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#1: Mystery and Imagination: Dracula (1968)

Jon Dear begins a new series on TV adaptations of Dracula, starting with the 1968 episode of Mystery and Imagination...

After nearly two years of mental exhaustion we can still marvel at how quickly everyone adapted to the new normal and wonder if things will ever truly return to how they were, or if they even should.

In its early days the pandemic invigorated a wave of self-curated event television, with actors and programme makers getting involved for watchalongs of James Bond films and episodes of Doctor Who. Once again television, in that most private of spaces becomes that most public of experiences.

The context in which you watch something can matter almost as much as what you’re watching. These days, with the accessibility of streaming services and Netflix originals, the dividing line between home and cinema viewing has become ever more permeable, but back in 1968, with Christopher Lee’s third outing as Dracula just about to be released by Hammer, a made-for-telly adaptation of Dracula looks like pretty special event television. Now you can enjoy all the gothic melodrama and sexual subtext from the comfort of your own sofa. You’ve invited the vampire in.

So take your mind off the pandemic with the first of a series of pieces that look at various small screen adaptations of that most famous agent of infection and death…

dracula 4Mystery and Imagination began life with ABC television under new producer Jonathan Alwyn, a director on The Avengers, Armchair Theatre and Out of this World. It adapted short stories of writers such as Edgar Allen Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson, Mrs. Oliphant, and saw the first TV productions of M.R. James’s ghost stories, initially with the recurring character of Richard Beckett, from Sheridan Le Fanu’s The Room in the Dragon Volant. The programme ran for three series between 1966 and 1968 before refranchising saw the show move to Thames, and a new format. The running time lengthened to 90 minutes (with adverts) and reduced to three episodes per series. This set up lasted for two series, in 1968 and 1970. Dracula was the last episode of the 1968 run, produced and directed respectively by the experienced Reginald Collin and Patrick Dromgoole. Collin would go on to work on Callan and The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes while Dromgoole would direct and exec such classic fortean fayre as Sky, The Georgian House, Children of the Stones and King of the Castle. It was written by Charles Graham.

As a play in three acts, we’re limited in time and locations. Apart from a brief flashback sequence set at Dracula’s castle in Transylvania, all the action is shifted to Whitby. And by Whitby I mean the home of Dr. Seward (James Maxwell), and the adjacent asylum he works at, the home of Lucy (Susan George) and her mum (Joan Hickson), and a graveyard. The only other place we see is a brief film sequence outside Dracula’s new home, where Lucy goes to knock him up but he’s not in. Because he sleeps in the unconsecrated grave of a suicide rather than in the soil of his homeland for reasons that aren’t made entirely clear. But then much is truncated and exorcised in this version, leaving a slightly unsatisfying feeling after viewing. In most versions Lucy loses one of her suitors from the novel but here we only have Dr. Seward, acting as the skeptic foil for Prof. Van Helsing (Bernard Archard). In short, Seward’s filling the Jonathan Harker role. So where’s Harker? That’s easy, he’s busy being Renfield.

dracula 2We’re told that the unknown Harker (Corin Redgrave) was the only survivor of the shipwreck of the Demeter. A babbling madman, it’s only when Lucy’s BFF Mina (Suzanne Neve) turns up and recognises him as her newly wedded husband that everyone else cottons on to his true identity. Weren’t any of these people at the wedding??

We first meet Dracula (Denholm Elliott) tinkling the ivories at Seward’s dinner party, before an escaping Harker bursts through the French windows, calling Dracula ‘master’. The scene seems to have been lifted from Hammer’s The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), where it also made a lot more sense, but here it’s used as a way of introducing the title character and giving an excuse for an info dump about who everyone is.

For the most part, the character of Dracula is a background figure, a still point around which the other characters move while they try and guess his motives and work out how to overcome him. Unfortunately no one seems to work out exactly why he’s doing what he’s doing. We know Dracula kept Harker prisoner but not why he also travelled on the Demeter; if he knew Harker was an inmate of Seward’s asylum and whether Lucy and Mina were friends. It’s almost as if motive and planning are irrelevant here. Dracula is Dracula, he’s going to overpower you and bite you, that’s what he does. You might as well ask the motivation of a virus.

dracula 3Denholm Elliott seems a curious choice for the Count, displaying neither the silent power nor the animal magnetism required for the part. This could work if they were playing against type, but they still seem to portraying Dracula as the cuckolding predator, which Elliot fails to convey (And just for the record I bloody love Denholm Elliott in pretty much everything else. He’s magnificent in Brimstone and Treacle, and The Signalman. He’s also the best thing about Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), although at least he’s helped by Lucy’s fiancée Seward being as insipidly ineffectual as possible, and the nasty, ratty fangs Dracula grows are suitably unpleasant.

More than anyone else this adaptation belongs to Lucy and Susan George is wonderful, freed from the usual lazy slut shaming the character normally endures, she displays agency, motivation and tragedy and it’s through her that the themes of this tale are most evident. This is hardly the only adaptation that ignores the class anxieties of the original tale, instead focussing on the corrupting infection of the foreign body. Dracula doesn’t just steal your girlfriend by being sexier than you (in theory anyway); he destroys your entire way of life in a way you never saw coming and are powerless to prevent. This Godless creature destroys marriages and influences homosexual tendencies. Nowhere is the theme of Dracula as infection more obvious than having Van Helsing perform a transfusion: Seward giving his blood to Lucy, blood that Dracula will feed upon, seemingly causing Lucy to orgasm.

Dracula’s bizarre decision to sleep in a grave in the nearby cemetery rather then his own home comes back to, well, bite him when Van Helsing compromises the grave, trapping Dracula in the open, where he pleads for his ‘life’ and makes ill-defined promises of power if spared. It doesn’t feel right somehow, Dracula’s left himself far too vulnerable, although the visual effects of his demise are quite well done.

dracula 1There are a nice couple of moments with this admirably ambitious but ultimately underwhelming tale, the Castle flashback sequences are atmospherically shot and the three female vampires are effectively realised, and having one of them played by Trinidad and Tobago born Nina Baden-Semper seems dangerously subversive. There’s a decent scene with Lucy and Mina in the graveyard with an old man who tells them about the suicide, and there’s some creepy vision mixing as Dracula influences both Lucy and her mother to do his bidding, but there’s no getting away from the fact this too big a tale told in too brief a way. It loses too much and has to rely on awkward coincidences and unbelievable levels of ignorance from the characters. And I’m not sure what accent Bernard Archard is trying to do, I think it’s German.

So much for Mystery and Imagination. Next time we’ll look at Dan Curtis’s 1973 adaptation and see what new elements this brings to the mythology. Will we have a slightly less surprising choice for the title role? Don’t bet on it.

Jon Dear

Jon Dear

Jon Dear is a writer and critic on TV and film. He also hosts BERGCAST, the Nigel Kneale Podcast.

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