren (Hustle) as the vampire. A Granada production for BBC Wales, this might even be that promised ITV production turning up on the rival network. If Count Dracula was the most faithful – if imaginative and interpretative – Stoker adaptation, this Dracula uses less of the novel than almost any previous version, with the possible exception of the Hammer 1958 film and the Frank Langella 1979 picture. Harcourt seems to go out of his way to avoid using a single line of Stoker’s dialogue and comes up with different takes on every one of the characters he uses while his plot only occasionally overlaps with Stoker’s. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: there have been so many different Draculas that any new version has to come up with some fresh angle. Sadly, what this film comes up with feels hurried, half-thought-through and generally disappointing.
Out of the picture are the three vampire brides, Quincy Morris, Renfield, the chase across the continent, Carfax Abbey, Lucy’s ‘bloofer lady’ child assaults, Van Helsing’s position of medical authority and whole swathes of the storyline. Like Jimmy Sangster in 1958 and Richard Matheson in 1974, Harcourt finds no plot use for Jonathan Harker after his trip to Castle Dracula, and so the luckless solicitor is left dead in a crypt with the Count purloining his travel documents (and clothes) to make the trip to England. Fair enough, though this means Rafe Spall – following his turn as the younger, duller Mr Rochester in the BBC’s Wide Sargasso Sea – gets stuck with an even blander Jonathan than usual. Harcourt seems to feel Stoker’s plot is undermotivated and takes pains to answer questions few have thought to ask. Admittedly, it always slightly bothered me that travelling from the Black Sea to London via North Yorkshire was an unlikely course even for a ship captained by a corpse lashed to a mast, especially since it coincidentally brings Dracula near to the fiancée of the man he has terrorised back in his homeland – the extra-textural reason is that Stoker was familiar with Whitby and wanted to use the picturesque town as a setting. Here, Dracula has to be invited to the country – much as he has to be invited into a house, perhaps – and uses his magic powers to steer the ship to the source of the invitation, Lord Arthur Holmwood (Dan Stevens, still on a losing streak after playing the worst role in horror, Henry in the Hallmark Frankenstein).
The big new idea of this Dracula is all in the story set-up. Arthur, suffering from hereditary syphilis, has been convinced by a Chelsea-based cult of Dracula-worshippers, led by the glowering Singleton (Donald Sumpter), that the Count can cure his tainted blood. A full fifteen minutes of this hour and a half production take place before Stoker’s opening, dealing with the death of Arthur’s father (an incident from the book no other adaptation has featured) and his involvement with the cult, whose headquarters are in Cheyne Walk (where Stoker lived). There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. The book’s Arthur reads as a stiff, and there’s something creepily unsympathetic about the way Lucy picks the most handsome, wealthy, socially prominent and boring of her three suitors. When I played with Stoker’s toys in my novel Anno Dracula, I made Arthur a villain because I find him impossible to like, no matter how the other characters go on about his nobility and decency. It’s a pity, then, that all the additions feel undeveloped: the syphilis (it was once thought Stoker died of the disease, though this now seems unlikely), the Hammer-like cult, the vague notion that Dracula could be a healer, Arthur’s troubled non-consummation of his marriage to hot-to-trot Lucy (Sophia Myles). The idea that Dracula needs to be invited into the country has potential, though a Count who needs someone else to finance his invasion is less fearsome than Stoker’s King Vampire, who can pay his own way. Though Singleton and his minions serve Dracula well, he still slaughters them – a trace echo of his usual treatment of Renfield, though it should be remembered that the madman betrays him first. It’s a lazy TV convention that villains murder their own lieutenants all the time just to show what bastards they are, and furthermore suggests that this Count’s ambitions of empire are unlikely to come to much since he is a poor strategist.
Different oughtn’t necessarily mean worse, but all the characters here feel much reduced: Van Helsing (David Suchet) is glimpsed under vampire attack in the prologue then tripped over in the cult’s cellars, having become a nervous wreck with a false beard, and keeps trying to run away from a battle he fears is already lost; Mina (Stephanie Leonidas, of MirrorMask) is weepy at the loss of Jonathan and never really becomes Dracula’s target; Lucy inherits some Mina business like being forced to drink Dracula’s blood from an opened vein in his chest, but her vampire career is almost omitted — which means Myles doesn’t compete with her bitchy fanged turn in Underworld; and poor Dr Seward (Tom Burke) has to hold the plot together by traipsing back and forth from London to Whitby linking all the characters, for which he is rewarded tidily by the suggestion that he and Mina get together after the story ends. This reading shares with the three 1979 Draculas (John Badham’s, Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre, Love at First Bite) a sense that Stoker’s authority figures are inept imbeciles and despairing surrender to the monster is almost inevitable. Again, it’s a viable reading but curiously undramatic – making one wonder what it was about the Stoker that excited the makers of this version in the first place.
The chief culprit, of course, is Dracula. Warren first appears in his castles with mud-pack make-up and nasty nails, then rejuvenates as a big-haired, shabbily-dressed creep, who also seems a much smaller, less effective presence than most other screen Draculas. He does appear nude in Lucy’s bed as he bites her (a modest innovation) and there’s a hint of arch-manupulator in the way he inveigles a dinner invitation from Lucy and then puts an enraged Arthur in the wrong with his wife. Though he sports fangs and starey eyes, Warren’s major Dracula asset are his hands – he is forever seductively fingering people’s faces and necks, then ripping off heads or sinking his teeth in. With Stoker’s dialogue gone, he also gets nothing memorable to say. This Dracula has one of the feeblest ends: stabbed from behind with a stake during a scuffle, with a single line (‘are you sure you pierced his heart?’) that justifies his last-moment reappearance as an aged derelict. Let’s hope it’s a formula gesture rather than a set-up for a sequel.
As demonstrated by Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky, Bleak House and Jane Eyre, the BBC can still do a good old classic serial – and find something to say about material which has been done over and over again. But, besides undervaluing and misconstruing Stoker’s material, this Dracula does everything by halves – with poor CGI clifftop castles and manors, unexciting tussles, a great deal of visual murk, listless performances (objectively, it has a good cast) and uncommitted direction. A busy, crowded, unaffecting ninety minutes bereft of terror, romance and adventure, with a vampire king inches shorter than some of his enemies, this is in every way a Dracula lacking in stature.