Towards the end of 1998 Red Rooster Film and Television filmed Alchemists, an adaptation of Peter James’ effective black magic thriller Alchemist in and around London, but apparently removed all the witchery in the process leaving a story about genetic malpractice and dark deeds centring about a huge and mysterious pharmaceutical company called Bentik-Lange. Originally planned to be transmitted on Channel 5 in February, the four-part drama has been delayed for reasons unknown and is now being promised for Autumn/Winter 1999.
The story begins when Nobel prize-winning geneticist Dr Richard Bannerman (Edward Hardwicke) reluctantly joins Bentik-Lange in order to continue his work. His daughter, Dr Julia Bannerman (Ruth Gemmell) is a strong supporter of her father’s work, and when she uncovers a link between a series of unexplained deaths of women during childbirth, and the pharmaceutical giant, she is forced to investigate further. In this she is helped by Dan Simpson, an American patent lawyer (Grant Show), who is working undercover to try and discover Bentik-Lange’s hidden secrets – a cover-up of shattering proportions.
Edward Hardwicke, playing the elderly Doctor Bannerman, is no stranger to the screen, having appeared as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Watson to Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes in ITV’s popular series of the detective’s adventures. He also appeared in Escape from Colditz in 1971, as well as the BBC’s 1970s series Colditz, and latterly featured in the acclaimed film Shadowlands, and in Red Rooster Television’s production Richard III in 1996.
Ruth Gemmell shot to fame in the film of Nick Hornby’s best-selling football novel Fever Pitch in 1996, but has also appeared in several notable television series, including Silent Witness, The Bill and the controversial series about vice girls, Band of Gold.
Grant Show is a popular American actor who made his name first as Officer Rick Hyde in the daytime serial Ryan’s Hope and then as biker Jake Hansen in the soap opera Melrose Place. Show has also appeared in several films including A Woman Her Men and Her Futon in 1992, Texas in 1994, and, in 1997, The Price of Heaven and Mother Knows Best.
Alchemists also features John Vine as Rowley, Bentik-Lange’s sadistic head of security. Vine is a veteran of many televison series including the epic Knights of God, and also appears in the forthcoming remake of Doomwatch.
Peter James’ novel has been adapted for the screen by Laura Lamson, who also wrote the award-winning drama series The Men’s Room and has been directed by Peter Smith, who previously directed episodes of The Sweeney in the mid-seventies, The Price in 1985, Between the Lines in the early nineties and more recently episodes of Kavanagh QC.
Smith elected to film Alchemists using a technique of single mobile camera shots and minimal editing. It is hoped that this will add an extra dimension to the production, but it also serves to unsettle the actors who, as a result, receive limited opportunities for close-ups and are also denied the opportunity for reaction shots. Filming was, as a result, quite stressful for all concerned.
Although many of the fantastical elements from James’ novel have apparently been excised from the final teleplay – no scripts or material to view has been supplied so it is hard to tell how much of the original novel remains intact – there are still some moments of horror remaining, censors notwithstanding. These include scenes featuring animals undergoing various forms of vivisection, a man dissolved in a cloud of acid, and some computer-generated material in which the exterior of London’s second tallest building, the Nat West Tower in the heart of the City, is transformed into the high-tech headquarters of Bentik-Lange.
Whether the thriller still works as well without the supernatural elements which made James’ novel so engrossing remains to be seen. Viewers can decide for themselves this autumn …
David J Howe