By Ryan Fleming.
It's that man again. We'll see a lot of him.
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
In which Ryan Fleming imagines a 1970s series co-produced by Hammer and ITC based around Peter Cushing as Van Helsing in contemporary UK.
Hammer Film Productions had long wanted to break into the television market. The US television market, specifically. It could have easily broken into the UK television market whenever it wanted, and indeed it did, but it was the American airwaves where Hammer saw the big money opportunity. It had tried it before 1972 and The Van Helsing Mysteries, as early as 1958 in fact. Only a year removed from its breakthrough in the Technicolor Gothic horror scene with The Curse of Frankenstein, it sought entry into the US television market. Tales of Frankenstein never made it past a pilot.
The original Hammer attempt to break into US television was a co-production with Columbia Pictures. Anton Diffring starred as Baron Frankenstein, playing the role very close to Peter Cushing’s performance in Curse. Ironically, considering what came later, Cushing never seems to have been considered for the role. There were tensions between the two studios, who were each set to deliver 13 episodes. Hammer wanted to base the series off Curse, whereas Columbia, who held TV rights to the old Universal films, wanted to do something closer to that series. It might have been doomed from the start, with even director Curt Siodmak remarking that they could not make an entire series: “With nothing but Frankenstein.”
Anton Diffring as Baron Frankenstein.
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Hammer had better luck in the 1960s. Partnering with 20th Century Fox Television (long before there was a Fox Broadcasting Company) they made Journey to the Unknown. Unlike the proposed Tales of Frankenstein (whose unused ideas eventually made their way into The Evil of Frankenstein (1964) and Frankenstein Created Woman (1967)), Unknown was an anthology series like The Twilight Zone, with each episode having new characters and settings. It lasted only a single season on ABC from 1968 to 1969, and a total of 17 episodes. It boasted as executive producers Joan Harrison and Norman Lloyd, who had successfully produced Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour for 10 years from 1955. It ran across genres from fantasy, science fiction, and horror, but was still not the success Hammer wanted.
Its next foray into television came about entirely by accident. The success of American International’s Count Yorga, Vampire (1971) convinced those in power that a modern-day vampire film had real potential. So much so that Warner Bros actually commissioned two Dracula films from Hammer to be set in the present. Development was well underway on the first of them when Warner Bros suddenly pulled out of the deal. That might have been the end of it, and the Hammer Dracula films might have remained in that Victorian/Edwardian Neverland where they had been set since 1958, only for another partner to present themselves.
Count Yorga proving there's life in the Vampire.
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Television films were the latest craze on US television during the 1970s, and their subject matter tended toward the sensational. Thriller, melodrama, and horror genres were prevalent. ITC Entertainment had long produced action-adventure series in the UK intended for US distribution – including Danger Man, The Saint, Thunderbirds, and other Gerry Anderson Productions – it now wondered if it could have another go at horror and Hammer seemed an ideal partner.
Seeing ITC as the foot-in-the-door it needed for US television, Hammer eagerly entered negotiations to co-finance and co-produce a series of television films. It even had a script near completion, one that would showcase the best of Hammer in a modern setting!
Disagreements soon reared their head about the form and format of any show that might result from the repurposed script that would act as pilot. Hammer wanted to make feature-length anthology films for television, but ITC, whose successes had been in episodic adventure, wanted a recurring protagonist.
The Hammer representatives grew nervous. They knew there was no way that Christopher Lee, who they had managed to secure on the understanding that it was a one-off television film, would be persuaded to do a full series as Count Dracula. It was fortunate that Anthony Hinds, chosen as producer of any series arising from the film, had also produced the Hammer film The Brides of Dracula (1960). That too was a production that sought to continue the story of Count Dracula when Christopher Lee was not interested in reprising the role. The solution was to focus on the vampire hunter Doctor Van Helsing, played by Peter Cushing, in his continued battles with the supernatural. Cushing had also agreed to participate in the first production, as a modern-day grandson of the original Van Helsing, and was willing to agree to a full series.
Dracula Today was produced in two versions. A single television film presentation intended to air in the US as a backdoor pilot for importing the whole series. And a two-part serial that would air in the UK as the first episodes of The Van Helsing Mysteries. Cushing and Lee were joined by Joanna Lumley as Van Helsing’s granddaughter, Jessica; by Christopher Neame as Johnny Alucard, a disciple of Dracula who tricks Jessica and her friends into resurrecting the Count; and Michael Coles as Inspector Murray of Scotland Yard. The UK version was broadcast on ITV on the 18th and 25th September 1972; whilst the US version aired as an instalment of the ABC Movie of the Week, appropriately enough on Halloween 1972.
Joanna Lumley as Jessica Van Helsing in The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973).
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Response to the TV movie presentation in the US was strong enough to warrant them purchasing the full series, to the elation of both Hammer and ITC. The film version of Dracula Today is superior to the two-part UK version; but alas only remains available in a long out-of-print Region 1 DVD release. US fans would have to wait for further Van Helsing Mysteries to arrive on their shores, but UK fans were treated to 11 more episodes starting from 2nd October 1972.
Script editors Don Houghton and Anthony Reed had assembled a team of experienced television writers for the remaining 11 episodes. First up were Brian Clemens, formerly the main script writer of The Avengers, and Dennis Spooner, formerly briefly a script writer of Doctor Who. The two collaborated on two scripts from stories developed by Clemens.
The first, Terror from Within, saw an American friend of Jessica’s (Gayle Hunnicutt) enlisting the help of Van Helsing in searching for her fiancé, last seen at an artist’s commune in the English countryside.
The second episode from Clemens and Spooner showcases UK television’s odd obsession with The Desperate Hours (1955) during the 1970s. Even sitcoms like Steptoe and Son and Porridge would do episodes where the main characters were held hostage by escaped (or escaping) convicts. Both the sitcoms, as well as The Van Helsing Mysteries, would even just use the title The Desperate Hours for their episodes based on the story.
The Van Helsing contribution to the strand sees the title character tasked by Inspector Murray with talking to a pair of prisoners that have taken the prison psychiatrist (Denholm Elliott) hostage. Garard (Anthony Valentine) is only concerned with escape, whilst Filton (Clive Swift) is desperate to have his case re-examined, claiming that a demon committed the murder for which he was convicted. It ends on a rare chilling note the series where Filton kills Gerard, believing him to be the demon, only for it to be implied that psychiatrists Henson was the supernatural entity all along.
Anthony Read, one half of the script editing duo, wrote the script for the next episode himself. Powers of Darkness saw Jessica’s friends hold a séance and accidentally conjure up the spirit of a witch burned at the stake. One would have thought she and her friends would have learned their lesson in Dracula Today, though in fairness, with the exception of Gaynor (Marsha Hunt), all the friends from the first episode were dead by the end of the second.
The spirit of the witch, Lucinda, kills several of the (male) friends via spontaneous combustion and tries to possess Jessica. Van Helsing stages another séance and casts out the spirit from Jessica with the help of Gaynor and Tom (James Hazeldine), Jessica’s boyfriend. Although we never actually see Lucinda in the episode, the medium (Louise Jameson) that assists Van Helsing states that the spirit would cling to the survivors that participated in the séance – Jessica, Gaynor, and Tom.
John Bowen was sought by Hinds, Houghton, and Read on the strength of his television play Robin Redbreast (1970), which aired as part of Play for Today, and also led to his doing an episode of the BBC horror anthology series Dead of Night, which aired concurrently with the first season of Van Helsing. The Caravan is close to Robin Redbreast in that both are concerned with the ongoing trend of folk horror. Van Helsing and Jessica are asked by a neighbour (Rosalind Ayres) to help find her husband (Michael Kitchen) who has disappeared searching for a caravan shown in a mysterious photograph they received in the post.
Scenes are split between the Van Helsings and Paul, the missing husband. It is clear Bowen found the latter more interesting than the recurring characters. Effort is taken to show the character carrying a great deal of resentment and even misogyny towards his wife. Paul winds up at the caravan in the picture, only to find himself killed and possibly eaten (they took this about as far as they could). Bowen has said in interviews that he hated the changes made to his script, and even the title of The Caravan, to make it fit into the Van Helsing mould. Though as a jobbing writer, it did not stop him from coming back.
Anthony Read contributed the next episode, Out of Body, Out of Mind, perhaps the first to veer closer towards science fiction than horror. Whilst Terror from Within also touched upon telepathy, it was still very much horror, witness Ian Bannen’s terrifying villain. Inspector Murray becomes plagued by the ability to dream of incidents involving people he’s never met in places he had never been. Unwilling to speak to anyone about his dreams, he turns to Van Helsing.
There is something very much of The Avengers about this story; doubly so when it eventually spirals into a plot to kill a visiting African president (Calvin Lockhart). No real explanation is given for why Murray is receiving the visions, beyond some hints that he might have been subject to psychic experiments during his time in the Army, although Jessica does joke that his policeman’s intuition might be manifesting itself via dreams.
Three episodes followed from David Fisher, a newcomer to genre television, but who had written several episodes of The Troubleshooters for the BBC, produced by Anthony Read. The first two of them would form a two-parter under the title: The Nine Maidens. It saw Van Helsing and Jessica called in to investigate disappearances and mysterious deaths in a rural English village containing a series of standing stones (the Nine Maidens of the title). The local constabulary are hostile to the visitors, who had been called in by the eccentric Professor Rumford (Beatrix Lehmann) and the mysterious Vivian (Sylvia Kay).
The end of the first episode saw Vivian revealed as the reincarnation of a druidic priestess who has taken over most of the village and converted most of the villagers to her beliefs. The deaths and disappearances are sacrifices to the old Gods. Her plan is to repeat what she has done in Cornwell at villages near stone circles all over Britain and reclaim the island in the name of the Druidic deities.
It’s never explained why Vivian was apparently fine with Rumford calling in the Van Helsings, beyond hubris. Perhaps if she had not been so cocky as to the success of her plan, she might not have found herself crushed under a megalith at the behest of a vengeful Cailleach shortly after the Van Helsings and Rumford had foiled her plans.
Lehmann is the standout in both parts; so much so that several actors turned down the role of Vivian because they felt the Rumfeld character would steal every scene.
Fisher’s third contribution to the season would be a standalone episode entitled Guardian of the Abyss. This also involved cults, though this time it was a Satanic cult in London rather than a Druidic one in Cornwall. Both of them involved human sacrifice, however. John Carson played the cult leader this time round, whose disciples seek a runaway member of the cult (Lalla Ward) taken in by Jessica and Tom.
The plot hinges on an Elizabethan mirror puchased by Tom which turns out to be a scrying glass through which the cult intended to see the Devil himself and offer a sacrifice. This episode suffers from comming immediately after The Nine Maidens, which touched upon similar themes, and Guardian does not have anyone nearly as memorable as Rumford (though Carson is memorable on his own merits), leaving the metropolitan, Satanic version of the idea a poor cousin to its rural, Druidic predecessor.
Don Houghton himself would script the eleventh episode, his first since the feature-length Dracula Today. Appropriately enough, it was also the first episode since we saw Dracula turn to dust (again) to feature vampires. Neame returned as Johnny Alucard, having been turned into a vampire by his master in the first episode and survived the second. He seeks revenge on the Van Helsings, as well as Gaynor and Tom, and has recruited the Chinese vampire His Tien-en (Burt Kwouk) and “The Five Golden Vampires” to do the deed.
Like Dracula Today, this started out as a film idea, a potential collaboration between Hammer and Hong Kong’s famed Shaw Brothers. ABC picking up The Van Helsing Mysteries convinced Hammer that there was more to be gained in further partnership with ITC and the US, so the Hong Kong collaboration was dropped. Like the potential film, the episode attempted to cash in on the kung-fu craze, though without the Hong Kong expertise, the results were mixed.
Houghton would also contribute to the final two episodes, both co-written with fellow script editor Anthony Read: Dr McDee Must Die. This was arguably more a blend of fantasy, science fiction, and thriller than horror, it saw Van Helsing and Jessica attend a dinner party hosted by a wealthy industrialist. The gimmick was that everyone was to dress in the fashion of the 1920s and the country mansion where it was to be hosted would be similarly kitted out appropriately for the period. The industrialist, seemingly a college acquaintance for whom Van Helsing had rendered some services, is celebrating the half century since his company was founded.
The mysterious death of his original partner, a scientist, casts a gloom over some guests, and then all the guests when said original partner crashed the party, not having aged a day since 1922. And Then There Were None crossed with Cluedo takes over as the guests are murdered one by one. The cliffhanger to the first episode sees Van Helsing trapped in a room with the walls closing in on him. Rescued by Jessica at the start of the second episode, they uncover secrets lain hidden between the industrialist and his partner for 50 years.
In the second episode, it transpires that the guests have indeed travelled back in time, with the industrialist and others present that first time around now returned to youth. When the nature of the partner scientist’s experiment that led to his death became apparent to the Van Helsings, they realise that if he did not die, it could have altered history for the worse. Both characters have to work to ensuring history transpires as it should and work out who is killing the time travelling guests.
The Van Helsing Mysteries drew upon a lot of popular trends in the UK and abroad at the time. Beyond Hammer’s films, there are shades of spy-fi, folk horror, kung fu, and even a bit of Doctor Who. It meant the ITV channels were keen for another series, but both Hammer and ITC waited to see how the Americans felt. Van Helsing was hindered in the US by poor scheduling and advertising, though those that did see the series enjoyed it.
It was not enough, however, and ABC declined to order another batch of episodes from Hammer and ITC. The Van Helsing Mysteries might have ended after a single season, and fewer episodes than Journey to the Unknown to boot, but another US network had an interest in the series.
In retrospect, the episodes of the programme’s first season are seen as a mixed bag. The two partners are almost always praised by fans, though not without the caveat that the film version of Dracula Today, which has gone largely unseen since the 1970s, is better than the cliffhanger version. Reception to the single-part episodes ranges from mostly positive (The Desperate Hours and Powers of Darkness) to mixed but admired for trying something different (The Caravan and The Five Golden Vampires) to mixed trite (Guardian of the Abyss) to mostly negative (Terror from Within and Out of Body, Out of Mind). There is something to be said that with only one exception (The Five Golden Vampires), the single-part episodes tended to be far more talky and slower paced than the action-packed cliffhangers.
These episodes would not be all that fans have on which to judge the merits of The Van Helsing Mysteries, however, as another US netowrk was keen to pick up another batch of episodes as well as the first batch from ABC. Hammer and ITC were ecstatic that another network had picked up the series. It was one with which they were unfamiliar, but by all accounts it was a bona fide national network. It is likely that had either UK company known more about PBS, they might not have been so gung-ho with the second season, even trying to lure Christopher Lee back.
Regardless of PBS not having the deep pockets that Hammer and ITC hoped to get from US television, it was that network that would give The Van Helsing Mysteries its greatest exposure in the US. Lawrence and Jessica Van Helsing would be mentioned in the same breath as Steed and Peel, as the Doctor and Sarah Jane. Van Helsing would become a staple genre programme of the US public broadcaster, and Doctor Van Helsing would even gain a home-grown American rival in the occult detective sphere for fan’s affections. That legacy is better discussed alongside the second season, which entered into production once PBS had signed their order of episodes, but that is a tale for another day.
Sorry. No contest, in the Editor's opinion.
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
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Ryan Fleming is the author of Reid in Braid, published by SLP.
There is also SLP’s own Horror anthology, Travellers in an Antique Land (edited Katherine Foy).
SFP has an anthology of ghost (and similar) stories, Ghost Written.