“Come freely. Go safely; and leave something of the happiness you bring.” Today The Voice of Horror is back with a shudder. Earlier this year we were bowled over by Big Finish’s version of William Hope Hodgson’s tales. Now they have expanded their classics again with a major three hour production of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, starring none other than Mark Gatiss. And we have a brand new interview with ace audio producer Scott Handcock, who made it all happen.
Big Finish have been known for a while for their extensive range of cult audio, including of course Dr Who, but what interests us in particular is their growing range of adaptations based on classic supernatural and horror tales, such as Dorian Gray, Frankenstein, and the afore mentioned Carnacki (see the starkey stratagem).
Their Dracula was released on Thursday 26th May, 119 years to the day after the novel’s first publication. It’s a full-cast production, and we should rightly credit all the talent involved:
Mark Gatiss (Count Dracula), Joseph Kloska (Jonathan Harker), Deirdre Mullins (Mina Murray), Nigel Betts (Abraham Van Helsing), Rupert Young (John Seward), Alex Jordan (Arthur Holmwood), David Menkin (Quincey P. Morris), Rosanna Miles (Lucy Westenra), Elizabeth Morton (Mary Westenra), Ian Hallard (Renfield), Edward Petherbridge (Mr Swales), and Katy Manning (Sister Agatha).
Before we talk to Scott, we’ll share some of our own thoughts, something we tend only to do with audio productions. The audiobook provides three hours and fourteen minutes of drama, plus a bonus fifty minutes of background material – opinions, cast interviews, music and so on. And did we enjoy it? Indeed we did. It was notable because of three things:
- It drew us away from the many re-interpretations and variants on the Dracula/vampire theme that have accumulated, particularly over the last couple of decades, and made us want to go back and read Stoker’s original for the first time in years. It was something akin to a purging of all the weird re-imaginings. At the end of the audio we thought: Gosh, that’s actually quite a good story. We’d almost forgotten.
- Gatiss is excellent, as we’d hoped and as you might expect, and it’s a great cast in general. However, Deirdre Mullins is outstanding as Mina Harker. From beginning to end, her performance is so striking and engaging that we were rooting for her more than for anyone else in the story, and towards the end our main concern was that she, of all of them, would survive. This was a real surprise, and we can only hope that she does more work in this area.
- We are admittedly becoming the strangest of creatures, Scott Handcock groupies, if such a thing is possible. Carnacki was terrifically well done (not forgetting Dan Starkey’s outstanding performance as Carnacki himself, of course). This adaptation of Dracula again asserts the value of a well-produced audio play as compared to film and TV. The atmosphere, and the immediacy of engagement with the characters through their voices, made it a pleasure.
Mark Gatiss, famed for his involvement in Sherlock, Dr Who, The League of Gentlemen and other series, has played a vampire before – Mr Snow, in TV’s Being Human. He has a long association with horror, including examinations of M R James’ work, and made a three-part BBC documentary series entitled A History of Horror, a personal exploration of the history of horror cinema.
(As a trivia aside, Gatiss met his League of Gentlemen co-writers and performers at Bretton Hall, a drama school not that far from the greydog kennels in Yorkshire.)
“(Dracula) is a part I’ve always wanted to play – and I’ve been rehearsing for 48 years,” says Gatiss.”You may be able to tell that in the relish and bloodied glee in which I approach this role!’
He also commented in a Dr Who-related interview for scifibulletin, when asked about his role in Dracula:
“…I had a wonderful time. It was all very close-mic work and I loved it all. I watched a few Hungarian language things – [Transylvania] was actually Hungary not Romania at the time – and they all sound just like Bela Lugosi but you’ve got to be careful, I think, because it has been mocked so much. You either go the urbane Christopher Lee route or do the Hungarian thing – I’ve settled for something in between.”
Gatiss delivers a subtle performance, full of quiet threat rather than mad cape-swirling, and all the better for it. And as he says, his accent is enough to give depth but not so much that it becomes a stereotype. You genuinely get the feeling that people have no choice except to do what he says. When he tells Jonathan Harker to start writing letters home, and you realise that Harker may be doomed, you get a real chill.
But let us move on to producer/director Scott Handcock, who makes a welcome return to greydogtales to give us a view from the inside…
greydog: Great to have you back with us, Scott, and with such a cool production – Dracula. We’d normally ask you how you’ve been and chat a bit, but we suspect our listeners are here to get the low-down on this new adaptation, so we’ll be business-like. Firstly, Mark Gatiss. How did you get him on-board (apart from paying him, of course)?
scott: I’ve known Mark for a good few years, ever since my days at BBC Wales. He’s one of those people who’s effortlessly pleasant. No matter what your role or status on a production, he likes to know who you are and what you do, so I’ve encountered him on and off since my days on Doctor Who Confidential.
I then heard on the grapevine, following my production of The Picture of Dorian Gray, that he’d rather liked to have played the part of Harry Wotton, so naturally I started forming ideas to get him on board for something else. Following my production of Frankenstein with Arthur Darvill, Dracula was the next logical step for the gothic trilogy, and obviously there was no better fit for the role than Mark! So I dropped him a quick note, sounded him out, and he instantly came back to me with a yes.
greydog: We can certainly see him in the role of the older, hedonistic aristocrat Wotton. So, for this production did you negotiate the take you wanted on the character between you, or did Mark already have his own ideas of how he wanted to portray Dracula?
scott: I think characterisation comes primarily from the script, and it was clear from Jonathan Barnes’ brilliant adaptation that this was a very straight take on the character. Mark came in with his own interpretation and ideas, but they pretty much matched my own. Neither of us wanted this to be a caricature, so although there is an accent, it isn’t too pronounced. Rather than make him a monster, he’s very much a man, which in a way makes him more frightening.
greydog: We’ve heard his performance, reminding us that he has that ability to convey a deep, disturbing menace. We imagine that this works particularly well in a sound studio.
scott: The advantage of the audio medium means you can really measure a performance and lend your performance an intimacy you might not otherwise have on screen. Mark’s Dracula is terrifying because he’s so contained. He knows how powerful he is, so he doesn’t need to rant or rave. It’s brilliantly judged!
greydog: The adaptation was written by Jonathan Barnes, who already has an eye for Victorian period detail. Not only did he write the period horror The Somnambulist, but are we right that he did the dramatisation for your production of Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus?
scott: Absolutely! We had a blast working on Frankenstein, and it was out of the success of that production that we got the green light for this one. Jonathan really knows his stuff, and how to pace a potentially unwieldy novel over the space of three hours. And like his previous work, the joy of his script for Dracula is how identifiable the world and characters are. It’s a period story, yes, but by focusing on the characters and their relationships, it draws the listener in. You really care about the characters and the hold that Dracula has over every one of them.
greydog: Dracula has been adapted and re-interpreted many times. From the length of this offering (three hours) and the size of the cast, this seems to be a pretty faithful adaptation. Were there sections which you and Jonathan had to cut or re-interpret to fit the running time?
scott: By its very nature, any adaptation requires a degree of compromise. You can’t include absolutely everything from the original work – otherwise you’re just doing a reading – but Jonathan’s been very smart in including all the things people think they know about Dracula, whilst also working in a lot of the forgotten details and characters too. So we have Mr Swales, the wolf enclosure, and all manner of other sequences that are easily omitted from most modern interpretations. Plus we have all three of Lucy’s suitors. It really is a packed and faithful retelling – and one that really makes the most of its extended run time.
greydog: As far as the cast goes, we see that you’re back with Joseph Kloska (playing Jonathan Harker), who was Dodgson to Dan Starkey’s Carnacki in the Hope Hodgson stories you released earlier this year. Deirdre Mullins is playing Mina, Nigel Betts is van Helsing and even the smaller parts include some intriguing contributions – you have Edward Petherbridge, for example, who we remember for his stylish Lord Peter Wimsey at the BBC, and Katy Manning, immortalised as Jo during Jon Pertwee’s Dr Who.
scott: I’ve been hugely lucky with my cast on Dracula. With the exception of Nigel Betts and Edward Petherbridge, I’ve worked with most of the others a few times before, so it created a real sense of family. Everyone who comes in to work with Big Finish loves the company atmosphere. We work very hard, but we have a lot of fun doing so, and tackling something as well-known as Dracula really focussed everyone even before we entered the studio. Each of us has an idea of the story, and the weight of the characters and narrative, so it was remarkably easy to form the relationships between characters that guide the listener through. Deirdre Mullins as Mina is especially impressive, literally holding the story together from the very beginning. But everyone else is magnificent too! I couldn’t ask for a single line to have been played any differently…
greydog: Deirdre is a marvellous Mina Harker indeed. So, you’re both producer and director. Is it somewhat nerve-wracking doing a full cast production like this, as compared to readings or limited-cast dramatisations?
scott: Every project’s different, if I’m honest. Something like Dracula isn’t any more nerve-wracking than a more straightforward reading – you still have to pay the same attention to detail, so the process in studio is much the same whatever you’re recording. The difference comes beforehand. A project that spans three days usually means leaping around the narrative to make the most of different people’s availabilities (no point keeping people hanging around if they’re not needed), so as a director, you really need to know the script inside-out, so performances match from one scene to the next, even if they’re recorded days apart. But I love that aspect to the bigger productions. It makes it a bit more of a challenge…
greydog: And given that we have no experience in this area whatsoever, how much studio time do these longer productions need? Are we normally talking a couple of straight, one-take performances which are then edited, or weeks of calling people in, separate recordings and re-takes?
scott: We usually record an hour a day. Sometimes the studio days can be spread out over a few weeks, as with Frankenstein, but we were lucky on Dracula to have three consecutive days to really focus everyone. Rather than one big read through of the entire three hours, which would most likely wear everyone out, we tackle a scene at a time. Read it through, then record, with several takes to work with in the edit. It’s a brilliant way of working that really helps keep the energy up, and I honestly couldn’t tell you which sequences were recorded on which day any more! It’s just one long terrifying story…
greydog: We’d better let you get some rest. Many thanks for your time – you are, of course, now our favourite audio producer – and we thoroughly enjoyed immersing ourselves in Dracula. We also hope that you’ll keep in touch over anything you do on the dark and supernatural side.
You can buy Dracula here:
And Scott has since promised to come back and talk about the final series of his Confessions of Dorian Gray production in the autumn, so we might go Dorian-mad later in the year.
Back in a couple of days, and do subscribe if you want to know when we have a new feature out. Take care out there…