I mentioned in my memoir about Doctor Who, Blue Box Boy, that I had a sneaking affection for the old American day time soap Dark Shadows, which ran for five years at the end of the sixties. I had never seen it, though I had heard of it, until I found myself living in America, where it was being recycled at an ungodly hour. It’s easy to take the piss out of, with its wobbling sets and its glacially slow pace and the struggles of its actors to remember lines, but once you appreciate the circumstances under which Dark Shadows was made – the programmes were recorded as live, five days a week – you begin to recognize that the cast were doing rather wonderful work.
Many of the central characters – Barnabas Collins, Quentin Collins, Julia Hoffman, Willie Loomis, even the witch Angelique in her evil way – have an authentic note of the tragic. The series began as a rip-off of Jane Eyre, and there is something mini-Bronteish to these damaged people, living day to day, year to year, even century to century, with a kind of dignity. What I admire about the series is its weirdly unflinching sense that nothing can ever be put right. There are moments of calm, the consolation of occasional sex, but these are impermanent. The characters are cripples who have to find a way to live with their condition.
(There are some subtextual elements which I strongly dislike. Women in their late teens and early twenties always fall head over heels in love with men in their forties, and – much more troubling – women who express the slightest interest in non-marital sex, prostitutes and non-prostitutes alike, unfailingly die violently before the end of the episode.)
The producer of Dark Shadows, Dan Curtis, cashed in at the height of the soap’s popularity by making two films, House of Dark Shadows and Night of Dark Shadows. Both these films were horribly re-edited by the film company, so the versions we have are mutilated. The last half hour of the second makes no sense whatever.
Plot elements of the soap opera are reused, but to completely different effect. The films occupy an alternative universe a great deal bloodier and more brutal. In House of Dark Shadows, the TV cast play their TV characters, and Curtis proceeds to kill nearly all of them off in a swift ninety minutes. The ten-year old boy David, in a scene cut by the film company but to be seen in a trailer, hangs himself. There are operatic amounts of blood of an extreme, stylised redness, offset by blues and foggy whites. Jonathan Frid, freed from the schedule of daytime TV, is majestic.
It’s hard to escape the sense that the many shots of peculiar beauty came about because Dan Curtis didn’t quite know what he was doing, but that doesn’t make them less beautiful. House of Dark Shadows feels like a commentary on all the tropes of the gothic horror film. If it had been done in French, everyone would now recognize it as a high-camp art-house masterpiece!
Anyhow, James Goss at Big Finish productions, who have a line of Dark Shadows audios, read Blue Box Boy and dropped me a line:
Would you like to play a mild-mannered occult-worshipping serial killer in an episode of Dark Shadows?
I had always wanted to play a mild-mannered occult-worshipping serial killer. I don’t think
there’s any Equity member who hasn’t .
I had no doubt that doing ‘Dark Shadows: The Creeping Fog’ would be great fun, which it was, but I didn’t expect to be playing such an interesting character – one of the most interesting I have ever played – and I didn’t expect a script of such a high quality. It’s essentially a two hander between David Selby and I, augmented by some spooky voices. The core of the piece was recorded in one day in LA.
‘The Creeping Fog,’ written by Simon Guerrier, is one of a number of episodes which take place during World War II. The immortal Quentin Collins finds himself in a pub in fogbound London in 1941, where, seemingly accidentally, he bumps into a vague, scholarly and bumbling middle-aged chap called John Cunningham who runs a dusty, down-at-heel museum over the road. They find themselves overnight in the museum, where the bumbling mask which John presents to Quentin keeps falling away, to reveal, at first, the glint of the true obsessive, then something very dark. To put it simply, he’s completely crazy. I’m not giving anything away; the attentive listener can deduce this by John’s second line, the distracted listener by his third.
‘The Creeping Fog’ is a mad and dark and sublime piece of gothic fiction.
While in the studio in LA, I also did a couple of cameo characters for a story called ‘The Crimson Pearl’ by James Goss and Joseph Lidster. I didn’t see the full script for this, only my own lines, so I didn’t have any real sense of what ‘The Crimson Pearl’ amounted to until I heard it recently. It turned out to be an adorably lavish 45th anniversary special with a vast cast – just about every surviving Dark Shadows actor, and cameos from Doctor Who people Nicola Bryant, Louise Jameson and I. James and Joseph had the brilliant idea of doing this story in a series of bite-sized five minute episodes, a sort of miniaturized, Faberge egg version of the soap opera itself, as the mysterious pearl (“as if Lucifer plucked out one of his own eyes…”) is passed from hand to hand down generations and centuries. If the episodes are miniature, the story isn’t – it crosses two centuries in an hour. Everything-but-the-kitchen-sink anniversary specials, ranging through the entire history of a series, are enormous fun, and ‘The Crimson Pearl’ is as good an example as I’ve come across. The effect is of a sort of audio 3-D!
When the TV series finished, it left a library, so to speak, of reconstructed, slightly warped variations on every gothic character archetype – the vampire, the werewolf, the ghost, the witch, servants of satan, every damned thing you can think of. They have endless possibilities.