Zoe Tapper as Mina Harker and Christian Cooke as Luke Van Helsing, Demons (2008). Here’s a piece I wrote for The Times when the first episode aired. NB: the show didn’t credit Bram Stoker. It ran six episodes and wasn’t renewed.Demons – which was called The Last Van Helsing when I visited the set in March – is ITV’s shot at competing with Buffy the Vampire Slayer with Doctor Who, or at least catching the attention of the audiences who took those shows beyond the cult sci-f/fantasy niche into the television mainstream traditionally devoted to middle-aged policemen and doctors with sexy supporting casts.
A near-derelict industrial space in darkest London SE1 proved versatile enough to accommodate the production. Various floors have been converted into the practically spacious apartment of the latest unwitting heir to the vampire-slaying dynasty – nasty surprises involving Mackenzie Crook take place in the open-plan kitchen – and graffiti-strewn tunnels where Philip Glenister is facing down creatures of the night. Crook, playing a Nosferatu-look teddy boy with a scrimshaw nose, is a rare actor who looks less cadaverous when made up as a vampire than he does in true-to-life comedy. Glenister is plainly the show’s big draw, following up his star-making turn as Gene Hunt, the tough British copper he perfected in Life on Mars and – ahem – Ashes to Ashes. He has a nattier wardrobe (including a film noir fedora) and a slightly-creepy Yank accent, but is still hefting a very big gun and tossing insults at villains. Like many film/TV sets, it’s among the coldest places on Earth – which means genuine goosebumps when the young hero goes shirtless, and probably makes monster roles more appealing since the make-ups at least work like ski-masks to cut down the wind-chill.
The first episode (‘They Bite’), scripted by series creator Peter Tabern, takes no risks by mashing up the pilot of Joss Whedon’s Buffy with the not dissimilar introductory show of the revived Doctor Who. London teenager Luke Rutherford (Christian Cooke), busy studying for exams and going to parties with semi-girlfriend Ruby (Holliday Grainger), is jolted out of a rut when his life is invaded by supernatural troublemakers – a toothy CGI rat-human homunculus thing, acrobatic hoodie werewolves, Crook as a vampire with a silly name (‘Gladiolus Thrip’). Enter man-of-mystery Rupert E. Galvin (Philip Glenister), demonstrating a purred American accent, who tells Luke to run as often as Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor told Billie Piper’s Rose did. Buffy, paired an English mentor called Rupert with an American girl, but Demons teams an American mentor called Rupert and an English boy as Galvin initiates Luke into a family tradition of vampire-slaying, nagging him to grow up fast so he can carry the series and fulfil his destiny.
Among the many things Luke learns in a crowded hour is that his real surname is Van Helsing, and that he’s descended from the Victorian vampire-slayer Abraham Van Helsing, introduced by Bram Stoker in 1897 as the nemesis for Count Dracula. The preview disc provided for review lacks end credits, but I trust that – unlike the ungracious Stephen Sommers, who called a film Van Helsing without mentioning Stoker anywhere in the ten-minute closing credits crawl – ITV will at least acknowledge who created Van Helsing in the way the BBC lists Terry Nation as the creator of the Daleks whenever they crop up on Doctor Who. Demons also borrows Stoker’s heroine, Mina Harker, who – as in the film League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – has lived on as a vampire, and is here a blind piano virtuoso played by Zoe Tapper (also seen in Survivors – the talent pool for UK genre shows is seemingly tiny, as evidenced by the casting of Glenister in a role which would seem to be written for a Yank).
Over the decades, various actors have set their stamp on the role of Van Helsing. When the actor-manager-author Hamilton Deane adapted Stoker’s novel as a West End play in the 1920s, he initially intended to take the showy role of the vampire but realised Dracula was very rarely on stage in human form and wound up casting himself as Van Helsing, who comes on after the plot is in motion and dominates everyone in sight with reams of explanatory vampire lore and as many eccentricities (including what Stoker calls a ‘King Laugh’) as the villain. Stoker burdened his savant with a peculiar accent, which is more often Double Dutch than Dutch, but built him up as a Holmesian knowall to counter Dracula’s Moriartyish evil influence. Not content with giving his young hero Jonathan Harker a surname that rhymed with his own, Stoker gave the hero’s mentor his own first name – Bram is a contraction of Abraham. Some actors – notably Anthony Hopkins, but also Laurence Olivier and David Suchet – have played Van Helsing a funny-voiced loon, which tends to let whoever is cast as the Count run away with the show.
This is why Peter Cushing, who trimmed away the vocal mannerisms and concentrated on clear-eyed determination to rid Transylvania of vampirism, remains the screen’s most satisfying Van Helsing. He may not be strictly faithful to Stoker, but he is one of the few vampire-slayers in film and fiction you’d be willing to trust – and his no-nonsense, very physical style perfectly matched against Christopher Lee’s imposing, cloak-swishing dynamism. Stoker wrote Van Helsing as a consulting physician, but Cushing made him an action hero. In 1974, Cushing’s Van Helsing teamed up with kung fu vampire-fighters in Hammer’s Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, setting a precedent for Marvel Comics’ Blade (as played by Wesley Snipes with wooden knives), Buffy and her fellow Slayers and Hugh Jackman’s rootless Van Helsing.
Cooke doesn’t need to be in that league yet, since Demons gives Galvin the mature, expert position and positions Luke as his Jonathan Harker-like apprentice. When, in one of too many lines that could have come from any scriptwriter’s set of post-it notes, Galvin gets up after a fall and mutters that he’s ‘getting too old for this’, the show seems to be setting up a changing of the guard so that the new Van Helsing can take over the family firm. I loitered a bit on set as Cooke was menaced by the not-as-destroyed-as-advertised Crook (that nose is the best thing in the show) and Glenister played with a toy raygun thingie he admitted wasn’t as satisfying as Gene Hunt’s shooter. So far, it’s hard to tell whether Cooke’s Luke, who follows Rose by having a dead father and an ordinary love interest who doesn’t react initially with enthusiasm to the weird stuff, will become strong enough to carry the show. He’s posh, pretty and can do a bewildered double-take when a monster jumps at him, but he’s not who you’d naturally pick to stand for humanity against the forces of evil.
As with ITV’s Primeval, Demons is a show I’d really like to like, but needs to shake itself free of the templates it’s adopted to develop its own personality. All the elements that intrigue come from the show’s core text, Bram Stoker’s still-unfluential novel, while the encrustations that seem rote are derived from more recent, passing glosses on the great Van Helsing tradition.