Peter Cushing, Hammer and Television

So, right, we all know that Peter Cushing was a major star of the horror film, a pillar of the Hammer productions, and a perennial figure in British horror films beyond Hammer. But what has all this got to do with television? Well, Hammer wasn’t quite the transgressive producer of cinematic horror that it is now remembered as being. On the contrary, its association with television was vital to its early years.

Before the release of The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), it has even specialized in film versions of BBC radio and television shows. From 1948, it had made three film versions of Dick Barton, Secret Agent and, by the 1950s, it would achieve considerable success by adapting Nigel Kneale’s The Quatermass Experiment and its follow-up, Quatermass II, into films.

So what has any of this got to do with dear old Peter Cushing? In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Cushing may have made films in Hollywood with figures such as Laurel and Hardy, but he was also known as a serious actor, and even appeared in Olivier’s Gothic film version of Hamlet in 1948, the American posters for which proclaimed: ‘Shrouded mist, clad in rusty armor, a horrifying spectre stalks the great stone battlements of the ancient castle. Its one command is . . .  kill . . .  kill . . . KILL!’.

By the 1950s, however, Cushing was dividing his time between Hollywood historical films such The Black Knight (1954, with Alan Ladd) and Alexander the Great (1956, with Richard Burton) on the one hand, and prestigious BBC television dramas on the other: Cushing even played Darcy in a 1952 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.

However, the drama that was probably most central to his casting in The Curse of Frankenstein was his starring role as Winston Smith in the Nigel Kneale adaptation of 1984 in 1954, a production that was highly controversial and explicitly referred to as an example of television horror at the time.

Indeed, Hammer followed up The Curse of Frankenstein with another Cushing vehicle (NOT The Horror of Dracula, 1958) but an adaptation of another Nigel Kneale television play, The Abominable Snowman (1957)

Nor was this the end of the relationship between Cushing and Hammer on the one hand, and television on the other. In the 1960s, Cushing would appear on television in a Sherlock Holmes series that developed the role that he had played for Hammer in 1959’s The Hound of the Baskervilles; and in 1965 and 1966 he would appear in film versions of BBC’s Dr. Who (in Dr. Who and the Daleks and Daleks: Invasion Earth – 2150 A.D., the latter being a particular favorite of mine).

Actually, the two Dr. Who films weren’t made by Hammer, but by one of its rivals, Amicus, but they still illustrate that Hammer and its rivals clearly sought to associate themselves with television, long before the supposed decline into ventures such as On the Buses in 1971.

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Ace of Wands (1970-1972) – British Television Horror for Kids

There is a whole wealth of fantasy stuff that was produced for British kids in the 1960s and 1970s. It is a strange story. On one hand, it is worth remembering that some of the first films sold to television were the old Universal horror films, which were transmitted as part of children’s entertainment in late 1950s America. These films were already seen as dated when compared to the horror films that were being produced at the time: these films were being sold to television at around the same time as Hammer was having its first successes, Les Diaboliques was drawing huge crowds to art cinemas, and only a short time before Hitchcock and Michael Powell would make (respectively) Psycho and Peeping Tom.

So what does this tell us? Well, that the relationship between children and fantasy is an odd one: on the one hand, horror and fantasy are often associated with children, partly because they are seen as ‘childish’ and ‘silly’ when compare to more ‘adult’ and ‘serious’ forms such as social realism; but. on the other, they are often seen as worrying in relation to children. Fairy tales and Father Christmas are usually alright for the children, while the rest of us know that they are nonsense; but many people worry that children’s imaginations are fragile things that can’t handle things like the rest of us; and that they therefore can’t distinguish fiction from reality and might be traumatized by horror and fantasy.

Consequently, while horror is often seen as only fit for children, it is also often restricted to adults; and children’s horror is either derided for not being scary enough, or for being too scary. Even Dr Who provoked the censors in the 1960s and 1970s.

Anyhow, British television produced a whole slew of fantasy and horror television for kids in the 1960s and 1970s. Some of it was great, like Doctor Who; some of it was wonderfully awful (what the hell was Martin Landau doing in Space 1999); and some of it was wonderfully weird, like Ace of Wands.

In this series, Tarot is a a mystic magician who battles all manner of weird and wonderful menaces with his supernatural powers – you know, telepathy and all that kind of stuff. He is also supported by two assistants (like the good doctor) and an owl called Ozymandias. In the first two series, the assistants were Sam and Lulli, but they were replaced in the third season by brother and sister, Chas and Mikki. Although it should be mentioned that there were strong parallels between the both sets of assistants. For example, both Lulli and Mikki shared a telepathic link with Tarot (and had similar names).

Unfortunately, there aren’t many of the episodes left, although series three is available on DVD, and is well worth a gander. It’s the counter-culture for kids, sort of…

In one story, the local market is being driven into decline by some strange curse, but it also becomes clear that the situation is being manipulated by an evil corporate figure who lives in a strange, white, sealed office at the top of a large modern tower-block that overlooks the market: critiques of gentrification and corporate capitalism in a show for kiddies. Of course, the politics of the show as a whole is a little more odd: the corporate bigwig commands via a counter-cultural gang, who terrorize the market; and, in another story, Tarot and his assistants combat an evil threat to NATO, in which old ladies are the enemy! And then, in yet another story, the menace are a group of beautiful young people who are giving away expensive domestic appliances to the elderly but turn out to be plotting something dastardly that involves the old folk being endangered by their appliances, or something…

I am not claiming that Ace of Wands is a work of genius, but its great fun, and demonstrates that Dr Who was far from being the only game in town during the period. In fact, the period was a fertile one for children’s fantasy television, and we write these stories out of the history of horror and fantasy television at our peril!

Next Week: Kindred: The Embraced (1996): The 1990s that You May Have Chosen to Forget!

Journey to the Unknown (1968) – Part Two: Joan Harrison in the Hammer House of Horror

It’s not just the American stars in cheap boarding houses that are odd. Journey to the Unknown was one of Hammer’s attempts to break into television and it was produced by Anthony Hinds, but it also featured Joan Harrison as an executive producer. I am not sure how much involvement she really had, or whether she simply owned rights to some of the stories, but a collaboration between Hammer and Harrison is worthy of comment.

Harrison’s film and television career started when she was employed as a secretary to Alfred Hitchcock in the 1930s but, by the 1940s, she had graduated to screenwriter and had credits in various key Hitchcock films of the late 1930s and 1940s, notably Jamaica Inn, Rebecca, Suspicion, Foreign Correspondent and Saboteur. By the mid 1940s, however, she had taken another step forward, and established herself as one of only three women producers in Hollywood, and one who was a specialist in the new horror-thrillers.

By 1944, she had not only written an interesting film, Dark Waters, in which Merle Oberon is menaced in the Southern Bayous, but was the producer of the highly influential, Phantom Lady, one of the films seen as establishing the noir style, and was a fantastic horror-thriller adapted from a Cornell Woolrich novel. She then followed this up with another horror-thriller, Uncle Harry. The latter film was also as being highly significant at the time and gave the wonderful George Sanders a really terrific role. She then moved on to a series of other noirish thrillers, Nocturne, They Won’t Believe Me, and Ride the Pink Horse although it was in television that she became a really major player when she became the producer (with Norman Lloyd) of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, a show in which she, and not Hitchcock, was the real creative force.

She would also be associated with Suspicion, which I have already written about, but it was Alfred Hitchcock Presents that was the hugely influential success and it ran from 1957-1962 before being converted into The Alfred Hitchcock Hour from 1962-1965.

Anyhow, Journey to the Unknown is an odd hybrid. It features the type of stories that were featured in Alfred Hitchcock Presents on the one hand, and the more seedy, sensationalism in which Hammer specialized on the other; and this was clear in the general aesthetic. The show was in color but, after the famous fun-fare credits, the color seemed an odd choice in the drab British locations – despite the color, things look VERY gray.

The shows also seemed to wrestle with the restrictions of television. Alfred Hitchcock Presents was very much about a sardonic tone and grim twists, but was also careful not to be graphic in its horror. Everything was about suggestion and atmosphere. But Journey to the Unknown wants to be graphic – it just can’t be! In short, the series seems to lack the sense of quality with which Harrison was associated, but also lacked the sensationalism for which Hammer was known.

For Harrison, its a sad end to an illustrious career.

To be continued: next week – Journey to the Unknown (1968) – Part Three: Horror Writers, Television and Alternative Definitions of Genre