The BBC screened an ambitious new take on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein live from Yorkshire this weekend. Chris Bond reports.
Shrouded in fog with crows circling ominously overhead Kirkstall Abbey looks suitably eerie.
It is the perfect haunting atmosphere in which to set a modern tale based around Mary Shelley’s gothic masterpiece, Frankenstein. But producers behind the BBC’s bold new project will perhaps be hoping the weather improves by Saturday, when for one night only the historic abbey plays host to a live TV event that blends drama, dance and contemporary music with an audience of 2,000 invited members of the public.
Frankenstein’s Wedding ... Live in Leeds is being screened live from the historic abbey on BBC3 this weekend and to say it is ambitious is an understatement.
The adaptation, written by Chloe Moss, takes the basic themes of the original story and gives it a modern makeover based around the marriage of scientist Victor Frankenstein (Andrew Gower) and his bride-to-be (Lacey Turner).
All this week the cast have been in rehearsal ahead of Saturday’s grand performance which, if it comes off, promises to be quite a spectacle for both viewers at home and the audience gathered in the grounds of the abbey, where two mammoth screens have been installed.
The invited audience has been asked to attend the event in their best wedding outfits (the dress code is silver, gold, black and white) and play a real role as guests. In the last couple of weeks, BBC Learning and Leeds-based Phoenix Dance Theatre have been putting people through their paces in a series of workshops to teach 2,000 locals a special dance routine, that will culminate in a mass celebratory wedding dance live on the night by the audience.
As well as coming live from Kirkstall Abbey, the production also takes to the streets of Leeds, featuring some of the city’s most recognisable landmarks including Temple Works, used as Victor’s Lab, Leeds Town Hall, the Victoria Quarter and the Dark Arches under the train station.
Richard Fell, one of the show’s executive producers, explains why they took on such an epic project.
“Following the success of Manchester Passion and Liverpool Nativity we realised there was a big appetite for these kind of events which take classic stories directly to audiences and Frankenstein seemed ideal because it’s something most people recognise even if they don’t know the whole story.”
As well as a huge cast of professional and amateur actors, the production features spectacular light projections highlighting the abbey’s grandeur, an original score with an orchestra and live wedding band and the St Peter’s Singers, a Leeds-based choir.
But although it sounds very impressive it also seems like a logistical nightmare, especially given the fact it’s being beamed out live.
“It is on a grand and epic scale and it is ambitious and I think the challenge is bringing all the different disciplines together. The whole production is a finely-tuned machine that depends on everyone involved knowing their part, so hopefully we’ve done enough rehearsals and planning to make sure nothing major goes wrong.”
The idea of live, open air TV is exciting. But this is Yorkshire we’re talking about. Even during the height of summer the heavens can open, as the British Shakespeare Company discovered to its cost on several occasions in the past when it staged its open air plays at the abbey. So doing something like this in the middle of March risks invoking the wrath of the weather gods.
Fell admits the weather could put a slight dampener on things. “It would be much better if the weather is kind, better for the performers and the audience, but we will cope whatever is thrown at us.”
It was he who chose Kirkstall Abbey as the venue for the event. “We were looking for something with a gothic feel and this wonderful county has such great literary heritage. Dracula was partly set here and Wuthering Heights is a classic gothic novel and when I saw Kirkstall Abbey I thought you couldn’t find a more perfect setting for something like this, it’s such a magnificent architectural ruin.”
For the professional cast taking part in all this, it’s an opportunity to do something they’ve never done before.
“It’s a really unusual and exciting thing to do,” says EastEnders and Being Human star, Lacey Turner. “It’s not a musical or a normal drama, it’s a combination of things and the fact it’s set in Kirkstall Abbey is really fitting because it reflects the story and at night it looks really quite spooky.
“It’s weird to be part of something like this because it’s just so big. When you’re working on a normal set you don’t have so much room, whereas here you have to try and fill the space with your body and voice. But it’s fun and a brilliant story and the fact that it’s live makes it even more exciting, there’s a real adrenaline rush that you don’t get from anything else.”
Mark Williams, familiar to film fans of a certain age as Arthur Weasley in the Harry Potter films, plays Victor Frankenstein’s father. He, too, is hoping the weather improves by Saturday.
“At the start of the week they were forecasting snow but it looks like it’s going to get better,” he says, looking up at the gloomy skies from beneath his beanie hat.
But despite the inclement weather Williams has enjoyed working amid such stunning surroundings.
“It has got a Hogwarts feel,” he says, referring to the Harry Potter school. “It’s been fantastic spending so much time at the abbey, because normally you don’t get the chance. But to see the detail in the architecture is simply wonderful.”
David Harewood, whose TV credits include Mrs Mandela and Doctor Who, plays the creature and hopes to bring him to a new audience. “I used to watch the old films hiding behind the sofa as a kid so the opportunity to play such an iconic character was too good to turn down,” he says.
“The idea of bringing something back to life is both fascinating and terrifying to people and is relevant today. If you watch all those old Hollywood movies the creature has a big bolt through his neck and lumbers around. But Shelley never mentioned this, her creature was superhuman and athletic, so I want to dispel the old myths and rework the character for a more urban, up to speed audience.
“It will be a truly unique event that the audience will be part of and it’s a chance for them to re-connect with this classic story. There’s a choir, a band, dancers and lighting and the abbey itself which is like an unspoken character in the background - it will be like nothing you’ve seen before.”