Count Dracula (Phillip Saville, 1977)
So, onwards with our journey through the cinematic world of Bram Stoker’s Vampire Count, with a look at the BBC’s first adaptation, from 1977. Sadly, I have to start on a negative. The one thing that lets down the BBC’s sterling archive of literary output more than anything else, in my opinion, is the medium of professional videotape. To a modern audience it makes the otherwise sublime look unfortunately cheap.
That problem was one I could see here, alongside some unfortunately dated video effects. Overall, however, this TV version stands strong against the more lavish or classic product.
Louis Jordan is a surprising choice to play the Count, but proves quite effective, using charm and manners as an effective and manipulative veneer. Also in the cast are a pre- Clash of the Titans Judi Bowker, and a pre-Emmerdale Susan Penhaligon, both of whom turn in very watchable performances. Frank Finlay is also more than fine as Van Helsing, but elsewhere the performances are not as strong. Richard Barnes’ turn as Quincy is often unintentionally corny, with a rather amusing American accent. Barnes’ role is actually a combination of the characters of Quincy and Arthur Holmwood ).
What makes this version a little different is the often surreal style chosen. Superimposed and negative images occur at regular intervals, and occasionally become a little annoying and distracting. The whole production also has the look of a stage production, and often looks directed as such, presumably because of the BBC’s usual tradition in mounting such stories. The production design is pleasing throughout (courtesy of Michael Young), and the serial occasionally gets surprisingly bloody, not a given for a BBC adaptation, where one would expect more restraint. Saying that, this is one of the less blatantly horrific Dracula adaptations, preferring to spend more time with the characters. Sadly, I’m not convinced it adds much more to the story than any previous version. On the plus side, this is a very faithful adaptation of the book (although curiously, not with regards to Dracula himself, who has much more in common with the Lugosi/Lee personification, even managing to be even more urbane and well mannered).
The whole production is lovely to watch, with its typical BBC verve in the face of a limited budget, and is perfect for curling up for a viewing next to an open fire with a mug of cocoa in one’s hands. But despite having the traditional appeal of a good ghost story, Count Dracula occasionally drags on a little too long and doesn’t always use its length to its advantage, leaving us with a version that is perhaps too padded and unexceptional to warrant regular viewings.