A Gentleman Among Fiends

Celebrating Peter Cushing

A Shivers feature by David Miller

Part One of a look at the life and career of Horror’s hero

  Promo card for Cushing in 'Der Hund von Baskerville'
  Selected from Shivers #78

For the full version of this feature, with David Miller's new insights and illustations from the life of Peter Cushing, get Shivers #78.

The Peter Cushing Companion by David Miller is now available (published by Reynolds and Hearn) More details here, at amazon.co.uk

It was with some trepidation that nearly two years ago I started work on a biography of Peter Cushing. While necessarily focussing on the Horror films that brought him worldwide success, I wanted to chronicle his other, equally acclaimed, stage and television work. I did not realise just how much work I was letting myself in for, or how endlessly and enthusiastically people would talk about the actor and the man. Now, after the book's publication, I can honestly say that a writer could not wish for a more charming or fascinating subject.

Peter Cushing was always my favourite film actor. His name stood for a particular kind of sincerity, nobility and gentleness. Everyone has a favourite ‘Cushing moment’ – whether it is his wide-eyed stare at the Yeti in the conclusion of The Abominable Snowman, or his swashbuckling confrontation with Christopher Lee’s Dracula. Who can forget his coldly insane Baron Frankenstein who determines to bring life to the dead, or even his dotty, bow-legged Doctor Who?

Five Careers

As I explored his work, I discovered that Cushing had no less than five acting careers, each one coming more or less after the other. From a small English repertory theatre he went to Hollywood where he made films with Carole Lombard and Laurel and Hardy. After the outbreak of World War Two he returned to London where, after a year entertaining the troops he was welcomed into the West End and eventually to the court of theatre’s ‘royalty’ – Sir Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. He followed this by becoming one of the first television ‘stars’, then returned to film and became an international star in Hammer’s Gothic fantasies. To each of these disciplines he gave nothing but his best, and each step on the ladder informed and enriched the next.

It was fascinating to see how each success led to another. Cushing’s autobiography in 1986 (and companion volume Past Forgetting in 1988) are testaments to the secret of his success – his wife Helen, whom he first met outside the stage door of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, and who became his constant companion, his encouragement and his strength. ‘My belovéd Helen,’ he said, ‘shone like a good deed in a naughty world’. When she died, following a long illness, in 1971, Cushing said that his life, as he knew and loved it, ended...

Job of Work

At the end of 1954, Cushing took part in the BBC’s startling adaptation of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Even today, this stark play makes for uncomfortable viewing, and it is not hard to understand the outcry that it caused, as nothing like it had been seen on television before. “We don’t give figures,” said a BBC spokesman, “but a very considerable number have complained.”

‘Thank God for Wilfred Pickles and The Grove Family!’ wrote a Mrs D Hunt of Leicester. ‘For weeks on Sundays we have to watch dismal, immoral and sadistically highbrow plays. The persons responsible for putting on Nineteen Eighty-Four are sadists and readers of horror comics.’

‘People were asking me all yesterday,’ wrote Cushing in the Daily Express after the first broadcast of the play ‘why I agreed to play the part of Winston Smith. Well, to be frank, it was a job of work. But it was also more than that. People have complained that there is no hope in the play. That was Orwell’s point. ‘Don’t let totalitarianism happen,’ he said ‘because if it happens, hope will die and love will die.’

David Miller

In issue #79, we will be looking at Hammer’s 1958 film of Dracula, and Cushing’s rise to prominence as the ‘King of the Horrors’.

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Feature © Visual Imagination Ltd 2000. Not for reproduction