A BBC Christmas favourite for a couple of years running when I was a lad (I never got the chance to see it, though) Jack Smight’s epic three hour mini-series in the days before such things had become properly established is, of course, anything but a faithful adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel. However, seeing as it was first broadcast at a time when cinema versions ranged from Andy Warhol’s FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN (marvellous) to BLACKENSTEIN (not at all marvellous), one can appreciate how some might have had a desire to do something that got back to basics.
Despite its 180 minute running time, FRANKENSTEIN THE TRUE STORY begins (and ends, for that matter) abruptly. In a series of rapid cuts that make us feel we’ve already missed an episode, we learn how Victor Frankenstein (Leonard Whiting) lost his brother William to drowning, offering this as his subsequent obsession with the desire to create life.
Travelling from his home to London on the York to London coach (did Frankenstein truly some from Yorkshire?) he bumps into local surgeon Henry Clerval (David McCallum) who has made a machine that can reanimate the kind of beetle you just never get to see in the UK nowadays. A room-sized machine and some appropriate body parts, plus the action of sunlight (a nice touch) results in perfect ‘Creature’ Michael Sarrazin. Henry’s brain has gone into Sarrazin’s skull after Henry’s health gave out, leaving Frankenstein to rent some rooms and move in with Michael so they can have a lovely time going to the opera and playing in the park. But oh no! Michael starts to ‘regress’ and Frankenstein has to break up with him...er...send him away.
But who’s that lurking in a kimono? It’s none other than James Mason with no hands and the gift for hypnosis (I don't think this bit is the 'true story' either). James is Dr Polidori, and he’s kitted out Frankenstein’s old lab so it looks like something from THE MASK OF FU MANCHU. He even has Chinese servants to complete the ensemble. Polidori wants to make a girl, not for sensible naughty doctor reasons, but to rule the world with, or something. Michael, who has survived his 400 foot plunge off the white cliffs of Dover, brings him the body of Jane Seymour, which no doctor, naughty or otherwise, could possibly object to for their experiments. Pretty soon Polidori’s convinced Frankenstein to help him and Prima is born, only to lose her head in a splendid bit at a ball.
We’re two and a half hours in and Tom Baker, toplined in the credits, still hasn’t appeared! There he is at last, as the captain of the ship intended to take Victor and his bride Elizabeth (an unsympathetic performance from Nicola Pagett) to the New World (Roger Corman's, we hope). Unfortunately everything goes pear-shaped and Victor and his creation end up at the North Pole, where they laugh and get buried in an avalanche. The End.
FRANKENSTEIN THE TRUE STORY feels very much like something made for an undemanding mainstream television audience rather than horror fans. Indeed, if your mum fancied watching a version of Frankenstein, this would be a good one to suggest. Jack Smight’s direction is workmanlike and undistinguished, Gil Melle’s music feels like it’s accompanying a Barbara Taylor Bradford adaptation, and while the locations are very pretty there’s very little sense of the gothic evinced by the best versions of this story. James Mason camps it up (possibly a bit too much) and David McCallum is excellent as the grumpy and obsessive Clerval. They should have got him to play Frankenstein. Michael Sarrazin does a good job of doing something different with the creature, and Jane Seymour makes the most of her role as Frankenstein’s second creation. In the lead role, Leonard Whiting is pretty but ineffectual, an individual who is swept along by events rather than the driven scientist horror fans had by this time become used to. Ultimately, any adaptation of Frankenstein is going to stand or fall on its central performance, and, more than its lack of gothic trappings or unimaginative direction, it's Whiting’s performance that has me yearning to watch James Whale’s and Terence Fisher’s versions again.
Second Sight presents FRANKENSTEIN THE TRUE STORY in its original TV aspect ratio of 1.33:1. You can either watch it in two episodes or run through the whole thing in one go. The only extra is the infamous introduction by James Mason where he wanders through a London cemetery to come across the grave of Mary Shelley, despite the fact she was actually buried in Dorset.
Second Sight are bringing out FRANKENSTEIN THE TRUE STORY on DVD on 10th March 2014