I interviewed Peter Cushing for Time Out in March 1986, to coincide with the publication of Peter Cushing – An Autobiography (Weidenfeld & Nicholson) and a season of his films at the National Film Theatre.
The reference to “Winston” in the fifth paragraph is to Winston Churchill (grandson of the more famous Winston Churchill) who in 1986 led a campaign in parliament to amend the Obscene Publications Act to cover, “the increasing amounts of obscene material transmitted by television into millions of homes.” The linked section from Hansard, in which he and his cronies waffle on about “proper values”, is interesting, bearing in mind Churchill’s own private life, which included not-so-proper extra-marital affairs with, among others, Soraya Khashoggi and a Belgian jewellery maker. I very much like the contrast with the sensible, measured contributions from Gwyneth Dunwoody, and what sounds like a spot of giggling at the back there from Clare Short.
As before, I have retro-edited my writing to excise some of the lame neologisms or pathetic attempts at wit that now make me cringe, but direct quotations have not been altered. There’s nothing here that strikes me as particularly illuminating or original, and I would probably think twice about using the word “schlockiest” if I were to write such an article now, but I do think some of the quotes capture Cushing’s tone of voice quite nicely. What a lovely man.
Baron Frankenstein raises a thin yet elegant finger and points towards the cake-stand laden with cucumber sandwiches and strawberry tartlets. “I want all that gone, otherwise I shall never speak to you again. And what you don’t eat, you can take in your doggy-bag, because you never know, you might be waylaid.”
There’s more to Peter Cushing than Frankenstein and Van Helsing, of course, though all of us who grew up with Hammer tend to think of those as his signature roles. “Nearly all my theatre was comedy,” he says, “and a great deal of television work too. But after the sensational and financial success of those early Hammer pictures, you do rather get typecast. It doesn’t matter.” But at least the two characters with which he is most closely associated are contrasting ones (ETA: you just have to look at the stills on this page to see the difference between Frankenstein and Van Helsing), and very few of his roles were as out-and-out villains, despite the NFT programme summing up his film season with the words, “A Talent to Terrify”.
Even Frankenstein was, “not a villain per se, he’s just a brilliant scientist gone wrong. As for Van Helsing in Dracula, you couldn’t have a more goody-goody, could you? Dear old Christopher Lee was the baddie in that one.” Cushing’s must unremittingly villainous role to date is probably that of Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars. During the filming of which, it is rumoured, the boots they gave him were so uncomfortable he replaced them with carpet slippers whenever his feet weren’t in frame.
Cushing lives near Dover, but is currently staying at Brown’s Hotel to help publicise his autobiography. The book glides gently to a halt with the death of his wife in 1971, but gets much mileage out of his childhood, when his mother insisted on dressing him as a girl, and his early theatre career, when he once topped up the whiskies at a backstage party with gin, because it looked exactly like water and he didn’t know the difference.
In 1954 he played Winston Smith in a BBC dramatisation of Nineteen Eighty-Four. This was over 30 years ago, long before the other Winston’s plans to ban sex and violence on the box, but even then there was an outcry. Questions were asked in the House as to whether the BBC should be allowed to run a repeat three days later. (In those days, running a repeat meant doing the programme all over again, live.)
Cushing still gets a steady stream of fan mail, much of it from people too young to have experienced the early thrills and chills of Hammer in the cinema, though the films have now gained new admirers through being show on television. “What they say in their letters is that the horror films of today, they repel you and you’re sickened. And the Hammer ones that we did make you shiver and shake and cuddle each other to feel comforted, but they never repelled. And that is, I think, frightfully interesting coming from young people who must be so immune now to seeing these terrible things on the news – football fights and Ireland and South Africa – it’s just dreadful, isn’t it. One has become so used to that as part of everyday life that I think watching a Dracula picture made 25 years ago must be rather like watching Noddy in Toyland.”
Nevertheless, it is chastening to recall the critical reaction to the release of The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957. “Depressing, degrading – for all lovers of cinema only two words describe this film.” “Among the half-dozen most repulsive films I have ever encountered.” “A sickening and nauseating way to make a living.” Yet, as David Pirie writes in A Heritage of Horror, the film, “looks today like a colourful and witty fairy story – which is exactly what it always was.” Cushing concurs; “I don’t really care for the adjective “horror”. I think the films are fantasy as much as anything. Horror is concentration camps, war, murder, real things. It’s car accidents and plane crashes.”
It’s an odd coincidence that both Vincent Price and Christopher Lee were born on May 27. Cushing lets down the Triumvirate of Terror, somewhat, by being born on May 26. “We always send each other cards. Vincent’s the daddy, I’m second and Christopher’s the baby.” He is the perfect English gent, getting to his feet when a lady (that’s me) comes into the room, helping her on and off with her coat, finding her a taxi at the end of the interview, and so on. He is dressed in muted early Doctor Who style (in fact, played the Doctor twice on film in the mid-1960s) with a discreetly floppy bow tie, checky sort of trousers and watch-chain.
Besides being tagged as Baron Frankenstein and Van Helsing, he is also one of the screen’s best Sherlock Holmeses, and will shortly be donning the deerstalker again for The Abbot’s Cry, with John Mill as Dr Watson. It’s an original story, updating the character to 1920, when Holmes is in his sixties. “Even to try to make me look 64 is cheating it a bit,” says Cushing, who is 73. He expresses guarded admiration for Jeremy Brett’s portrayal of the detective in the recent TV adaptations. “He obviously went into tremendous detail, everything is dead right, but… you don’t like the man. You should like Holmes; whether he was nice or not doesn’t matter.”
How does Cushing react to being described (the NFT programme again) as a “living legend”? “To be living at all is quite remarkable, at 73. It’s a lovely thing to be called. Mind you, things about people becoming legends in their own lifetimes have been rather overdone, haven’t they? When I first started in this business in 1936, I never dreamed I’d end up sitting here in one of the nicest hotels in London with everyone interested in such a very old man’s memoirs, and having a rose named after my wife. It’s all absolutely wonderful. I’m not a writer, and I think I’ve proved it. But I’m so thrilled people should be interested enough to publish it.”
On reflection, Cushing hasn’t been typecast at all, unless it’s simply by his habit of talking each role as seriously as he can, bringing a depth and a dignity to his roles in even the schlockiest of movies. “That’s the thing; you should never play down. If you’d only got a scooter, you’d pretend it was a Rolls Royce, wouldn’t you.”
Stills (top to bottom) from: The Brides of Dracula, Frankenstein Created Woman, Frankenstein Created Woman, The Brides of Dracula.
Scary Bits: Part One The films that terrified me.
Scary Bits: Part Two More films that terrified me.