( Martine Beswicke and James Bernard )

In 1998 the first “Hammer at Bray” meeting celebrated DRACULA’s 40th anniversary. This year, on May 29, Hammer returned to Bray for the 50th anniversary of Hammer Films. Just as last year all proceeds went to ‘The Ralph Bates’ Pancreatic Cancer Fund’. The event was organised by Donald Fearney and Simon Greetham. The tickets were available for £55 and limited to 200 guests.

I arrived in London the previous day. My girlfriend, Anne, was with me, but as she had no ticket for Bray (and – frankly – is not even half as obsessed with Hammer movies as I am), decided to spend the day in London shopping at Harrods instead.

I therefore made my way to Bray alone: A train journey to beautiful Windsor, followed by a short bus trip to the studios. In the bus the driver made us all check our tickets and advised us that – in case we might have forgotten them in the hotel or at home – substitutes could be arranged for at the entrance.

Alas, when I arrived at the studios nobody actually bothered about checking our tickets. I guess I could have smuggled Anne in all along. Nobody would have noticed. Hell, I could have even saved myself 55 quid! I spoke with other fans later on and discovered that this experience was typical for the event: None of their tickets were checked.

When I finally entered the main building, I already caught side of the first queue.  A handful of people surrounded a middle-aged lady I couldn’t recognise initially. Only when I looked over some shoulders to catch a glance at the signed photos I discovered that it was actually Julie Ege who was over in Bray for the day. She had arrived the previous day from Norway where she is now working as a nurse in Oslo.

Other visitors throughout the day shared my ignorance about Julie Ege’s current looks. Time takes its toll on all of us and it is sometimes hard to recognise the one-time stars that have been out of the public eye for 20, 30 or even more years. (Is it really that long ago?) Sex kitten Yvonne Monlaur has now the beatified looks of a favourite granny. And whereas Andrée Melly has changed beyond recognition, others - such as Veronica Carlson, Suzanna Leigh or Caroline Munro - barely seem to have aged at all.

In actual fact, some of the most entertaining aspects of the day was chatting to all the other fans, seeking advice (“Who’s that girl?”) or helping out with their queries (“What was the name of the film this gentleman was in?”). 

At times, it was quite bizarre. Some guests were convinced they’ve seen Veronica Carlson’s quiet companion in some Hammer movies. (It was her sister!) I was even one step short of asking a very glamorous girl for her autograph, before I discovered that she was "just" a fan.

So much to do so little time….  The first queue I joined was for Ingrid Pitt. There might have been only about a dozen people in front of me at that stage, but, boy, did it take ages until it was my turn. Ms Pitt is a very chatty person and every time she recognised someone or somebody raised an interesting point, she talked and talked and talked. Quite charming, even flattering if you’re the one she talks to, but slightly enervating if you’re the last one in the queue instead with no sign of movement.

While waiting for my turn, I at least managed to see my all time favourite Hammer girl, Caroline Munro, make her entrance.

Before heading off for Bray my girlfriend was joking with me whether I will come back with photos of Caroline Munro and myself. I told her I would certainly take some pictures, but was adamant none of them would have me in them. For years seeing photos showing fans together with their stars just made me cringe. Alas, when I asked Ms Pitt whether I can take a photo of her, one very helpful fan (but aren’t they all?), offered to take it for me to ensure I could be in it, too. And, presto, years of photographic snobbery went down the drain and culminated in me smiling into the camera like an overexcited schoolboy.

On top of signing hundreds of autographs Ingrid Pitt also promoted her latest book “Life’s a scream”. She charged £5 for every autograph but one. When I handed over her “Bedside Companion for Vampires” she said: “I can’t charge you for that. That’s my own book!” All the money also went to charity.

Next came Caroline Munro: Silently claiming to be her No. 1 fan, I was pleased to hear that she recognised my name from her fan club. I was hoping, though, she wouldn’t remember that I was  - as usual – late with my annual payments.

Next came the obligatory photo with her and I. (Why do girlfriends always have to be so right?) At that stage I was way into the photo bug and even wondered whether it might be possible to also get a picture taken with her and Ms Pitt.

In the end I managed to obtain autographs by Caroline Munro, Ingrid Pitt, Suzanna Leigh (THE LOST CONTINENT), Yvonne Monlaur (THE BRIDES OF DRACULA), Oscar Quitak (THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN) and his wife Andrée Melley (THE BRIDES OF DRACULA), Julie Ege, Martine Beswicke, James Bernard, Ray Harryhausen, Ian Scoones, John Forbes-Robertson (THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES), Francis Matthews and Veronica Carlson.

I also saw Aida Young (Hammer producer), Eddie Powell (Christopher Lee’s stunt double), Freddie Francis, Renee Glynne (Continuity Manager), Ralph Bates’ widow Virginia Wetherell (DEMONS OF THE MIND), Edward De Souza (KISS OF THE VAMPIRE), Dame Thora Hird (THE QUARTERMASS XPERIMENT) and several others. Reading articles on Bray afterwards I must have also missed at least a handful of other Hammer staff that popped in for an hour or two.

The weather was glorious. A lot of the action took place outside. The high flyers on their boats down the Thames often waved over to us.  A lot of celebrities everywhere you looked. That’s the life!

The highlights of the day for me were meeting Caroline Munro, Ray Harryhausen and Ian Scoones, chatting to the fans and especially seeing my good old friends Uwe Sommerlad (The Cushing Companion), Birte Laabs and Claudia Wickel from Germany. Now that I am living in Ireland I am lucky to see them maybe once a year.

Remembering Caroline from her cinematic releases way back in the 70s, it was a delight to finally see her in person. She is an extremely friendly and open woman. Where Ingrid Pitt leaves the impression that she damn well knows she’s the centre of attraction (Boy, can she be snappy if something doesn’t go her way, believe me!), Caroline comes across as a genuinely pleasant and cheerful woman who enjoys meeting up with her fans and admirers. And together with Martine Beswicke and Julie Ege she also was, of course, one of three Bond girls at Bray. (Let’s throw in Edward “THE SPY WHO LOVED ME” De Souza as a Bond guy for good measure!)

There’s definitely something about the special effects people. Maybe it is the fact that for most of the time, they work behind the camera and are often not recognised by the cinema going public, but both Ray Harryhausen and Ian Scoones were a real pleasure to talk to.

Apart from some stills, I also asked Ray Harryhausen to sign a guidebook to the Babelsberg studios in Berlin. The studios now house large parts of the Ray Harryhausen collection, models, designs etc. Mr Harryhausen was very interested in that booklet and went though the pages one by one, commenting on the different kinds of models before signing the book.

I had met him before years ago at the Festival of Fantastic Films in Munich where he showed the right amount of openness and mystery. Although the explanation for most of his tricks are in the public domain now, one or two of them are still quite baffling and he refuses – rightfully! – to discuss those. Some things are better of veiled in mystery. No wonder that he won an Oscar (Lifetime Achievement Award).

Coincidentally another Academy Award winner was at Bray: Freddie Francis received his two Oscars as a cinematographer for SONS AND LOVERS and GLORY.

I caught up with Ian Scoones at the bar. Over a pint he chatted about his house in Spain. We joked about the advantages of being an ex-pat. He showed me photos of his studio, paintings, models (amongst them a gorgeous replica of the robot Maria from METROPOLIS) and current projects. He then went through THE HAMMER STORY, commenting on Denholm Elliott and Oliver Reed who was buried just a week or so before Bray, before signing his autograph into the book. Ian Scoones was so relaxed and chatty. Lovely chap and ideal pub companion.

My biggest regret is not meeting up with Michael Ripper. He was at Bray in the morning and everywhere I went I heard from others that “he was just here”. I missed him several times by very narrow margins.  People who were lucky enough to have met him told me that he left around midday.

An auction took pace at the end of the day. A lot of rare and expensive items went under the hammer. (Yes, yes, I know: I’m not the first person to use this pun.) Ingrid Pitt made an excellent auctioneer. I was just happy that credit cards weren’t accepted. Otherwise, my bank manager might have wanted to have a word with me the following week.

To give you an example of the kind of prices charged. The first lot consisted of three items: a gold silk tie owned and worn by Mr. Peter Cushing, a typed letter by Mr. Peter Cushing discussing his friend Mr. Christopher Lee and signed in full by Mr. Peter Cushing and a print of Peter Cushing’s original art work for the unfilmed Hammer Project “The Savage Jackboot”.

That lot was sold for more than….. £600!!! Some other items changed owners for £1000 or more.

Call me a cynic, but as much as I admire the Hammer movies and would love to have some of the collector’s items, I don’t believe that the kinds of prices charged at the auction are indicative of the real value of the lots. True, Hammer films are currently riding high again in the collector’s market and generate an awful lot of interest at the moment. However, it remains to be seen whether collectors got value for money or might end up one day with terrible headaches over some of these overpriced possessions. Oh well... This might be jealousy speaking from my side. And after all, the money went to charity.

After a day of glorious sunshine, thunder and lightning finally struck at the end of the day. Never have I seen lightning at such close range. What an atmosphere!!! Very spooky. And how appropriate! Jokes passed the round about a perfect end for a perfect Hammer day. 

However, all the trains were seriously delayed and I barely managed to make it back to London in time to meet up with Anne for a Thames dinner tour. Next to us in the boat two silicon enhanced girls were seated who cheerfully chatted about their times in the Playboy mansion. Ah, my friends, but that’s another story….

Rumour has it that there might be another “Hammer at Bray” meeting either next year or in two years time. I would strongly recommend attending if you get the opportunity. I will definitely be there again given half a chance. It is a fantastic occasion to meet up with a lot of the stars and fans. It is great fun and a memorable day out.

The only ideas I have to improve the running of the event are all related to the costs. If any of the organisers read this, please take notice:

£55 is a fair price for an event of this kind, especially as the proceeds go to charity. However, anyone who pays that kind of money for an event would like to have their tickets checked. Otherwise the temptation might arise and fans may like to sneak in for nothing.

Charging for autographs needs to be evened out. I strongly believe that after paying £55 entrance fee, no further autograph charges should be attempted unless photos are purchased. It is very irritating to see that some A-list celebrities like Veronica Carlson charge nothing, whereas minor stars like Oscar Quitak charge £3 per autograph. It is especially irritating to discover that autograph fees can vary even with one and same actress: Meet Suzanna Leigh in the studios and you pay 3 quid, meet her outside and you pay nothing.

But those are just minor complaints: What’s a pound or two extra when you can chat with the artists you have admired for all those years!



Holger with Caroline Munro!

Holger with Ingrid Pitt!