Whitstable by Stephen Volk review.
On the face of it, mixing up Peter Cushing in a case of child abuse seems like an odd way to celebrate the centenary of the Hammer great’s birth, but it’s one that turns out to be surprisingly affecting.
Set in the seaside town where he lived, this novella centres on the Van Helsing actor in 1971, a month after the death of his beloved wife, Helen. Approached for help by a young boy who mistakes him for his screen persona, this dutiful gentleman feels obliged to act, and takes it upon himself to investigate. But he soon discovers that not all monsters are as easily identified as vampires, and the best means to defeat them is equally unclear. What’s more, by standing up to them you can risk falling under suspicion yourself…
Perfectly capturing the thought processes of a man devastated by loss (in real life, Cushing confessed to thoughts of suicide), the story recalls the novels of David Peace in the way that it inserts a real individual into a fictional scenario. Scrupulous research, not only into Cushing’s personal habits (Volk has clearly pored over the actor’s two biographies) but into such small details as what was on the cover of that week’s Radio Times , or what was that week’s number one record, builds a strong sense of verisimilitude - although just occasionally, the author seems overly eager to show his working (when Cushing visits a cinema, do we really need to know what was the first film it ever screened?) Volk also has a knack for a telling detail, such as a whiff of carbolic soap and Brut, or the biro with a feather Sellotaped to it (wielded by a waitress) which immediately sums up a shabby period tearoom.
Although Whitstable never enters supernatural territory, it’s a moving tale which any admirers of the late actor should enjoy – and one which is crying out to be adapted into a biodrama. How about it, BBC Four?
Ian Berriman twitter.com/ianberriman