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Bringing Dracula Back to Life

24 December 2006   |   Written by Stewart Harcourt

Bram Stoker’s novel has been the subject of more than 150 screen adaptations. Stewart Harcourt, whose new version is on BBC1 on Thursday, explains how he reinvigorated the classic tale using syphilis, devil worship – and Oscar Wilde

It’s 4.30 in the morning and I’m standing in the great hall of Dracula’s castle listening to the air turn blue with terrible roaring. This ear-splitting noise is erupting from the darkness at the far end of the hall. ‘AAARRGHH! I’M GONNA HAVE HIM! AAARRGHH! I’M GONNA FUCKING HAVE HIM!’

The BBC are filming my adaptation of Bram Stoker’s classic novel and Marc Warren is gearing up before shooting one of the most iconoclastic scenes in the whole of cinema; Count Dracula meets Jonathan Harker. Marc shuffles into view dressed as the 900-year-old demon, pale with death and disease. A chilly silence falls over the crew as we watch him edge towards us down the great hall, all the violence in his warm-up now held tight inside each quiet step. The director, Bill Eagles, shouts ‘action’ and we’re all staring and grinning as he moves towards the young man standing by the great door, dressed in fine Victorian travelling clothes.

Woodchester Mansion, where we are filming the castle interiors, is an extraordinary place. A vast Victorian mansion not far from Gloucester, it was abandoned before its completion – so it’s full of missing ceilings and half-built rooms, which have stood empty for 150 years. The designer on our production, James Merifield, has embellished this eerie neglect by planting wild trees throughout the house, their branches growing through the walls and their roots drilling down into the cellars. Most wonderfully of all, Woodchester has its own bat colony in its decaying chapel and, as we set up for the next take, the bats swoop down the corridors like stealth bombers, taking care to avoid Marc who is now sitting by the refreshment trolley scoffing a cake. Bats, it seems, know all about Dracula.

And so, I thought, did I. When I was asked to adapt the book I knew two things: firstly, that I loved it the way it hung its themes of sex, death and faith on the arc of a classic slasher movie, and secondly that it’s the most filmed novel in history – more than 150 films name-check Dracula in their titles, and no two screenplays are the same. What could I bring to a new adaptation that would make it fresh whilst remaining true to Stoker’s original vision? A closer reading of this extraordinary book didn’t bring any immediate answers. There are lots of unexplained plot developments – why on earth does Dracula go to Whitby? – and there are too many poorly drawn characters. It became clear to me that Dracula was no Bleak House or Pride and Prejudice – it is not a perfect work written by a genius. Rather, it’s an inspired and messy piece of gothic imagination.

I noted down the two dozen or so sequences from the book that I knew were going to be the cornerstone of the film, but as I worked on the first draft something was missing, a key image or a moment that would unlock the whole thing for me. Then I started looking further into Stoker’s life.

Stoker grew up in Dublin during the same time as Oscar Wilde. They both courted the same woman (who married Stoker) and then forged successful careers in the London theatre and lived round the corner from one another in Chelsea. Both men, whilst not friends, must have been acutely aware of each other, and I realised that it probably wasn’t a coincidence that in 1895, when Stoker was writing Dracula, Wilde was in the dock at the Old Bailey being portrayed as an immoral sexual monster. Even more interesting was discovering that both men probably died of syphilis, having contracted it in their youth. Was it possible, then, to see Stoker’s book as a metaphor for this sexually transmitted disease, with Dracula spreading the plague by preying on his victims’ lust and turning them into the living dead with his diseased blood? I decided that syphilis would be in the mix, that I was going to make flesh what Stoker had only implied. Then I discovered something else.

In the 1890s, a group of occultists called The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn regularly met in the parlour of a Chelsea town house. Amongst their number were the poet WB Yeats, the devil-worshipper Aleister Crowley and Oscar Wilde’s wife, Constance. They were all turning their backs on Christianity and rediscovering old gods – and, all the time they were doing this, Bram Stoker was three streets away writing Dracula. As I read about Constance Wilde and Aleister Crowley an image suddenly came into my head which made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I saw a London townhouse in the dead of night, and in an upstairs window the devil is closing the shutters. I grew this image into the story of a young man who inherited syphilis, who felt abandoned by God and by science, and who had turned to a dark religion practised in a Chelsea parlour to try and find a way to cheat death.

I loved this and knew it was my film. I loved its echoes of Ibsen’s syphilitic play Ghosts (which was the cause celebre of the London stage at the time Stoker was working on his book) – and I knew it would bring to the fore the intense religiosity of Stoker’s black mass of a novel.

Dracula is such a phenomenon that, even before I’d delivered a first draft, there was already a buzz about the production. Damien Timmer, the executive producer, called me at one point to say, “I’ve just got into a lift and David Suchet at Granada, and whenever we film it he wants to play Van Helsing.” David’s enthusiasm never waned and six months later he was on set. The rest of the casting was very exciting – it was one of those few occasions when all your first choices say yes. Bill, Damien and I sat around in my front room one weekend watching casting tapes and cherry-picked the best young actors in the country. Tom Burke, who’s also appearing this Christmas on BBC4 as Jenkins in the MR James ghost story Number 13, plays Dr Steward. Stephanie Leonidas and Sophia Myles star as Mina and Lucy, and Rafe Spall – from BBC4’s The Chatterley Affair and Wide Sargasso Sea – is Jonathan Harker. Dan Stevens, last seen in BBC2’s The Line of Beauty, plays Lord Holmwood – in my version, it is Holmwood who falls prey to syphilis and who unleashes Count Dracula in his vain attempt to find a cure.

So, six months after I handed in the first draft and the night after Harker’s encounter with he swearing Dracula, I’m in the centre of Bath at 2.30 in the morning watching the actor Donald Sumpter close shutters of a town house. On his head is a jet black mitre, and around his neck a blood red stole. It’s one of the most chilling things I’ve ever seen but, as Donald closes the shutters, he suddenly wiggles his eyebrows like Eric Morecambe and blows a kiss into the street. Bill and I look at each other dumbfounded, and I can see Bill’s mind racing to find the right note that would inform Donald that he’s got his character completely wrong, when news come through that the assistant director’s walkie-talkie isn’t working and Donald didn’t get the message that it was a take.

“Well, that’s a relief, I thought Sumpter had fucking lost it,” says a familiar voice behind me, and `i turn to see Marc, who’s unrecognisable from the night before. He’s been transformed into Dracula as a 30-year-old man, and looks like a witches brew of Marc Bolan and something reptile. He’s a very different Dracula to the 150 that have gone before, ditching the aristocratic bearing and bringing a sexy, feral danger to the part. Marc’s always talked about Dracula as an addict, like a smack addict in the ruthless pursuit of the next fix. I suddenly realise (and hope) that, with Marc’s performance at the heart of our talented cast, this production can blow the cobweb of cliches off Stoker’s classic and bring to television a Dracula which possesses the same unsettling qualities that so beguiled Stocker’s first readers. A Dracula that is vital, dangerous and very, very scary.