Fangs for the memories: how Dracula was made in Derby

With his high-collared cape and piercing fangs, Dracula is every inch the quintessential vampire – instantly recognisable across culture. Portrayed hundreds of times in film, theatre, video games and spin-off books, the character is always evolving – an evolution that began in Derby.

When the curtain rose at Derby’s Grand theatre in May 1924, the monster of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel was transformed into an elegant figure, swooping around the stage in a long opera cloak. Written by Irish actor and playwright Hamilton Deane, the first authorised play of Dracula premiered here, and went on to shape how the character was adapted by Hollywood. “Derby is the genesis point for the visualisation of Count Dracula,” says Dacre Stoker, the great-grandnephew of Bram Stoker and co-author of Dracula: The Un-Dead, a sequel to Dracula.

A 14-month programme of events will mark the 100th anniversary of Dracula’s first appearance on stage, under the banner of Dracula Returns to Derby, an Art and Humanities Research Council-funded project led by the University of Derby that will celebrate and explore this legacy.

Resting place … the former Grand theatre in Derby, now an adults-only crazy golf venue. Photograph: Dr Matthew Cheeseman

The recognition is long overdue. In 2019, Dr Matthew Cheeseman, associate professor of creative writing at the University of Derby, realised the connection while writing a preface for The Derby Critical Edition of Dracula. “It was something no one else really talked about,” says Cheeseman, who is leading the Dracula Returns to Derby project. “What Derby gave was freedom to adapt the character.”

The 1924 production took place at the Grand theatre, now an adult crazy golf venue. Adapting the novel into that first official staging came with challenges. “Number one was to get Florence Stoker – Bram’s widow – to agree,” says Dacre. Florence was in dispute over the unauthorised adaptation of Dracula into Nosferatu, FW Murnau’s celebrated 1922 silent film. “So she was under great stress,” says Dacre. “But she had some comfort because Hamilton Deane was an Irishman from the same area that Bram was from. Before the novel was published, Bram had laid the groundwork by holding a staged reading at the Lyceum theatre in London. In terms of the dramatic rights, that was writing a blank cheque and leaving it to her.”

While she won the Nosferatu case, with a court ruling that all copies of the film should be destroyed (thankfully some survived), Florence didn’t get any money, as the film’s production company was bankrupt. But winning “gave her the conviction to go to somebody and get this thing on stage”.

Dracula is an epistolary novel, regularly switching viewpoints, and had to be greatly condensed from its 27 chapters. “Hamilton Deane made the decision to cut out Transylvania. When the curtain goes up, Dracula is already in London and part of high society,” explains Cheeseman. “Dracula was dressed smartly – the dinner suit and the suaveness indicates he’s already infiltrated the country. If he was a horrible monster it wouldn’t add up. And he’s more present in the play than in the novel, where he’s an ambient threat. You don’t want to have a play called Dracula and not have him there.”

Edmund Blake, the actor who played Dracula in 1924, wore his own dinner suit on stage, alongside a cape with a high collar. “The Dracula cape was a stage prop,” says Dacre. The cape was attached to wires and suspended, so that Dracula could slip away through a trapdoor – another character would go to grab him but find he had vanished from behind the dangling cape. “It’s funny that what started as a prop on stage in Derby has stuck for ever,” he says. “You see kids in Halloween costumes with that high-collared cape.”

The successful 1924 production went on tour, and was adapted in 1927 by John L Balderston for Broadway, where Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi starred as Dracula. Universal bought the rights to the Deane-Balderston play; this became the celebrated 1931 Dracula film starring Lugosi, which influenced the way Dracula – and vampires – have been portrayed ever since.

The evolution of Dracula has seen him become more believable, says Dacre. “We don’t know who he really is or what disguise he’ll take. And this introduces a concept of vulnerability.” He says the enduring appeal of vampires – the hope of life after death and immortality – was helped by the 1924 play. Making Dracula more human-like “was a mechanism to let people identify with him, and to not immediately scare them off”.

In the blood … Christopher Lee in the 1972 film Dracula, AD 1972. Photograph: Allstar/Alamy

The 1992 film Bram Stoker’s Dracula with Gary Oldman, says Dacre, solidified Dracula’s origin story as Vlad the Impaler – something that the novel doesn’t make explicit. “To a certain extent, we’ve made the vampire more believable, more human, because we’ve attached him to a specific genesis point,” says Dacre. “Dracula has also developed a moral compass. He’s evolved from the point where Dracula was just out to drink more blood to keep himself alive and to create more vampires, to having a more complex motivation, because we’ve got to keep him interesting and take on more challenges.”

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The character has continued to change. Hammer’s 1958 Dracula with Christopher Lee was the first time Dracula was portrayed with fangs. And Dacre cites the third episode of Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’s 2020 BBC series Dracula, which shows the vampire in 21st-century London using a dating app on his phone. “Why wouldn’t Dracula in the modern day use all these new devices to try to find his victims?” he says.

Our current view of vampires has been influenced by early portrayals of Dracula, though other works affected this, too. Lord Ruthven, the protagonist of John William Polidori’s 1819 story The Vampyre, is portrayed as sophisticated and alluring. The Dracula of the 1924 Derby production built on this. “It’s like a big tree branch,” says Dacre. This metamorphosis of vampires more generally in popular culture has seen different interpretations, from the complex Angel in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who has a human soul, to Edward Cullen in Twilight, who sparkles in the sunlight.

“I’ve got no problem with that happening, because it keeps it relevant and new,” Stoker says. “Sparkly vampires still get affected by the sun, it’s just a new trope brought on with new technology. Some argue about how Bram Stoker would never have done that. Of course not – they couldn’t do sparkly vampires in 1924 on the stage.”

Showing the range of the Dracula character in the 100 years since the 1924 play is key to Derby’s programme, from 1970s blaxploitation film Blacula to the hotel owner in family animation Hotel Transylvania. “We’re keen to showcase all the different adaptations of Dracula, but also to ask people what their version is,” says Dan Webber, events programmer for Derby Museums. “We’re asking people where they first heard of the character, too.” The community will be involved in co-producing the programme. “It’s about ownership and involvement,” says Webber. They are also recruiting “Dracbassadors” to help spread the word.

The team want the programme to be the start of recognising Derby’s role in Dracula, with hopes that 15 May will become an annual Dracula Day. “Derby is the place where Dracula came to life and transformed,” says Webber. “There are so many great vampire stories which all have this streak of blood back to Dracula – and Derby is a massive part of that story.”

The Dracula Returns to Derby programme, featuring talks by Dacre Stoker and Dr Matthew Cheeseman, runs to May 2025.

The Guardian