Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Dark Shadows: A 50th Anniversary Appreciation


Dark Shadows is such a huge part of my life that it seems strange to think that just a few years ago I’d never even heard of it.

In 2006, my then-flatmate Stuart Manning told me how he had been approved by Big Finish Productions to produce a series of audios based on some old television series Dark Shadows. I congratulated him but had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. I listened to those first few releases and enjoyed them even if I was unsure as to who the characters in it were. I got the basics and enjoyed the atmosphere so I asked to watch episode one of the TV series. And… I didn’t get it. I’ve since gone back and watched it and I think it’s a genuinely brilliant piece of television but back then I just must not have been in the right mood. A while later I asked him to show me an episode that was a bit more… fun. Maybe in colour? He showed me Episode 701.

And it’s no exaggeration to say that it changed my life. I loved it. All I needed to know was that this vampire Barnabas had gone back in time to stop this guy Quentin from becoming an evil ghost (which is already a plot summary every television series should be aiming for). Magda and Sandor were amazing. I instantly fell in love with Quentin. I loved Judith and Edward. I especially loved Edward’s moustache acting. And so we kept watching. Night after night. And now, ten years later, I’ve nearly seen all of the TV series once and more than half of it twice.

I think the joy of Dark Shadows is that the imagination behind it is astonishing. They never play it safe. Actors play more than one role (sometimes in the same episode). What are we going to do with Quentin so he’s not a ghost? Let’s make him a werewolf! No, let’s make him immortal! Let’s do both! And give him a girlfriend who’s actually a painting come to life? Yeah! Bit bored of 1897 now… No problem, we’ll send Barnabas back to the present day… but we’ll do Invasion of the Bodysnatchers while we’re there! But won’t we still be trying to find out if that bloke really is Quentin? Don’t worry, Julia can cope with more than one storyline at the same time! Bit bored of the current set-up? We’ll open an upstairs door and reveal a parallel universe in the next room. Should we just go through the door? No, we’ll finish off these storylines (remember, we still need to find and get rid of ex-antiques shop owner, Leviathan possessed vampire Megan Todd) but we’ll have characters watch the beginnings of the parallel universe storyline over a few episodes before stepping through…

Scott Haran as Harry Cunningham, Walles Hamonde as Cody Hill, Alexandra Donnachie as Jacqueline Tate and Michael Shon as Tom Cunningham
It’s just brilliant. But obviously it couldn’t last. I sometimes dream about there being a modern-day television version of Dark Shadows but I’m just not sure it could work. Executives would be worried about confusing the audience. People would expect higher production values. (My attitude is sod production values – look at Joan Bennett having a whale of a time playing an evil possessed Elizabeth or Nancy Barrett playing Charity Trask possessed by Pansy Faye! Who cares if there’s a boom in shot?) You just wouldn’t get a performance like Grayson Hall as Julia Hoffman on television today. I quite enjoy the 90s remake of Dark Shadows but it’s not the same. I think the problem is it feels like lots of other television shows in a way that the original doesn’t. The original is a unique, brilliant, bonkers thing and I adore it.

These days, I’m co-producing the audio continuation of that bonkers thing. It’s honestly the best (and hardest) job. I don’t think we could ever hope to quite match the television series but I know we try our hardest to. We’ve continued the storylines of various characters and we’ve moved things on and I think we’re doing rather okay actually. However, I think the one time we’ve come closest to matching the craziness of the television series was when we were devising our miniseries Bloodlust. We’d featured the character of Amy Jennings in our 1970s set stories and we wanted to bring her into the main 1980s set series. We also wanted to bring some more teenagers into the ongoing stories. We created a Sheriff and gave her a daughter. Through that daughter we could meet another kid so that gave us two. But if we could give Amy kids that would be perfect! We could create the next generation of the Jennings’ family! Just one problem, she wouldn’t be old enough. So we gave her a stepson – which gave us three teenagers but we really wanted a fourth. And we sat trying to think of sensible logical ways we could give Amy another teenager to be a mother to. Perhaps a long-lost cousin, something like that?. We got close to giving up and nearly gave the Sheriff two kids.

Then we remembered that this is Dark Shadows. Dark Shadows doesn’t do sensible. Dark Shadows doesn’t do bland. Dark Shadows doesn't do what the other drama serials do! So we gave Amy an 18-month-old baby and had Angelique age him up to 18-years-old because she was annoyed with his Dad. Baby Tommy became Tom Cunningham. A new teenager for Collinsport. A new generation for the Collins/Jennings family. Oh, and of course, as the first born son of one of Quentin’s descendants, Tom would have the werewolf’s curse. It was silly. It made us laugh. But if we played it straight it would have so much dramatic potential. And we realized it was something they hadn’t done in the TV series but that it was exactly the sort of thing they would have done.

I like to think that Dan Curtis, without who none of this would have happened, would have approved of that.

Joseph has written scripts for radio and television, including episodes of Torchwood, The Sarah Jane Adventures, Wizards Vs. Aliens and Millie, Inbetween. In 2012 his first stage play, Nice Sally, made it to the finals of the Off Cut Theatre Festival. He has also written a number of Doctor Who, Torchwood and Dark Shadows audio dramas. You can find him on twitter at twitter.com/joelidster

No comments:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...