The Gothic Imagination: Frankenstein
Editor's note: This new dramatisation of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley is part of The Gothic Imagination season on Radio 4. Here, the Producer Marc Beeby talks about the making of the programme. You can hear Frankenstein at 3pm on Sunday 28 October on Radio 4 and for 7 days after broadcast on the iPlayer. PMcD
It's a privilege to be making Frankenstein for Radio 4, but it's a daunting prospect. There can't be a person in the country for whom the title doesn't conjure up images - a square-headed giant looming out of the shadows, a wild-eyed scientist, bolts of electricity arcing around strange machinery, portentous thunderstorms. But Lucy Catherine (the dramatist) and I want to make something that's a bit closer in spirit to the book, something a bit less melodramatic, a bit more human, something a bit more real - if this is possible given that this is a story about someone making a man eight foot tall out of grave-robbed body parts!
We're really pleased with the cast. Jamie Parker (Frankenstein) brings authority, obsession and a wracked desperation to the role. He also sounds suitably beaten up in the opening scenes in the Polar wastes, possibly because the poor chap is spending most nights going once more unto the breach as Henry V at the Globe Theatre. But the best thing about what he does is that, despite Frankenstein's arrogance, his lack of care toward the people who love him and the rejection of his Monster, you feel sympathy for him.
This is a bonus. Sympathy is, in a sense, what we're looking for. The Monster, for all his hideousness and capacity for cruelty, is a lost child. Rejected by his 'father', desperate for companionship, tenderness and love, he does some horrible vengeful things out of misery. 'I am malicious because I am miserable' he says - a startlingly modern idea.
But how do we make him? Eight foot tall, covered in scars, immensely powerful? Not things it's easy to convey on radio! But Shaun Dooley (the Monster) is amazing. Physical size and power on radio rely on the voice of the actor and the depth and power of Shaun's voice can make windows rattle. We also spend a good deal of time talking about how the Monster actually speaks. We feel that he needs to have some difficulty with the mechanics of speaking as this helps convey the impression of both isolation and deformity. At the same time, we can't overdo this as it would become intolerable to listen to and some of the scenes would go on for weeks. In the end, Shaun finds a brilliant solution. His Monster's difficulty with words is not a mechanical problem. It derives from his emotion at the moment of speaking - as though feelings were clogging his tongue.
In some ways, of course, the Monster, like a frustrated adolescent, is all feeling. Quite by chance, Shaun comes to the studio wearing a hoody. To our delight, he uses this to help him get into character. Before a scene or a narration, he puts the hood up, hiding his face, and sits muttering and swearing to himself. You'd cross the road if you saw him waiting for you. Before scenes with other actors, Shaun also has the idea of climbing onto a stool and suddenly you understand what it might be like to be terrorized by an eight foot tall homicide.
But these techniques are just stops along the way. By the time we come to the Monster's final scene, we've forgotten them. Shaun has disappeared and in his place is a damaged, lonely human being. And we care for him.
This all sounds very serious, of course. Actually, making Frankenstein is enormous fun. Animating the Monster, for instance, is a scene familiar from a hundred films and it needs to be exciting and scary - and we hope it is. But doing it feels like we've been allowed to play the best game. Jamie throws himself into every take, getting, it seems, more and more intense and frantic and then collapsing into fits of giggles as Shaun, lying on a large blue box - and looking frankly ridiculous - thrashes around as though electrocuted, gasping for breath. It's also difficult to make the more obvious 'horror' moments, like Frankenstein collecting body parts ('I need teeth. Where's my hammer?'), without a lot of delighted cries of 'ugh' as the Studio Managers do marvelous things with squishy sound effects, pieces of fruit and the remains of one long-dead chicken.
And now it's done and I'm sorry it's over. Exploring Mary Shelley's strange, sad world and getting to know her iconic characters, with this cast and crew, has been so challenging and so stimulating I could quite happily do it all again tomorrow. Whether we've done it right is up to the audience, of course. I hope they love it.
Marc Beeby is the Producer of Frankenstein. The story was dramatised by Lucy Catherine for BBC Radio Drama.
- Mary Shelley's Frankenstein on BBC Radio 4
- Find more programmes from The Gothic Imagination series on Radio 4
- Find out about three original gothic dramas by Lucy Catherine, Rebecca Lenkiewicz and Nancy Harris on Radio 4 Extra.
- Follow The Gothic Imagination series of programmes on Radio 4 on Twitter using #R4Gothic