Daytime TV: Garlic? No thanks

What do lawyers and Dracula have in common? Gary Day finds little to intrigue beyond the grave

March 4, 2010

I suppose vampires need to visit the dentist. If they don't look after their teeth then they will die. But it must be very difficult for them. For a start, they have to be tucked up in their coffin when they could be having a check-up. And even if they could persuade their local dentist to open after hours, there is the further problem of registration: who will believe that they are more than 400 years old? OK, they can lie about their age - who doesn't? - but what do they put on the form when confronted with the question "Do you suffer from any allergies?" Writing "crucifixes" and "garlic" would look as if they were making a mockery of the whole process.

Which, in a way, was what Lisa Hilton's programme Vampires: Why They Bite (BBC Three, Wednesday 24 February, 10.30pm) did to its audience. (At the same time inflicting on viewers every Gothic number ever recorded.) It should have been called Everything You Already Know About Vampires. No, that's unfair. There probably weren't many people, myself included, who knew that, in 1726, a man called Arnold Paole fell off a haycart and died. To help us visualise the tragedy, we were shown a flickering black-and-white film of men with big moustaches sitting on haycarts. But none of them fell off, which made you wonder how Arnold managed it.

After Arnold's funeral, his neighbours started to die. Seventeen of them, in fact. Although plague was raging through the village, the inhabitants decided that Arnold had killed them. Hmm. Makes you think twice about buying that cottage in the country, doesn't it? Anyway, they dug him up. And boy, did they get a shock. Not only did he look as fresh as the day he died but he had an erection as well.

Apparently this is caused by gases released by bacteria breaking down the body tissues. Yuk. Maybe this was what the warning at the beginning of the programme ("contains some strong language and upsetting scenes") referred to. But since there was no flickering black-and-white film to help us visualise the horror, maybe not.

More likely it was a reference to Lisa herself, an Oxford-educated historian desperate to pass for a pop-presenter. She was hip, she was cool, she was nobody's fool. But she did have a strange tendency to jump on key words as if they were trampolines. "I am GOING on a JOURNEY to FIND the TRUTH behind the V factor." She didn't get very far. We heard nothing, for instance, about Lilith, the winged, clawed creature of Hebrew mythology and Adam's first wife. Nor about how she evolved into Bram Stoker's Dracula, a Romanian word meaning "dragon" or "devil". Now that would have been a tale worth telling.

Instead, various talking heads pantingly informed us that the vampire was a symbol of sexual desire. Dr Cecilia d'Felice, whose black outfit went nicely with the blood dripping down the wall behind her, whispered that Dracula's "gaze was mesmeric, that he could make us do anything. Anything." Dr Tina Rath, whose black outfit also went nicely with the blood dripping down the wall behind her, told us that when women were penetrated by fangs, "they reacted orgasmically". She demonstrated. It was hard to imagine, after she had finished, that anyone who had witnessed the performance would say, "I'll have what she's having."

Not to be outdone, Lisa slipped on a little black number of her own. She rolled on fishnet stockings, adjusted her pillbox hat and headed for a vampire ball. "I can't stop looking at your eyes," she told a young man. "If you really were a vampire I think you would just hypnotise me now." The glazed look in his eyes suggested that he had already hypnotised himself. Or else he had listened to Lisa for too long.

The script was excruciating. "Stoker was a theatre manager in London and when he wasn't hanging out Heat magazine-style with the hot celebs of his day, he'd come here to Whitby to write." And when Lisa described Dracula as "thrilling, racy and full-on", you began to wonder if she had actually read the novel, which, after the first 100 pages, is one of the dullest books of the fin de siecle.

It does, though, contain one intriguing line: "Dracula would have made a very good solicitor." Maybe the vampire isn't a symbol of sexual desire at all, but of a growing administrative apparatus that drains vitality from self and society. The count arrives in England just as bureaucracy is beginning to burgeon. And much of the novel is concerned with paperwork, with putting papers in order and standardising the use of English. Not very sexy. But not everything is. Not even vampires, although you would never have guessed it from this music video masquerading as documentary.

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