Imagine Crossroads if the motel staff were attacked by a werewolf. Or, if you prefer, Acorn Antiques if all the antiques were cursed. And Miss Berta's new baby was really a malevolent Lovecraftian god. Well that, in a nutshell, is Dark Shadows.
The genuine article did, briefly, make it to British TV screens, but not till nearly 25 years after it was cancelled, as one of a raft of old shows transmitted by the Sci-Fi Channel when it launched here in 1995. That's when my obsession with it stems from. I was 15 and had been taken out of school, diagnosed with clinical depression (which isn't easy to identify at that age, as the symptoms are very similar to those of being a teenager). The Sci-Fi Channel's afternoon schedule, rerunning series like Lost in Space, Night Gallery, and Boris Karloff's Thriller, became my school, building on my existing love of Doctor Who and The Avengers to instil a fascination with old TV and everything 60s and 70s that continues to take up a lot of my time. But Dark Shadows was my favourite subject. I taped every episode. In the absence of any reference works on the show (I acquired loads later on) I created my own by making a note of the cast and crew of each episode, and even adding a suitably haunting phrase from each episode's opening narration to serve as its title. Though when I started watching it wasn't the most obviously compelling of viewing. I'm going to give you a little history of Dark Shadows now, and it has quite a lot of spoilers in, if that sort of thing worries you.
The word nobody can avoid when describing Dark Shadows is "gothic". But when it started it was gothic in the Jane Eyre/Mary Stewart sense, rather than the Dracula sense. The show was the creation of Dan Curtis, a wildly creative lunatic whose first success had come with putting golf on TV. Dark Shadows was his dream project. No, literally, it was: he dreamt about a beautiful, dark-haired young woman getting off a train and approaching a spooky old mansion, and decided it was the ideal basis for a TV show.
The girl became Victoria Winters (played by Alexandra Moltke, who claimed to have been cast as she was the only innocent-looking actress in New York, where the show was recorded), and the house became Collinwood, in Collinsport, Maine, where she came to work as a governess for the Collins family. These included (in a casting coup for daytime TV) scandal-haunted former movie queen Joan Bennett, as scandal-haunted matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard. With no idea of her parentage, Victoria hoped to find the secret of her origins, but she never did, as other, far weirder, things got in the way.
At first the show dealt in melodramatic stories of revenge, blackmail and murder that might have been exciting if they didn't unfold at a pace that felt appreciably slower than real time. Several weeks of story revolve almost entirely around a fountain pen. It's not even a haunted fountain pen. All this didn't prove a magnet for viewers, and facing cancellation when they'd hardly even started, Curtis and his writers decided "Why the hell not?" and made a decision that would change everything: they chucked in a ghost.
The phantoms of Collinwood had been mentioned since the show began, but it was always intended that the real ghosts would be the secrets of the past that haunted Elizabeth and her brother Roger.
(A quick word about Roger: originally intended as the show's main baddie, he quickly mellowed to become more like the actor who played him, the wonderfully louche and sardonic Louis Edmonds. I love Roger. When I was 15 he gave my nascent gaydar one of its very first pings.)
Anyway, one Friday afternoon, the ghost of 18th century ancestor Josette Collins climbed down from her portrait in a special effect nobody had ever expected to be used on a daytime soap. All she did was waft about a bit, and none of the other characters even saw her, but it turns out that "the ghost's out of the portrait" means exactly the same thing as "the genie's out of the bottle". Word got round, and the viewing figures started to climb. Things stayed fairly low-key on the supernatural front for a while - a ghostly voice here, the briefly-glimpsed spectre of a character murdered a few weeks ago there. But they were strictly rationed - these were uncharted waters, and who knew what effect too many spooky goings-on in the afternoon might have on America's housewives and schoolkids?
This first, timid flirtation with mysterious forces beyond comes to a climax when a whole herd of apparitions manifest themselves just in time to prevent Collinwood's mad caretaker from killing Victoria by scaring him to death. In time, Dark Shadows would plunder most major works of gothic literature for plot elements: Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, The Turn of the Screw (twice), Rebecca (the Dark Shadows version was set in a parallel universe and had Rebecca return from the grave as a heat vampire masquerading as her own twin sister), etc etc, but its first fully-fledged supernatural storyline involved an original creation. It had always been intended that Laura Collins, mother of Victoria's young charge David, would return and try to get custody of him. Originally, she was meant to be an alcoholic. In the event, she was a human incarnation of the legendary phoenix, who returned to life every hundred years to have a child she'd eventually lead to a fiery death. I've read that last bit a few times now, wondering if I could rewrite it to make more sense. I couldn't. It's not me who's not making sense, it's Dark Shadows. It is, I think inarguably, the strangest TV series there's ever been. And this was when it was still in its boring phase, with only one thing of any consequence happening a week (ie per five episodes). This is where I came in, but I was lucky: the Sci-Fi Channel showed two episodes a day, so I got to see two things happen a week.
If people know anything about Dark Shadows, it's that the main character's a vampire. This is Barnabas Collins, another ancestor, who gets released from his chained coffin by a treasure-hunting petty crook and passes himself off at Collinwood as a cousin from England, an origin that seems to satisfactorily explain to the other characters any odd behaviour he might display. That's something to bear in mind if I ever find myself stateside. Jonathan Frid, a Canadian stage actor, took the role (apparently against Dan Curtis' wishes) as a short-term assignment before starting a job as a drama professor. Nobody expected what happened: Barnabas Collins became a phenomenon. The character was intended as a black-hearted villain, but that was swiftly undermined by the soulfulness Frid played him with. Frid found memorising pages of new dialogue every day a nightmare, but to the audience at home his halting delivery and panicked glances at the teleprompter made it feel like he was talking to them.
Where Dark Shadows got really interesting for me was with the arrival of Grayson Hall. A flamboyant, Oscar-nominated character actress with the looks and voice of a Disney villainess, she too joined the cast on a short-term basis, in the role of Julia Hoffman, a doctor who starts off as a Van Helsing figure, but - in a brilliant twist - offers to find a cure for his condition (the decision to cast a woman in the role was last minute, and before she appears the character's referred to as male - so if you want you can interpret her as TV's first major trans character). Hall brings a remarkable, high camp intensity to the show. When I first saw her I didn't really know what camp was. I definitely didn't know what a gay icon was. I just thought she was the most fascinating person I'd ever seen. And I still do. Like Frid, she became too popular to lose: as a pairing, they were dynamite, and they swiftly establish themselves as the beating heart of the show, shunting poor old Vicki Winters off to the sidelines.
You can't really call Barnabas and Julia heroes: in any sensible TV show of the time they would have been the baddies: he's an undead ghoul with a penchant for trying to turn hapless young ladies into the recreation of his lost love, while she proves happy to cover up for him, hypnotising the unfortunate girls into losing their memory of it all when things don't quite work out. One unusually harrowing episode sees the two of them kill a friend of Julia's who learns what's going on. This leads to an episode that comprises 20 of the most peculiar minutes of TV ever, with Grayson Hall giving what's practically a one-woman show of screaming, wailing and sobbing as Julia's taunted by a vengeful ghost. It's an understatement to say her performance is over the top: the top is so far beneath her as to be invisible. It's perhaps the worst possible way to introduce someone to Dark Shadows, but here it is anyway:
Seven months after Barnabas came out of the coffin and turned a ponderous afternoon drama into a monster hit, the show's writing team (greatly boosted by the addition of Grayson Hall's husband Sam, whose witty, inventive scripts had a huge impact on the show's overall quality) hit on TV's most insane, brilliant idea since the makers of Doctor Who figured out how to excuse the recasting of their lead character. They decided to thrust the show's audience, along with the hapless Victoria Winters. back to the year 1795, to find out how their unlikely hero became a vampire in the first place (well, the audience finds this out - Vicki remained infuriatingly unaware of most of the supernatural events happening around her until Alexandra Moltke became so bored of the character she got pregnant in order to be released from her contract).
The real masterstroke (not least from a budgeting point of view) was that the characters in 1795 were played by the same actors who played the 1960s characters. One key character though, was played by a new addition to the cast. The beautiful witch Angelique, whose unrequited love for Barnabas eventually leads her to curse him to become a vampire, was Lara Parker's first professional acting job - something that's almost impossible to believe as she's so brilliant, so malevolent and - most importantly - so much fun to watch. Trips through time (including one to the far-off year of 1995) would become a regular feature of the show, with most of its regular cast becoming a repertory company who got the chance to play a new character every few months. But (to Jonathan Frid's increasing chagrin) Barnabas remains a constant - and wherever in time he may go, Angelique's invariably there to cause some kind of trouble.
I started off with a mention of Crossroads (I like to think of Dark Shadows as Gothroads): as a daily soap of the 60s and 70s, that's probably the British show Dark Shadows is most like (but with vampires) - and, shot live-to-tape, it's prone to the same pitfalls that Victoria Wood so lovingly spoofed in Acorn Antiques: misjudged performances, flubbed lines (Jonathan Frid's relationship with the script is the same as William Hartnell's in Doctor Who, and just as endearing), unscheduled guest appearances by boom mics, flies and crew members, and (more like early Doctor Who, this one) special effects that don't quite do what they're meant to. These mistakes are cherished by fans of the show, and add immeasurably to the show's fun factor. My favourite is actor David Ford, never able to get his lines right, guiltily hiding a script when he realises the camera is on him. Perfection is the most boring thing possible, and one thing Dark Shadows could never be accused of is perfection.
Now it's 20 years later (surely that can't be right?), I've managed to reconcile those two interests, and, as Dark Shadows has reached its 50th anniversary, I've decided I'm going to watch every single episode. That's 1225 episodes, made in just under five years. For a soap opera, intended to continue indefinitely, that's actually a pretty short run. But Dark Shadows is the only programme with that sort of episode count that's ever been released on DVD, streaming and what have you in its entirety (indeed it's the only soap of its time that still in exists in its entirety - well, almost. There's one lost episode, but that's from the show's ill-regarded Barnabas- free final story arc - Frid declined to continue in the show unless he got to play another character, so in the show's last months he's Barnabas' non-vampire son from a parallel universe, re-enacting Wuthering Heights with a doppelganger of Angelique), and it's quite a fearsome challenge. But it's exciting. Right now I'm pretty much exactly where I left off, at the show's insanely overcomplicated 1968 episodes (sample plot thread: an evil warlock is trying to create a race of devil-worshipping supermen using a Frankenstein monster and a lady monster who has the soul of the most evil woman in history. Though there's a lot more to it than that...), and I still have the introduction of heart-throb ghost/werewolf/Dorian Gray rip-off Quentin Collins (the only character to rival Barnabas' popularity with viewers) and the extended trip to 1897 that's widely regarded as the show's golden period ahead of me. I'm obsessed all over again. Though now we've got the internet I suppose I don't need these index cards any more.
There are a million more things to say about Dark Shadows, and if you want to hear them, Danny Horn's Dark Shadows Every Day blog, which examines each episode in turn, is much funnier and more perceptive about the show than I could ever dream of being. If you'd like to give Dark Shadows a go, but are intimidated by the tedium of the early episodes, Danny recommends episode 250, with kidnapped waitress Maggie Evans trying to escape from Barnabas' clutches as a good starting point. Indeed, it's a great episode. If you don't like it, you won't like anything Dark Shadows has to offer.