Nightmare: The Birth of Horror


Nightmare: The Birth of Horror (1996): Dracula (and Louis Jourdan again).

Christopher Frayling, like Marina Warner, is that rare thing: a British academic with an enthusiasm for popular culture, and a talent for communicating that enthusiasm to a general audience. Both writers also have more than a passing interest in the darker areas of fiction, whether that means Gothic romance or contemporary horror films. One of Frayling’s first books was The Vampyre: Lord Ruthven To Count Dracula (1978); the same year he contributed an excellent Lovecraft essay, Dreams of Dead Names, to George Hay’s The Necronomicon: The Book of Dead Names, one of the two Necronomica published in the 1970s (three if you count Giger’s art book). Frayling’s essay, and another by Angela Carter are among the highlights in Hay’s curious volume.


Nightmare: The Birth of Horror was both a book and a television series produced by the BBC in 1996. The year before, Frayling had written and presented Strange Landscape, an examination of the culture and philosophy of the Middle Ages. Nightmare looks at the creation of four British horror novels: Frankenstein, Dracula, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and The Hound of the Baskervilles. Two of these stories—Frankenstein and Jekyll and Hyde—were famously the product of nightmares so Frayling stretches this coincidence to include the others; I’m still not sure the case is properly made for Bram Stoker but it hardly matters.

Another aspect of Frayling’s thesis is the extraordinary power of these works, all of which have had a lasting global influence. The book is naturally more detailed than the TV series, delving into the fiction for the subtexts that contribute to the power of the stories. The Dracula section is a tour-de-force of condensed information, sketching a history of fictional vampires then looking at Stoker’s career as assistant to actor Henry Irving, a man whose outsize personality was an inspiration for that of the vampiric count. There’s also some interesting speculation about Stoker’s sexuality; a letter he wrote to Walt Whitman is (to borrow a phrase from Sherlock Holmes)…suggestive. The rest of the chapter looks in detail at the slow creation of the novel. In the TV series what you lose in the literary specifics you gain in visits to some of the locations mentioned in the story, so for Dracula that means windswept Whitby on the Yorkshire coast. The same applies to the other novels: for Frankenstein there’s a visit to the Villa Diodati on the shore of Lake Geneva, a journey to Dartmoor for Hound of the Baskervilles, and so on.

I was hoping the whole series might be on YouTube but for the moment the Frankenstein episode seems to be missing. The Dracula one is the best quality, the other two look a little rough. In the meantime copies of the book may still be found at reasonable prices.

Nightmare: The Birth of HorrorDracula | Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde | The Hound of the Baskervilles

Count Dracula


Vampires: if they’ve never been very scarce they didn’t used to be quite so commonplace. The fortunes of Dracula, on the other hand, seem to have diminished in recent years following a centenary peak in 1997. The surprising spike of interest in the 1970s might explain the BBC’s decision to adapt Bram Stoker’s novel for television in 1977. I often used to wonder why the corporation didn’t turn some of its costume-drama prowess to more generic material. Anthony Trollope’s The Pallisers sprawled over 26 50-minute episodes in 1974 but you’d search in vain for an adaptation of HG Wells. The closest was the yearly Ghost Story for Christmas most of which were period pieces.


Louis Jourdan bares his fangs.

Gerald Savory’s Count Dracula, subtitled “A Gothic Romance”, was broadcast a few days before Christmas, 1977, in a single 150-minute programme. Repeat screenings broke the drama into two episodes so it’s often referred to as a mini-series. I’d read Dracula for the first time earlier that year so it was a thrill to see the story presented in such a faithful manner after all the liberties taken by feature films and derivative dramas. Count Dracula may seem primitive when compared to lavish Hollywood productions but 37 years later it’s still the adaptation that most closely adheres to Stoker’s epistolary novel.


Louis Jourdan and Bosco Hogan (Jonathan Harker).

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John Osborne’s Dorian Gray


I wrote recently about John Selwyn Gilbert’s television play, Aubrey, an hour-long drama concerning the artist Aubrey Beardsley. The play was only screened once in 1982 and, like most one-off studio works of the period, is unavailable on DVD. John Osborne’s 1976 adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray is a welcome exception to this neglect and can be acquired in a box set along with three BBC productions of Wilde’s plays and a more recent Wilde documentary.

The stage plays are decent enough although the cast in the 1952 film version of The Importance of Being Earnest takes some beating. Dorian Gray is for me the essential work in the collection, even if its 100-minute running time cuts the story to the bone. The principal attraction in an entirely studio-bound work with few actors is the leads, and for this we have two great performances from John Gielgud as Lord Henry and Jeremy Brett as artist Basil Hallward. The tragic Dorian is played by Peter Firth who has difficulty keeping up with these heavyweights, especially in the later scenes when the story concentrates more fully on his predicament. Matters aren’t helped by his Yorkshire accent which frequently rises to the surface in a manner that would surely raise eyebrows in Mayfair drawing rooms.


Lord Henry & Basil Hallward admire the portrait.

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