Television: The bloodsucker, the barrister and the boil-encrusted bodies

There’s good reason to revamp the vampire story, and a barrister has plenty of bloodcurdling moments

 Jonathan Rhys Meyers is a Dracula for the ‘Twilight’ generation: young, sexy, rich and a hit with the ladies

Jonathan Rhys Meyers is a Dracula for the ‘Twilight’ generation: young, sexy, rich and a hit with the ladies

 

With so many screen adaptations of Bram Stoker’s novel, everyone has a favourite image of Dracula, from Bela Lugosi’s dramatically accented Drac-u-laa via Christopher Lee having a nap in his coffin to the kids who called on Halloween night with gleaming fangs and black capes. So a new version (Dracula, Sky Atlantic, Thursday) might not be strictly necessary, but from a TV executive’s point of view you can see the appeal. The classic yarn offers the perfect mix of two huge TV themes: the supernatural and historical – The Vampire Diaries meets Downton Abbey.

This new version is set in Victorian London but filmed in Budapest for lush, Gothic eye candy (and, presumably, budgetary reasons) and has Jonathan Rhys Meyers as the bloodthirsty main man. Pale and intense – he does rather a lot of staring – he’s a Dracula for the Twilight generation: young, sexy, rich and a hit with the ladies.

Brought back to life – the opening scene featured some spookily good and very bloody special effects – by Van Helsing (Thomas Kretschmann), Dracula has set himself up in London as Alexander Grayson, a rich American industrialist, with Hadfield (Nonso Anozie), his all-knowing, protective butler. His cover is that he’s promoting his newly invented wireless electricity, but he’s really on a mission to destroy the Order of the Dragon, who killed his wife centuries before.

They now manifest themselves as a cabal of businessmen, heavily invested in oil, and before the end of the first episode one has already got it in the neck, as have a random woman and a vampire hunter after a slow-motion rooftop martial-arts scene.

Victoria Smurfit has a cracking role. She’s Lady Jayne Wetherby, a society lady and vampire hunter, barely contained by her bustiers and with a female vampire imprisoned in her basement. She’s the vampish, camp opposite of Mina (Jessica de Gouw), the sweet medical student who might be the reincarnation of Dracula’s wife.

The opener looked lavish but was slow, weighed down with characters and plot, including the weirdly extraneous but fashionably modern green-energy-versus-oil storyline. Dracula as an eco warrior? That can’t be right. And for all the gore and fangs it wasn’t remotely fright-night scary – but there are nine episodes to go, so there’s time.

Much more terrifying was The Escape Artist (BBC One, Tuesday). There can’t have been many viewers who braved a bath after one of its shriekingly scary scenes, set in a lonely country cottage, in which a bathing woman opens her eyes to find a murderous psychopath looking in.

Introduced that way, the new BBC drama starring David Tennant sounds predictable and corny, but it’s not. Tennant, the TV man of the moment (after ITV’s Broadchurch), is Will Burton, a young barrister who is living the dream: beautiful wife and son, gorgeous penthouse and a country cottage, and a reputation as the best brief in London. He’s known as the escape artist for his ability to get his clients off even when he suspects they’re guilty, because he believes in the barrister credo that everyone deserves a defence.

He has never lost a case, so he’s quietly smug, enjoying friendly rivalry with the second-best brief in London (Sophie Okonedo) until his courtroom smarts earn a murdering psychopath a get-out-of-jail- free card.

In a tense moment after the trial, Burton, a look of conscience or regret flashing across his eyes, refuses to shake the murderer’s hand. And then when the murderer targets his family he gets a hard lesson in the difference between the law, as practised with jousting competitiveness between him and his bewigged chums, and justice, which should punish wrongdoing.

Writer David Wolstencroft’s storyline see-sawed effortlessly between a thoughtful courtroom drama and a serial-killer- on-the-loose nightmare, and Tennant gave another masterclass in TV acting – restrained, thoughtful, not showy – as the man who sees things quite differently when crime hits home.

There are holes in the plot. Would Will’s wife really have gone back alone to the cottage? I don’t think so, but I don’t care. Two episodes left and I’m hooked on the tension and the twists. It has joined the superb crime remake The Tunnel (Sky Atlantic, Wednesday) on my must-watch list.

Another series to watch from behind the sofa, but for very different reasons, is the apparently never-ending Embarrassing Bodies (Channel 4, Monday), featuring the Cork-born doctor Pixie McKenna. As cringeworthy as it is to watch – and it’s impossible ever to stop being astonished by how nonchalant members of the great British public are about shoving their boil-covered backsides and oozing sores in front of the camera – the series provides a worthwhile public service, showing that doctors are unshockable and approachable, and that there’s no need for anyone to die of embarrassment.

And then they go and wreck it all with the sneery Health Freaks (Channel 4, Monday), again featuring McKenna. This time the public get to pitch their home remedies to her and two other doctors, who then assess their medical worthiness. Of course, the remedies err on the revolting. Last week’s highlight was a man who puts leeches up his bum to cure something – I wasn’t sure what, exactly – and this week’s was a young guy who starts the day with a glass of his own wee because he discovered it cures his asthma. It’s all crackpot stuff, but there’s no need for the doctors to come across so snooty and superior.

The Commute (Monday) was tagged on at the end of RTÉ Two’s “comedy night” – only the repeat of Father Ted lives up to that billing – but, unlike the other home-made offerings, The Republic of Telly and The Fear, this one-off drama by Dave Coffey (of Dan & Becs) was inventive and worth watching. It was a clever concept with room for manoeuvre; a drama made up of intercut stories, filmed from the dashboard, as three Dublin couples went about their daily commute.

There were comic moments as the six – Joanne McNally, Greg Spring, Chris Tordoff, Áine McKevitt, Eric Lalor and Eva-Jane Gaffney – chatted about relationships, dreams, work, negative equity and their dinner. There wasn’t a forced line in Coffey’s authentic script, and the acting – some of the cast are TV newcomers; others, such as Lalor, too rarely seen – was natural, getting the mocumentary spot on. If this is a pilot, it’s got wheels.


tvreview@irishtimes.com

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