Simply Dolly Wells

Dracula’s Dolly Wells, interview: ‘Until I was about 12, I wanted to be a nun’

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/   |   Written by Chris Harvey

 

“There’s something exciting about fangs and blood,” says Dolly Wells, as she dips two long chips into a bowl of ketchup and lifts them, dripping red, towards her mouth. We’re at the British Film Institute to watch her confront Count Dracula in a new adaptation for BBC One of Bram Stoker’s classic Victorian horror.

Wells is tantalisingly enigmatic as the witty, wimpled Sister Agatha in the drama’s three feature film-length episodes. It’s the standout draw of the Christmas schedules, airing on consecutive nights from New Year’s Day, and it plays as many tricks with Stoker’s narrative as you might expect from the creators of Sherlock, Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat. I’m not going to spoil any of them; suffice to say that Sister Agatha appears in the novel at a convent in Budapest, roughly 350 miles from Dracula’s castle in Transylvania.

Up to now, Wells has probably been best known for the cult sitcom Doll & Em, which she wrote and starred in with her friend-since-childhood Emily Mortimer, but, at 48, she’s experiencing a sudden blow-up in her career that makes her an unexpectedly hot property. Her charming, funny directorial debut, Good Posture, written in 35 days, shot in 12, was one of this year’s more likeable films, and she was brilliant as Melissa McCarthy’s bookish love interest in the multiple Oscar-winning drama about literary forgery, Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Vampires, though, are a departure. Conversations Stoker had in 1889 with the Hungarian traveller and writer Ármin Vámbéry, about the folk legends of the Carpathian Mountains, blazed in his gothic imagination into a terrifying antihero, who has had an almost incalculable effect on Western culture.

Wells – whose first memory of Dracula is of Christopher Lee in the role now played by Danish actor Claes Bang – picks out a surprising aspect of Stoker’s tale that gives the undead aristocrat such staying power: our “terrible, terrible fear of growing old and dying, of losing currency, losing importance”.

“But the very nature of him biting somebody’s neck,” Wells continues, “it’s so sensual, and it’s so forbidden and exciting, particularly for when it was written. There’s something so dangerous and sexy about it.”

She talks fast, working things out as she goes along, ideas coalescing, not stopping for certainty or careful framing. She’s tall, long-limbed, ectomorphic, in a shiny blue top, grey trousers, her legs crossed awkwardly in a chicken-bone twist.

To what extent does Count Dracula’s appeal rely on the fact that he’s aristocratic? “Quite a lot,” she says, noting that it makes him “removed and superior… he certainly has a real confidence in himself, and also good manners and breeding.”

Wells is quite posh herself, isn’t she? She laughs. “I am quite posh. I mean, I haven’t got my quarterings,” she says, referring to a family crest made up of several different coats of arms, “but my mum is posh. My dad wasn’t very posh, so I’m half-posh.”

Wells’s mother Teresa Chancellor is the daughter of Sir Christopher Chancellor and Sylvia Paget, who was descended from an earl and a baronet. Her father, the satirist John Wells, was one of the founders of Private Eye, but she only discovered he was her biological parent in her late teens, having formerly believed she shared a father with her five siblings from her mother’s first marriage to Edward Gatacre.

She’s the baby of the family (“There’s definitely something immature about me”). Her two brothers run the Jellycat toy company. Two of her sisters are artists; one, like Wells and her cousin Anna Chancellor, is an actress.

 

After her mother’s first marriage ended in divorce when Wells was five, her parents lived together for three years before marrying when she was 11 – but didn’t explain her provenance until much later. Does she think they were trying to protect her? “It’s complicated,” she says, a little uncomfortably. “I think they were probably trying to protect me, but also themselves.” Her father died in 1998.

I want to ask her if what Dracula represents to us has shifted – the character has long been seen as symbolising the Victorians’ fear of sex, of the repression of shadowy desires; does he now represent something much more predatory? Would Dracula wear a suit and tie to Tramp nightclub? “Yeah, he would, definitely,” she says.

His hunger “is not just for women, though,” she adds, “he wants blood to continue his existence, so he’s ultimately selfish, [like] anybody who is abusing their power by using somebody else for their own gain, [such as] Harvey Weinstein” (who incidentally made a guest appearance as himself in Doll & Em).

But, she says, this Dracula is “the hero at the centre of his own story, and you want to sympathise. He’s not a sexual predator, but he’s a predator.”

Wells is no stranger to habits and crucifixes. She went to a Catholic convent school (“Some of the nuns were very sweet, some weren’t so nice”), after failing the entrance exam to join Mortimer at St Paul’s. “Until I was about 12, I wanted to be a nun,” she says. “I’m not really religious any more, but I’m not saying it won’t come back. I’m religious enough in that if something great happened, I would say a prayer. I said one yesterday.

“Of course, religion has ruined so many things, but there is something about the discipline and the rigour of thinking, ‘OK, each day that I live, I’m going to try and be kind and modest and self-aware.’ You know, there’s no harm in trying to treat people well.”

She pauses. “Oh my god!” she exclaims as a tall, besuited figure slips into the room. It’s Mark Gatiss looking very dapper. I don’t mention that last time we met he was dressed as a naked woman on the set of The League of Gentlemen. When I ask Wells to delineate between Gatiss and Moffat, she free-forms, “Steven’s like a rock, and Mark is like spirals of smoke.”

I remind her of an interview in which she said she spent a lot of her childhood feeling that God was watching her and being quite depressed. Does she ever feel that now? “I don’t have that feeling of being watched by God any more, but I am my own harshest critic, and I can get obsessive. As a teenager, I used to write poems about depression; there was one about how ‘the old witch depression drums on in my brain/ I try to ignore her but do so in vain’.

“I remember my dad taking me for a walk when I was about 11 – I had these things they used to call my ‘dumb fits’, where I used to cry and panic about dying, and I remember my dad saying, ‘You’re probably going to be creative and it’s exciting, but you have to accept that you’ll have these real highs, but also these lows. And he was quite right.” As an actor, she says, she can still have periods of elation, and then think, “Oh, it’s awful”.

She always knew she wanted to act, but came to it quite late, after a period of working as a journalist on the Londoner’s Diary of the Evening Standard and writing book reviews. Early on, she had to take jobs as a photographer’s assistant or working in a cloakroom to keep doing what she loved.

She lives in Brooklyn now (“You miss the irony, but they’re so much more encouraging”). Wells is married to photographer Mischa Richter, and they have two children, Elsie, 17, and Ezra, 14.

The period when Mortimer’s career was taking flight and Wells was getting smaller parts in films (she was Woney in Bridget Jones’s Diary) and television shows, such as The IT Crowd and Peep Show, wasn’t demoralising, she says, but always felt like it was “being part of a world that was going to build towards something”.

She and Mortimer – who appears in Good Posture – are now writing a film together (“We used to say, together we feel like two halves of one man”). Didn’t Wells once say she was better at dialogue and Mortimer was better at plot? “I think she said that,” Wells corrects me – she’d be too shy to say that herself, and besides Mortimer is good at everything. They do loads of chatting and gossiping when they are supposed to be writing, she adds.

We return to Dracula, which promises a certain amount of nudity. Does she think that, historically, Dracula films have had a strong element of titillation, of preying on virginal young women? “Yes,” she says, but in this one there will be male brides, too. Gatiss notes that, “If you are effectively immortal, you are going to have a particular view of the world and the universe and your food. Dracula’s a connoisseur.”

“Horror should be transgressive,” he adds. “Over time it becomes very cosy.” In fact, the question has been raised: is this Dracula bisexual? “He’s not actually having sex with anyone,” Steven Moffat insists. “He’s homicidal. Dracula has always fed off men and women. But he’s killing them, not dating them.”

He does, however, note that, in the Hammer films, the person Christopher Lee looks most turned on by is Peter Cushing. Whether Claes Bang can wrest the long black cloak from Lee remains to be seen, but Wells is certain to surprise people. “Sister Agatha is fascinated by the dark side,” she says, “Who isn’t?”

Dracula is on BBC One at 9pm on New Year’s Day









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