TALKING TOÖ

PETER CUSHING

Originally printed in LíINCROYABLE CINEMA (1971)

Interviewer: Chris Knight

I met Mr. Cushing on Stage 1 at Shepperton Studios, where shooting of "The House that Dripped Blood" was in progress. I found him sitting during a break in rehearsals, in the chair vacated a few days earlier by Nyree Dawn Porter who had finished filming her segment of the film with her co-star Christopher Lee the previous week. With a courteous "Sit down dear boy" he motioned me to take the chair next to him which I noticed had been used by Christopher Lee. Thus, amongst the noise, bustle and the sets of the film, the interview began.

The Sherlock Holmes stories (recently reshown on television with Mr. Cushing in the title role) marked the return of Peter to television after some years. Was the character of Holmes approached differently for the television series as opposed to when Peter played Holmes in Hammerís "Hound of the Baskervilles" as it was noticeable in some of the stories that there was an element of comedy between Holmes and Watson?

"Oh no," was the quick reply. "I try to keep exactly to the character. When you come to do sixteen stories, as opposed to just one, it can be shown that he certainly did everything. Whatever we did in the television series was all out of the book. Mind you, Nigel Stock was the sort of comedy person, Holmes had such a quicksilver brain as opposed to the more slow thinking Dr. Watson. There is however a great rapport between the two of them."

As mentioned above, this series brought Peter back onto television. Was there any particular reason why he hadnít returned to television and the theatre earlier?

"No particular reason except that I was busy elsewhere. There are all sorts of reasons why I donít do much work in the theatre, the main one being that after two performances I feel Iíve given all I can. I hate repetition, I really do. Itís like asking a painter to paint he same picture every day of his life."

Returning to comedy for a moment, Peter appeared recently on the "Morecambe and Wise" show as King Arthur in a comedy sketch. Was this perhaps an indication that Peter wanted to do comedy roles?

"When I was in television for about three years solid," Peter replied. "I should think that a good half of those television plays were comedy. Donít forget in the "Morecambe and Wise" show I was by no means the comic. I was literally the straight man. It was a marvelous experience and you couldnít have two better comics than them as they make a virtue of mistakes which is wonderful. Whereas a straight actor is much more cue-bound and really script bound, they are so used to things going wrong that instead of drying up they just carry on and make a marvelous joke out of it."

A great number of people believe that Laurel and Hardy were perhaps the greatest comedy team of all time. Peter worked with them only once early in his career in the film "Chumps at Oxford". Were they as funny off set as they were on?

"They were both absolutely charming and very serious off set," Peter recalled. "Someone said that comedy is a very serious business and that is a great trueism. Off set they were working out business and things to do in the coming scene and all that was very serious. I mean if youíre thinking about anything you canít be larking about, but at the same time it was great fun and of course their films are still being shown."

Of all the films Peter has made (and this is the case with Christopher Lee as well) the one film that is nearly always quoted as being the favorite of the fans is Hammerís "Dracula". Why, out of all the films he has made, did Peter think that this one film was so popular?

"I would think that itís just a very well made picture and the first time it had ever been made in colour and of course it was about twenty-five years since it had been done before. The story has become a minor classic the same of Mary Shellyís Frankenstein. If film people knew what was going to be a success life would really be a bowl of cherries. You just canít tell, it could have been a very medicore success or not a success at all. Itís very difficult to say but the extraordinary thing is that itís never stopped since nearly fifteen years ago and even though the industry is going through one of itís periodic bad times these pictures are still being made, so it is public demand I imagine."

I asked Peter if, looking back over his career, he had a film which he wishes he had never made, or if he had a particular favourite?

"Donít forget I see them in a very different light," he replied after some deliberation. " I always go to the rushes as I think you can learn an awful lot about yourself even if itís what not to do again but by the time I come to see the film, say after three months have gone by and you are still a bit raw about it, there are certain things you wish you could have redone. Itís very interesting because theyíve been showing quite a number of the pictures that I made ten, twelve, fifteen years ago on television and Iím surprised how well theyíve lived up. They donít seem to have dated and Iíve been able to sit back and enjoy them more at home in front of the television than I did originally. I donít think there is really a favourite, Iím very fond of film making as a whole and as a medium and of course, there are some that Iíve enjoyed making more than others but Iíve enjoyed making all of them."

The great majority of films that come under the macabre, supernatural heading are nearly always set in period times. Should a film of this sort be set in this period?

Peter was quite definite in his answer, "Oh absolutely, Oh rather, because in modern day youíve got so many things like police, telephones, aeroplanes, helicopters and James Bond. Take Bond for example, heís impregnable, he canít really be killed. You have cigarette lighters that are lethal whereas all Frankenstein had, not that he was killing people or he was a secret agent, was his own incredible brain and a sort of do it yourself kit. He was an incredibly clever chap by getting an electricity charge to bring the thing to life and if you bring the story up to date they are doing heart surgery now. I think the settings of hansom cabs and horses and the clothes and that odd sort of thing of the Victorian era in which the films are set where on the face of things it was highly respectable but in fact the most ghastly things went on underneath is necessary."

Having appeared in so many films where he is surrounded by bodies, limbs and blood in general did Peter feel that he was hardened to this sort of thing, could he for example watch a post-mortem in real life?

"No, Iíd faint on the spot," was the quick reply. "Whenever I have to do anything like that in a film I always go to my local doctor who is always delighted to see someone who isnít ill. I say look Iíve got to do this in a film how do I do it and he shows me. I think that as an actor youíve got to know that everything your doing is right and often doctors may come in to see these pictures and I think it would be insulting and also you might lose a bit of interest if you did something wrong. So everything I have done on the screen, although you see very little of it, is in fact correct. For example there are certain ways to pick up a scalpel and youíve got to do that correctly."

Hammerís latest Frankenstein film "The Horror of Frankenstein" does not star Peter in the title role as the storyline returns Frankenstein to his student days. Did Peter feel that the series had to be changed drastically because of suitable story material?

"Having made Dracula and Frankenstein it is awfully difficult to find a story that is different. Dracula was about a vampire who sucked blood and Frankenstein was able to create mankind so where do you go from there. Iím glad to think that maybe all of them are highly successful and that people enjoyed them but the stories tended to be repetitive. You see I donít like to be really too commercial about things but in this business youíve just got to be commercial otherwise the films donít make money and you donít make films and as a long as a commodity is selling itís silly to kill it dead."

During the interview the talk came around to the subject of westerns and I was interested to hear what Peter said on the subject, particularly since Christopher Lee had said that to do a western was the dream of his life.

"Iíd like to play a rather English gentleman in the west," Peter replied. "But I think old Chris is an incredible actor and heíd be jolly good because heís a marvelous horseman and I think heíd be a marvelous baddie. Some actors can put on an American accent and itís so phony but strangely enough Chris is one of the few English speaking actors who can simulate an American accent."

The two Dr. Who films Peter made were intended purely for children, did he get more satisfaction out of them knowing that they were for a younger audience?

"No, I donít think more or less of them. This is confirmed by the many letters one gets and this, in itself, is a double reward. You do something you like and you also give pleasure."

Peter was quite open at times about his films, for example "Corruption", "I felt that it was a great idea but the only thing I felt about the picture was that it was repetitive within itself and it had to be I suppose because of what the story was about. It was about this man who through an unfortunate accident destroyed the beauty of his dearly beloved and it was his magnificent obsession to bring her face back to normal, but every time the glands he took from prostitutes ran out he had to get some more so it had to be repetitive. I think with a little more time it could have been made a little more subtle but even so it was an incredible success in America."

Over his career Peter has played a large number of different roles, did he still have one that he would like to play?

The reply was quickly forthcoming, "The only part Iíve ever wanted to play is Stanhope in ĎJourneyís Endí a play by R.C.Sherriff which is about the First World War, but as heís only about nineteen I donít think all the makeup in the world would help me there. I shanít ever achieve that ambition but I think I could still get away with playing Osborne who is a senior officer who is about forty-five, I think I could scrape along on that. Iíve never wanted to play Hamlet however, in fact I donít think I could."

Over the last fifteen years the power of the censor in the film industry has been drastically cut. Nowadays scenes that are commonplace in films were completely taboo even up to a few years ago, did Peter have any strong feelings on this subject as the horror film seemed to bear the brunt of the censors scissors more than any other type of film, the classic example being Tod Browningís "Freaks" which was completely banned in this country for many years.

"I donít really have any strong views", he said, and went on to explain "I still think that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and I think that goes for everything. Horror is in the eye of the beholder and therefore what might be beautiful to me might you might think as pretty mediocre, and therefore something that might scare me to death you might laugh your head off at. I think films really, although weíre in a permissive society, in such as much as the censor doesnít have as much power as he used to have, could leave a lot more to the imagination of the individual in the audience, of course you are catering for a mixed audience. In the old days, I donít think they do it so much now because the film goes to all countries, but we used to do a European version for certain scenes and then an Eastern version. In "The Curse of Frankenstein" I put a head in a bath of acid, well that was quite enough, you saw it go in but for the Japanese version you had to see the head actually disintegrate in the acid. You see I donít think that is necessary. To me the classic example of giving people a shock is in David Leanís "Great Expectations" when the convict comes out of the churchyard and grabs Magwich. Weíve all felt that fear in the dark when that happens (I should explain at this point that Mr. Cushing grabbed hold of my shoulder quickly to emphasis the point, and that being the last thing I was expecting during an interview I can understand now what he meant by his words giving people a shock) and I donít think itís been captured on film since."

In the past, people have said to me that in their opinion when Hammer left Bray Studios the quality of their films dropped, as if that certain touch of Bray Ďmagicí was missing. This is of course a highly debatable point but to some extent I feel that this is so. Their films are still well mounted, but looking back at some of their early successes such as "Dracula", "Brides of Dracula", "Curse of Frankenstein", "Kiss of the Vampire", "Revenge of Frankenstein", "Captain Clegg", "Terror of the Tongs", and "The Mummy" for example, something does seem to be missing, perhaps after all there was such a thing as a touch of Bray Ďmagicí. Itís worth taking the opportunity at this time to explain that at Bray in the late fifties and early sixties you will see a regular list of technicians in the credits. Names such as Anthony Hinds, Anthony Nelson Keys, Terrance Fisher, Jimmy Sangster and Michael and James (now Sir James) Carreras spring readily to mind, but to look further down the credits and see such names as Len Harris, Jock May, Molly Arbuthnot, James Bernard, John Hollingsworth, Bernard Robinson and Len Abbot. This regular band of technicians with others, coupled regularly with the talents of such actors as Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Michael Ripper, Miles Malleson, Charles Lloyd Pack and George Woodbridge did in fact produce some wonderful films, and as they worked together for so long they got to know how everybody else worked. When Hammer left Bray, the team split, and it was probably this close working relationship between everyone that was in fact the Bray Ďmagicí. I asked Peter about his memories of Bray in those early years?

"It was certainly a great team. It had the same director, producers, two leading actors, sets, props, cameraman, lighting engineers and it was like the worldís football teams, the more they play together the better they become. What was important was that everybody got on so well together. I think this extends from the top, if the top man is good it goes all the way right down to the callboy. I have a great affection for those days at Bray. When I used to live at Kensington it only took forty-five minutes to get there and we had the road to ourselves. No one at all used the road at 7 am, there were no motorways, just country lanes and you used to arrive at what was a large country house by the river, and this was in fact Bray Studios. In the very first picture we did there, there was a bedroom scene and we literally went up to the bedroom of this house and used the bedroom, for dining room scenes we went down to the dining room. They had one very small sound stage, which was called a workroom, and as they gradually progressed they built several more stages and I think they finished up with about three or four. It all started there and it was a very, very happy time. Iím a reactionary inasmuch as I donít like change much, except for the better, and one got awfully set in oneís ways and I miss it greatly, I loved those days. When they did move to Shepperton and Elstree the same people were there and the atmosphere was so very nice but it wasnít sort of home. As far as quality is concerned I cannot tell, itís always difficult to judge. Lack of money will always make something look cheap if your not careful but youíve got to save money somewhere either on sets or time. Things are rushed and if youíve got to stick too strictly to your schedule and your budget I think it is going to show, not always but it can tend to if you are rushed."

As the film industry in general is going through one of itís bad spells at the moment, I asked Peter if he would take any role that came along in order to work?

Iím always glad to be offered roles, but wouldnít take any role as this could do you more harm than good, but Iíve been at what they call Ďon the topí as far as being known for twenty years. Three years in television made me awfully well known in this country and then one got into films and now in the last two or three years all my old films are being reshown and a new audience who hadnít heard of me twenty years ago are seeing me."

Time and tide, unfortunately, wait for no man and since rehearsals were due to be in shortly I put my last question to Mr. Cushing. I asked him if he could tell me of his early days in rep, and if he ever thought then that he would be as famous as he is today?

"It certainly was a struggle," he reminisced. "Iíd always wanted to be an actor right from a tiny kid and when I at last got on stage, about twenty-one I think I was and it was only in rep, I was absolutely thrilled to bits. I got about fifteen shillings a week which in those days did mean more than it does today but even so, in 1934 I think it was, it didnít matter. I didnít smoke, I didnít drink, I just gave the fifteen shillings straight to my landlady and for that I got breakfast and a meal at night. I was always very delighted when we did plays with breakfast scenes because you went along to Sainsburys and said could I have pork pies for each of the shows and weíll put an advert in our programme, of course we did jolly well with all this food. I hope this doesnít sound pompous but I donít think of myself as famous, whatever fame Iíve got has come through what Iíve done and associations of things Iíve done. If you are associated particularly with films that make a sensational impact and which make a great deal of money then fame is thrust upon you and obviously through television oneís show is seen in this country but films of course have made one international. In those days one had to work for the obvious reasons, I didnít go into the business to seek fame but Iím glad itís there because if your famous it means youíre wanted."

True words indeed, and it is obvious from the enormous following that Mr. Cushing has, not only in this country but throughout the world, that he will be wanted for many, many years to come.

1970 Chris Knight