A Childhood Spent Watching Peter Cushing
STEPHEN JACOBS remembers his childhood well-spent watching Peter Cushing horror on the BBC!
The double bill was usually a Universal picture and then, following 45 minutes or so of golf or cricket (which was an interminable, and unnecessary, wait for an already tired youth!) by a Hammer offering.
They were a landmark moment in my young life and, in the days before home video, were my introduction to many of the classic monster movies from such studios as Universal and Hammer.
Although I’d already become familiar with the monsters through the books of Alan Frank and Denis Gifford etc the seasons on TV introduced me to the moving, living or not, creatures in all their glory.
From the Universal pictures I had one clear favourite – Boris Karloff.
I never had the opportunity to follow Karloff’s career as it unfolded as I was but a few weeks shy of my second birthday when he died on 2nd February 1969.
The Hammer films contained, of course, two giants of the genre: Christopher Lee – a feral, if underused, Count Dracula and Peter Cushing, an elegant actor who could portray both the hero and villain with equal deftness.
Both actors had appeared in Hammer’s main franchises – Dracula and Frankenstein – though it was Cushing who had recurrent roles in both – as Dr. Frankenstein in one and Professor Van Helsing (or his descendant) in the other.
Although I was too young to see Cushing’s Hammer offerings during their first cinema runs I was able to see him in a few (too few) of his more non-horror role such as At the Earth’s Core and his memorable single scene in Top Secret.
And then there was, of course, Star Wars where Cushing’s diction, with his rolled r’s, was most prominent in the line “We will deal with your rrrrebelfrrriends soon enough.” Great stuff.
The BBC’s horror seasons gave me the first opportunity to watch Cushing in all his horror glory.
Two of his non-Hammer horrors that I remember fondly are The Ghoul and Horror Express.
Cushing’s Frankenstein, I found, was a decidedly different to that of Colin Clive in Universal’s Frankenstein (1931).
Whereas Clive’s scientist was merely misguided, Cushing’s was misguided AND malevolent.
Whereas Clive would collect his cadavers from the morgue or the hangman’s noose, Cushing would harvest his requirements fresh.
The decapitation before the credit sequence of Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed had me running to bed when I first saw it.
It was years before I got to see it on TV in its entirety.
Another difference between Universal and Hammer’s take on the Frankenstein legend was that Universal’s series followed the exploits of the monster, while Hammer focused fully on the deeds of the creator.
During the research for my book Boris Karloff: More Than a Monster I contacted Francis Matthews who had worked with both Cushing (The Revenge of Frankenstein) and Karloff (Corridors of Blood).
“I recall being thrilled, if a little daunted, to know I would be working so closely on a film with one of its legends, which Boris certainly was, but nothing could have prepared me for the sheer fun and joy of the dear man’s company. Curiously what also struck me was that, having just worked for six weeks in close association with one of the profession’s great gentlemen (and jokers!) Peter Cushing, I was now working with an exactly similar personality. It is interesting that two of the most celebrated stars, in the history of terrifying people, should both have been funny, friendly, likeable and light-hearted.”
This year, 100 years after his birth and almost 20 after his death, Peter Cushing remains beloved by many– and deservedly so. I wrote to him in the early 1980s and received a signed photograph of him in a cheeky pose as Wazir Al Wuzarain Arabian Adventure. Cushing signed the photo twice. The first signature was on the front of the photograph and, as he was wont to do, he wrote on the back: “To Stephen, May God’s blessing be with you always. In all sincerity, Peter Cushing.” It’s something I treasure.
Award-winning Boris Karloff historian STEPHEN JACOBS is the author of Karloff: More than a Monster. You can buy his book here from Amazon and read his interview with The Spooky Isles here. He also wrote an Spooky Isles article Karloff’s London, a location guide including Boris Karloff’s childhood homes and filming locations around the English capital.