The Quest for the Lost Relic
by Chris Hassell
"...there, above the Box Office, was a framed plaster hand-print and signature of none other than Mr. Cushing himself!"
It was these few innocuous words, which appeared in the Editorial section of Issue #9 of ‘The Cushing Courier’ (March 1999) regarding a visit to the Prince Charles Cinema in London that set in motion the train of events that would later become known as ‘The Quest for the Lost Relic’.
It took a few moments before those words and, indeed, the very importance of the discovery, actually sank in. A framed set of Mr. Cushing’s plaster hand-prints? I couldn’t believe it! I immediately flicked through my dog earred copies of ‘Peter Cushing: An Autobiography’ and ‘Past Forgetting’ but this failed to unearth the slightest snippet of information on the subject. My next course of action was to sit down and compose a letter to the Prince Charles Cinema. The letter introduced both myself and The Peter Cushing Association and requested more information, if possible, on this marvellous discovery. I even included a SAE to ensure a reply. However, I was in for a disappointment. Over two weeks passed without a response. Not disheartened in the least, I dashed off a second letter.
Over the next few days, I also wrote several letters to the BBC in the hope that their research department could throw some light on the discovery. The BBC, although quite prompt in their replies, were unable to help me in my Quest. For example, on 13th May 1999, they wrote "... unfortunately, after research, we can find no mention of this framed plaster hand-print or any photographs..." Unbelievable! Someone, somewhere MUST know something! I wrote back to the BBC, this time giving as much information as I had (which admittedly was practically nothing!). The reply arrived a few weeks later: "... I am afraid that we are unable to assist with your research regarding the framed plaster hand-prints despite the further information you have provided..." A dead end at the BBC then? And still nothing from the Prince Charles Cinema! I resolved to give it another week, then write to them a third time.
But, on Friday 4th June 1999, the miracle I was hoping for finally happened! I received a postcard from a Ben Freedman of Robins Cinemas. He wrote: "...thank you for your note about the Peter Cushing hand-prints...if you would like to, you could come up to London to collect them..." I must have read and re-read those words a dozen times before their meaning sank in! Even then, I couldn’t believe it! Come up and collect them? Surely not? Just like that?
Ben had written his telephone number down so I rang straight away - only to reach his voice mail. Totally unprepared for that eventuality, I stuttered and stammered a quick message - remembering to add my telephone number - then hung up. I waited all morning for a reply from Ben then, having heard nothing by 2pm, rang again. Same thing - no Ben! I then had an inspired idea and telephoned the switchboard operator at Robins Cinemas. I was informed that Ben Freedman was on a week’s leave. I might have known! Another dead-end! But only for the time being. Somewhat disappointed, I resolved to telephone again in one week’s time. Still, not a bad result! Our first real lead and only three months from the initial report of the discovery of ‘The Relic’ in March. Now I had contact with someone who had doubtless been involved in the affair. I could hardly wait to telephone again and couldn’t believe how slowly the next seven days passed.
But pass they did and it was on June 11th that I finally managed to speak to Ben Freedman. He listened patiently to what I had to say about the PCA and, when I’d finished, asked if someone could drop him a line outlining exactly what the PCA intended doing with ‘The Relic’ - assuming that Robins Cinemas agreed to donate it to us - and where its final resting place would be. I assured him this would not be a problem and it was on this note that we ended our conversation.
That same evening, I contacted Brian Holland to advise him of my progress. He agreed immediately to send Ben a copy of ‘The Cushing Courier’ together with a covering letter. Now all we could do was wait - with fingers crossed. While we were waiting to hear from Robins Cinemas, Brian and I communicated regularly and, in one of his letters, he enclosed a tantalising photograph of ‘The Relic’ taken by Simon Flynn. The sight of it made me even more determined to track it down!
And then, the event we were waiting for happened! On 27th July, I received a telephone call from Penny Edwards, a charming colleague of Ben Freedman at Robins Cinemas. She told me that Robins would be happy to donate ‘The Relic’ to the PCA! These were the words I wanted to hear but, again, I couldn’t believe I’d heard her correctly so asked Penny to repeat them. I informed her that Brian, Derek Pykett and myself were prepared to come up to London for the prints later the following month (August) - if that was OK with everyone - and we left it at that. I duly reported our conversation to Brian and we began making the necessary arrangements.
Then came the bombshell! My father-in-law’s brother died suddenly in Canada, aged 72. My wife, Beverley, and her parents flew out to settle his affairs leaving me behind to consolidate the lines of communication between Canada and the UK. This meant the trip to London would have to be shelved temporarily. Accordingly, I advised both Brian and Penny of this regrettable set-back.
It was September before my family returned from Canada and I was able to contact Penny once more. Unfortunately, both Brian and Derek now had prior commitments so I volunteered to make the trip to London the following month and take possession of ‘The Relic’ on behalf of the PCA. Accordingly, Penny and I agreed to meet at 1.00pm on Friday 22nd October at the Prince Charles Cinema.
The day dawned bright and sunny in South Wales and with Beverley in tow, off I set on the Great Expedition. We had decided to travel up by coach and duly arrived at Victoria Coach Station at 11.20. After a quick scan of my trusty ‘A - Z of London’, we made our way on foot up Buckingham Palace Road. The warm weather seemed to have followed us to London and so, at Buckingham Palace, we decided to cut through St. James’ Wood. It was crowded that day and quite pleasant. We’d gone perhaps 100 yards when it suddenly struck me that I’d not heard one word of English spoken by any of the people we’d passed - French, German, Italian, Chinese certainly - but no English! This really underlined the fact that London was truly a cosmopolitan city!
Exiting St. James’ Wood, we soon came to Trafalgar Square and thence to Leicester Square. The time was now 12.30. We eagerly wandered around looking for the Prince Charles Cinema - the resting place of ‘The Relic’. We soon identified the building and pushed through the double glass doors. I explained the purpose of my visit to a very helpful young man and he went off to fetch Penny. Suddenly, there she was! And looking as charming as she had sounded on the telephone. We all shook hands and Penny ushered me into a small office behind the reception area.
It was here that I was introduced to another charming lady, Sylvia Llaguna, the manageress of the Prince Charles. However, Louise Rodd - another of Penny’s colleagues - was unfortunately unable to attend this little ceremony. This was a pity as I particularly wanted to meet and thank Louise. It was she who had been keeping ‘The Relic’ safe at her home until such time as it could be collected. Penny told me that Louise was another dedicated fan of Peter’s. And although she’s never met him, has always thought him to be ‘a real gentleman.’ Penny then stood to one side as Sylvia, smiling broadly, held out ‘The Relic’ to me. I stepped forward and, with shaking hands and bated breath, silently took it from her. The ‘Quest the for Lost Relic’ was finally over.
Picture, if you will, a shallow wooden tray about four inches deep, eighteen inches square with sides almost one inch thick, filled to the brim with hardened years-old plaster. Inset into the plaster, a pair of hand-prints, above which is etched a very familiar signature and a date (‘92). Unfortunately, the middle finger of the left hand-print shows some slight damage but, otherwise, the plaster is perfect. Between, and slightly below, the two hand-prints is embedded a five-pointed golden star. In the middle of this star are engraved two words: ‘PETER CUSHING’.
I clutched ‘The Relic’ to my chest as we all returned to the reception area for Beverley to take some photographs. I have tried to describe the look of ‘The Relic’ as best as I can - but I cannot possibly describe the weight of the thing! It was heavy! Penny must have read my mind because she said: "Would you like to leave it here while you do some shopping?" What a charming lady! If my wife had not been present, I would have kissed her. I gladly took Penny up on her offer and arranged to recall around 4pm. Before we left, however, I asked Penny for some background information on the Prince Charles and Robins Cinemas.
She informed me that Robins Cinemas was privately owned and had been started about 9 years ago by Ben & Bill Freedman. They also had cinemas in Durham, Bath, Devizes as well as London. The Prince Charles was originally owned by the Cannon group and Robins took it over about 8 years ago. The Prince Charles’ (rather dubious!) claim to fame is that it was the cinema which ran the film ‘Emmauelle’ for 12 years! (One can almost see Mr. Cushing having a chuckle over this choice of resting place!) When Robins first took over the cinema, they opened with a 12mm version of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ - which did badly. The cinema now shows a variety of films in a Repertory style and is now the most successful cinema in the chain, due in no small part to the low admission fees of just £2.50 a seat.
I also discovered that the cinema is funded solely by its membership fees. There is no funding from any Arts Council, no National Lottery money, nothing. Membership for a year costs just £5 and for just £15, you can have Lifetime Membership. That certainly sounds like money well spent to me!
With the time being now 1.30pm, Beverley and I stopped for lunch at ‘Chiquitos’ - ‘all you can eat for £4.95’ - before taking a stroll up the Strand. We explored the many book-shops in Charing Cross Road and the market at Covent Garden, returning to the Prince Charles around 3.45pm to collect ‘The Relic’. But Penny was now in a meeting so, this time, we missed her. However, I left a message that I’d telephone the following week.
For the purpose of carrying ‘The Relic’, I’d brought along the stout canvas shoulder bag which had served me so admirably at the Bray Gala in 1998. After carefully wrapping my prize in a plastic bin liner, I slid it gently into my bag. A perfect fit! I hoisted the bag onto my shoulder, checked that the weight was bearable then Beverley and I retraced our steps back to Victoria Coach Station. We arrived there at 4.30pm ready for the 5pm coach to Cardiff. And this is where our nightmare began!
The return coach had broken down and we had to wait for a replacement. This finally arrived at 5.30pm. However, when we boarded the coach, we found that there were no refreshments and the toilet was ‘iffy’. It took us almost two hours to reach the outskirts of London - due to heavy traffic and torrential rain - and a further two and a half hours on the M4. We should have arrived back in Cardiff at 8.05pm, but it was 9.56pm when we finally stumbled off the coach. We found a taxi almost immediately but it was 10.40pm before we reached home and had a well-earned glass of Chardonnay. But what an eventful day it had been!
Throughout the return journey, I’d held ‘The Relic’ safely on my lap, not daring to consign it to the luggage-hold, to be tossed around with bags and suitcases. And it was certainly too wide to fit on the narrow overhead shelf. As I write this, the PCA awaits a decision on whether the Whitstable Museum or Theatre Royal, Chatham will be the final resting place for ‘The Relic’. Until then, it has a temporary resting place in my study, beneath a poster of Peter Cushing as ‘Dr. Knox’ (from ‘The Flesh & The Fiends’ - 1959). The poster advertises the Whitstable Museum & Gallery Exhibition of July - September 1995. Could this be an omen? Could the Whitstable Museum be destined as the final resting-place for ‘The Lost Relic’ ?
-To Be Continued-
© 2000 Chris Hassell
The handing over of Mr. Cushing's prints!
Chris Hassell and the famed hand prints!