Episode 601: The Last Days of Ron Sproat

“It’s happening, Julia! The spirit of Philippe Cordier is killing Adam!”

Ladies and gentlemen, I am proud to present — for one night, and one night only — the insubstantial spirit of Monsieur Philippe Cordier.

Now, for people who are just joining us, I’d like to give you a brief introduction to Philippe, so that you understand his role in the current storyline. Unfortunately, this is impossible. He only showed up at the end of Friday’s episode — and by “showed up”, I mean he possessed Barnabas at a seance and ranted in French for two minutes — and in today’s episode, he’s banished forever, immediately following the opening titles.

An explanation of who Philippe is, and why he’s on the show right now, would involve at least six character names, two Universal Monsters references, an anagram, the French Revolution, the phrase “life force”, and maybe a couple of Doors songs. You basically need a Ph.D. in Dark Shadows to approach this particular plot point.

601 dark shadows adam choking

So the question is: How did we get here?

Dark Shadows was always kind of a sprawling mess of a thing, but lately it’s been building to this tipping point where it stops being a story, and just becomes a series of faces and sounds and lighting effects and basements and yelling and hairstyles.

It’s been piling one weird idea on top of another, with no particular goal in mind except to keep the audience guessing. And the more bizarre that it gets, the more popular the show becomes. The ratings have been climbing for more than a year, and it won’t reach its peak until summer 1969. Whatever they’re doing, it seems to be working.

601 dark shadows nicholas fire

Now, I’ve always maintained that Dark Shadows is actually the story of an over-worked, under-resourced team of lunatics as they spend five years desperately struggling to make a daily television show, and this is one of the periods where the only way to understand the show is to pay attention to what’s happening behind the scenes.

The theme that I’m going to be exploring over the next few months is the battle between Ron Sproat and Sam Hall, two of the show’s three writers, who have never quite seen eye-to-eye.

A few months from now, Sproat is going to leave the show, and what follows is the period of Dark Shadows that absolutely everyone agrees is the best run of episodes they ever made.

There are eight major turning points in the show’s five-year history, in this order:

  • Barnabas comes out of the box,
  • Julia offers to cure Barnabas,
  • Sam Hall joins the show,
  • Angelique is introduced,
  • Jonathan Frid’s ten-city publicity tour,
  • Ron Sproat leaves the show,
  • Quentin is introduced,
  • and MGM greenlights House of Dark Shadows.

The Hall/Sproat conflict is a key part of that ongoing saga.

601 dark shadows barnabas julia pain

To set the stage, here’s what I know about how soap operas are written.

Every show has a head writer, who does the 12- to 24-month story projections — figuring out where all the characters are going to go for the next year or two, and how storylines will cross over with each other.

The head writer plans out the weekly story beats for the next six to eight weeks of the show, indicating what should happen on each Friday. The head writer is also in charge of planning which actors and sets will be used each week, which is complicated and has a big impact on contracts and the budget.

Then there are the associate writers, who do the daily breakdowns — taking the head writer’s goals for the week, and planning an outline for the episodes. This is done in narrative form, describing what happens in each scene. Then that outline is given to the scriptwriters, who write the dialogue.

A lot of adjustments are made, going up and down the chain of command. Producers meet with the associate writers to go over the outlines, and a scriptwriter’s final script will be reviewed by the associate writers, the producers and the head writer.

There’s also an important role that’s sometimes called script editor, script supervisor or continuity supervisor, who’s in charge of making sure that everything fits together. Writing an ongoing daily serial with open-ended, overlapping storylines is a huge job; there’s maybe twelve people involved in writing the show.

601 dark shadows barnabas julia candles

And then there’s Dark Shadows.

What I just described is really how modern soap operas work, with bigger budgets, a larger cast, a much larger production staff, and greater involvement and attention from the network. Compared to that, soaps in the 1960s were basically a way more stressful version of community theater, and Dark Shadows was even more stressful than most.

They usually had three people on the writing team for Dark Shadows, although there are some stretches with only two writers. And that’s it — there are no credits for script editor. I imagine that someone must have been helping to coordinate the scripts, probably as an extra part of their job, but the writers did all of the heavy lifting, including story development, script-writing and continuity. They even had to write their own synopses for the first page of the script, a chore which in a normal world would have been handled by interns.

During 1968, which is the period of the show that we’re discussing now, the three writers are Ron Sproat, Sam Hall and Gordon Russell.

Ron Sproat, Writer, In New York City

Ron is the old-timer on the show. He’s been on Dark Shadows since fall 1966, at the start of the show’s first tentative explorations of the supernatural. Ron is the most cautious member of the team, always concerned that the audience won’t be able to follow the story unless there’s tons of recap dialogue to explain things.

gordon russell

Gordon started on the show in summer 1967. He’s a steady writer, and he does his job well. He’s apparently also incredibly nice — I’ve never seen anyone say a bad word about him.

Gordon and Sam bonded while working on Dark Shadows, and they worked together — first on Dark Shadows, and then on One Life to Live — until Gordon’s death in 1981.

Grayson-and-Sam-Hall-and-Jonathan-Frid-grayson-hall-31399898-500-326

Sam is the smartest guy in the room, and he knows it. He’s cranky, and funny, and he gets bored easily. His biggest impact on the show so far has been his enthusiasm for narrative collision — stealing characters and ideas from other stories, and throwing them into Dark Shadows just to see what happens. (I’ve written a lot about Sam before; check out this entry for more.)

601 dark shadows dan curtis

The three writers have a story meeting once every two weeks with executive producer Dan Curtis — more often if their backs are to the wall and they have to figure something out.

The story meetings sound pretty brutal. According to Sam, Dan was the real head writer:

Dark Shadows would have ended after the first week without Dan’s story input. He simply jumped in, and knew exactly what he wanted — even when he didn’t know what he wanted, but we were supposed to guess what he wanted, and come up with something that he liked. And then he would have other ideas.”

 So the writers basically pitch ideas for what to do next, and Dan rips them apart and puts them back together again.

Everyone who talks about Dan uses phrases like “intense,” and “larger than life,” and “force of nature.” He’s brilliant, in his own bizarre way, and he has amazing instincts for casting and tone. When Dan has an idea, he’s completely committed to it.

601 dark shadows dan curtis interview

So — those four guys, in a room. They figure out where the story’s going for the next two weeks, do a daily breakdown, figure out which actors and sets they can use, and assign a writer for each script.

Then the three writers go back to their apartments, and write Dark Shadows. Sam writes his scripts sitting at his kitchen table, and sometimes the others come over for a conference.

What we see on screen is the result of that process. They need to produce ten scripts every two weeks, and then come back together and do it all over again.

601 dark shadows harry window

The good thing about this process is that they’re super flexible. They don’t have anybody who’s emotionally invested in long-term plans, so they can pivot quickly, based on what the audience is responding to. That’s how a vampire character who was only supposed to last for thirteen weeks ends up taking over the show for the next four years. It’s one of the show’s greatest strengths.

The bad thing about this process is that it’s completely insane. Normal humans don’t work this way. These three guys are stumbling from week to week, trying to figure out what they can do to build more story potential.

Also, Dan is a maniac. He’s a creative guy, imaginative and insightful, but he’s hyper, and he’s not a writer. The story meeting is his opportunity every two weeks to influence the direction of the show. If he just says okay and agrees with everyone, then he hasn’t contributed to the creative work. The chances of this happening are zero.

601 dark shadows nicholas eyebrow

When they run out of time in the story meetings — which they probably did, every single time — then the thing that gets shafted is the episode breakdown, because that’s the part of the meeting that has to happen last.

So they’ll decide that Tuesday’s episode ends with Barnabas and Willie running out of the Old House, in order to set up the beginning of Wednesday’s episode, and nobody notices that they never quite figured out why Barnabas and Willie are running out of the Old House, or even why Willie was there in the first place, because he’s supposed to be across town.

And the dirty secret of creative work is that most of the time, you don’t even figure out what you’re doing until you’re actually doing it. Mid-script, you realize that there’s a problem that nobody thought of, or you think of a better way to do something.

But even if you come up with something that’s unbelievably brilliant, you still have to end the script with Barnabas and Willie running out of the Old House, because it has to connect to the next guy’s script.

601 dark shadows harry hand 2

So there are arguments, and accidents, and people pulling in different directions, sometimes not even realizing that they’re doing it.

This is how you end up with Philippe Cordier appearing for the space of one cliffhanger, and then being banished forever. This is why Eagle Hill Cemetery and Windcliff Sanitarium keep moving around the landscape. This is why sometimes characters are told the same information in two episodes a week apart, and they act like they’re hearing it for the first time.

The scripts are written on typewriters, using carbon paper to make copies. If you want to rewrite something, you have to type the whole page over. They don’t have email, or answering machines, or a VCR to check on something from an old episode. If they want to know what’s happened in previous weeks, then all they have are the script synopses, which they wrote in a hurry just before sending in the script.

601 ron sproat interview

It’s a high-stress environment; conflicts don’t have a lot of space to get resolved. And at this point, Ron Sproat is getting tired of being overruled.

Here’s Ron reflecting on this period, in a 1990 interview with Edward Gross.

Ed:  I thought the show had a sense of realism when Barnabas entered the picture, but that realism was destroyed when they began adding werewolves and the like.

Ron:  Yeah. The show changed tone violently. At one point, there were too many disagreements about how it should be handled. I thought it was going too campy, but that was just my opinion.

At what point do you think the show began to get too far out?

I thought it got kind of crazy at the point where you have a witch, who has been transformed into a vampire, talking to a man-made man, who wants a man-made woman, and the devil is walking around telling everybody what to do.

Plus you’ve got another vampire…

Right, another vampire, plus I think there was a werewolf. I was throwing my hands up in despair at that time. I thought the whole Eve plotline was absolute nonsense. She’s a man-made woman who runs around the woods in an evening dress. I just thought it was silly. I thought it took the magic and fun out of it.

But I guess the writers painted themselves into a corner. How do you top a vampire? That’s a question you mentioned before. What else could you have done with the Barnabas character?

I don’t know. Looking back on it, I thought there were other ways to handle it than the ways that were taken. There was a basic disagreement. I felt that it shouldn’t be that fantastic, that there should be some sort of root in reality; some sort of bizarre reality. Another writer felt it should be total fantasy, total craziness.

Was that Sam Hall?

Yes, it was.

sam hall 1

I could tell from my conversation with him that he seemed to delight from the wildness of the stories.

We were friends personally, but we were a little bit at odds over the material.

He mentioned that there was pressure on the writers that something had to happen every day.

Absolutely. Not only did we have indexes on stories, but Dan insisted that we had to have something happen at the end of every act. There had to be some sort of horrific suspense to get you through the next act. As a result of that, things happened that were terrible. They bumped off a major character, Sam Evans, at the end of Act Two, and his daughter barely had time to say, “My poor father died,” or anything.

But they brought his ghost back the next day.

(laughs) Yeah, that’s right.

There was a period after a while where nobody knew what the hell was going on.

That’s right. We had arguments about that. I told Dan that I felt we owed a certain obligation to the person who isn’t able to get to the television every day, to explain what’s going on. That we should keep a fairly clear storyline. Fans didn’t want to have to have some sort of guide that would untangle all of this. They were in the process of straightening it out a bit, and I think it was going pretty well about the time of Quentin.

But didn’t it start getting crazy again with Count Petofi and all of that?

That was after I’d gone. I’d left when Quentin was lurking around.

601 dark shadows harry hand

So that’s where we are right now, in the final months of Ron’s tenure on Dark Shadows. He’s trying to pull the show back to some kind of sanity, and Sam is pulling for more craziness.

This tug-of-war is going to play out in the character and story decisions going forward, with Dan demanding more thrills per minute. Stay tuned to find out what happens next.

Tomorrow: The Neuralyzer.


Footnotes:

The Ron Sproat interview quoted here is from Edward Gross’ Dark Shadows Tribute Book, published in 1990 by Pioneer Books.

Sam Hall’s quote about Dan Curtis is from Disc 112 in the Complete Original Series DVD collection.


Dark Shadows bloopers to wach out for:

Harry has a flyaway hair for most of the episode, which makes him look even dumber than usual.

Harry is in the middle of a conversation with Carolyn in the Collinwood drawing room, and then he appears in the window of the Old House in the next scene, twelve seconds later. Yeah, it’s time compression, but it feels like he just teleported.

When Nicholas is bargaining with Harry, sparkles from the chandelier are reflected onto Nicholas’ face.

Harry tells Nicholas, “Well, uh — the information, uh — talking about the money, I think what I have to offer is worth about, uh — five thousand dollars.” Then he kind of gropes his way through his next couple lines, saying that he knows someone is planning to kill Eve:

Nicholas:  Are you going to tell me who is planning to kill her?

Harry:  Well, uh…

(pause)

Harry:  Let’s talk about the money first.

Nicholas:  All right. (reaches into his pocket)

Harry:  I think what I have to offer is, uh —

Nicholas:  Worth five thousand dollars.

Harry:  Worth five thousand dollars.

Nicholas walks over to lean on the mantelpiece, and Humbert Allen Astredo is clearly struggling to suppress a laugh at Craig Slocum’s expense. Watch Nicholas’ face when Harry says “I don’t know how dumb you think I am.”

Harry:  I don’t know how dumb you think I am. But, uh — I had a feeling you’d try to chisel me out of it. So I made sure I had, uh — an ace in the hole.

Nicholas:  (sucking in his cheeks)  Did you now.

Harry:  Yes, you bet I do.

(Nicholas smiles, trying to keep it together.)

Harry:  Because, uh — I, uh — I know that, uh, you’ve been hiding Adam in this house.

Nicholas:  And what do you intend to do about that, Harry?

Harry:  Well, I, uh — I, uh — I could tell Carolyn. I’m sure she’d pay me, if you won’t.

When Harry pounds on the door in the hall, one of the wall sconces wobbles.

As Harry realizes that he’s trapped, the music cue fades down for a moment, then starts back up again.

There’s a tape edit when Carolyn leaves Collinwood.

Nicholas tries to shut the doors to the drawing room as he greets Carolyn, but one of the doors starts to swing open again. He grabs it and shuts it again, and it swings open again. The camera pans away from the door, and Carolyn suppresses a giggle as she goes on with the scene.

That traitorous door is still giving them trouble during the closing credits. It stays halfway open, and in the middle of the credits, it starts to close again, apparently by itself.


Behind the Scenes:

As you can see in the screenshots, Nicholas’ floating hand menaces Harry during one scene. I checked my sources on fill-in actors — the Dark Shadows Almanac, and Dark Shadows Wiki — and neither of them mentions a “Nicholas’ hand” stand-in. There are several credits listed for Barnabas’ hand, Petofi’s hand, Carolyn’s hand, aging Cassandra’s hands, etc, but nothing for Nicholas. My guess is that it’s actualy Humbert Allen Astredo, offstage.

Tomorrow: The Neuralyzer.

601 dark shadows harry nicholas laugh

Dark Shadows episode guide

— Danny Horn

22 thoughts on “Episode 601: The Last Days of Ron Sproat

  1. I find it interesting that the Sproat/Hall disagreement on the direction of the series is still present among fans of the series: There are those who prefer the b&w Barnabas episodes, when he (and Sarah) are the only supernatural elements. There are even those who prefer the Burke Devlin period, when Roger is the heavy and the big drama is over Vicki’s origins. All of this is valid, of course, and part of what makes DARK SHADOWS unique.

    I do agree with Sproat that there’s no root in reality in the 1968 storyline, but I think it’s less because you have vampires, Frankenstein monsters, and the Devil running around but because the stories and plots aren’t rooted in any compelling emotion. The Quentin’s ghost storyline is scary because the lives of children are at stake. It feels real. And once we get the 1897, even when there are vampires, werewolves, zombies, and warlocks, there is genuine emotion in the characters and their interactions.

    And I can’t wait to discuss Violet Welles.

    1. I agree Stephen. I think the biggest problem with 1968 is the lack of emotional investment – there’s some lip service paid to Vicki/Barnabas, Vicki/Jeff and even Adam/Carolyn but they don’t really convince. I think the only genuine emotional conflict is the disintegration of Joe and Maggie’s relationship, but even that has a weak payoff. I may have felt differently as a viewer back in 1968, but when placed in the overal DS context, it is a fairly weak year. Quentin’s introduction is a breath of fresh air and almost a back to basics approach in terms of narrative and characterization.

      And thanks for the behind the scenes lesson, Danny. Your blog is truly indispensable.

  2. Today, the part of Claude Rains will be played by Philippe Cordier. So they did the Invisible Man after all. Not even Hammer Films had a go at that Universal title.

    And check me if I’m wrong, but that hand that Nicholas summons after Harry–it doesn’t have Barnabas’ ring, but isn’t it the same one they used to torment Trask with in 1795? It has the same sausage fingers as Frid’s, so perhaps it’s filmed from a test take they did without the ring. If not Frid’s hand, then does it belong to a crew member?

    1. The hand is performed live and keyed in with Chromakey, so it’s got to be somebody. I checked my sources on fill-in actors — the Dark Shadows Almanac, and Dark Shadows Wiki — and neither of them mentions a “Nicholas’ hand” stand-in. There are several credits listed for Barnabas’ hand, Petofi’s hand, Carolyn’s hand, aging Cassandra’s hands, etc, but nothing for Nicholas. My guess is that it’s actualy Humbert Allen Astredo, offstage.

      1. I’m inclined to think it was not Humbert’s hand, for several reasons.
        When the hand disappears, you can count about 2-3 seconds, before Nicholas appears directly in front of Harry, saying “Are you comfortable, Harry?” He had to have been in place already, and the “hand effect” was probably done in the next space over, by other people. No time to get from one position to the other.

        Even if there had been time, I think they would have kept the two things completely separate. I would imagine whoever did the hand had no lines, nothing else to get in the way. Much simpler to just let Humbert be Nicholas, while somebody else takes care of the hand.

        I wonder, when we see Barnabas’s hand go after Trask, in 1795, if that’s really Jonathan Frid’s hand, or a stand-in wearing the same type of ring?

        1. That’s Timothy Gordon’s hand in episode 441. Gordon did a lot of fill-in work on the show between 1966 and 1969 — he was Barnabas’ hand coming out of the coffin, zombie Jeremiah, and the hand of Count Petofi. All of the stand-in work is credited in The Dark Shadows Almanac, but Nicholas’ hand isn’t included…

  3. I think as a child I preferred the Sam Hall style – re-watching the series now I am definitely Camp Sproat – the episodes I tend to gravitate towards rewatching are definitely the pre and early Barnabas – although I liked 1795 I was ready to get back to Roger, Burke, Vicki…when they returned to the present – things fell apart after the Vicki/Barnabas car accident – although I liked Quentin and 1897 I always feel that there was a lot of unfinished business that exasperates viewers like myself who prefer being given closure of any sort – I guess that’s what fan fiction is all about..

    1. Yeah, I’ve commented before that Episode 365 could be viewed as the cliffhanger “ending” of the “original” DARK SHADOWS: Burke is dead (or is he?) and Vicki has been replaced by this strange woman from the past.

      From No. 366 on, everything is really all about Barnabas Collins and the series backstory is his backstory (1795). Burke, Vicki’s origins, Roger and David’s relationship… it’s never picked up again. Every character is now a supporting character to Barnabas.

    1. Yes! Grayson’s smile and Frid’s snide comment face. She looks lovely here and a lot of the time in the show, although the ravages of smoking are already visible on her face which, who knew? I always thought anti-smoking campaigns would have been better served by talking about what nicotine addiction does to looks, not lungs. One thing I’ve not seen in the blog or elsewhere is her age during the 4 years she was on the show?

      1. She was born in September 1922, so she was 45 when she started and 48 when the show finished. You can get that in her biography.

      2. Grayson is very pretty. She did not seem to age at all while on the show, and I am sorry she was a smoker that ultimately was responsible for her demise. Well she died in 1985 at age 61. So she must have been in mid late 40s.

  4. The problem with throwing one mash-up after the other, is that none is developed properly, nor reaches a satisfactory conclusion. We start getting invested in a character or a situation and, presto chango, we are thrown into a different one. That’s why 1968 is such a mess.

  5. Obviously I just found this blog, and I’m reading things in random order, because a few minutes ago I posited a writer’s explanation for how the DS writing process might go, and here, in an earlier post, you have a very clear explanation of it. I still think by the Quentin story, at least, they had some “broad strokes” outlines that they were using to shape the story, while still leaving room to adjust. (And Sam to add more madness, apparently.)

    Gordon Russell, BTW, is my favorite DS writer, as his stuff usually advances the plot well and has less dithering around — and his dialog tends to be cleaner and more on point. Sam Hall, master of the voice over, would be second. Ron Sproat spent too much time repeating and stalling, IMHO. But I always assumed the other two took up the prime episodes and left him the scraps.

  6. and the devil is walking around telling everybody what to do.

    This is interesting since, IIRC, you’d theorized earlier that Nicholas Blair might actually be the devil and not just a warlock since it wasn’t made clear when he first appeared, so the original idea may have been that Nicholas was the devil and later they changed it. It certainly sounds like he’s talking about Nicholas, and he remembers what the other characters are up to accurately.

  7. Oh, my.

    Slocum and Humbert in the same room.

    That is torture for either of them.

    Slocum’s thought process: “Holy crap. This guy is 100 times the actor that I am. But then, who cares? I’m not an actor.”

    Humbert’s thought process: “Holy crap. This scene is like the Energizer Bunny. And that hasn’t been invented yet.”

    Good night, Harry.

  8. When Sprout left he ventured North to Frid’s homeland of Canada and started writing for a show called STRANGE PARADISE. That show was to be Canada’s answer to DS.

    The show was good until Episode 66 when they killed many of the characters and completely changed the tone and nature of the show and many characters. The show ended after 195 episodes and going totally off the rails. The arrival of Sprout oddly coincides with the start of storylines that don’t mesh and characters that make no sense.

    You can see STRANGE PARADISES on YouTube now. The first story arc was compelling but then the confusion and mayhem just spiral out of control. Sprout being part of its confusion and struggle between the writers.

  9. I’m becoming a more perceptive viewer. When those doors closed and locked Harry in the drawing room, I knew Ron Sproat had to at the helm. I’m learning from you, Danny!

    On a sadder note, here in my timeline it’s 11/9/2016 and I am watching episode 601 of DS because I can’t bear to work following the election. I want to thank Danny and the cast of commenters for being such good company on a somber day.

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