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Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Dracula

In a post titled What I Learned in 2009 I promised I'd tell of my experience adapting Bram Stoker's classic novel for BBC Wales. Much as I'd like to say that I had a flood of emails urging me to go ahead, I haven't. But you're getting it anyway.

(Nope, that's not it in the picture - that's the milestone Gerald Savory-scripted version starring Louis Jourdain. This is not a Happy Ending story. Read on.)

I'd wanted to do a period macabre piece for some time. I had a project called Victorian Gothic which had been in development twice, once with Zenith and once with the BBC, and both times it had been polished up to production-readiness by the Drama department only to be passed-over by the Channel Controller.

The last time that happened, the word came back to me, No one will greenlight an original drama in a period setting. The writing was fine, they said. They loved the story, they said. But they'd only consider a period piece if it was an adaptation.

So I looked around for some seminal work in the genre that had never been adapted before, and that Christmas I spent the holiday period looking for the screen story in Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho.

I cracked it, too. Which to anyone who knows the book is the literary equivalent of unravelling the structure of DNA. But this time the word was, No adaptations that aren't already familiar to an audience.

The penny finally dropped. Our broadcasters were no longer in the adaptation business. They were in the remake business.

At which point Archie Tait (long-time friend and executive producer on Chimera, who knew of what I was trying to do) suggested I look at Dracula.

Dracula had been one of the texts underlying Victorian Gothic - Bram Stoker was a key character in that story, whose elements would eventually serve me in The Kingdom of Bones - so I'd absorbed it pretty well.

I took to the idea immediately. My argument was that nobody had 'done' the book properly since Gerald Savory's 1970s adaptation. Dracula is a work that's often plundered and rarely honoured. My proposal was to give the novel the full weight of a BBC classic adaptation, a reference-quality rendering of the book. All those great in-house BBC skills serving Stoker's vision, not just co-opting his work to serve a vision of one's own.

For some reason, Stoker never gets the respect that's automatically accorded to an Austen, an Eliot, or a Hardy, maybe because he wrote an instinctive classic rather than a cerebral one. Things would have to change in my proposal, as in adaptations they always do. But the guiding motivation would always be the question, What was Stoker getting at, here?

I won't insult you by explaining how the novel is a collage of second-hand perceptions, cast in the form of letters, journals, and dictated notes from the principal characters. This means that the character of Count Dracula is offstage for much of the novel, which adds to his mystery and enhances his credibility.

You don't get Count Dracula's version of the events. It's there in Stoker and you can work it out by a kind of literary triangulation, but I've never seen it done and still come out as Stoker. Dracula's role gets rewritten, as if his character somehow isn't integral, nor needs to be rendered with any fidelity to the author. What we mostly get is either a romantic rapist or, if the makers want to signal that they've seen Nosferatu, a hideous cockroach. Rarely has anyone made a serious attempt to show us Stoker's nasty-minded empty-hearted predator, who insists to his dissipated party-girl 'brides' that he's capable of love, and then goes on to prove at great length that he isn't.

I went straight to script and wrote the first hour. Didn't even make a plan, just saw the way and went for it. Archie took that to BBC Wales and we got a commission. I got stuck into the second hour, and somewhere along the way the contracts turned up and I signed them.

So far, so good. Then came the touchy stuff. I'm told that on the day I was set to deliver, a - now departed - drama exec in London heard of a proposed ITV version over lunch and cancelled our project that same afternoon. We had a completed script, we were way ahead. But the news took over a week to reach Archie and me, during which time the producers of the ITV project got out an announcement to the press, effectively 'bombing the BBC's boat'.

Archie had a call from BBC Business Affairs trying to get out of payment, on the basis that I'd signed my side of the contract but they hadn't signed theirs. My agent complained to the Drama department and the manoeuver was quickly scotched, but it left a nasty taste that remains with me to this day. It felt like the first sign of a form of 'attitude rot' that has surfaced in other ways since... that where writers are weak, that's to be taken advantage of. I was reminded of it when I heard that BBC Films are now inserting a non-union clause into some of their writer contracts.

It was a really unpleasant time in which a 'go' project got cut off at the knees. The script had to go through a complete resubmission process, at the end of which the Drama department felt that the competition had picked up too much of a lead.

ITV's version appeared to be a dead duck by the end of the summer - it had been conceived as a vehicle for one of their 'golden handcuffs' former soap stars, and I heard the actor in question pointedly distancing himself from it in a radio interview with Simon Mayo on BBC Five Live.

Schadenfreude, you may think. But there's a coda. About two years on, the BBC financed ITV's version and screened it as their own, with an all-new cast. I made a point of wishing it well (on my website, in those pre-blog days) and didn't watch. Since I never saw it I can't offer any opinion as to whether the production was worthy of the BBC, but you'll find the complete spectrum of viewer responses here.

I told you it wasn't a Happy Ending story. Unless you count the fact that I was asked my permission for the Dracula script to be used to teach structure on the BBC script editors' course. Which is more ironic than happy, I suppose.

My real disappointment didn't come from working hard and long for no reward, or from seeing yet another project shot down at such a late stage - both of those things have happened to me more often than I can count. It's par for the course.

But this was the BBC. You expect more.

10 comments:

English Dave said...

It is sad but true that the hierachy of the BBC,and therefore the decision makers, is stuffed with execs who are clueless as to understanding drama or creatives. Given that the bean counters are firmly in control I doubt if that situation will be rectified any time soon and the prime time drama will largely remain the turgid soaps.

The writers academy? A BBC policy to teach writers to write more of the same.

Good Dog said...

Oh good grief. I saw that BBC version (or rather, BBC-financed ITV version). All I can remember of it was it wasn’t good and the piece was woefully miscast.

So... they passed over your script, made the other version, and then used your script to teach their script editors structure...

If there’s a logic to that... nah, I can’t see it.

Brian Sibley said...

I would say that is an amazing story, if I didn't know (and, indeed, have lived through) similar horror stories.

I am fascinated by your observations on Dracula (the book and the character) and, agree that no one has nailed (if you'll pardon the pun) either the Count or Stoker's extraordinary, ground-breaking mode of storytelling.

I have been toying with a new stage adaptation (no finance anywhere so can only work on it when I've no paid work - and then, of course, I'm paranoid because I haven't paid work!) but I hope to get there some time and at least try to find a new (or different) way of making theatrical sense of a book that never ceases to haunt my imagination.

I hope we get to see your version - one day...

Stephen Gallagher said...

I thought Jimmy Sangster's 1958 adaptation/condensation for Hammer managed to remain faithful to the spirit while being creative with the material - Lee's Dracula was elegant and vicious, and Sangster's more radical changes served the screen storytelling form even though they were a departure from the text. Van Helsing making the cross from candlesticks was as superb coup de cinema, imho.

Gerald Savory's version offers the closest reading of the novel that I've seen, but by contrast his ending sticks closer to the book and doesn't really work.

Chris Kendall said...

Hey Stephen, its Chris from the other week (the pub :D ) Forgive me for contacting you through here but iv'e had trouble remembering the email you gave me. Just wanted to say thanks again for your time and for parting some quality insights into the writing world which I'm still going over now. You are the first writer iv'e had the pleasure to meet and its given me plenty to consider now I'm finishing up with all this uni lark.

And I'm following your blog now lol. So i think it's time i started mine back up again!

Talk soon

Chris

Stephen Gallagher said...

Advice is freely given, but any insights are entirely your own!

Tim said...

And here I am *trying* to get into TV writing. Madness...

Steve, it's been a while! Any risk of you making it to British Fantasy this year, or even World Fantasy in Brighton?

Stephen Gallagher said...

Impossible for me to say right now. Mongo but a pawn in the game of life.

Audrey Deux said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ellen Gallagher said...

BBC now tend to sign their agreements before sending them to the writer for signature in these days of PDFs being accepted in place of hard copies. So at least there's no chance of that specific argument being tried again!