“It was always destined to be a Ken Russell head-trip”: screenwriter Stephen Volk remembers Gothic, his psychotropic tale of the Romantics

Ghostwatch writer Stephen Volk’s first script was inspired by a true story about Byron, Shelley, a stormy night and mind-altering drugs. Trust Ken Russell to take it to the next level.

1 September 2023

By Adam Scovell

Gothic (1986)

By the 1980s, Ken Russell’s cinema had reached new heights of delirious indulgence. Although the previous decade saw him make a string of classic films, including The Devils (1971), The Boy Friend (1971) and Tommy (1975), the 80s were a more difficult period for the director. His projects were increasingly difficult to get off the ground, and often critically lambasted upon release. 

From this distance, however, the draw of his flamboyant later films is undeniable. His natural eye for visuals and musical flair, combined with an overblown sense of camp, make films such as Crimes of Passion (1984), The Lair of the White Worm (1988) and Salome’s Last Dance (1988) irresistibly fun, entertaining and still utterly creative.

Out of all of his 1980s projects, the most effective is arguably the Hammer horror-esque Gothic (1986). Scripted by Stephen Volk, most noted for creating the terrifying Ghostwatch (1992) for the BBC, this period tale found a rich subject fitting for Russell’s hyperactive creativity.

It follows the infamous group of intellectuals that included Lord Byron (Gabriel Byrne), Percy Shelley (Julian Sands), Mary Shelley (Natasha Richardson) and Dr John Polidori (Timothy Spall). They gather at the secluded Villa Diodati on a stormy night in 1816. Seeking inspiration for their creative endeavours, they engage in a night of wild experimentation with drugs. As a storm intensifies, the array of mind-altering substances plunges the group into a surreal and erotic nightmare that may just inspire an eventual classic of horror literature.

With the film being re-released on Blu-Ray this month, we spoke to scriptwriter Stephen Volk about Gothic and how it was to work with Ken Russell for his very first film.

Gothic was your first project as a scriptwriter. How did the project come about?

The spark of it really was from a book called A Heritage of Horror by David Perie, which was a rehabilitation of Hammer films. Until his book, I think it’s right to say that Hammer films were treated as a low rent B-movies, and he was the first critic to hold up people like Terence Fisher and actors like Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, making the point that they were in the gothic romantic tradition of 19th-century literature. 

Gothic (1986)
© MGM/Park Circus

I found that absolutely fascinating because I’d always loved Hammer films growing up. But what particularly stuck in my mind was in the first chapter, when the events at Villa Diodati are discussed, when Frankenstein was first born in the mind of Mary Shelly and that hothouse atmosphere occurring that summer on the banks of Lake Geneva. The more he discussed those five characters, the more I couldn’t believe it hadn’t been dramatised before. It was so vivid. 

There were a couple of other scripts on the same subject being developed elsewhere, though I didn’t know that at the time. I thought if no one’s done it then this was too good an opportunity to miss. So I took that as my starting point to research the real characters, and the more I found out about them, the more incendiary the mixture became.

For a debut film, a Ken Russell project feels very much like being thrown in the deep end. How did it become a Russell project?

The script was sold by my agent to Virgin Films who were an up-and-coming company at the time. They optioned it and then it went quiet while a director was found. I had no conception as to who that might have been. It was the era when you were dreaming of someone like John Boorman or Peter Greenaway. Ken Russell never really occurred to me until I got the phone call from Al Clark, the head of production at Virgin, who said they’d got Ken Russell. I turned to my colleague at the time and said “If you had written a film, who would you least like to direct it?” His first answer was Michael Winner, but his second answer was Ken Russell – which shows how Ken was sadly perceived in that period. 

I tell that story jokingly as Russell really carved a niche of being brilliant and then being – as the critics might say – exuberantly indulgent. He was never respected as a British Fellini like he might have been. I wondered what lion’s den I was being thrown into, but he was nothing but praiseworthy of the script, and keen on doing it quickly, which was great as films can drag on in development hell for decades. He said to Virgin “I want to make this next May”, and Virgin simply said yes.

Once Russell was attached to the project, did he input into your script?

We went through it once. The notes I remember were really to do with the beginning and the end. I had a prologue and epilogue, which was Mary Shelley on her death bed telling the story, which put Gothic in a really subjective vein. Ken wanted to get rid of it being Mary’s fantasy and have it very much as Ken’s fantasy instead. 

My original ending went back to after the tragedies of their lives too, and the creature they created visits Mary on her deathbed, but Ken thought I had too many endings. Lots of things came into the script during filming, though. It was as if Russell’s rewrites were done with the camera. I had the robot mannequin at the harpsichord, but he introduced the belly-dancer mannequin. I had the Henry Fuseli painting of the nightmare, which was my nod to this whole story being a nightmare, and Ken got stuck in and wanted to actually recreate the painting in real time, which is now one of my favourite scenes in the film. 

Were you on set during the shoot?

Yes, it was all done at a place called Wrotham Park just outside London. I used to drive up there a few times from where I lived in north London, at least during the first half of the shoot until I realised that the writer is the least needed person to have on the set. It’s like looking through the railings at a team playing football but with your football! It was still a tremendous feeling watching all these people saying your lines in costume. I always feel an excitement at actors bringing life to scenes you’ve dreamed up. 

The film has an amazing cast. Do you have any memories of working with them and did they bring anything to the script?

They all did, in different ways. Timothy Spall was introduced – with all due respect to Tim – as Russell didn’t want a film with just uniquely pretty people. But they were all wonderful. I remember Gabriel Byrne went away and studied the effects of laudanum, though I’m not sure how it affected his performance. One critic called it ‘Five Go Mad on Laudanum’, and the cast really heightened that element. There was a point when I sat on the steps with Spall and he said: “I don’t really understand what this film is.” So I told him to think of it like a Hammer film, and he got it then. The penny dropped that he wasn’t in a Merchant Ivory film!

Gothic (1986)

There are a lot of psychosexual elements in the film. How much is in the script and how much is Russell heightening it in his usual style?

Things such as the eyes in the breasts, for example, actually go back to Shelley himself and his diary rather than Russell, as that absolutely happened to him and he wrote about it. It’s surprising to some that the parts that people did or didn’t like were taken from the real diaries of Byron and Shelley. Those things crept in from the real sources. 

I dramatised some of elements from the original Fantasmagoriana [an influential 1812 anthology of German ghost stories], as well. So the visual of the suit of armour creeping towards the bed is from that, though it was Ken who added the rhinoceros horn penis… When I first saw it I cringed, but as I came to peace with the film, it felt insanely appropriate. 

Ken commented later on that he had edited it too frenetically as he’d been directing pop videos around then. But when I watched it at a festival in Newcastle about five years ago, I completely enjoyed it. It was such a head-trip and was always destined to be a Russell head-trip; it was never going to be a Greenaway film or a Merchant Ivory picture.

You mentioned coming to peace with Gothic. How do you feel about the film almost 40 years on from its release?

Stephen Volk
© Peter Coleborn

Well I’ve been gratified over the years that people find it and talk about it. At the time, it wasn’t very well reviewed and the dream of it sharing a little bit of cinema history alongside The Company of Wolves (1984) and Hellraiser (1987) – that turn in the 1980s towards re-establishing the cine-fantastique in British cinema – disappeared. I’d like it to be in that group really, but it never quite was. 

Yet, over the years, people have gravitated towards it. It’s one of those films that some people won’t like and for others it’ll be their favourite film, and they’ll watch it over and over. That’s really the most you can hope for. 

The one thing I do regret was that I was in my twenties, and I wish I could have been a bit more chilled about the whole thing and gone to the set a bit more. I was quite nervous, but everyone was convivial. I was just under my own pressure. It was a bit like a wedding: it’s so stressful but after it’s over you wish you could go back and actually enjoy it. 

Gothic is out on BFI Blu-ray on 18 September 2023.

BFI Player logo

See something different

Free for 14 days, then £4.99/month or £49/year.

Get 14 days free