It won’t all be tinsel and Aled Jones on TV this festive season, to balance out the sweetness, BBC One has prepared us a dread delight in the form of a new adaptation of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula. It comes from Sherlock creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, who’ve turned their attention from the most-filmed fictional character of all time to the second most-filmed fictional character of all time (“As we work our way down the list of plagiarism,” joked Moffat at the series launch).
What kind of adaptation is it? One that’s both funny and horrifying, paying homage to what’s gone before while delivering a swaggeringly confident new take on the source material – which is more varied than one might think, as Moffat pointed out at the launch.
“Dracula is an odd one because the book is not the only source text by any means. The play based on the book is what leads to the movie with Bela Lugosi and so on. Our notion of Dracula is formed actually slightly post the book. The tall handsome character with the cape comes from the play and the film.”
Here’s a spoiler-free look at what else the creators shared about the new BBC three-parter at the launch…
It all started with Sherlock
The seed for this drama came from Mark Gatiss showing then-BBC commissioner Ben Stephenson a photograph from the set of Sherlock in 2013 in which Benedict Cumberbatch’s character was seen in silhouette with his coat collar turned up behind Mrs Hudson’s glass door. “He looks like Dracula, doesn’t he?” said Gatiss, to which Stephenson replied “Do you want to do it?”
Not only is Dracula a Moffat/Gatiss creation, there’s also a huge amount of crossover from the Sherlock team, including production designer extraordinaire Arwel Jones, and composers David Arnold and Michael Price (more on the score here).
And look out for a Sherlock Easter Egg in episode one too.
It was never going to be a modernised version
“We really wanted it to be the original with Romania and the mountains and the castle,” says producer Sue Vertue.
“Things go in big cycles, adds Mark Gatiss. “We’ve been through so many iterations of the sort of Twilight vampires and somehow it just felt right to be able to do big castles and moonlight and capes again!”
It’s three 90-minute films
Following the same format as the Sherlock series, Dracula comprises three feature-length episodes. As Sue Vertue explained, the format appeals because “It’s making three proper films and the directors can have their 90-minute film and do what they want with it really, and you can get a lot of story in there as well.” The three episode directors are Jonny Campbell (In The Flesh, Doctor Who), Paul McGuigan (Sherlock, Luke Cage) and Damon Thomas (Killing Eve, Penny Dreadful).
Steven Moffat added, “The three films are very different. We’re not actually attempting to make them all the same. We’re not saying ‘you’re the next director, do it like that’. Sherlock was more consciously styled in one way, I guess, but this is quite different each time.”
Keeping horror weird
“There are some really really weird things in this,” said co-creator Mark Gatiss, “and I’m very proud of that.” Gatiss maintains that horror should be transgressive and never safe or comforting. “Horror, over time becomes very cosy, it’s an interesting cycle. Dracula and Frankenstein, within ten years were meeting up in Abbott and Costello, they’d become burlesque.” Expect the gruesome and unsettling.
Dracula’s disappearing moustache
A little-known fact to those who’ve never read Bram Stoker’s original Dracula novel – the title character is written as having a moustache, described by Steven Moffat as “the least successful facial hair in history! He has a moustache in the book! Nobody has ever given a fuck about that. [Laughter] James Bond has a scar in the Ian Fleming books on his face, not even on the book jackets did he have that. It just tells you as a creator, no matter what you say, Dracula does not have a moustache.”
That said, they did try a moustache, says lead Claes Bang “for about five seconds” before deciding “no.”
Sex toys in the SFX
In one memorable sequences, Dracula bursts his way through a dripping membrane, a special effect created by specialist make-up, creature and prosthetics effects artists Dave and Lou Elsey, who clearly think outside the box when it comes to materials. Confirmed by Mark Gatiss at the launch: “The embryonic sac that Dracula pushes through is literally made from melted-down sex toys,” specifically ‘Flesh Lights’, which contained the only latex flexible enough for the effect. It took 80 of them in total, apparently. “It’s not going to look good on Hartswood’s accounting, is it?” joked Hartswood Films producer Sue Vertue.
Expect to laugh
When episode one director Jonny Campbell revisited the Hammer Dracula films, he noted that they were all quite earnest (even though now they might take on a humorous quality) and didn’t contain much humour. This version, as described by Q&A host Boyd Hilton, is “incredibly funny and horrible and terrifying at the same time.”
Steven Moffat explained the writers’ approach: “We have the same feeling that if a scene isn’t anything else, it should be funny. It’s a fantastic way of burying plot information in a joke, because people don’t notice information if you’re told it in joke form, but also, you really set people up for a sucker punch if you make them laugh fondly and then [commit a spoilery violent act] [Laughter]”
Gatiss added, “And what you have to give [Dracula] is a personality which spans four centuries. If you are immortal, effectively, I should hope to God you’ve got a sense of humour!”
Danish actor Claes Bang’s otherness
“One of the biggest influences was the 1977 Louis Jourdan version, which was absolutely superb, very, very faithful,” said Mark Gatiss. “It’s a very canny piece of casting because he is early 50s and he’s a matinee idol but he’s very particularly not British. In fact, he’s very French, he’s a very French Romanian! He has an otherness and we were looking for an otherness and Claes has it in spades. He’s incredibly tall, dark, handsome and other.”
When Moffat saw Bang’s picture, he thought, “Well that’s Dracula, we’re done. He’s Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee’s lovechild.” Seeing the Danish actor’s name circled on the prospective casting sheet prompted Bang to reply in mock outrage “I got picked for having a funny name?!”.
Moffat joked in reply, “You’re the second one!”
Back to the cinematic source
Around a day of filming was done at Orava Castle in Slovakia, a location used in the original 1922 black and white Nosferatu film, where Mark Gatiss had visited in his In Search Of Dracula documentary (airing this Christmas on BBC Two). The castle’s vast, labyrinthine interiors were recreated on an enormous set by designer Arwel Jones.
Dracula is “bi-homicidal”
“Dracula’s always fed off men and women, always,” said Steven Moffat. “In the 1958 Hammer, the person that Christopher Lee looks most turned on by is Peter Cushing.” But, adds Moffat, “He’s not actually having sex with anyone, he’s drinking their blood, he’s bi-homicidal […] He’s killing them, he’s not dating them!”
Making Count Dracula an anti-hero
“The big challenge we set ourselves was to make Dracula the central character of his own story for the first time,” said Mark Gatiss. “If you know the book, he’s in the first third and then hardly in it again. He’s obviously very shadowy and we thought what’s it like if he’s – as it were – the antihero?”
That’s what they set about doing, uncovering what lies beneath the rules of the Count and building up his personality. “He’s a connoisseur,” continues Gatiss, “he has the discrimination of an aristocrat. You don’t want him to be just a shadowy presence, that’s been done brilliantly many times.”
Dracula airs on BBC One at 9pm on consecutive nights from January 1st to 3rd, and then afterwards on Netflix.