Firstly, this is one of the most successful revamps of any soap opera ever. Consider the parade of classic characters on show – Quentin, Edward, Judith, Madga – then remember that they were all introduced in the space of two weeks. For all the ramshackle contrivance and bits of story that don't quite pay off, the Dark Shadows writers were geniuses. The early episodes are a brilliant mass of murky double-dealings over Edith Collins' will, as the grisly Collins siblings campaign for their inheritance and a chance to be told the mysterious family secret. The revelation of the secret itself is one of the best shock twists in the history of Dark Shadows – far too good for me to spoil here, so I'll leave it at that. If you haven't seen it, you should.
There's something about the twisted Victorian wonderland of 1897 that feels utterly right for Dark Shadows. Simply put, it's great seeing the show back in The Past, and all concerned clearly have a great time evoking the majesty and richness of The Past. As Edward Collins, Louis Edmonds literally bristles beneath a show-stopping moustache, while the ladies of Collinwood lurk beneath increasingly elaborate hairpieces and hats. Chambermaid Beth's hair seems to grow alarmingly with every passing visit, and her towering thatch of bonnet and barnet is an unchallenged winner until the arrival of Minerva Trask, who stoops to make it through the door of Collinwood, precariously balancing what looks like a dead crow on her head.
In the centre of all this splendor is Quentin Collins, with David Selby hitting the ground running from his very first scene. And what a brilliant creation he is – preening, charming and utterly without scruples, yet very likeable for it. Perhaps Quentin is so agreeable simply because he's funny and David Selby is clearly having the time of his life playing him. Credit to him, he knows his lines, looks great and nails the character so well that he's soon ruling the roost and impossibly makes the whole thing look effortless, even when archly calling Judith "my dear sister" for the 400th time. Quentin is also a brute to boot, and soon no scene of his seems complete without him grasping a relative by the shoulders for a half-hearted shake, before someone totters into frame to interrupt his villainy.
Usually doing that tottering is the delightful Judith Collins, with Joan Bennett giving her all the haughty gusto you'd expect from someone who had spent most of the last three years being agreeable in a succession of nice frocks. It's easy to forget that this snarky old spinster is the closest thing that this Collins family has to a sympathetic character, so it's difficult not to grin when she gloats to her siblings that: "I'm about to read you all your obituaries!" Suffice to say, the reading of the will that follows is every bit as hysterical and overwrought as one would hope.
Adding to the fun is cod gypsy Madga Rakosi, played beneath politically incorrect make-up and flowing black tresses by Grayson Hall. Freed from the exposition-heavy tracts of Dr. Julia Hoffman, Grayson seems to enjoy taking a back seat from the main action, trudging through her scenes with mild disdain, occasionally stepping forward to toss in a sneery one-liner. In a cast of duplicitous characters, Madga is refreshingly direct. Whether she's faux curtseying to "Meestahh Bahhnabasssss" or holding out an expectant hand for money, what you see is what you get.
Alas, what you see is all you get from governess Rachel Drummond, a heroine so heartbreakingly earnest that she probably has the word 'victim' crocheted onto her petticoats. It's not Kathryn Leigh Scott's fault, but compared to the all-guns-blazing personalities surrounding her, Rachel is just a bit wet. She's meant to be sympathetic and nice, but for all the dramatic rules that it might break, Collinwood doesn't need a whole lot of nice.
Her charges are thankfully rather more interesting. At first, Jamison is the only Collins child on show, with frequent references to the mysterious unseen Nora. Initially you might be forgiven for thinking perhaps you'd missed Nora until she finally shows up, with Denise Nickerson giving a performance so big that it was probably audible on rival soap operas. Now, I'll preface this by saying that Denise was a very capable young actress, often more word-perfect than her adult peers, but lordy, there's no chance of missing her in a crowd. "MY MOTHER'S COMING!" Nora wails casually at migraine-inducing volume, cannily turning to face the camera. "I KNOW IT!" she adds helpfully, lest anyone in Collinsport still hasn't heard her.
Back in the range of human hearing is Jamison Collins, played with perpetual wide-eyed fear by David Henesy. He's right to look scared, as Jamison seems to attract sinister adults with alarming regularity. Whether acting as the pawn in Quentin's black magic ceremonies (Quentin sinking to his lowest ever), being possessed by a vengeful spirit, or facing the wrath of Reverend Trask (a genuinely disturbing sequence of heavily-implied child abuse), Jamison is forever a victim adrift in a terrifying world, and one assumes that to the original young audience, he must have been a very affecting character. Alas Barnabas is far too busy to come to his aid, mooning around after Quentin like some time-travelling stalker and biting Charity Trask just because he doesn't like her dad. Priorities, Barnabas, priorities!
But there's still so much I haven't mentioned – brilliant, barking Crazy Jenny, Laura Collins, Worthington Hall! These episodes really have so much going for them, brimming throughout with fruity dialogue and gloriously arch performances. Do check them out if you get the chance.