Actor James Gaddass stands in front of the ruins at Whitby Abbey

An Interview with Bram Stoker's Dracula star James Gaddas

Posted on: Wednesday 09 February 2022

An Interview with James Gaddass. 
By Phil Penfold

We all know the story of Dracula. Don’t we?

Actor James Gaddas lifts a politely enquiring eyebrow and asks: “Really, do we? I’ll agree that we all think that we know this incredible tale, but, come on and put your hands up – who can actually admit that they’ve read every page of it, the whole novel from cover to cover? Very few, I suspect. It’s a bit like ‘Lord of the Rings’, isn’t it? A book that we all owned as teenagers, and where we probably read a couple of chapters before it ended up on the shelves again, or used as a convenient doorstop. Both are quite a chore to wade through. Doing so is a strange badge of literary honour. What we truly know it from, or our acquaintance with the legend, is through the scores of versions that have been made for the screen”. James, however, has indeed consumed the book, from first page to the last, and while he is far too modest a person to claim to be any sort of an expert, he’d now stand a pretty good chance of getting an excellent score, if he was ever to nominate Bram Stoker’s masterpiece of 1897 as his specialist subject on ‘Mastermind’.

James (61) is now taking his one-man show around the UK, and he is delighted that audiences are already picking up on the multi-layered legendary suspense yarn. He openly admits that this was his “lockdown project”, and says that, along with so many other actors, performers, musicians and just about everyone connected with the entertainment business in its broadest sense, he found himself skidding to a creative halt as the spectre of Covid advanced, and live appearances disappeared.

“Strangely”, he says, “the story resonated with me, even as a youngster, and I must have been all of 11 years old or so when I saw it on TV in one of the movie versions which starred Christopher Lee – why would it not? All blood and fangs and gore, and hiding behind the sofa. It scared the very devil out of me! But, as I grew older, I realised that one got the real scares, the frisson of the hair standing up on the back of the neck, not from the poor woman screaming fit to bust at Mr. Lee, but from what the audiences didn’t see in horror films. The classic example is the shower scene in ‘Psycho’ is far more frightening because we don’t get the image of the knife going in – that’s a perfect example. It’s all left to the imagination, which is far better.”

Picking up his copy of the book (most of which Stoker wrote in Whitby, amassing over 100 pages of notes, many of which were influenced by local folklore and fact, as well as material from Transylvania) James also quickly realised that “if I was going to bring everything on the page to the theatre, we’d all be sitting indoors for about 15 hours. And that just couldn’t be allowed to happen. I had to go for another angle, and to do quite a lot of filleting on the original text. I had to have a very different ‘take’ on it. It was a case of reading it over and over again, and to decide what worked to deliver a sense of ominous presence”. The other main decision was how the story would be told “because it is observed from so many, many varied angles. Stoker was a master at reflecting so many images, each acutely observed from a different narrative source. Invented letters, diaries, newspaper articles. If it was going to be done conventionally, then I’d have to get together a cast of a dozen or more, all of them playing multiple roles. Let’s face it – was that going to happen after lockdown was lifted? The theatre being in the state that it is these days, slowly getting back to life again, and with strict budgeting, the answer was obviously going to be ‘no’.”

So, Stockton-born James, whose career has included everything from ‘Bad Girls’ to ‘Hollyoaks’, ‘Emmerdale’ to ‘Heartbeat’ and ‘Medics’ on TV, and a string of theatre highlights in shows like ‘Billy Elliott’, ‘Mamma Mia!’ and ‘The Girls’, took a big breath – and a big decision. He was going to play all of the 15 parts in the show himself. The result, he believes, is a “very seductive thriller”, and his hunches seem to be right, for audiences are lapping it up, thoroughly engrossed in Stoker’s story.

 “The really odd thing is”, laughs James, “is that dear old Bram Stoker had a great deal of respect for Whitby and its people, all of whom were unfailingly generous to him. I’d have loved to have played it in a venue there, a genuine thank you to the man and to the town. But we couldn’t find a single suitable venue. Not one. When we take it out again later in the year, which I’d love to do, maybe someone can offer some ideas? I’m waiting to hear them…”

But, James points out, “I did go there quite a bit, both as a youngster and just recently, just to get a ‘feel’ for the town, and I sat where Bram must have done, looking out to sea, and maybe I followed in his footsteps by having a pint in the pubs that he did. I climbed the many steps up to the Abbey, as he would have done, and the ‘presence’ you feel up there is immeasurable. Luckily, it was on a quiet day – you would not want to be there in the middle of a gale. The town is an incredible, timeless place, nothing seems to change.  And at least I got to North Yorkshire – Bram was a very well-travelled man indeed, but he never once got as far as Transylvania. He may have read about the area thoroughly, but he never set foot in it!”

Stoker’s legacy is phenomenal. The book has never ever been out of print, and was featured in a stage play within months of publication – it was a huge hit with Victorian audiences. There is now at least one seven-day Dracula tour in Romania, and nearer to home, a regular and much-loved evening walking tour of Whitby. The first recorded film of the story was ‘Dracula’s Death’, a silent version of 1921 (though there were probably others before that) which is now lost, and the latest is 2022’s ‘Hotel Transylvania: Transformania’. There are hundreds of others in between. “It’s something that audiences really love to get their teeth into”, says James, who adds apologetically: “Sorry, couldn’t resist that”.

What James has done – with the aid of his wife Deborah and his daughter Cate, the director Pip Minitthorpe (who was Assistant Director on the West End and Broadway box office smash ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’) composer Jeremy Swift and with illusion designs by John Bulleid – is to “re-imagine” the story, and to give it a new perspective. “I really do get so annoyed with the schlock versions of it”, he admits, “just as I get really uncomfortable with those horror movies that are so predictable that as soon as you see the characters involved, you know with a certainty who is going to get attacked or terminated before the first twenty minutes is out. Why do their phones never get a signal? Why do they always run up to the attic, or down to the cellar, instead of straight out the front door? For me, it’s the suspense that makes the drama, the unknown around the corner. And I hope that everyone will find that I have been true to that intent.”

He wrote all the script himself, on a typewriter since “my handwriting is now completely shot! Bram used pen and ink, and put his dialogue down in many notebooks, and they are fascinating to read. I have so much admiration for the man. Today, he’d be writing for ‘EastEnders’ or ‘Corrie’, and his storylines would be the ones to watch and enjoy, believe me!”

Does James think his literary career will ever take over his acting side or can the two play well together. He pauses and thinks for a moment. “Maybe I should be thinking about a one-man version of ‘The Three Musketeers’? That way, I could play a trio of leading parts in a single evening!” He thinks for another second, and then smiles: “Actually, that’s not such a bad idea, is it?”

Bram Stoker's Dracula is on at the Pomegranate Theatre on Sat 19 Feb at 7.30pm.

An Interview with Bram Stoker's Dracula star James Gaddas

An Interview with James Gaddass. 
By Phil Penfold

We all know the story of Dracula. Don’t we?

Actor James Gaddas lifts a politely enquiring eyebrow and asks: “Really, do we? I’ll agree that we all think that we know this incredible tale, but, come on and put your hands up – who can actually admit that they’ve read every page of it, the whole novel from cover to cover? Very few, I suspect. It’s a bit like ‘Lord of the Rings’, isn’t it? A book that we all owned as teenagers, and where we probably read a couple of chapters before it ended up on the shelves again, or used as a convenient doorstop. Both are quite a chore to wade through. Doing so is a strange badge of literary honour. What we truly know it from, or our acquaintance with the legend, is through the scores of versions that have been made for the screen”. James, however, has indeed consumed the book, from first page to the last, and while he is far too modest a person to claim to be any sort of an expert, he’d now stand a pretty good chance of getting an excellent score, if he was ever to nominate Bram Stoker’s masterpiece of 1897 as his specialist subject on ‘Mastermind’.

James (61) is now taking his one-man show around the UK, and he is delighted that audiences are already picking up on the multi-layered legendary suspense yarn. He openly admits that this was his “lockdown project”, and says that, along with so many other actors, performers, musicians and just about everyone connected with the entertainment business in its broadest sense, he found himself skidding to a creative halt as the spectre of Covid advanced, and live appearances disappeared.

“Strangely”, he says, “the story resonated with me, even as a youngster, and I must have been all of 11 years old or so when I saw it on TV in one of the movie versions which starred Christopher Lee – why would it not? All blood and fangs and gore, and hiding behind the sofa. It scared the very devil out of me! But, as I grew older, I realised that one got the real scares, the frisson of the hair standing up on the back of the neck, not from the poor woman screaming fit to bust at Mr. Lee, but from what the audiences didn’t see in horror films. The classic example is the shower scene in ‘Psycho’ is far more frightening because we don’t get the image of the knife going in – that’s a perfect example. It’s all left to the imagination, which is far better.”

Picking up his copy of the book (most of which Stoker wrote in Whitby, amassing over 100 pages of notes, many of which were influenced by local folklore and fact, as well as material from Transylvania) James also quickly realised that “if I was going to bring everything on the page to the theatre, we’d all be sitting indoors for about 15 hours. And that just couldn’t be allowed to happen. I had to go for another angle, and to do quite a lot of filleting on the original text. I had to have a very different ‘take’ on it. It was a case of reading it over and over again, and to decide what worked to deliver a sense of ominous presence”. The other main decision was how the story would be told “because it is observed from so many, many varied angles. Stoker was a master at reflecting so many images, each acutely observed from a different narrative source. Invented letters, diaries, newspaper articles. If it was going to be done conventionally, then I’d have to get together a cast of a dozen or more, all of them playing multiple roles. Let’s face it – was that going to happen after lockdown was lifted? The theatre being in the state that it is these days, slowly getting back to life again, and with strict budgeting, the answer was obviously going to be ‘no’.”

So, Stockton-born James, whose career has included everything from ‘Bad Girls’ to ‘Hollyoaks’, ‘Emmerdale’ to ‘Heartbeat’ and ‘Medics’ on TV, and a string of theatre highlights in shows like ‘Billy Elliott’, ‘Mamma Mia!’ and ‘The Girls’, took a big breath – and a big decision. He was going to play all of the 15 parts in the show himself. The result, he believes, is a “very seductive thriller”, and his hunches seem to be right, for audiences are lapping it up, thoroughly engrossed in Stoker’s story.

 “The really odd thing is”, laughs James, “is that dear old Bram Stoker had a great deal of respect for Whitby and its people, all of whom were unfailingly generous to him. I’d have loved to have played it in a venue there, a genuine thank you to the man and to the town. But we couldn’t find a single suitable venue. Not one. When we take it out again later in the year, which I’d love to do, maybe someone can offer some ideas? I’m waiting to hear them…”

But, James points out, “I did go there quite a bit, both as a youngster and just recently, just to get a ‘feel’ for the town, and I sat where Bram must have done, looking out to sea, and maybe I followed in his footsteps by having a pint in the pubs that he did. I climbed the many steps up to the Abbey, as he would have done, and the ‘presence’ you feel up there is immeasurable. Luckily, it was on a quiet day – you would not want to be there in the middle of a gale. The town is an incredible, timeless place, nothing seems to change.  And at least I got to North Yorkshire – Bram was a very well-travelled man indeed, but he never once got as far as Transylvania. He may have read about the area thoroughly, but he never set foot in it!”

Stoker’s legacy is phenomenal. The book has never ever been out of print, and was featured in a stage play within months of publication – it was a huge hit with Victorian audiences. There is now at least one seven-day Dracula tour in Romania, and nearer to home, a regular and much-loved evening walking tour of Whitby. The first recorded film of the story was ‘Dracula’s Death’, a silent version of 1921 (though there were probably others before that) which is now lost, and the latest is 2022’s ‘Hotel Transylvania: Transformania’. There are hundreds of others in between. “It’s something that audiences really love to get their teeth into”, says James, who adds apologetically: “Sorry, couldn’t resist that”.

What James has done – with the aid of his wife Deborah and his daughter Cate, the director Pip Minitthorpe (who was Assistant Director on the West End and Broadway box office smash ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’) composer Jeremy Swift and with illusion designs by John Bulleid – is to “re-imagine” the story, and to give it a new perspective. “I really do get so annoyed with the schlock versions of it”, he admits, “just as I get really uncomfortable with those horror movies that are so predictable that as soon as you see the characters involved, you know with a certainty who is going to get attacked or terminated before the first twenty minutes is out. Why do their phones never get a signal? Why do they always run up to the attic, or down to the cellar, instead of straight out the front door? For me, it’s the suspense that makes the drama, the unknown around the corner. And I hope that everyone will find that I have been true to that intent.”

He wrote all the script himself, on a typewriter since “my handwriting is now completely shot! Bram used pen and ink, and put his dialogue down in many notebooks, and they are fascinating to read. I have so much admiration for the man. Today, he’d be writing for ‘EastEnders’ or ‘Corrie’, and his storylines would be the ones to watch and enjoy, believe me!”

Does James think his literary career will ever take over his acting side or can the two play well together. He pauses and thinks for a moment. “Maybe I should be thinking about a one-man version of ‘The Three Musketeers’? That way, I could play a trio of leading parts in a single evening!” He thinks for another second, and then smiles: “Actually, that’s not such a bad idea, is it?”

Bram Stoker's Dracula is on at the Pomegranate Theatre on Sat 19 Feb at 7.30pm.

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