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.