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Dark Shadows: 50th Anniversary Interview!
The iconic horror-soap opera series reaches a half century of storytelling this year - and we're starting the celebrations with an exclusive interview with range producers Joseph Lidster and David Darlington about Big Finish's 50th Anniversary Special Blood and Fire.
Since 2012, Big Finish producers Joseph Lidster and David Darlington have worked together on continuing the legacy of Dark Shadows, the beloved horror-soap opera originally screened between 1966-1971. The series centers around the Collins Family - a wealthy clan of aristocrats cursed by supernatural powers, including the vampire Barnabas Collins (Andrew Collins, reprising the role originally played by Jonathan Frid), the werewolf Quentin Collins (David Selby) and the witch Angelique (Lara Parker). The original television series lasted for 1,225 episodes, with the story continuing in over 60 Big Finish audio plays.
Later this year Big Finish will be celebrating the series' half-centenary with the two hour 50th Anniversary Special Dark Shadows: Blood & Fire. With recording about to commence on this eagerly anticipated project, we check in with Joe and David on how production is going; and for some teaser on what Dark Shadows listeners can expect...
How does it feel to be back working on Dark Shadows?
Joe: Even though we had a bit of a break last year it feels as if I’ve never been away. It’s exhausting but it’s absolutely the best job I’ve ever had. I love the history of the show, I love our new characters, I love our writers and actors. It’s taken over my life but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
David: A mixture of delight, relief and apprehension. Great to be all over it again, but it's a hell of a job... this time I'll see if I can do it without approaching a nervous breakdown.
Dark Shadows has a massive amount of backstory – where do you suggest new fans begin discovering the world of Collinsport?
Joe: There are a few audios I’d suggest starting with Dark Shadows: The House By The Sea and Dark Shadows: Beneath The Veil are great jumping-on points but I think 2015’s Dark Shadows: Bloodlust miniseries is probably the best. Both the prelude Snowflake and Episode One are available to download for free (and you can listen to the characters introducing themselves here. There are a number of places you can start with the TV series including, obviously, Episode One. A few people suggest Episode 211 which features the first appearance of the vampire Barnabas Collins. For me, personally, Episode 701 was what got me hooked. It’s a bit of a reboot for the show as it sees Barnabas travel back in time to 1897. All you need to know is that he’s there to find out who Quentin Collins is but it’s really Episode One of a new soap opera. A soap opera featuring gypsies, ghosts, squabbling siblings, werewolves…
David: If you want just one to try, either Dark Shadows: The House By The Sea (starring Colin Baker) or Dark Shadows: The Creeping Fog (starring Matthew Waterhouse). But yes, actually Bloodlust is the place to start. We were very careful to slowly drip-feed everything you need to know as it goes along. And, you know, listen to Bloodlust now and you've just got time to squeeze in that and the six dramatic readings that follow before Blood & Fire and Bloodline...
What can you tell us about Dark Shadows: Blood & Fire?
Joe: Blood & Fire is a standalone special that sees the witch Angelique travelling back in time to 1767. I don’t want to give too much away but she’s there on a mission. Long-term fans of the show will realize that the year is important as it features a wedding and the building of the Old House which will eventually become Barnabas’s home. For newer fans all you need to know is that it features two supernatural creatures fighting each other against a backdrop of weddings, deaths and very sexy pirates.
David: I've just decided this very second that it's actually Blood & Fire instead of Blood and Fire – that will look better on the cover. Cue Joe screaming down the phone at me. That's all you're getting right now!
Blood & Fire will be celebrating characters and storylines from over 1000 episodes of the TV series, not to mention countless novels, audio dramas and even a few movies. How are you facing the challenge of bringing everything together?
Joe: I think I’ve spent most of this year re-watching the TV series and re-listening to the audio dramas. When you’re doing an anniversary special you really need to get things right. So what happened is that I re-watched any episode that seemed to be relevant to the story and then compiled a document which I gave to Roy Gill, the writer. His job was, first of all, to come up with a fantastic story. We then worked together to create younger versions of existing characters and to tie together everything that happened around that time. If Bloodlust and Bloodline are our attempts to emulate the TV series, Blood & Fire is us trying to do a feature film on audio. It’s a huge story but the real challenge has been incorporating all the backstory and forwardstory (if that’s such a thing) without it feeling clunky. If you’ve never seen or heard an episode of Dark Shadows in your life then Blood & Fire is a fantastic horror movie set in 1767. If you’re a Dark Shadows fan then Blood & Fire is an anniversary special.
David: By trying really hard not to think about it. Otherwise the terror of getting it wrong would creatively cripple us!
2015's Dark Shadows: Bloodlust mini-series proved to be one of the most successful Dark Shadows releases yet. What lessons did you learn from making this series, and how did it effect your plans for the 50th Anniversary?
Joe: If anything it’s made it harder for us. Bloodlust got such a fantastic response that the challenge has been to try and follow on from it without disappointing. Bloodline is a very different story – it’s smaller and more intimate. It’s about a family rather than a town. It’s about a wedding rather than a serial killer. It’s about exploring what it is to be a part of a family. And, of course, it’s a mystery. You might think you know what the story is but you might be wrong. If Bloodlust was a story about a mystery, Bloodline is a mystery about the story. How pretentious does that sound? I’m sorry!
David: I think what we learned is that we should be as bold as we feel like. It was a whole new paradigm of an idea and worked very well. We won't be scared to suggest further new concepts or presentation methods.
How do each of your approach working on the series? Do you work together, or take on different roles individually?
Joe: Basically, I’m the Dark Shadows expert. Davy is the audio drama expert. What usually happens is that we go to the pub and discuss what we want to do. This involves us talking about the fictional side of it – where do we want to take the characters and so on - and also the production side of it – what kind of stories do we want to tell and how do we want to tell them. We then decide on writers and Davy takes a back seat. I plot out the stories with the writers and get them working. I then script edit the various drafts and then everything is sent to Davy for him to look at. After that, I take a back seat and Davy takes over and, basically, makes it happen. We discuss the casting for any new characters and then Davy starts organizing the studio sessions. Me and him both attend the UK recording sessions and we have a fantastic director, Ursula Burton, in the US who organizes everything there. Davy then puts it all together and I listen to the dialogue edits, FX edits, music edits and so on. What’s great is that we both provide each other with a second opinion on things. So I might think a script is finished and Davy will spot something. Davy might think a take in the studio was great and I might suggest an alternative way of doing it. We’ve got quite different backgrounds and tastes and – and I hate to use the word – skillsets. But we both love creating audio drama and drinking lager so somehow it all works.
David: Yeah, absolutely everything starts with a long conversation in a pub, from which Joe takes the lead on arranging writers and scripts and I take a bit of a back seat till we have scripts in. So it's sort of 80/20 Joe/me up till that point. Once it moves from being a script into being an actual breathing production the ratio switches over – so we each have input at all stages, just in different proportions. We work well together both in studio and out; we occasionally bully the other one into doing some paperwork, which neither of us wants to do but, you know, somebody's got to.
Blood & Fire will be followed by a new mini-series Dark Shadows: Bloodline later in 2016. What ideas are you planning and are we allowed any spoilers?
Joe: Like Blood & Fire, Bloodline is about a wedding. Or so it appears. Possibly. It follows on from the events of Bloodlust and the 2015 Dramatic Readings but, as always, it features a character arriving in Collinsport so that we meet the characters through her. This time our new character is the mysterious Vivian Bell. But whereas Bloodlust opened with the innocent, naïve and lovely Melody Devereux, Vivian is pure soap vixen. Oh, and we’re finally doing a soap opera disaster episode! I can’t wait to do the trailer for that! Who will survive?
David: The format, presentation and release schedule will be similar to Bloodlust; the actual content will be very different. And it's deliberately less of an 'introduction' as well, with the caveat of course that everything is a jumping-on point to some extent. Every episode is someone's first!
We've been lucky to feature many characters from the original series in Big Finish's audio dramas. Are there any Dark Shadows toys you'd still like the chance to play with that you haven't already?
Joe: I’d just love to do more, really. I’d love it if we were bringing out an episode twice a week all year round but it would literally kill us. What’s surprised me this year is how much I’ve enjoyed working on Blood & Fire with Roy Gill. Generally, it’s the modern-day setting, serial elements, character arcs and so on that appeal to me on Dark Shadows but doing a big standalone story in the past has been so much fun. One of the highlights, for me, of 2016 so far was receiving Roy’s first draft of Episode One. The dialogue jumped off the page because it’s glorious. It opens with a woman arriving on the outskirts of town and, before you know it, she’s met a pirate and then we’re in a horse-drawn carriage as people travel to a big house for a wedding. It’s pure gothic romance and I love it. So yeah, maybe if Blood & Fire is a success we’ll get a chance to do more standalone dramas.
David: Yes, there are. But maybe we just have...
Joe: Have I persuaded people to try Dark Shadows? Can I go back to watching it now? The year is 1795. The Countess Natalie DuPres has just worked out there’s a force of evil in the house and she suspects time-travelling governess Victoria Winters…
Dark Shadows 50th Anniversary Special: Blood & Fire and can be pre-ordered today for just £14.99 on CD or £12.99 to download. And remember, when you choose to buy this release on CD directly from Big Finish, you will also unlock access to a digital copy for download on the day of release.
Pre-orders for Dark Shadows: Bloodline will be opening soon. In the meantime, you can catch up on the story so far with the first episode of Dark Shadows: Bloodlust, available to download for free from the Big Finish website. You can also get an introduction to the range with our video trailer below:
More than fifty other Dark Shadows releases are currently available from the Big Finish website, including full cast audios, dramatic readings and two compilations of original music. Click here to start exploring the world of Colllinsport.