- Written by Andrew Clarke Andrew Clarke
- Published: 31 October 2017 31 October 2017
- Hits: 1950 1950
“I was forty years old and a failure as an actor when the opportunity to play Dr Frankenstein was offered to me. Despite years of endeavour both in America and in British television, I could see no future and was about to give up acting to design scarves for a living.”
Thus wrote Peter Cushing. Like fellow local lad, Boris Karloff, Cushing appears to have been a perfect gentleman and exceptionally modest. By the time the Curse of Frankenstein came up, he had a solid reputation as a theatre and especially television actor, with roles like Mr Darcy, Beau Brummell and Winston Smith under his belt.
Sadly for the scarf industry, Cushing landed the role as the amoral Baron and the next couple of decades making horror movies, mostly for Hammer and its rivals Amicus, Tigon British and Tyburn.
The Curse of Frankenstein, made in 1957, cleaned up at the box office and gave Cushing’s career new impetus. It also paired him with Christopher Lee for the first time (they had appeared in a couple of films together but never shared a scene). Hammer followed up with a succession of gothic horrors like Dracula, the Revenge of Frankenstein and The Mummy. At Amicus, he became a fixture in portmanteau movies like Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, Torture Garden and the House that Dripped Blood. He played the doctor in a couple of Dr Who movies and Sherlock Holmes numerous times.
Cushing was one of those actors, seemingly incapable of giving a bad performance. He played it straight even when confronted with giant moths (The Blood Beast Terror), underwater, Nazi zombies (Shock Waves) and the garbled mess that was Tender Dracula.
Late in his career he was an icy Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars. George Lucas wanted some gravitas in his space sage and turned to Cushing and Alec Guinness to provide it. Cushing described Tarkin’s uniform as being like that of an Edwardian chauffeur. That uniform including tight-fitting boots and the pair he was given were painfully small. He asked to be shot from the waist up and he was able to stomp around in carpet slippers. I wonder whether he wore a CGI pair in Rogue One.
In 1983 he reunited with Christopher Lee and Vincent Price, with 1940s Dracula, John Carradine also thrown into the mix, for the sadly, disappointing House of the Long Shadows. One of his last roles was as the Swedish bookshop owner in Top Secret. They lovingly spoofed publicity still for The Skull in which he holds a magnifying glass to his eye and also filmed his scene with Val Kilmer and Lucy Gutteridge backwards.
Much earlier in his career, he’d tried his hand in Hollywood, appearing in a Laurel and Hardy movie. While there, he visited another south Londoner, Ida Lupino, while she was filming High Sierra with Humphrey Bogart. A very Cushing anecdote is that with the Second World War underway, he gave a pint of blood. In true Tony Hancock fashion, he collapsed and had to be given two pints to revive him.
Back in England in 1942, he signed up with ENSA; Entertainments National Service Association or Every Night Something Awful as the armed forces audience dubbed it. It was while appearing in Noel Coward’s Private Lives that he met his future wife, Helen Beck, to whom he was devoted.
Although he is most strongly associated with Whitstable, as a small boy, he lived on quiet, leafy and genteel Desenfans Road. It seems an appropriate place. Here is a list of five Cushing films and television programmes to watch. Some are well know, some less so.
1. The BBC’s 1984 (1954) is a bleak and claustrophobic piece, set in shabby living quarters, soulless work places and bomb-damaged London. While Cushing was consistently watchable, he didn’t always get to display his range. His Winston Smith is a tour de force of doubt, suspicion, fear, love, hope and despair. He had a script by the estimable Nigel Kneale and the chance to bounce off Andre Morrell, Donald Pleasance and Yvonne Mitchell, who was particularly effective in the final scene. The programme was broadcast twice, performed live each time, with a few filmed, exterior inserts. Very little of Cushing’s early TV work survives but fortunately this one does. It provoked controversy when it was broadcast, with questions in the House of Commons and Prince Philip announcing he and the Queen had watched and enjoyed it.
2. Cash on Demand is a tight, little thriller made by Hammer in 1961. It never overreaches. Cushing plays a bank manager, a stickler for rules, obsessive about tidiness and unpopular with his staff. A visitor posing as an insurance company representative turns out to be a bank robber whose accomplices are holding Cushing’s wife and child. The film is a battle of wills between Cushing and the equally wonderful Morell. It’s a joy to watch.
3. The list needs a Hammer horror. The early ones are generally better regarded but are often a bit dull. Frankenstein Created Woman was made ten years after Curse. It has a bleak opening scene, that wouldn’t have been out of place in Witchfinder General. On a gorse-covered hill, a man is led to a guillotine. He’s full of bluster until he sees his young son watching. The action shifts forward a decade and the boy is working for Frankenstein. Cushing gives his usual steely performance but this time tempered with forbearance and even warmth, particularly for Thorley Walters’ befuddled Dr Hertz. This time, Frankenstein has strayed from his usual territory into the capture and transfer of the soul of an executed man into the body of his drowned girlfriend. It’s an odd but rather affecting film.
4. One of Cushing’s favourite roles was Sherlock Holmes. He was meticulous in his preparation, considering Holmes the most complex character he played. He even had a collection of Holmes memorabilia, including the Strand magazine, with its Sidney Paget illustrations. These informed his portrayals. His first go was in The Hound of the Baskervilles, which is more Hammer than Holmes. For the BBC, he exhibits the requisite tics and quirks in sixteen solid, if ever so slightly stilted episodes. In his early seventies, he made The Masks of Death. It’s fairly routine as Holmes films go but Cushing’s scenes with Irene Adler, The Woman are splendid. Anne Baxter acts her something like a worldlier (All About) Eve and there is a palpable tension between them and even some spite on Cushing’s side. Holmes still clearly smarts from being outwitted by her 25 years earlier.
5. In Tales from the Crypt, Cushing is Arthur Grimsdyke, a lonely old man, whose habits and rundown property annoy a vindictive neighbour. The neighbour harries him to suicide. This was one of Cushing’s favourite roles and he gets to tug at the heartstrings with a sympathetic portrayal, before rising for the grave to exact a bloody revenge.