Thursday, April 25, 2013

Big Finish presents: THE NIGHT WHISPERS


In 2010, Big Finish Productions, a U.K. company specializing in "audio dramas" based on cult television programs (among other things) achieved the impossible: Coaxing actor JONATHAN FRID out of retirement to play vampire Barnabas Collins.

Frid had kept busy in the years since DARK SHADOWS ended with a variety of stage efforts, working mostly whenever the mood struck him. But, he left the role of Barnabas Collins behind when the series went off the air in 1970 and that, it seemed, was that. Interviews granted later in life didn't suggest he had any particular interest in returning to DARK SHADOWS in a professional capacity, so the announcement that he was taking part in a Big Finish drama was a surprise, to say the least.

Titled THE NIGHT WHISPERS, the episode re-teamed Frid with his friend JOHN KARLEN in the role of Willie Loomis, as well as cult actress (and Dark Shadows "revival" alumnus) BARBARA STEELE as the episode's antagonist. The recording would go on to win a Rondo Hatton award.

This week, I thought I'd gather together some of the COLLINSPORT HISTORICAL SOCIETY's Board of Trustees to talk about the landmark recording. It's not the entire board, but there was enough for a quorum: WALLACE McBRIDE (that's me!) PATRICK McCRAY, DAVID-ELIJAH NAHMOD and FRANK JAY GRUBER.

*

WALLACE: I’m always surprised THE NIGHT WHISPERS doesn’t get more love from DARK SHADOWS fans. Historically, the Cult of Jonathan Frid has been dismissive of the actor playing any role other than Barnabas Collins. I’ve read stories of fans skipping his spoken-word performances in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but still asking him to sign their DARK SHADOWS merch after the show. Where were these people when THE NIGHT WHISPERS was released? I’m sure it’s one of the best-selling DARK SHADOWS audio dramas from BIG FINISH, but I’ve rarely seen anybody discussing it online.

Is the audio drama medium too alien for fans, or do they just not care about anything Collinwood-related that was made after 1971?

PATRICK: I'm not sure it was very well advertised by Big Finish.  Nor did they make an attempt to weave it into a larger story involving more cast members ... odd because audio production gives you such freedom. 

The performance, itself, is also something that would fail to generate much buzz. Mr. Frid sounded, frankly, bored by the piece.  I hate to say it, but I can understand why. 

I think that if it had a story with the mythic power of KINGDOM OF THE DEAD, the rambunctiousness of OPERATION VICTOR, or the pathos of THE BLIND PAINTER, fans would have set the internet on fire. I've listened to it a number of times, including yesterday, and I can barely remember what happened. This was an actor who might not have been at the height of his vigor but was in full control of the richness and nuance of the language.  When I hear it, I kinda like it, but I don't rave about it.  I feel vaguely guilty about that, too.  I want to love it.  I really do.  But I just... like it.
 
DAVID: I've heard fans say they wanted 60-ish Frid play Barnabas in 1991, and even a few say they can't watch any DS incarnation that doesn't star the original 1960s cast.

There are marked differences between James Whale's Frankenstein (1931) and Terence Fisher's Curse of Frankenstein (1957), and that's good.

Why would anyone want to watch the same thing over and over to the exclusion of everything else?
Variety is the spice of life, and THE NIGHT WHISPERS offers a nice look at the Barnabas/Willie relationship years later.

I for one would like to know how our iconic characters fared in the years to come.

FRANK: I listened to THE NIGHT WHISPERS again while driving to prepare for this roundtable. There is a Barnabas line that made me pull over just to jot it down. It encapsulates my feelings about this Big Finish release perfectly: “Fate plays cruel tricks on those who remember."

We all recall what Jonathan sounded like in his prime on the series, a distinctive delivery and cadence that makes his vocal performance on this release all the more jarring. He no longer sounded like Barnabas Collins by 2010 when this recording was made in Canada. Unlike John Karlen, who always seems to slip effortlessly and convincingly into his sixties Willie Loomis performance, Frid is almost unrecognizable. At the 2011 Dark Shadows Festival I asked the audio’s writer, Stuart Manning, if he was disturbed by the changes in Frid’s voice. It could not have been how he imagined Barnabas saying the lines when he wrote them. Manning was very diplomatic and naturally reluctant to say anything negative about the icon speaking in the next room. All he would admit was that it was unfortunate they didn’t get to record Jonathan a few years earlier.

In the CD liner notes, Frid says “I’d always resisted the idea of playing Barnabas again, in the years since Dark Shadows ended. But having watched some of those old shows recently through fresh eyes ... the idea of revisiting Barnabas in an older incarnation on audio had me intrigued.” Big Finish made it as appealing and convenient as possible by recording Frid’s material in Ontario — without John Karlen even being present. What we have in THE NIGHT WHISPERS is essentially two actors a country apart reading lines without benefit of the other performer to react to. Through the supernatural medium of editing, the original Barnabas and Willie are finally reunited — but the vitality of our familiar characters is muted by the exigencies of the recording method. In their U.K. studios, Big Finish actually places actors in separate booths during recording, but they usually get to fraternize and presumably run lines in the green room to nail down their approaches. On their Doctor Who releases they even conduct post-recording interviews with the actors and include them on the CDs. Who knows what magic might have occurred if Johnny and Jonathan had actually been in the same studio?


WALLACE: For better or worse, I don't have especially strong feelings about THE NIGHT WHISPERS. I don't love it, and I don't hate it ... but the cast has a certain amount of magic that makes it impossible to dismiss. You're all correct in pointing out the story's missed opportunities, but just getting Frid and Karlen together again (no matter how artificially) for one last hurrah is an amazing feat. At the time of the recording, neither man was especially well, so it seems impractical (if not dangerous) to get these men living in different countries together for an hour-long recording. And, given Frid's temperament late in life, trying to direct him and another actor long-distance via something like Skype wouldn't have been a good idea, either. From a performance perspective, this is about the best anyone could hope for from either actor.

And, while Frid never sounds like the Barnabas we remember in this episode, his voice still had a great amount of power and charisma.

I just realized nobody's mentioned Barbara Steele, yet. While the decision to use yet another disembodied voice as the story's antagonist wasn't terribly inspired, Steele is always a welcome presence. Was there some reason they didn't go with Lara Parker, though? Was it a budgetary concern?


PATRICK: I have no idea, but the absence of Ms. Parker is awfully saddening.  I don't think there was anything odd going on, but hell, I would have been happy to have heard Ms. Steele as Angelique than to not feature that iconic character.  Or have her as Angelique's mom or something.  Or Naomi's ghost. Something to really tie it to the mythos.

With Star Trek: The Continuing Mission, I got a lot of experience directing separate voice actors for a UK-assembled show.  It's not as easy as having everyone in the same room, but it's not that hard.  LOTS of voice work is done that way.  I have no idea how cantankerous Mr. Frid was, but there is a simple way for a voice director to get what they need from even the most irascible of actors.  It's a magical incantation.  It goes like this, "I have no idea what Johnny Karlen may do with the part.  Mr. Frid, would you give me the line several different ways so that we're covered?  It'll be fun to see what these lines can do."
It's like giving a dog a jar of peanut butter.  Actors, especially good ones with a script in front of them, comfy chair, a free afternoon, a hot pot of tea, and a nearby corned beef sandwich will get both comfortable and bored pretty quickly.  But theatre is all about "hurry up and wait," so bored and impatient are two separate animals.
Also, this phrase might have been good, "That sounded great. What would a more mid-Atlantic Barnabas sound like?  The producers are British, and I think it would be interesting." Actors like to flex their acting muscles.  Even grumpy ones.  That's why they're actors.  Words like "try" are golden. 
The ultimate issue for me is not the age of Mr. Frid's voice.  It's the accent.  He had even remarked a few years before about how Barnabas sounded different than the -- his words -- "flat, Canadian accent."
I'm going to needle the script a bit more because of that.  I feel bad doing this because it must have been intimidating to write, but still ... it also could have been exhilarating.  I think if the script had higher stakes that really furthered the DS story, we would have gotten a better performance.  It just would have been more fun to act.  Yes, it answers some questions about Barnabas, but they were not questions anyone asked.  This is the opposite of HAUNTED REFRAIN, which addresses the Grant Douglas issue. So that's why it's a letdown for me.... and I suspect Mr. Frid.

DAVID: I though the story began well, with a nice look at the genuine camaraderie that Willie & Barnabas came to enjoy in the future. Frid's voice was still strong, but the gravelly pitch in his voice sounded odd. Story wise, THE NIGHT WHISPERS is OK, as a stand alone tale. But I'm going to assume that it's another parallel time story, perhaps set in an all new time band.

The implications that Joshua Collins' sins are what brought all that supernatural despair on the family directly contradicts established canon from the TV series, in which it was clearly stated that the family's curse began with Judah Zachary.

FRANK: I sincerely doubt the 85 year-old Frid was inclined to sit through numerous takes and accept persnickety direction. Tantrums of the famous Orson Welles variety might soon have erupted. As it stands, as David points out, some of the Barnabas/Willie character moments are remarkably evocative and well-scripted, even if the overall story itself is a bit predictable. For me, the moment Willie started being uncharacteristically demanding and assertive with Barnabas telegraphed the remaining plot twists.

We should probably just be grateful for what THE NIGHT WHISPERS represents. Yes, it would have been wonderful to have Jonathan join Kathryn, Lara, and the rest in one of those multi-cast audio epics of the Return to Collinwood or Kingdom of the Dead variety, but this was not to be. As it is, even taking into account the sometimes lackluster interplay between Frid and Karlen—acting more reminiscent of a staged reading than a proper audio drama — THE NIGHT WHISPERS is an absolutely essential purchase for any fan of Classic Dark Shadows. Jonathan Frid returns to the role of Barnabas Collins for the first time in almost 40 years. If that tag line is not enough to get your blood spurting quicker, to make you succumb to Big Finish’s search for plunder and unchain your wallet, then you are simply not a true fan. Besides that headline, there are other rewards to be found here. Stuart Manning’s script features some nicely subtle nods to series enthusiasts, which we should not spoil here, and I still argue his work was a bit ill-served by the production’s circumstances. In Manning’s imagination, and even on paper, he did recapture more than a few glimmers of the true Dark Shadows spirit.

“Fate plays cruel tricks on those who remember" may indeed serve as a caution for longtime fans, but is also a brilliant description of our eternally forlorn Barnabas Collins. How wonderful it is that Jonathan Frid, even at age 85, had the opportunity to again speak such words.


About the Collinsport Historical Society Board of Trustees:

FRANK JAY GRUBER is a freelance writer and college instructor in the New York City area. He has covered genre fandom and the convention beat for TrekMovie.com and trade publications. In 2012, CNN interviewed him about Star Trek and utilized him as a source for their coverage of Jonathan Frid’s death. You can read his very occasional reviews and musings at thewearyprofessor.com and follow him on Twitter @FrankJayGruber.

PATRICK McCRAY is a well known comic book author who resides in Knoxville, Tenn., where he's been a drama coach and general nuisance since 1997. He has a MFA in Directing and worked at Revolutionary Comics and on the early days of BABYLON 5. You can find him at The Collins Foundation.

DAVID-ELIJAH NAHMOD is an American/Israeli half-breed who has lived in New York City and Tel Aviv, where he managed to get several Israelis hooked on DS via screening VHS tapes. Currently in San Francisco, his eclectic writing career includes horror movie mags, LGBT publications, and Times of Israel. Find him on Facebook.

6 comments:

Melissa said...

"He no longer sounded like Barnabas Collins by 2010 when this recording was made in Canada. Unlike John Karlen, who always seems to slip effortlessly and convincingly into his sixties Willie Loomis performance, Frid is almost unrecognizable. At the 2011 Dark Shadows Festival I asked the audio’s writer, Stuart Manning, if he was disturbed by the changes in Frid’s voice. It could not have been how he imagined Barnabas saying the lines when he wrote them. Manning was very diplomatic and naturally reluctant to say anything negative about the icon speaking in the next room. All he would admit was that it was unfortunate they didn’t get to record Jonathan a few years earlier."

That's how I feel about the narration Vincent Price did for Phantom Manor, and for his performance in the video version of Ruddigore. I'm glad he got the chance to do them, but it's so frustrating, and almost painful, to see and hear them knowing how much better they would have been if they'd been done even a few years earlier.

I don't know, I've just never been able to get into the DS audio dramas. Maybe it's for the same reason - they're different enough from the original series to be their own thing, which makes it unsettling to have the same actors involved.

Anonymous said...

I had mentioned many years ago { more than 20 years} that Dark Shadows had a gold mine of stories yet to tell to a higher up I will not mention the name - my idea was looked upon as insanity! Of course Now I was proven right , I got the idea because of the Doctor Who drama's - Jon Pertwee was on of the first to do this .Also when Jonathan Frid and some of the other cast read one of the DS books on tape that was another inspiration, but I digress. Anyway they waited too long for all of these audio drama's but mostly everyone else still sounds the same!It was great and a true shock that Jonathan Frid returned as Barnabas one more time. Yes his voice was ravaged by time - but he still had it, and more than a few times during the story he sounded almost the same. Again if they had done it just 6 ,seven years before it would have made a big difference! But still it was him -that is all that matters!!!

Cousin Barnabas said...

Some of the episodes are certainly better than others. I'd recommend two: The Crimson Pearl (which has tons of the original cast) and The House by the Sea, a one-man show by dormer Doctor Who, Colin Baker. I'm actually quite fond of them.

The Quentin Collins adventures are pretty good, too, but my favorite of them is The Skin Walkers.

Jay Allen Sanford said...

I have to admit I was quite startled at how ravaged Frid's voice was: not quite Jack Klugman-ravaged, but somewhat akin. It took almost half the show before my mind was able to reconcile that it was actually Jonathan Frid I was listening to.

That said, his performance is quite stellar – even the cadence sounds different than his younger self, but he eventually drew me into the story, or rather his series of reflective monologues, which is mostly what the CD contains. Karlen’s Willie is mainly there just to bounce dialogue off, and it’s comical when poor ol’ Willie tries to interject one of his own flashbacks (“Yeah, that reminds me of….”), only to have Barnabas cut him off with the impatience of someone who has very little time left to “share.”

At least he didn't resort to whacking Willie with his wolfhead cane yet again (nobody, but nobody, could beat their Willie like old Barney!)

Barbara Steele's character is basically a narrative utility here, albeit one lovely to listen to, especially compared to the hoarse (night)whispers of Karlen and Frid.

As Frid spoke, I couldn’t help but picture in my mind the rapidly-aged Barnabas of House of Dark Shadows. Which was all the more off putting because his character here doesn’t appear to be late in his mortal life. He speaks of many hopeful things for the future, even tho he sounds for all the world like a man practice-reading his last will and testament.

All in all, it was a thrill to finally hear Jonathan Frid as Barnabas one more time, 40 years later. Though I’ve never felt the full weight of those 40 years quite so much as I did listening to him.

Mad Margaret said...

This is the first (well, only) DS audiodrama I've listened to, just to hear Karlen and Frid "together" again. Don't know when it's supposed to take place but one might assume it many years down the road and they're two old guys living in an old house.

Sounds pretty boring: "Willie, stoke the fire, take out the trash..." Thank God a ghost finally shows up. I wanted them to say: "Did you hear that?" "I didn't hear nuthin'." "Then turn up your hearing aid, dammit."

So the old guy voices didn't bother me much, although Frid sounds like he's reading sometimes. Karlen is spot on in parts, but towards the end his voice gets hoarse and tired.

Barbara Steele sounds very good, but I have to wonder why her Creole Celeste has an English accent instead of French. And when her character possesses Willie, he goes from Southern to neither English nor French but straight American. Barnabas' accent must be due to Maine's close proximity to Canada.

Now, the plot. Why was everyone so scandalized that a man took advantage of a slave? That was not uncommon. Perhaps the slave owner would have been upset if you took his property without permission. Anyway the girl (who was justifiably put out) places a curse on the party and that imagry was very nice at times--it always takes longer than you think (to die).

Afterwards Willie gets all in Barnabas' face for killing his friend. Hello? Maybe because it was (we presume) the first time, but Barnabas has killed lots of folks. That was his job. If Willie is going to get snitty over every single murder, they're going to be at it another 40 years.

Mad Margaret said...

I saw that Ruddigore also and thought, why is Vincent Price playing this role? I mean, I understand why, but really, why? I thought he did an admirable job, though, considering he was way too old.

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