The Irish Times obituary for Bram Stoker read:
…he brought out eight tales, which were readable, though they were not marked by any originality. Before attempting fiction he published a valuable work on The Duties of Clerks of Petty Sessions in Ireland, which is a standard authority on the subject.
No one remembers that valuable work on clerkly duty. And though his masterpiece, Dracula, thrilled Victorian audiences, it only became iconic in the 20th century, after the movies versions appeared.
Screenwriter and director Gerry O’Hara was just seven when Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi, premiered in 1931.
He was probably too busy dodging nuns at St. Mary’s Catholic School in Boston, Lincolnshire, to have seen it. (Nor do I imagine they would consider it good Catholic family fare.)
In any event, Gerry left school at age 14 to become a cub reporter for the Boston Guardian covering weddings and funerals.
“It was a strange job for a fourteen-year-old,” he remembers, “because one often conducted the interview with the open coffin in the front room.”
Not surprisingly, after a long and intriguing career working for the studios (including Hammer), Gerry recently authored his first novel, Sherlock Holmes and the Affair in Transylvania, at age 87.
The affair, of course, being with Dracula.
At age 17, Gerry got an assignment to interview director Michael Powell, who was shooting One of Our Aircraft is Missing, a 1942 war movie, nearby.
Gerry hopped on his bicycle and headed for the railway bridge to watch filming. That evening, he got his interview with Powell, but another idea took root.
I went home thinking about what I’d seen, and it looked very intriguing. After a few weeks the penny dropped, and I thought, “Hey, that looks like a pretty good job.”
With the chutzpah of youth, Gerry wrote Powell asking for a position. To his surprise, Powell told him to stop by sometime. But Gerry went to the wrong address.
He was directed around the corner to Verity Films, which made propaganda shorts. They hired Gerry as a showrunner. By the end of WWII, he was an assistant director. (Gerry had been exempt from service due to kidney problems.)
For the next decade, Gerry worked as an assistant director on various British films. In 1954, a great stroke of luck brought him to Richard III and Laurence Olivier.
Then came Our Man in Havana (1959), Exodus (1960), Cleopatra (1963), Tom Jones (1963), plus many more and several in between.
Just when it looked like he would break into the big time, Gerry made a career faux pas — he left Lawrence of Arabia during preproduction.
Columbia planned to film exclusively in the Jordanian desert for months, something they hadn’t been forthcoming about. And Gerry had a Jewish girlfriend who couldn’t go to Jordan.
After his departure, Columbia essentially blackballed him “for not falling in love with a very, very long stint in the desert.” Gerry’s career looked bleak.
While writing his opus on clerkly duties, Bram Stoker moonlighted as a journalist. He covered theatre for The Dublin Evening Mail.
In that capacity, he attended a performance of Hamlet starring the greatest actor of his day and the first to be knighted, Henry Irving. He found Irving’s performance enthralling and penned a gushing review.
To Stoker’s surprise, Irving invited him to his hotel for dinner and a private performance. He recited a poem for Stoker, “The Dream of Eugene Aram,” about a schoolteacher who bludgeons an old man for a piece of gold.
Stoker later recalled:
So great was the magnetism of his [Irving’s] genius, so profound was the sense of his dominancy that I sat spellbound. Outwardly I was as of stone…The whole thing was new, re-created by a force of passion which was like a new power.
At the end of the night, Irving offered Stoker a job as his personal assistant.
It was a stormy relationship, more master and acolyte than employer and employee. According to one of Stoker’s biographers, the hypnotic, egotistical Irving, who strode the streets of London swirling his cape, is the man who was Dracula.
In 1878, Irving acquired the Lyceum Theatre in London. Stoker became its manager, a position he held until 1899, when Irving sold his interest without telling Stoker. The new owners made Stoker redundant.
One night, while Gerry enjoyed a quiet drink in his flat, the phone rang. It was Otto Preminger, his director on Exodus. “What are you doing?” Preminger wanted to know.
“I’ve just directed a film!” Gerry replied. Preminger laughed. “Well, are you going to go on directing?” Gerry said, “Oh hell, no! It was only a little cheapo. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
Otto told Gerry to hie over to Columbia and pick up a plane ticket for New York. He wanted Gerry on his next film, The Cardinal. Columbia was not amused, but they couldn’t say no to Otto Preminger.
Gerry went on to amass an eclectic body of work. The world “cult” prefaces many of his films.
His “cheapo” directorial debut, The Pleasure Girls, depicted London’s glamour and grit in the Swinging ’60s and featured the first gay kiss. He also worked on several classic TV series, like The Professionals and The Avengers.
As for Bram Stoker, perhaps Irving made him redundant after two decades because Stoker had eclipsed him. Stoker published Dracula the year before, at age 50, to critical acclaim.
Or maybe Irving recognized an unflattering version of himself in Dracula. When asked what he thought the book, Irving replied, “Dreadful!”
But like Gerry, Stoker went on to bigger and better things, and acquired quite a following. (Dare I say “cult”?)
Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, sent Stoker a letter:
I write to tell you how very much I have enjoyed reading Dracula. I think it is the very best story of diablerie which I have read for many years.
What if that letter had sequed into a partnership between Bram Stoker and Conan Doyle?
It’s a tantalizing thought. But we have the next best thing in Gerry O’Hara’s delightful Sherlock Holmes and the Affair in Transylvania.
Today being the 166th anniversary of Bram Stoker’s birth, I hope you enjoyed this tale of two late bloomers separated by a century, but united through their passion for great storytelling.
I’ll let Gerry and his agent, Tom Evans, supply the epilogue (it’s just six minutes).
So how would you cast Sherlock Holmes and the Affair in Transylvania?
- My post How Bram Stoker Handled a Soul-Sucking Boss
- Interview with Gerry O’Hara at Screening the Past
- Interview with Gerry O’Hara at Du dumme Sau — a Kinski Blog
- Gerry O’Hara’s blog and website, where you can also buy illustrations from book
- My deepest thanks to Tom Evans for bringing Gerry to my attention during our rollicking interview on writing and reinvention, which you can catch on my Facebook page