by Allan Fish
(UK 1977 160m) DVD1/2
Come freely, go safely
p Maurice Barry d Philip Saville w Gerald Savory novel Bram Stoker ph Peter Hall ed Richard Bedford m Kenyon Emrys-Roberts art Michael Young
Louis Jourdan (Dracula), Frank Finlay (Van Helsing), Susan Penhaligon (Lucy Westenra), Judi Bowker (Mina Westenra), Jack Shepherd (Renfield), Mark Burns (Dr Seward), Bosco Hogan (Jonathan Harker), Richard Barnes (Holmwood), George Malpas (Swales), Ann Queensberry (Mrs Westenra),
For a quarter of a century this BBC version of Bram Stoker’s legendary tale had laid dormant, a cult building up about it, enveloping the popular consciousness like a mist over the Borgo Pass. One almost had visions of the original tapes being buried in a chest filled with genuine Transylvanian earth in the Blue Peter garden at the back of Television Centre and there was a time when you thought it would ne’er emerge again from the depths of Shepherds Bush. Yet finally, there it was, restored, released and revisited again and again by a delirious fan base. It would be entitled to disappoint, but it didn’t, and that’s remarkable when one considers the numerous mediocre Counts we have had before and since on the small screen. Those with long memories may recall the 1968 black and white version with Denholm Elliott a horribly miscast Count and a terribly young, on the cusp of stardom Susan George as Lucy. Others may remember a hammy Jack Palance in 1973, and most recently, a truly atrocious revisit with Marc Warren as the Count and David Suchet devouring scenery as Van Helsing (why, oh why, did someone not think of getting David Tennant to play Renfield, a part he was born to play).
What is it that makes this version so memorable? Perhaps that it is not afraid to take its time; all the major big screen versions ran no more than nine reels, while this lets its story fill nearly three juicy, bloody hours. Though combining two characters into one and making a few other narrative changes, Savory’s script sticks closer to the spirit of the novel than any before or since. And it’s a rare series of its time that feels atmospheric even now. Many BBC serials of the period – think Our Mutual Friend, even I, Claudius – were virtually entirely set on soundstages and had no exterior shots at all. There are plenty of studio shots in this Dracula, but they are forbidding and grimly shot, and counterbalanced expertly by excellent use of exteriors. Sure, some of the special effects may be very much of their day, with their almost psychedelic tinges, but there’s a real vision at work here. The shots of Dracula moving down the walls viewed from below and above, the smoky mist hovering over Castle Dracula, the animal cries in the woods at night, and even the dread in the calm before the storm opening sequence. One doesn’t need to know Stoker to know that Harker is going to meet something pretty frightening once he has been sent on his way by his fiancée.
It all wouldn’t have worked half so well, though, without expert casting, and truly it could not have been better. Sure, Finlay is a hammy Van Helsing, but that’s the part, and he’s a good enough actor to know that, beneath the accent, there are times when less is more. The two women are perfectly chosen, with Penhaligon never more bite-worthy than as Lucy and the ever-delectable Bowker a truly fetching Mina. Credit, too, to a young Jack Shepherd, who has a great time as Renfield, but in truth it all falls on its lead performance. And it could so easily have fallen, for the then 56 year old Jourdan would hardly have been a first choice of many fans at the time, but he’s truly never been better. All the more frightening because, like Christopher Lee in the original Hammer, he’s so polite. His reaction to Harker’s mirror is a classic in itself, and it’s hard not to love the moment when he lifts Harker’s bulky, heavy trunk like it was a pillowcase on his arrival. True, parts of it may date for modern audiences, as is the case with any TV drama of the era, but for students of the book, this has to be the first port of call, perfect viewing for a cold Sunday night, with lights dimmed to nothing and a plentiful supply of beverages, garlic bread (naturally) and handy snacks.