A Demon and a Gentleman: Dr Walpurgis and BBCs The Vault of Horror
‘Those busybodies from the National Viewers and Listeners Association have long ago given up waiting for any blasphemous bestiality. They’ve gone to bed with their cocoa.’ – Dr Walpurgis
Halloween night 1992 and the venerable British Broadcasting Corporation opened up its two main terrestrial channels and went all out in a manner of which had never been seen before. BBC1 presented the (staged) documentary Ghostwatch, which later caused a significant furore due to a massive amount of complains and a suicide case, for which the show was blamed in triggering. BBC2, its sister channel, held an extravagant and hitherto unparalleled horror all-nighter entitled The Vault of Horror.
The scheduling for the night delved into the world of contemporary genre in a manner of which mainstream television in the UK had never done before. The Horror Bites segments included interviews and mini documentaries about famous horror authors, the world of special effects, EC Comics, horror icons; such as Pinhead, Freddy and Jason, indie genre studios, sex and horror, Dario Argento and even a section focusing on Fangoria magazine, and the legacy which it had created. As the screen cast its luminescent hue across the living rooms of the unsuspecting British public, an early insight was given into the complexity, range and passion which existed within the industry at that time; all of which was presented by the most debonair, and striking demon ever to grace the airwaves. Interviews with Tom Savini, Anthony Timpone, Mary Lambert, Wes Craven, Sean Cunningham, Charles Band, Lloyd Kauffman, Richard Stanley and Jack Kamen were certainly not what people were used to seeing on British TV in the early ‘90s. It was, however, the continuity announcer who bound them all together, which struck a chord; paving the way for three subsequent seasons, which allowed Dr. Walpurgis (V for Vendetta / Harry Potter actor Guy Henry) to become the UK’s only true horror host.
From Vampira to Svengoolie, by way of Mad Ron, Count Von Gore and even Elvira, America has always embraced the horror host as part of TV culture. With over fifty years of kooks, whackos and eccentrics taking to the screen to introduce (and occasionally interrupt) their selection of classics, B-movies and unearthly delights, the US has certainly had no shortage of notable and iconic hosts. Things were, however, very different in the UK where, with the possible exception of Elvira, the only horror host that would have been well known at the time was the Robert Prosky’s fictional Grandpa Fred character from Gremlins 2: The New Batch.
Dr. Walpurgis was a lavish and elaborate creation who introduced each segment with a wry and sardonic wit. With elaborate makeup and stunning sets, Dr Walpurgis, who became known as Dr Terror for the following seasons, was a character written by the renowned author and critic Kim Newman, with prosthetic FX designed by Geoff Portass, who had previously worked on Lifeforce, Highlander, Hellraiser and many other genre features throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s.
‘They used to show lots of old films back then, which is something I lament.’ Portass states, ‘When I grew up, they used to screen all the Hammer films and old classics like that. This is what they wanted Dr Walpurgis to show. The BBC had the idea of scheduling a Halloween all-nighter, and they wanted to interview people involved with the film business, such as Barker, Romero and others. They asked to interview me as part of the FX section. They shot a 10 min talking head interview against the blue screen, but came back a few weeks later and said that they had shot so much that they wouldn’t be able to fit me in. I just wasn’t famous enough I guess.’ Despite the initial disappointment, this would lead to Portass becoming an integral part of the show. Having just finished Highlander 2 with Image Animation (a leading UK based SFX company at the time), Portass was invited, through the horror journalist Alan Jones, to a meeting that has been set up with the film buyers at the BBC (Nick Jones and Mark Deitch), who chose the on air programming.
It was at that meeting where Kim Newman became more involved. Guy Henry had been cast by that stage, and so present at the first meeting were Portass, Henry, Jones, Deitch and Newman. Among them, they created the central concept for Dr Walpurgis and the stage was set. Newman went away and wrote his script but also added a back story, ‘Not that we ever went into it in great detail,’ Newman recalls, ‘but just enough to come up with various aspects that we could have built upon. The process of creating the character and the line-up for the first evening of programming was very much a collaborative task. This was inevitable, with a room full of genre aficionados being let loose to run the channel for a night. ‘It was a whole room pitching in and a lot of it was to do with the specifics of the all-nighter.’ Newman continues. ‘There were a whole bunch of horror films which we could use. Bride of Frankenstein, Curse of the Werewolf, stuff like that, so we had to do introductions for them. Then there were the documentary snippets, and they needed, basically, links written, and Dr. Terror, or Dr. Walpurgis as he was in the beginning, was the continuity announcer.’
Along the way, they decided that it would be pertinent to make the demon a showbiz character. ‘It was very obvious in that he was clearly from the BBC, and I wanted to play that up,’ says Newman, ‘but he was the BBC’s horror character so his backstory had something to do with a deal made with the powers of darkness. It was my idea that he lived in Broadcasting House (The BBC’s then London base), and was the token representative of evil in an organisation devoted to doing good, and representative of improvement and light.’
With the character’s nuances, tone and overall manner dealt with, it was up to Portass to use his experience and skill to create an equally effective aesthetic for Dr. Walpurgis. ‘Originally, he was to be a floating severed head and so the make-up had to have a severed edge around it and they were going to blue screen the rest,’ says Portass ‘but they dropped that and put him in a rather nice, suave costume.’
‘The main section is a cowl piece, like a balaclava,’ Portass explains of the physical makeup, ‘that goes over his head. It has the ears on it. The head is all painted, and I did what I call a Steve Wang job on it. I copied his black dots and the shading which he used on the original Predator creature. That’s one piece that you can reuse, which is important. We had only planned to shoot for one day, but I thought I’d make it reusable, just in case. We had a six piece makeup set on his face. You could then remove those six pieces and take the balaclava off separately.’
The inspiration for using a cowl stemmed from old science fiction shows, of which Portass is a huge fan. ‘When you take prosthetic makeup off, you destroy it essentially,’ he continues, ‘so as soon as you take it off it rots to pieces. A classic thing they did in Star Trek and Babylon 5 was that they used to use a similar set up; the balaclava piece with the separate facial pieces. You can then use alcohol to take the edge off and lift the balaclava away from the actor so you kept it for another day. This meant that you didn’t have to worry about painting ten or twenty pieces each time.’
The all-nighter was shot it in a stately home called Kentchurch click here Hall near Abergavenny in South Wales, which is now open to the public (possibly due to the demand of hordes of Dr Terror devotees). ‘It was run by a woman called Lady Scudamore.’ remembers Portass, ‘We stayed there for several nights and she cooked marvellous meals for us all. We all slept in big four poster beds in this massive haunted house, which was really atmospheric. We used the library, the main rooms and the staircases and the whole thing was all shot over the course of a very long day.’
It was a huge success. Not only did they manage to showcase elements of the genre which ignited flames of intrigue and fascination amongst the impressionable youngsters viewing the show, but the format was also taken on to be developed further. ‘We did three seasons after the Halloween all-nighter’ Portass explains, ‘These were three series of Friday night double bills. The first was Dr Terror’s Theatre of Death, which we shot in the Apollo Theatre on Shaftsbury Avenue. Then there was the Fairground of Horror, which was shot on Blackpool Pleasure Beach. The final series was when we did the game shows, such as Blinded Date (a parody of Blind Date, the UK equivalent of The Dating Game) and The National Slaughtery (a lottery spoof), which was shot in house.’
‘I wasn’t present for the filming of the first few installments,’ says Newman, ‘but I was there for the season we shot in Blackpool, at the fun fair after dark. I was far more closely involved in the production of the last series.’ Newman also took on several acting roles in the final season. ‘This meant that we could do more fiddling around with the scripts,’ notes Newman, ‘there was much more improvisation.’ Many of the crew were also drafted in to play minor roles within the show; art directors, camera assistants, and runners were all drafted in to take part in a manner which may not have necessarily fit their job description. ‘I didn’t realise when I was being asked to be a part of it that I would end up doing quite so much.’ Newman adds, ‘I didn’t actually get paid for any of that, above and beyond the writing fee, but it became much more of a performance thing.’ Even Henry added a great deal to the role. Someone in his family had been an old fashioned stand-up comedian, and he said he wanted to play Dr. Terror along similar lines, and so he put in lots of really bad music hall type jokes, which was one of his main contributions. ‘It was very like when we filmed Hellraiser’ Portass states, ‘because we were having so much fun, it comes across in the actual product.’
The Theatre of Death season was shot over two very, very long nights in London’s West End. The Blackpool sequences were also all shot late at night after the fairground had closed, so the crew were working from 6 pm to after 4 in the morning. ‘The last season was all set in a studio and it was so much nicer, as we could work during the daytime.’ Portass notes, ‘They actually gave us quite a sizeable budget for that one too, including an amazing set with a big staircase that lit up as Guy would walk down it. My favourite is still Blinded Date, in which we squeezed Dr Terror into this tiny mini skirt. Guy’s got the legs for it anyway. He had a little top with some boobs in it, and a massive wig all added to the Dr Terror makeup.’
‘It was from the last period where they would show horror late at night on British TV’ Portass says, somewhat sadly, ‘they just don’t do it now.’ Newman has happy memories of the show, and is proud to have been a part of the UK’s only horror host. ‘I think still holds the record of being like the most elaborate creature makeup on any horror host ever, because everybody else was doing it like pantomime’ he states, ‘Most of the US horror hosts had to do it as live before the film went out, so they were handicapped in a way that we weren’t. I also suspect that’s one of the reasons why we didn’t continue much more with it. Mark left the BBC, but I remember, at the end of the final two day shoot, Guy indicating that he would be very reluctant to go through it all again.’ Despite the gruelling sessions, Henry does remember his stint as Dr Terror very fondly, although at the time, it may have been a different story.
‘He must have been in that face for coming up to like eighteen or twenty hours each day.’ says Newman, ‘I have only done a few tiny things like that and it is excruciating. It’s no surprise to me that Guy has done so well subsequently, because of his professionalism at coping with that, and at being consistently marvellous. I remember him absolutely collapsing between takes and sort of getting to the point of not really being able to function, so I suspect it was coming, to a turning point. Every year we did it, it got more elaborate and it was growing all the time.’
It even looked like Dr Terror was to take off as a multi-platform franchise at one point. ‘The BBC had an in-house group who were developing computer games and CD-ROMs and they were talking about doing something with Dr. Terror as a spin-off, like an adventure game, or trivia quiz.’ Newman notes, ‘It was called Dr. Terror’s Nightmare Game Show. Obviously, it never really happened, but I did think that it was a shame the BBC didn’t make more of the character, as they could have used him much more.’
Sadly, it was not meant to be, and the Friday night horror double-feature was dropped by the BBC and, along with it, Dr Terror. Newman is adamant that he would have stuck with it and done more; ‘I remember we were floating some vague notions of what a fourth season would be and it was at the time when the BBC were doing a lot of things like Pride and Prejudice. We were thinking of doing Dr. Terror’s Quality Drama, which would have been a parody of all that sort of stuff. It would have been a serial and it would have needed a massive budget, as well as costuming and filming.’
So will we ever see the return of Dr Terror to our screens? Sadly, it looks unlikely. ‘I assume the BBC still own the rights to the character,’ muses Newman, ‘I think it would be very difficult to do it without Guy, because so much of the character was basically him. I thought we had a pretty good run, there are plenty of shows that don’t last four years, but I’d like to do it again.’
The legacy that Dr Walpurgis created, spawning Dr Terror and treating a generation of fledgling horror fans to their first taste of the late night double feature format is not to be underestimated. A testament to the possibilities which can be achieved by a group of enthusiastic genre fans when they are let loose on the scheduling lists. Nowadays, with the asinine sterility of terrestrial TV and the specialist nature of digital channels, it would be almost impossible to imagine such a show being aired on the BBC. For the time being though, it’s wonderful to remember that brief window when it actually happened.
Geoff Portass now teaches at the London College of Fashion at the London University, on the Costume Makeup and Prosthetics for the Visual Performing Arts course.