Sunday, 18 May 2014

Mystery and Imagination - Frankenstein

Mystery and Imagination was a gothic horror anthology series broadcast on British television from 1966 to 1970. Each episode was based on a classic work of gothic fiction. Sadly only eight of the original twenty-four episodes survive and have now been released on DVD by Network DVD. One of the more interesting of the surviving episodes is the feature-length adaptation of Frankenstein.

The early episodes were made by ABC, which after their merger with Rediffusion became Thames Television. Thames Television went on to make six further episodes.

The intention was clearly to produce an adaptation of the novel that was closer to both the letter and the spirit of Mary Shelley’s novel. In this it succeeds reasonably well. This version makes use of one clever trick that had surprisingly not been tried in previous screen versions. I won’t reveal the trick as it does constitute a minor spoiler.

Ian Holm was always a fairly reliable actor and he does well in the title role. The supporting cast is solid with Richard Vernon being memorable as a crusty old professor of anatomy.

Obviously the producers didn’t have the kind of budget to play with that most film versions of the story have had but they still do a fine job of evoking the gothic atmosphere and the crucial bringing-the-monster-to-life scene works well. Frankenstein’s laboratory is less spectacular than in most Frankenstein movies but still looks reasonably impressive.

This television version puts more emphasis on Dr Frankenstein’s conscious efforts to emulate a God that he professes not to believe in, and in this respect it is probably closer to Mary Shelley’s intentions than are most of the movie versions. Mary Shelley’s father was a socialist agitator, her mother was an nearly feminist and her husband a strident and aggressive atheist. In spite of all this, or more probably because of these things, Mary Shelley was rather sceptical of our ability blithely to dispense with God.

This Frankenstein focuses to a large extent on Dr Frankenstein’s responsibility towards his creature, and the psychological horror of his guilt over his creation. This is in general a much more psychological approach than has been taken in any film version.

Although Ian Holm was nearly forty when the program was made his Dr Frankenstein seems in many ways to be a very young man. His arrogance comes across as being partly at least the arrogance of youth, which makes his actions perhaps slightly more forgivable.

On the downside this version is rather talky at times, which is perhaps inevitable in a television production that obviously cannot rely as heavily on visual images as a movie would. Ian Holm at times gives the impression that he’s giving a stage performance.

Network DVD's release is of reasonable quality given that the majority of British television programs of this era have not been particularly well preserved and are not in the best condition. We can be thankful that at least some of this series survives at all. 

This production has its interesting features and it's worth a look.

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