Dracula: An Interview with Scott Handcock

Horror is at its best when your mind if left to fill in the gaps. What better medium then, than audio dramas? Perhaps this reasoning is why the work of Big Finish has always resonated with us.  You can imagine our delight when they released their amazing adaptation of Dracula, starring none other than Mark Gatiss as the Count himself.

The man behind this audio drama, and countless others, Mr Scott Handcock was kind enough to sit down with editor Mark Nixon and discuss Dracula, Vampires and ghosts...

SATD: Hi Scott, please accept a somewhat delayed congratulations on such a fine production! We were absolutely blown away by your adaptation.

SH: Thanks! Everyone pulled together on that one. A dream project! I’m just glad people enjoyed it. With something like Dracula, everyone has preconceptions of what it ought to be.

SATD: I can imagine. But even after your extensive work on Dorian Grey and also an adaptation of Frankenstein, were you intimidated to tackle arguably the biggest presence of classic horror?

SH: Not really, if I’m honest. As you say, I have quite a strong grounding in audio horror. I love both the genre and the medium, so I was fairly confident we could do something pretty epic and special. Jonathan Barnes had done such a brilliant job on Frankenstein, it was a no-brainer to ask him to tackle Dracula for us. And I knew from the get-go I wanted Mark to be our count. So everything sort of came together. So no, I wouldn’t say I was intimated. As with all takes on such a classic text, there will always be slight differences. My job was to try and remain as faithful as possible to the original, which also making it work for the medium and audience. We were lucky, if anything, that Stoker wrote in such a modern style!

SATD: Stoker certainly stands out amongst his contemporaries… But yes, Jonathan Barnes did a marvellous job writing the adaptation. How much influence did you have over this process, particularly as a writer yourself?

SH: Oh, I trust Jonathan absolutely. I’ve worked a lot as a script editor, both for Big Finish and the BBC, so that was more the role I settled into as part of my duties as producer. Thankfully, the story had already been plotted (funny, that), so a lot of my influence was from a practical standpoint (pointing up sequences that might have proved impractical in studio, etc). I’m a huge fan of narration too, when it comes to the audio medium, so I may have pushed that slightly, but then Jonathan had done a similar thing on Frankenstein, and Stoker’s use of letters, journals, etc, made the text ideal for that to happen. Jonathan and I were very keen to use as much of the original text and language as possible.

SATD: Yes, and you were able to expand on things hinted at in the text. Do you feel any Victorian sensibilities possibly held Stoker back?

SH: Do you know, that had never really occurred to me! I’m not sure it did, especially. It’s a fairly brutal novel in a lot of ways, so I can’t imagine he’d have been worried about pushing anything specific. Like most writers, he probably just wanted things to remain ambiguous, so readers could interpret it as they saw fit, and everyone gets a different experience.

SATD: I suppose I was referring more to some homosexual undertones between the Count and Harker and Mina’s insistence to consummate the marriage...

SH: Oh! Honestly. Those undertones weren’t anything I picked up on from the script, nor encouraged as a director. It’s not even a choice the actors discussed. Just goes to show how things can be interpreted wildly differently!

SATD: Ha! So you’re telling me I’m finding it out of nowhere?

SH: Now you mention it, I can absolutely see why that might occur to you. But it was never intended! That’s the joy of drama, in a way. It’s a window on other people’s lives and we all view it through different lenses.

SATD: That’s a great point. There are so many connotations and tropes around Dracula, yet you were able to cut through all of that and make this your own. How difficult was that?

SH: In a very dull way, I just approached it as I do any production: wanting to make it the best it can possibly be, and getting the best people to help me achieve that, whether that’s Jonathan as adaptor, Iain as sound designer, James on music, and a cast to die for! I think, looking back at various versions, Jonathan and I were keen to redress the balance as best we could. The suitors, for example, are often reduced in adaptations because (and let’s be honest) they sort of fulfil the same roles. So we ensured each had a role to play and kept them together. Obviously that meant other trims elsewhere, but generally we didn’t try to invent or change anything that compromised Stoker’s original story.

SATD: I definitely cared more about the suitors in your adaptation then I had in previous adaptations. So on the topic of other versions, is there one close to your heart? There’s a particular weakness for Nosferatu at Shadows at the Door

SH: Nosferatu’s brilliant. Visually so exciting, and so unsettling with it. Honourable mention to Shadow of the Vampire too, with that in mind. Not an adaptation, but an excellent film all the same.

SATD: Of course your Dracula was played by the brilliant Mark Gatiss. You said that he was your first and only choice?

SH: I’m not sure I can choose a specific Dracula adaptation, though I did enjoy rewatching the old ‘70s BBC version with Louis Jordan. Dated, yes, but still a lovely production. But yes, I’ve known Mark for years through Doctor Who. He’s an utter gent and brilliant actor - and obviously a massive horror buff - so even before I pitched Dracula formally to Big Finish, I sounded him out and asked him if he’d be interested. Thankfully, it was an offer he couldn’t refuse. And he’s great. I love working with him, and he really enjoys the medium. It made for a really fun time in studio, and was slightly eerie for the rest of the cast, watching Mark flip from affable green room raconteur to King of the Vampires in an instant!

SATD: I’m sure it was captivating, he certainly disappears into the role. Sometimes we find audio dramas that feature a mix of actors for both screen and voice a little off kilter. Yet you avoided this entirely.

SH: Yeah, radio’s a tough medium to get into. People assume it’s just acting in front of a microphone, but your focus is entirely different. We’re very lucky to work with people who love listening and working in audio though, so (hopefully) it sounds completely natural!

SATD: Speaking of Mark, one of his great loves is of course M.R. James. Can we dare to dream that you’d ever bring his ghost stories to Big Finish?

SH: Ha, it’s a tough one to judge. M.R. James is one of those people whose stories have been produced elsewhere, both as readings and full-cast adaptations (including some lovely versions by the BBC a few years ago, with Sir Derek Jacobi in the role of M.R. James). I think the question is: what can you do differently? I mean, we did do a run of William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki stories a year or so back, hoping it might demonstrate an audience for more conventional ghost stories, and whilst people enjoyed them, they didn’t have the same draw as something like Dracula.

SATD: We also fine ghost stories are that little bit harder to pitch to the wider market. Perhaps someone a little more mainstream such as Charles Dickens? Ease in the listeners to ghosts that way?

SH: I’m not sure it’s the ghost element necessarily that’s the difficulty. I think people prefer full-cast drama to readings, and unfortunately ghost stories are more readily weighted towards description. It’s all about the dread, and fear, and sensations: all things that you really need to have told to you. There’s definitely an audience, but I think you’d need to work a bit harder to appeal to the wider listenership.

SATD: Ah yes, a good point.

SH: I mean, I’d love to do In a Glass Darkly… but again, maybe that’s too obscure?

SATD: I wouldn’t have thought so. Audible just produced an adaptation of LeFanu’s Camilla afterall.

SH: Ah, but that’s the big hitter!

SATD: I’ve always seen it as on parr with Green Tea, myself.

SH: True, but Carmilla’s the one everyone’s heard of.

SATD: I suppose it is.

SH: I’m currently reading Jerome K. Jerome’s After Supper Ghost Stories. Oh, to bring them to life! But that’s by the by...

SATD: I’m sure your wish list in incredibly high. But for a man who directs Doctor Who audio dramas and is instrumental in carrying on Torchwood like Big Finish originally did for Doctor Who. Surely you must be in heaven already?

SH: Oh, I love my job. I actually started my career after university as a runner at BBC Wales, working on Doctor Who and Torchwood, so to now be in a position where I’m driving those stories forward, and working with the cast and creatives I started out with is a real privilege.

SATD: Do you ever worry that you’ll go mad with power?

SH: Haha, no! I like other people too much. Seriously, I love collaboration. I’ve always believed it’s dangerous to think there’s only one way of doing things, so the more opinions you can get, the better. Sometimes I’ll offer something that others haven’t thought about, and vice versa. It just keeps everything fresh!

SATD: It seems clear that this is the secret to your successful leadership! So, Dorian Gray, Frankenstein, Dracula… Can we expect The Curious Case of Doctor Jekyl and Mr Hyde?

SH: Yes, indeed, Nicholas Briggs is doing it!

SATD: Brilliant!

SH: I did pitch, but he’d already been working on a stage version, so pipped me to the post! 

SATD: Curses! Lastly Scott, do you have any advice for those eager to produce their own audio dramas?

SH: Listen to audio! Sounds obvious when you say it, but I’m often surprised by people who want to work in audio but don’t actually listen to any. The more you listen to, the more you’ll get a sense of what works for you, and why. Understanding why you don’t like something, or it wasn’t successful, is just as important as understanding why you do. So listen, enjoy and spread the word!

SATD: Wise words! Well thank-you very much, it’s been a fascinating discussion.

SH: Not at all, thank you for asking!

If you haven't listened to Scott's production of Dracula starring Mark Gatiss, we strongly suggest you check it out.