The week in TV: Dracula, Doctor Who, The Trial of Christine Keeler and more

A splendid revamp of Dracula and real scares in Doctor Who restored faith in the BBC – until Miranda bounced back

Dracula (BBC One) | iPlayer
Doctor Who (BBC One) | iPlayer
The Trial of Christine Keeler (BBC One) | iPlayer
Wisting (BBC Four) | iPlayer
Miranda: My Such Fun Celebration (BBC One) | iPlayer

Well, there’s a surprise. Not one but two superb new three-part adaptations back to back in successive weeks, pretty much giving the lie to the line that the BBC, especially BBC One, can’t do anything over the festives but lazy schmaltz and the execrable Mrs Brown’s Boys. It did them too, of course, the world must keep turning (dammit), but…

Although to call them adaptations is perhaps stretching it. After a genuinely fine Christmas Carol 10 days ago, last week we had an even better Dracula: first a genuinely complex Scrooge, and now a captivating vampire tale ripe and reeking with unsettled souls; the pair could have proudly held their heads up as standalone drama series at any time of any year. The imprimaturs of Dickens and Stoker were almost incidental.

The tone was set within the opening minutes of Dracula. A fly landed on the open eyeball of poor destroyed Jonathan Harker, telling his ghastly tale to nuns in, he thought, a safe asylum. There would be many, many more flies, but this first was crucial. “Is it gone now?” he murmured offhandedly, after blinking. It was indeed. Into his eye. We saw it crawling behind the white filmy cornea and over his pupil.

There were nods to the original narrative, but this was a more grown-up and clever beast altogether, with true high questions about good and evil, betrayals and loving sacrifice, as befitted a labour of love from Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat. Nods, too, particularly by Claes Bang as the count, to a certain era of campness in the decades of films – “So I’m a monster. You’re a lawyer. Nobody’s perfect” – but this was in general about as far from Hammer House of Horror as Lawrence of Arabia is from Carry On Up the Khyber.

We even got a bit of Sherlock, in the voyage of the Demeter, several nods to Inside No 9 and, yes, time travel, yet some will have recorded all to watch later and I’d feel truly angry to be offered spoilers. Yet expect Dolly Wells, searing as sister Agatha Van Helsing, to be offered much work this coming year. A word of warning – do not watch pretty much any of this if you have one fly, even one last lost lazy fly going for the glaze on the tinfoiled gammon, in the room. It will land on your eyelid, and you will shriek.

And – what’s this, Doctor Who bang back to form? Someone has been drip-feeding showrunner Chris Chibnall testosterone, not to any ridiculous extent of machismo, but just enough for him to remember that alien monsters have to be scary, not misunderstood candidates for soft courses of bloody “mindfulness” or any such tommyrot. It was from the off just big blithering fun, as were the best of the Bond movies on which this two-parter is based: exotic locations, half-decent gags (the satnav’s “in 20 seconds, turn right. In five seconds, die”: that’s one I want), actual thrills and spills and a certain logic to the puzzle-solving, rather than last series’ cloying warm mimsy.

Jodie Whittaker, centre, in a Bond-themed Doctor Who with companions Mandip Gill, Tosin Cole and Bradley Walsh.
‘Actual thrills and spills’: Jodie Whittaker, centre, in a Bond-themed Doctor Who with companions Mandip Gill, Tosin Cole and Bradley Walsh. Photograph: BBC

And the return of the Master. I am told by Whovian “experts”, whom you tend to meet at parties at this time of year, effusively outside their comfort zones and proffering, drunkenly, mistletoe, that this is a Very Big Thing. Whatever. A few things to note (apart from “whatever” being well and truly over, this being a clean new decade): the actors work increasingly well together, newly well, and Chibnall has a newly confident hand on the helm: those rocks, as in Dracula’s Whitby, were getting perilous close.

Talking of mistletoe: can it be true, as I was recently told, that it’s known by young folk who spend more time glued to their phones rather than living real life (limping angrily through cold rain) as the “perverts’ garnish”? Surely not… yet I was foully reminded of the capacity of some men to absolutely bloody queer it for the rest of us by the heftily strong, if arguably needlessly redramatised, The Trial of Christine Keeler.

Christine’s imagined voiceover at the start of the second bite of this six-parter – “We both gave in to the most natural human instinct of all… the love of a powerful middle-aged man for a penniless teenage girl” – was about all the knowing archness we got from Miss Keeler. Not Ms. Miss. Those were those days. In truth, Christine, powerfully channelled by Sophie Cookson, came across as confused, utterly non-arch, both unworldly and scornfully knowing, rather daffy, rather dim, mercurial, dully beautiful. Exploitable. And 19. 19. At which age many people are all those things.

Watch a trailer for The Trial of Christine Keeler.

I might have had more doubts about the production had it not been weighty on garlanded female credentials – adapted by Amanda Coe, directed by Andrea Harkin – which suggested it might dare to give the female lives their complex due. And so it befell: Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies have been given their young lives back, rather than existing as adjuncts only to historical geopolitics, and wisecracking nudge-nudgery, and as such this has been a marvellous endeavour, finely produced and shot. If only I could shed the prickled suspicion that the BBC had such a success this time last year with A Very British Scandal that bean-counters wanted, with drear automaton minds, a repeat. Next Christmas: David Mellor?

Yet this was daring and different too in these women’s hands: James Norton, ever handsomely unafraid to play loathsome, made an entirely new Stephen Ward. His “little baby” mantra parroted so patronisingly to Christine, which must by the end have made 80% of watchers’ hackles rise, gave an utterly brave take on John Hurt’s portrayal of victimhood. Will this story ever be over? Will the love of a powerful middle-aged man for a penniless teenage girl ever be over?

Wisting (BBC Four) is the best Nord-noir ever. Since the last one. What did Scandinavian film-makers think they were ever doing, 80 years of existential angst and Death playing nihilist chess, before remembering: we have crime. Coal. Snow. Blood. Fire. Cheekbones. Let’s do that.

Frankie Boyle’s New World Order delivered, as always, with an end-of-year roundup featuring a full four fantastic guests and an audience (they’d presumably known he wasn’t Michael McIntyre) that at one stage was left jaws agape at a joke’s wizard tastelessness. Don’t do that: the flies will get in.

Yet the BBC just had to crack out one last turkey in the shape of Miranda: My Such Fun Celebration. This faux-nodded to Ms Hart’s rise to splendid deserved glory, the subtlety and the lovely co-stars and the winning plea for not everyone to be a 5ft 10in beauty, without actually ever getting it. In front of the London Palladium, poor pratfalls and squawking and “galloping” and catchphrases and jokes about weight and class abounded, and it was sub-awful, and Miranda must be retching.

Never mind. Wipe your mouths. Roll on, clean brave 2020s!


Euan Ferguson

The GuardianTramp

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