SEAT AT THE BACK

SEAT AT THE BACK - SCRIBBLES! ~ Films on the Seat at the Back playlist right now: KIDS IN LOVE; JUNE; CURVE; WILD, BARELY LETHAL; GODDESS OF LOVE; THE VATICAN TAPES .. What a night in!

Saturday, 6 July 2013

'THE PETER CUSHING SCRAPBOOK' ~ An Essential Memento of a Life in Movies & an Eternity in Love.

 

 

Peter Cushing was a man at least a little bit possessed. Obsessive even. Like the vampires he fought in the famous role he made his own of Van Helsing, Cushing was, in later years, as good as among the dead himself. Or at least waiting to be there in person - to be with his wife, Helen, who died of emphesemia in 1971. His subsequent years were driven perhaps by films, but mostly of suddenly unrequited love. This was a man who wanted to die but wasn't very good at suicide, in fact he was terrible at it - mainly because (as his loyal secretary for many years, Joyce Broughton, reveals in THE PETER CUSHING SCRAPBOOK) he didn't dare leave a mess for others to have to clear up. Always thinking of others...

Oh, he considered suicide often over the years, in ways that many a horror film (or blackest comedy) he had starred in may have relished: running up and down the stairs at home until his heart gave way (he actually tried this and collapsed out of breath before finding a note left by Helen encouraging him to carry on after her death and not give up on life - she knew what he was like!), climbing up an electrity pylon or simply poisoning himself with locally sourced mushrooms of the kind they would never serve up in his beloved Tudor Tea Rooms in Whitstable - that quaint, quirky seaside town where Cushing resided in later years (at first with Helen, and then, of course; on his own) and that the Cushing name will now forever be identified with. 




 
There probably hasn't been a better - or more revealing - book about the life and films of Peter Cushing than the SCRAPBOOK from Peveril Publishing; it is - simply - as astonishing and informative a book about the life of a much loved British actor as has ever been published. It's also a great chronicle of classic horror films and their making (especially, of course - Hammer films) even if you have little interest in the actor himself.

The book is bursting at the spine with over 300 pages of lasting memories: snippets of press cuttings, scripts, artwork, diaries, sketches, passport visas and private photographs of Cushing with glamorous co-stars on set (although, of course, Cushing only had eyes for Helen and was always smiling the most when pictured alongside his wife). In his final weeks, Cushing laughed one last time (and riotously too - shortly before he died of prostate cancer in 1992) finding himself alongside his great friend and regular co-star Christopher Lee for a Hammer films retrospective, recorded in Canterbury. These photographs are perhaps the most moving of all.


Reminders of Helen were scrawled across many - if not all - of the scripts Cushing was handed in the years after she died. At first, Cushing withdrew from the world around him, becoming almost a recluse for a year. Then, suddenly, he launched himself back into his work (at this stage in his career this was mainly horror roles for British production companies such as Hammer and Amicus). Somehow, he also managed to fit in exhaustive (for most people) creative projects too such as: constructing intricate models of theatre sets, designing jewellery and head scarves, plotting battle plans and battlefield scenarios for his collection of toy soldiers or painting in watercolours. The films that followed his wife Helen's death post-1971 were, for me, some of the best (my personal favourites): Twins of Evil, Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, The Satanic Rites of Dracula, At The Earth's Core, House of the Long Shadows and, of course - Star Wars.
 


The scrapbook also details Cushing's life before fame and recognition struck and there are numerous pictures of the young man seeking out roles in theatre after years of some suburban stagnancy (creatively speaking!) in local council offices based in Croydon, living in both in nearby Kenley and then Purley. He eventually, when film roles increased, moved to London's Kensington but later made the move to Whitstable - a quiet and eclectic seaside retreat that he and Helen had fallen in love with, thinking the cleaner air would be beneficial to Helen's failing health.

Cushing was often seen riding his bike through the streets of Whitstable and relaxing both in and out of the sea. It was a perfect life, but with one major thorn in the side - Helen wasn't getting any better, only a lot worse. The scrapbook includes heartbreaking love letters and notes to Helen from Cushing, doodles and cartoons and secretive code. There was also a balancing act around the years when she was in need of constant care when Cushing would often have to drop plans for a new film role or leave the Hammer set and head straight back home to be with Helen - that must have been an exhausting and worrying time for this most kind and uncomplaining of men.

 
 
 

 
It's enthralling to read of Cushing's early career when times were less harrowing - being taken under the wing of Laurence Olivier and touring with the man he idolised, then being seduced by film roles and a contract with the BBC who (as Cushing's film roles increased) at times became frustrated with the actor when he wasn't around to take on a new role they had planned for him. Snippets of frustration crept into Cushing's acting career (and the man himself was often crippled by self-doubt) - notably a BBC Sherlock Holmes series that he felt disatisfied with as both budget and time ran out (meaning there was little rehearsal and a feeling of not performing at his best - Cushing, as the scrapbook illustrates most avidly, was the very definition of a perfectionist).


 
Nearly every film script  Cushing held (and many fascinating pages are included in the scrapbook) were fairly wildly adorned with extensive dialogue changes made by the man himself. Almost obsessively - to the point where the original words can barely be read as there are so many crossings out, random doodles and little references to Helen (often just her initials - as if Cushing wants to keep reminding himself the reason he is still alive and doing what he does).

Cushing suffered a breakdown in the early 50s when work was scarce. Thankfully  he was boosted by Helen's encouragement to keep going and her telling him how he was simply unaware of his own talent and that the love for his work was real. It was a theme Cushing came back to often, and once told me at a book signing in Canterbury about how he liked hearing that his work created such 'pleasure' for those who followed his career and were fans of all his movies.  His personal insecurities are clear in the scripts included in the scrapbook that are often laced with notes to self about all the things he mustn't do: open his jaw too wide, mutter, roll his eyes, speak too fast, gabble, twitch his nose - you name it, he worried about it.


 
 
Sometimes Cushing was so inspired by the role he was playing that he wrote his own script as a response. Most notably there was a script by Cushing based on the Doctor Syn novels set on Romney Marsh. At the time he wrote this, Cushing had been starring in a Hammer version of the classic adventure story by Russell Thorndike. There had been a glitch - Hammer wanted to film the story direct from the source novel but encountered a sticky rights issue and so had to rethink their plans, eventually filming a rollicking adventure very similar to Syn in all but name called 'Captain Clegg' in 1962. Cushing's script remains unfilmed.





Also included in the scrapbook is rare poster art and script outlines for films that made the early stages of development only, including a tantalising outline for 'Savage Jackboot' that nearly made it to the big screen in the early 70s. Wouldn't it be fascinating if one day this was remade from the existing material and notes, some from the pen of Cushing himself?


 
 
Unrealised film project treatments still came scrawled with Cushing's extensive notes and sketches for costumes detailing the exact look he wished to achieve as well as sketches of the costumes he felt the character would wear, the hairstyles that would work best and suggestions for where to buy wigs - even whether he should have stubble or not. For the film 'Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell' (1973), Cushing provided medical notes and sketches as to how a brain transplant could be performed - knowledge gained from discussing the subject with local experts, many of whom would be based in Whitstable. This obsession of Cushing's is also picked up on in author Stephen Volk's recent novella; 'Whitstable' in which Cushing has a run-in with the local Whitstable police force while trying to gain information on a violent child abuser - who he is pursuing  and also being pursued by - all under the pretence of researching another film!






Some of Cushing's film projects, the actor freely realised, were inferior in script or production values - but he still put incredible effort and time into researching these roles anyway and making notes on how he was to play the character he had been given. He would do this even for the few films he considered total clunkers, such as the violent, sexed-up Corruption (that I have to admit an affection for!) which Cushing notes was a nightmare ride of crew being replaced at the last minute or never really knowing at any one time who was in charge and which of the many producers in waiting was working on the movie that day.  In the end all that remained was ramped-up sex and a rougher kind of violence to the usual brain extractions or stakings through the heart - and a film that is rarely seen as a result.



 
 
Such movies were exceptions in Cushing's career and he liked to claim that the movies he made were never especially gratuitous (though even the Hammer classics such as the brutal 'Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell'/ 1973 were soaked in blood from necks slashed with broken glass or creatures of the night having their flesh literally ripped to shreds). Peter Cushing, without doubt, remained the gentleman of horror whatever madness or atrocity surrounded him on screen.
 
The source of all the archive material on display in The Peter Cushing Scrapbook comes from a variety of places: from  generous collectors loaning their prized exhibits to the book's authors to invaluable input from Joyce Broughton, Cushing's beloved secretary for over 35 years. There is a lively and unexpected foreword from Star Wars director George Lucas as well, that recounts the story of Carrie Fisher meeting Peter Cushing on set. As Princess Leia, Fisher had to face off against Cushing's most evil Grand Moff Tarkin, but had trouble acting frightened as Cushing in real life was such a kindly English gentleman type, standing on set in his slippers (that he was allowed to wear as the jackboots he was supposed to have on hurt his feet - maybe it was a good thing after all that he was never able to film 'The Savage Jackboots'!).

 


The design of the scrapbook is by Steve Kirkham who has come up with an eye-catching and effortless (though it would have been anything but!) layout that makes all the material easier to get to grips with than a Hammer-style brain transplant. Kirkham ensures the material never feels cluttered or cumbersome (despite the amount of clutter assembled) as numerous ripped cuttings, sellotaped photographs and heavily-scrawled, black coffee-stained scripts are stuck with some playfulness across each page, often labelled with original notes from Cushing along the way.

Cult film experts Wayne Kinsey and Tom Johnson are the reliable authors of the book and they have collected enough rare material and personal notes here to outpage the journals of Baron  Frankenstein himself.


The material collected showcases Cushing with enough detail to bring the life and thoughts of the man perhaps a little too much to life for our own (and his own) good; all his frailties, insecurities and hardships are included here - but nothing dents the enviable reputation of the great man himself, only ever endorses it.

 


 
The book is also full of fabulously informative and fun film reviews (in some ways, The Peter Cushing Scrapbook as good a movie guide as it is a 'scrapbook') presented in chronological order. Sometimes these reviews are overly opinionated and rawly honest (some of my favourite Cushing movies such as 'The Satanic Rites of Dracula' are often denounced in a rather polite and good-humoured way - much like Cushing himself may have done) but always enthralling to read and thoroughly researched.
 

This fascinating book allows us far more than a cursory glimpse into the private life of a man tortured by loss and consumed with working life minutiae and perfection - but a humble man too, who writes often to congratulate colleagues on their work when he sees something he likes as if he is an over-excited fan as well as their good friend.

 
 
© seewhitstable.com

Cushing's love of movies, his many hobbies, of Helen, and Whitstable and his many dear friends who adored (like we do) this quiet man of horror is a far cry from a childhood in which Peter was clothed in pretty dresses by his mother as a little boy because she always wanted a little girl. I wondered, just for a moment, while reading of this whether Cushing's gentleness and obsession with art, words, beauty - perfection and his determined, almost obsessive love of one woman (both in this life and whatever comes next) has anything at all to do with a childhood that was cushioned by such overwhelming motherly love and an obsession to have something (a daughter) that ended up being - for Cushing's mother - one wish that would remain unfulfilled.




I wonder if Peter Cushing was determined that his own life was going to be one that had - not just a few things to care about, but almost too much to do, too much to be inspired by, so much faith to guide him. Nothing is a 'second best' in the way that perhaps he once felt he was. 
In the end though, the single obsession that nearly killed Cushing, was also the only one that kept him alive - Helen.


 
 
Words: Mark Gordon Palmer
markgordonpalmer@aol.com

'The Peter Cushing Scrapbook'
Available to buy direct from Peveril Publishing only:

http://peverilpublishing.co.uk/the-peter-cushing-scrapbook
(All content and images from The Peter Cushing Scrapbook used in this review are the copyright of Peveril Publishing)




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