Not a British pub argument, but I’ve settled it anyway


© Oxford University Press


Previously on this blog I discussed two arguments that I’ve often heard flare up in British pubs.  Well, they’ve often flared up in pubs where I’ve been drinking with my mates.  One of these arguments concerns the question, “Who is the best James Bond?”  (My answer: Sean Connery.)  The other concerns the question, “Who is the best Doctor Who?”  (My answer: Tom Baker.)


I’ve never, though, been in a pub when an argument has broken out about which actor has been most successful at portraying a third icon of British popular culture: Sherlock Holmes, the pipe-smoking, cocaine-and-morphine-sampling, deductive-reasoning (though actually it was abductive reasoning) Victorian detective created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  Still, I thought I’d devote a blog-post to the topic and list my seven best cinematic and TV Sherlock Holmes-es.


Incidentally, I’ve been thinking about Sherlock Holmes a lot lately.  Last year I bought a weighty volume containing all of Conan Doyle’s writings about him and I’ve been gradually working my way through it.  I’ve read the novels A Study in Scarlet (1887), The Sign of the Four (1890) and The Valley of Fear (1915) and the short-story collections The Adventures (1892), The Memoirs (1893) and The Return (1905) of Sherlock Holmes.  I just have to read His Last Bow (1917) and The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes (1927) and I’ll have finished the lot.  (1902’s The Hound of the Baskervilles was sorted out long ago because I read it twice when I was a kid.)


© Compton-Tekli Film Productions / Colombia Pictures


Anyway, seventh in my list is a lesser-known Sherlock Holmes.  John Neville, who’s perhaps best known for two roles he played later in his career, as the title character in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) and as the ‘elegantly manicured man’ in eight episodes and a movie version of The X-Files (1995-98), played Holmes in a 1965 movie called A Study in Terror.  The terror of the title comes from the film’s premise that Holmes investigated the most gruesome real-life crimes of the 19th century, the murders committed by Jack the Ripper in Whitechapel in 1888.


Given the subject matter and the fact that A Study in Terror’s producers included Tony Tenser and Herman Cohen, two men better known for their horror movies, it’s unsurprising that as the movie progresses, the plot fills with macabre and sensational incidents and Neville’s Holmes becomes less a cerebral problem-solver and more a man of action.  Not that that’s bad, because in the original stories Holmes was a skilled boxer and a practitioner of the 19th-century martial art of bartitsu; but it’s a little surprising to see the thin, slightly fragile-looking Neville explode into fisticuffs when a gang of toughs attack him in Whitechapel’s backstreets.  Still, I find his performance in this film agreeably good-natured and sparky.  There’s also strong support from the Welsh actor Donald Houston as a doughty (if slightly slow-on-the-uptake) Doctor Watson and the delightful Robert Morley as Holmes’ older and supposedly smarter brother Mycroft.




Occupying number six is the actor who’s most famously played Holmes in the modern era – yes, it’s Benedict Cumberbatch from the Steven Moffat / Mark Gatiss-masterminded BBC TV show Sherlock (2010-present).  I respect Cumberbatch for taking risks and making Holmes an aloof, awkward and oddball character, possibly lodged on the milder end of the autism scale.  Nonetheless, I think Cumberbatch is lucky to have such a likeable supporting cast, including Martin Freeman as Watson, Rupert Graves as Inspector Lestrade, Una Stubbs as Mrs Hudson and Gatiss as Mycroft, who help to soften his sharp edges.  Without them around, giving the show some humanity, I suspect the Cumberbatch Holmes would be hard work.


At number five is an actor who played Holmes in another movie involving Jack the Ripper.  This is the great Canadian performer Christopher Plummer, who donned the deerstalker for 1979’s Murder by Decree (and who’d already played him in a 1977 TV film called Silver Blaze).  Murder by Decree has no connection with A Study in Terror, save for the curious coincidence that in both movies Inspector Lestrade is played by Frank Finlay.  Inspiring the film is Stephen Knight’s book Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution (1976), which postulated that the Ripper killings were the result of a conspiracy involving the Freemasons and the Royal Family – a theory also informing Alan Moore’s celebrated graphic novel From Hell (1989-98) and its subsequent 2001 movie adaptation.


© AVCO Embassy Pictures


Murder by Decree is a classy movie with handsome production values and a big-name cast and Plummer essays a correspondingly classy and cultivated Sherlock Holmes.  Also deserving praise is James Mason as Doctor Watson.  Despite a jarring disparity in their ages – Plummer was around 50 at the time, Mason around 70 – the pair make a charming double-act.  They’re clearly bound by great affection and loyalty for one another, even if there are occasional moments of irritation and sulkiness, and they go about their business like a long-term and mostly-loving married couple.


There’s a similar married-couple vibe in the film featuring my fourth-favourite Sherlock Holmes.  The movie is The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) and it’s possibly the first to suggest that something homoerotic is going on between Holmes and Watson, who are respectively and splendidly played by Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely.  Incidentally, this is an idea that Sherlock-the-TV-show has had a lot of fun playing with and its makers have freely admitted that The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes has been a big influence on them.  (Mark Gatiss has said of the movie’s director Billy Wilder and scriptwriter I.A.L. Diamond that they “gently take the mickey out of Sherlock Holmes in the way that you can only do with something that you really adore.”)


© The Mirisch Corporation / United Artists / MGM


Despite the are-they-or-aren’t-they jokes about Holmes and Watson and some gloriously far-fetched steampunk nonsense about a Victorian submarine disguised as the Loch Ness Monster, there’s a melancholic aspect to the film and to Stephens’ performance.  It shows him falling in love with a woman called Gabrielle Valladon, played by Geneviève Page, who turns out to be a German spy, and it ends on a mournful note when Holmes receives a letter from Mycroft (Christopher Lee) informing him that Gabrielle has been executed by a firing squad.


Third in my list is Peter Cushing, who played Holmes on three occasions in three different decades: in a celluloid version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, filmed in a typically gothic fashion by horror-movie specialists Hammer Films in 1959 (in fact, I think of it as Holmes Under the Hammer); in a 16-episode BBC TV series in 1968; and in a rather lame but amiable TV film in 1984.  His Watsons were, respectively, André Morell, Nigel Stock and Sir John Mills – all of whom gave solid performances.  The gentlemanly Cushing misses some of the arrogance of the literary character, but he invests him with a dynamism and intensity true to Conan Doyle’s stories.  (When Watson first meets him in A Study in Scarlet, Holmes is running around with a test tube exclaiming, “I’ve found it!  I’ve found it!”)  Cushing’s sharp, angular features also match Conan Doyle’s description of Holmes as having a ‘thin, hawk-like nose’ that ‘gave his whole expression an air of alertness and decision’.  Incidentally, Cushing once played Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself, in a 1976 TV film called The Great Houdini.


© Hammer Films


Second place goes to an actor who, like Cushing, was often known for villainous and macabre roles – Basil Rathbone, who played Holmes in 14 films between 1939 and 1946.  The first two were big-budget affairs made by 20th Century Fox and set in Victorian times.  The remaining dozen were cheaper ones made by Universal Pictures and they cheekily updated Holmes to the then-present-day (so that he could devote a lot of time to fighting Nazis).


Rathbone’s appearance, bearing and voice are perfect for the role, but for me his films are slightly tarnished by Nigel Bruce’s performance as Dr Watson, which reduces the sensible and dependable narrator of the original stories to a bumbling comedy side-kick.  Yes, Bruce’s ineptitude generates some entertaining moments, but it’s unlikely that someone as smart as Holmes would tolerate having someone as slow-witted as Bruce’s Watson around him all the time.  I particularly cringe at the climax of The Spider Woman (1944), which has Holmes tied up by the villains behind a moving target in a fairground shooting gallery – and Watson at the front of the gallery, obliviously blasting at the target with a rifle.  (To be fair, the not-much-brighter Inspector Lestrade, played by Dennis Hoey, is shooting at it too.)


© Universal Pictures


And in first place is Jeremy Brett, who played Holmes from 1984 to 1994 in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, a series of dramas made by Granada Television that adapted 42 of Conan Doyle’s 60 Holmes stories.  It’s a tragedy that Brett’s declining health prevented him from completing the full set.  Brett was a perfectionist and went to the extent of compiling a dossier on Holmes, nearly 80 pages long, about all the characteristics, mannerisms and habits attributed to him in the stories and he’d constantly refer to this on the set.  The production team displayed a similar, exacting attention to detail, with the result that most Sherlockians – Holmes fans – regard both Brett as the apogee of Sherlock Holmes portrayals and the series as the apogee of Sherlock Holmes adaptations.


A great many other actors have played Holmes over the years, of course.  Among those deserving mention are: William Gillette (who played him on stage, radio and the silent screen), Christopher Lee (who also played Mycroft Holmes and Sir Henry Baskerville), Douglas Wilmer, Stewart Granger, Nicol Williamson, Ian Richardson, Nicholas Rowe, Charlton Heston, Matt Frewer, Rupert Everett and Ian McKellen.  And let’s not forget the Russian actor Vasily Livanov, who played Holmes for seven years in a Soviet-era TV series and now has a statue of him as the character standing outside the UK embassy in Moscow.  By the way, I haven’t seen two Holmes performances that have attracted much attention in recent years – those of Jonny Lee Miller in the US TV show Elementary (2012-present) and Robert Downey Jr in two films in 2009 and 2011 directed by Guy Ritchie (which to be honest, not being a Guy Ritchie fan, I don’t really want to see).


Finally, has there been any overlap with the two other British cultural icons mentioned at the start of this post?   Yes, there has.  The fourth Doctor Who, Tom Baker, played Sherlock Holmes in a 1982 BBC TV adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles.  His performance has its admirers, though Baker himself wasn’t too happy about it.  Also, the above-mentioned Holmes Peter Cushing played the Doctor in two non-canonical movies Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965) and Daleks – Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D. (1966).  And in 1976, in between his appearances in the James Bond franchise, Roger Moore swapped his safari suit for a deerstalker and played the title role in an American TV movie called Sherlock Holmes in New York.  It’s on Youtube here.  Watch it if you dare.


Anyway, that’s settled it.  Best Sherlock Holmes?  Jeremy Brett, surely.


© Granada Television


My favourite Christmas things




This Christmas and New Year, my better half – Mrs Blood and Porridge – and I decided to forego our usual custom of heading back to Scotland to visit my family, mainly because we couldn’t handle another late December / early January spent in the cold, wet, windy and generally shite winter climate of the Scottish Borders.  Instead we elected to stay where we are, i.e. in southern Asia.  We’ve just spent four days at Unawatuna Beach on the southern coast of Sri Lanka.  I’d like to say the experience was entirely the idyllic sun-drenched experience suggested by this photograph.



Unfortunately, half the time, the area was battered by thunderstorms and Unawatuna Beach looked more like this.



In addition, the hotel we’d booked into turned out to be still under construction, workmen with whining drills, snarling saws and clattering hammers working on a new function room at the end of our corridor and more workmen plastering the walls beside the outdoor swimming pool (even while it was pissing with rain).  The place looked like something out of Carry On Abroad (1972).  But overall we had an enjoyable sojourn there.  We’re now spending Christmas Day in Colombo and plan to visit Thailand for a week-and-a-half over New Year.


Anyway, sitting in our Colombo apartment this Christmas Day, listening to our neighbours setting off fireworks – which is how they seem to celebrate everything in Sri Lanka – I find myself wondering what my favourite Christmas things are, in terms of books, films, TV, music and art.  Here’s what comes to mind.


© Vintage


Books.  Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) doesn’t do much for me these days, probably because I’m overly familiar with its plot and characters – who isn’t?  But a few months ago, I finally got around to reading Susan Hill’s enjoyable Gothic pastiche The Woman in Black (1983).  Hitherto knowing it only by its 2012 movie adaptation, I was surprised to discover The Woman in Black qualifies as a Christmas story.  At least, it uses the Victorian custom of telling ghost stories at Christmas-time as a framing device.  It’s during such a seasonal storytelling session that the middle-aged narrator gets unwillingly transported back to his youth and he begins to recall the terrifying experiences he had as a young man at Eel Marsh House.


Films.  A little while ago I wrote about the grim 1971 Australian movie Wake in Fright.  I realised it could be described as a Christmas movie, because its story of debauchery and squalor takes place during the festive season – though with the sweltering, fly-ridden Outback providing a background to the Christmas trees, decorations and carols.  In fact, if you fancy an Antipodean anti-Christmas double bill, you should watch Wake in Fright back-to-back with 2005’s Nick Cave-scripted The Proposition, whose climax has Ray Winstone and Emily Watson sitting down to a genteel English Christmas dinner in the heat and dust of the 19th century Outback while a pair of crazed bushrangers gallop towards their house intent on rape and murder.


© First Look Pictures


For more properly seasonal cinematic fare, though, I guess you can’t go wrong with The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) or the Finnish monster-Santa epic Rare Exports (2010).  And I have a soft spot for 1982’s beautifully animated adaptation of Raymond Briggs’ 1978 picture-book The Snowman.  I particularly like the version of it that has a prologue featuring David Bowie, who tells the story as a flashback and makes out this happened to him as a child.  Thus, the man who was Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and the Thin White Duke also flew with a snowman to the North Pole and met Santa Claus when he was a wee boy.  Wow, that David Bowie really lived a life!




Television.  To me, Christmas TV means two things – comedy and (again) ghost stories.  Any time I’m in the UK during the festive season it isn’t difficult to track down on a Freeview channel one of the following comedic classics.  First, the 1974 Steptoe and Son Christmas special in which Harold tries to persuade his decrepit dad Albert not to spend Christmas at home in the rag-and-bone yard for once and spend it on holiday abroad instead.  This episode is poignant because it’s one of the few where Harold actually enjoys a victory and it was also the last Steptoe episode ever broadcast.  Second, the 1975 Christmas edition of Porridge where Fletcher, Gobber and co. form a Christmas carol-singing choir to hide the noise of an escape tunnel being dug out of Slade Prison.  And third, the 1996 Father Ted special where Ted and Father Dougal’s Christmas shopping takes an unexpected turn when they get trapped inside ‘the largest lingerie section in Ireland’.  I find it sad, though, that I haven’t massively enjoyed any festive TV comedy made in the last 20-odd years.  (Incidentally, if you say you like the Mr Bean episode where he ends up with a giant Christmas turkey stuck over his head, you don’t deserve to live.)




As I mentioned earlier, Christmas was traditionally a time for telling ghost stories.  The BBC’s supernatural dramas that were broadcast every Yuletide during the 1970s under the title of A Ghost Story for Christmas now seem deeply festive – even though the stories themselves didn’t have Christmas-time settings.  (That said, most of them were based on works by M.R. James, who liked reading his latest tales to his friends at King’s College, Cambridge, “at the season of Christmas”.)  1971’s The Stalls of Barchester (based on a James story) and 1976’s The Signalman (based on a Dickens one) are probably the most memorable; 1977’s Stigma, set in the present day and using an original script by Clive Exton, is the subtlest and saddest; and 1975’s The Ash Tree, based on another James story, is the freakiest, ending with a pack of little spider-things with human faces scuttling up the branches of the titular tree to a bedroom window.  All the episodes are currently up on Youtube.


© Charlemagne Productions Ltd


Music.  Christmas songs are generally dreadful – apart from the Pogues’ Fairy Tale of New York and Run DMC’s Christmas in Hollis – and the songs that get to the Christmas number-one spot in the UK are generally worse than dreadful, especially now that they’re usually sung by the latest non-entity to have rolled off the Simon Cowell Conveyor Belt of Karaoke.  But for an enjoyably berserk Christmas listening experience, you can’t beat the heavy metal versions of Christmas songs like Silent Night and Jingle Bells recorded in 2012, 2013 and 2014 by the late, legendary actor Sir Christopher Lee, star of the Lord of the Rings and Star Wars movies and many horror ones.  The combination of the nonagenarian Lee’s still-booming operatic voice, twiddly power-metal guitars and Christmas – what’s not to love?


Art.  In the last few years English-speaking culture has become aware of the goat-horned, curly-tongued Krampus, the demonic figure of Germanic and Slavic folklore who acts as an anti-Santa Claus and goes around at Christmas punishing children who’ve been naughty.  Among other things, there’s been a Hollywood movie made about him, 2015’s Krampus, and he turned up in a 2016 festive episode of the BBC anthology series Inside No 9.  Only recently did I discover that mainland Europe has had a long tradition of exchanging Krampuskarten, greeting cards featuring the Krampus.  These include some bawdy ones where the saucy old festive demon is seen cavorting with buxom young ladies.  Here’s a few examples – charming in their visual designs and quaintly Roald Dahl-esque in their sentiments.






So Merry Christmas – I trust Santa Claus has been good to you.  Or if you’ve misbehaved, the Krampus has been bad to you.


Nessie found!


(c) Compton Films / United Artists


The Loch Ness Monster has returned.  I’d been getting worried about this particular monster – Nessie as she’s popularly known.  She’d been out of circulation for some time and I was starting to think something had happened to her.


In fact, the last time she got any coverage in the media, it wasn’t even because she’d been sighted in her native habitat of Loch Ness in Scotland.  Rather, in 2012, she surfaced in the pages of a new textbook distributed among Christian schools in the southern US state of Louisiana by an outfit called the Accelerated Christian Education programme.  Though the schools involved were private ones, they’d been given public-school funding by the state’s Republican governor Bobby Jindal.


Nessie is commonly believed to be a plesiosaur, making her a leftover giant reptile from the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods.  And the textbook claimed Nessie’s existence was proof that dinosaurs have lived on earth at the same time as humans, that Charles Darwin had got his timelines mixed up and that his theory of evolution was wrong – with the (not necessarily logical) consequence that the Bible’s account of creation of life on earth was right.  In other words, Nessie proves that God did it.


Now I don’t want to argue with the finest scientific minds that the American Republican / religious right has to offer – you know, like Sarah Palin.  But there is a flaw in using Nessie to support an argument of this sort.  It’s unlikely that a small, cold-watered loch, one only about 10,000 years old, could be big enough or warm enough to support a breeding population of huge cold-blooded reptiles whose last appearance in the fossil records dates back more than 66 million years ago.  Or to put it more bluntly: Nessie doesn’t actually exist.


I can imagine Sarah Palin reading this – that’s assuming she is able to read – and squawking in goggle-eyed astonishment: “Whaa-aat?  You mean the Loch Ness Monster isn’t real?!”


Anyhow, last week, I was startled to see headlines declaring that Nessie finally had been discovered in Loch Ness.  For a giddy moment I wondered if plesiosaurs did still exist and if Charles Darwin and his evolution theory had been wrong all along, while the Bible and the American religious right’s pseudoscientists had been right all along.


(c) Compton Films / United Artists


But no, it turned out that the ‘Nessie’ referred to in those headlines was actually a 30-foot-long monster-shaped prop built by special effects man Wally Veevers for the film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes back in 1970.  The prop sank into the loch’s waters while the movie was being shot there.  It’s said that director Billy Wilder took a dislike to two humps on the prop’s back and insisted on having them removed, which had the effect of fatally jeopardising its buoyancy.  So down it went.  The fake monster, minus its humps but with a long, plesiosaur-like neck, has now been found on the loch’s bed by an underwater robot operated by the Norwegian company Kongsberg Maritime.


If you’ve never seen The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, you might be wondering what the Loch Ness Monster was doing in a movie about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary detective.  Well, her presence in it may sound incongruous, but as the film is such a glorious hodgepodge of elements – by turns sublime, ridiculous, humorous, bizarre, romantic and melancholic – Nessie fits into it quite nicely.  The film has Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, played by Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely, investigate a case that takes them to Loch Ness.  There, in a steampunk twist, it transpires that Sherlock’s brother Mycroft Holmes, played by Christopher Lee, is busy testing a prototype military submarine on behalf of Britain’s secret service.  In a Scooby Doo-style attempt to keep the project secret, the submarine is disguised as Nessie.  It sports a monstrous neck and head to make sure the fearful locals keep their distance.


The writer, actor and comic performer Mark Gatiss has written fondly about The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, saying of Wilder and his scriptwriter I.A.L. Diamond that they “gently take the mickey out of Sherlock Holmes in the way that you can only do with something that you really adore.”  He’s also cited it as an influence on Sherlock, the popular modern-day reimagining of the Sherlock Holmes stories that he and Stephen Moffat have helmed for the BBC since 2010.


Indeed, in the TV series, Gatiss plays Mycroft Holmes to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock; and his portrayal of Holmes’s older and possibly smarter brother clearly owes something to Christopher Lee’s performance in the 1970 film.  Though both Gatiss and Lee, tall, sleek and lean, are far removed from the Mycroft Holmes of Conan Doyle’s fiction.  In the story The Greek Interpreter, for example, he’s described as “absolutely corpulent” with “a broad, fat hand like the flipper of a seal.”  And while both Lee’s Mycroft and Gatiss’s Mycroft are depicted as sinister, high-up operatives in British intelligence, the literary Mycroft was apparently something of a layabout.  Holmes dismissed him as having “no ambition and no energy”, content to hang out in a dubious institution called the Diogenes Club, which accommodated “the most unsociable and unclubable men in town.”


(c) Compton Films / United Artists


The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is also, possibly, the first movie to suggest that something homoerotic is going on between Holmes and Watson – an idea that Sherlock-the-TV-show has had fun playing with.  But it gives Holmes some heterosexual romance too.  It shows him falling for a woman called Gabrielle Valladon, played by Geneviève Page, who gets him involved in the case and who later turns out to be a German spy.  The film ends on a mournful note when Holmes receives a letter from Mycroft informing him that Gabrielle has been executed by a firing squad.


Another thing that makes me feel a bit sad watching The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is the knowledge that both Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely, splendid in the lead roles, suffered misfortunes that stopped them reaching the heights of stardom they deserved.  Stephens already had an impressive cinematic and theatrical CV when he made the film and was even touted as the successor to Sir Laurence Olivier.  Later, however, the break-up of his marriage (to Maggie Smith) and alcoholism took their toll on his career.  He got his mojo back in the early 1990s with roles in heavyweight theatrical productions of Henry IV, Julius Caesar and King Lear; but he died in 1995, less than a year after being knighted.  Meanwhile, Northern Irish character actor Colin Blakely seemed ubiquitous on TV when I was a kid in the 1970s and early 1980s, but he died in 1987, in his mid-fifties, from leukaemia.


Anyway, here’s a photo of that rediscovered Nessie from The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.  Take a good look at it, all you American right-wing religious nut-jobs out there.  It’s the only monster you’re ever likely to see in Loch Ness.


(c) BBC


Cinematic heroes 10: Burt Kwouk


(c) United Artists


It was just as well for Burt Kwouk and his fellow star of the Pink Panther movies Peter Sellers that in the 1970s Britain had fewer lawyers and was a less litigious place than it is today.  Otherwise, Kwouk and Sellers would’ve surely faced a raft of lawsuits brought by furious parents whose offspring had injured themselves in primary-school playgrounds, trying to imitate Kwouk and Sellers’ kung-fu fights the morning after one of those Pink Panther movies had been shown on TV.


Imitating the kung-fu practised by Inspector Clouseau, the bumbling French detective played by Sellers, and his Chinese servant Cato, played by Kwouk, as they engaged in friendly but bruising combat through Clouseau’s apartment was easier than imitating the skilled, athletic and balletic kung-fu practised by the likes of Bruce Lee.  Basically, it involved doing lots of frantic foot-kicking and hand-chopping and shouting “Haaaiii-ya!” every few seconds.  It also involved doing stupid things such as attempting to jump / kick your way through the air in slow motion.  I tried this once after seeing a clip on TV of Sellers doing it – possibly from The Return of the Pink Panther (1975) – and was perturbed to discover that slow motion doesn’t occur in real life when you’re sailing through the air with your body parallel to the ground.  Luckily, I landed on something soft.  My head.


(c) United Artists


Cato is the role running through Burt Kwouk’s career like toffee lettering running through a stick of rock.  Mention him to any British person my age and that person will still probably sink into a crouched kung-fu fighting position, raise their hands combatively and go, “Haaaiii-ya!” (though they’re unlikely now to try to jump through the air in slow motion).  Yet Kwouk deserves a place in British acting history for a more general reason.  For many of the sixty-odd years that he was active in the nation’s films and television, his was probably the only British-Oriental face that the public were familiar with and could put a name to.


By British standards, Kwouk’s beginnings weren’t exotic – he was born to Chinese parents in the Lancashire town of Warrington, almost midway between Liverpool and Manchester – but his upbringing was.  His family took him to Shanghai, where he remained until the age of 17, and later he headed to the USA and studied at Bowdoin College in Maine.  Back in Britain in the mid-1950s, he was supposedly ‘nagged’ into the acting world by his girlfriend of the time.


Unfortunately, Kwouk’s roles were subject to the narrow mind-set of post-war British cinema, meaning he had to play a lot of bit-parts and (minor) villains – adding a little Oriental colour to pictures whilst conforming to the period’s common stereotypes.  One early job, though, must have given him hope of meatier roles to come.  He played a convict called Li in Mark Robson’s The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, the 1958 film-version of the real-life story of British missionary Gladys Aylward, who in 1938 saved a hundred young orphans from a Chinese town before it was overrun by invading Japanese troops.  Aylward wins Li’s respect when she intervenes to defuse a prison riot and later he helps her evacuate the orphans, although he loses his life in the process.


(c) 20th Century Fox

(c) 20th Century Fox


With an ingenuity born out of budgetary restrictions that was typical of the British film industry at the time, the filmmakers, unable to make the film anywhere near China, shot its exterior scenes in northern Wales.  The Chinese orphans, meanwhile, were played by youngsters bussed across the Welsh / English border from the Chinese community in Liverpool.  Incidentally, the real Gladys Aylward detested the film.  She was unhappy about being portrayed by Ingrid Bergman, who was altogether more Scandinavian and less Cockney than she was; and infuriated at how the filmmakers overly romanticised her character’s relationship with another character played by Curt Jürgens.


Around the same time, Kwouk debuted on British television – an early appearance being on Hancock’s Half Hour, perhaps the greatest of all British TV comedies, where he manifested himself before the inimitable Tony Hancock dressed as a robed Chinese mandarin.  Thereafter, Kwouk appeared in espionage and adventure shows like Danger Man (1961 and 1966), The Avengers (1964), The Saint (1965, 1967 and 1968), Callan (1967 and 1969) and Jason King (1972): sci-fi ones like The Champions (1967), The Tomorrow People (1978), Doctor Who (1982) and Space Precinct (1994); crime ones like Shoestring (1980), Minder (1980), The Bill (2003 and 2005), Judge John Deed (2005) and Silent Witness (2006); comedies like It ain’t Half Hot Mum (1977-78), Robin’s Nest (1979) and The Kenny Everett Television Show (1983-84); and populist dramas like Warship (1977), Howard’s Way (1987), Noble House (1988), The House of Eliot (1991) and Lovejoy (1993).


Never losing his Eastern accent, he was also useful as a voice-over artist for anything with an Oriental theme.  Thus, he lent his distinctive tones to such items as the BBC version of the Japanese-made, Chinese-set drama The Water Margin (1976-77) and the no-holds-barred spoof Japanese gameshow Banzai (2001-2003).


For many years, his most famous TV role was probably as Captain Yamauchi in Tenko (1981-84), the BBC wartime drama about a Japanese POW camp for women.  Poor Yamauchi is a patriotic type who’d rather be fighting for his country on the front but, due to ill-health, has to suffer the indignity of running a camp full of gobby, snotty and saucy British, Dutch and Australian females instead.  Predictably, Tenko was filmed nowhere near where it was set – it was shot in Dorset – and it wasn’t the only time that the Chinese-blooded Kwouk was cast as a Japanese.


(c) Eon Productions


During the first half of his career, Kwouk was the go-to guy if your film needed an Oriental assistant, henchman or minion.  Not only was he bossed around by Peter Sellers in the Pink Panther films but he was at the beck and call of two James Bond villains, Gert Frobe in Goldfinger (1964) and Donald Pleasance in You Only Live Twice (1967).  He also took orders from two different versions of Fu Manchu, Christopher Lee in The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966) and Peter Sellers (again) in The Fiendish Plot of Dr Fu Manchu (1980).  It’s telling that in both Fu Manchu films, the Oriental supervillain was played by a British Caucasian actor – at the time it was unthinkable that he could be played by a Chinese one.  (I’ve heard a story about Christopher Lee making his way to film a scene in a Fu Manchu movie when, in full make-up, he was stopped and quizzed by a genuine Chinese person.  Discovering Lee’s real ethnicity, the man remarked, “Well, at least your second name is Chinese,” and walked off.)


(c) Constantin Film Produktion

(c) Constantin Film Produktion


Some of the movies featuring Kwouk were bizarre.  He turned up as a ‘Soho youth’ in Val Guest’s take on the late 1950s music industry, Expresso Bongo (1959), in which Laurence Harvey plays a showbiz hustler trying to turn a young Cliff Richard into a star.  (Changing the name of Cliff’s character from the unappealing ‘Bert Rudge’ to the even less appealing ‘Bongo Herbert’ hardly seems the best way to do it.)  Dated in the way that only old British rock ‘n’ roll movies can be, Expresso Bongo was nicely summed up by critic Dennis Schwartz, who wrote that it “has a charm of its own, but that’s not enough to take the ringing of bongo drums out of my ears.”  Still, it’s probably a masterpiece compared to The Cool Mikado (1962), a pop-music version of the Gilbert-and-Sullivan opera directed by Michael Winner and starring comedians Frankie Howerd, Tommy Cooper and Mike and Bernie Winters, plus Lionel Blair, Dennis Price, Stubby Kaye and Kwouk (in the role of an art teacher).  I’ve never seen The Cool Mikado, but most people who have consider it a terrible film, even by Michael Winner’s standards.  The writer Christopher Fowler, for instance, noted how “(t)he crimson and green sets were emetic, the dialogue and dancing below the level of a drunken stag night.”


Also bizarre, and terrible, was the 1967 ‘non-official’ James Bond film Casino Royale, an all-over-the-place spoof that’s nowhere near as smart or funny as it thinks it is.  Kwouk appears in it briefly as a Chinese general; while among the big names at the top of the bill (David Niven, Ursula Andress, Woody Allen, Orson Welles) is, yet again, Peter Sellers.


(c) Columbia Pictures


Elsewhere, Kwouk’s movie CV is pleasingly varied, ranging from modest British comedies like The Sandwich Man (1966), The Last Remake of Beau Geste (1977), I Bought a Vampire Motorcycle (1990) and Leon the Pig Farmer (1992) to big-budget Hollywood epics like The Shoes of the Fisherman (1968), The Chairman (1969), Rollerball (1975) and Empire of the Sun (1987).  Needless to say, though, a large part of that CV is taken up by the Pink Panther movies.


These days I have mixed feelings about those movies – Kwouk appeared in A Shot in the Dark (1964), The Return of the Pink Panther (1975), The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976) and The Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978), and he was also on duty as Cato in three more films made after Sellers’ death in 1980, The Trail (1982), Curse (1983) and Son (1993) of the Pink Panther.  In parts, they’re very amusing, thanks largely to Peter Sellers portraying Frenchman Inspector Clouseau in a way guaranteed to appeal to British and American audiences: convinced of his own intellect, refinement and irresistibility as a lover, whilst blind to the fact that in reality he’s a clodhopping, accident-prone idiot.  Anglo-Saxons have an inferiority complex before the French when it comes to cultural and romantic matters, and they enjoy nothing more than seeing French assumptions of superiority shot down.


But at the same time, I find the films a bit superficial — although their mastermind, writer-director Blake Edwards, gives them a glossy, sophisticated sheen, they’re essentially just strings of slapstick and (obvious) verbal gags.  Also, post-1980, Edwards milked the franchise beyond all human decency, until its reputation was as dead as Sellers was.


Not that this mattered when I was a kid.  I loved the Pink Panther films then, and in particular I counted the minutes until the next set-piece battle occurred when Cato sprang out of a refrigerator, dropped from the top of a four-poster bed, etc., and assaulted Clouseau.  (Although Cato was Clouseau’s manservant, he’d been instructed to attack Clouseau at unexpected moments, thus training the detective to be eternally vigilant.)  In fact, I suspect that for my generation Cato was a more popular character than Clouseau himself was.


(c) United Artists

(c) United Artists


Interestingly, when the Pink Panther movies were rebooted in 2006 and 2009 with Steve Martin playing Clouseau, the role of Cato was offered to Jackie Chan – who supposedly turned it down because he didn’t believe it was politically correct in the 21st century.  (Instead, Cato morphed into a French sidekick called Gendarme Ponton, played by Jean Reno.)  As a kid, any evidence of political incorrectness in the Pink Panther movies sailed over my head, although there are moments in them now – I can recall Clouseau referring to Cato’s “yellow skin” on one occasion – that make me uncomfortable.


Thanks to Roger Lewis’s 1995 biography The Life and Death of Peter Sellers and its film version nine years later, much has been made of Sellers’ awkwardness, insecurity and volatility, both as an actor and as a human being.  Kwouk, however, has always been gracious about him.  Describing the day that Sellers’ death was announced in Britain, he said: “it seemed that the whole country came to a stop.  Everywhere you went, the fact that Peter had died seemed like an umbrella over everything.”


The last two decades have seen Burt Kwouk become an institution himself in Britain.  Fittingly, his last two big TV roles were in shows aimed at opposite ends of the viewing spectrum.  A younger audience enjoyed him in Channel 4’s surreal, off-the-wall Harry Hill show (1997-2000), in which he played the Chicken Catcher, who each week would offer an excuse for failing to catch a chicken before breaking into a rendition of the song Hey, Little Hen.  Hardly had he finished his stint with Harry Hill than he started an eight-year association with the gentle and seemingly never-ending BBC sitcom Last of the Summer Wine (1973-2010), whose fans tended to be of pensionable age.  Meanwhile, in 2011, the British establishment finally got around to acknowledging Kwouk’s ubiquity and popularity by awarding the actor, then 80 years old, the Order of the British Empire.


(c) The Press


The last credit on IMDb for Burt Kwouk OBE was dated 2012, meaning that the great man has spent the last three years in retirement.  I hope he’s enjoying that retirement, for he’s certainly earned it.  And now, after writing all this, I feel an unaccountable urge to practise some foot-kicking and hand-chopping kung-fu again.  Haaaiii-ya!


Was there anything this man couldn’t do?


(c) WingNut Films


For a man who epitomised evil to generations of film-goers – he played, after all, Lord Summerisle, Dracula, Fu Manchu, Rasputin, Scaramanga, Comte de Rochefort, Frankenstein’s monster, the mummy, Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Blind Pew, Saruman, Count Dooku, the Jabberwocky, the Devil and, in the 2008 adaptation of Terry Pratchett’s The Colour of Magic, Death himself  – the passing of venerable actor Sir Christopher Lee has sparked a remarkable outpouring of love over the last few days, in online newspaper comment-threads, on Facebook and on Twitter.


The love has flowed both from ordinary punters and from the countless celebrities who knew and / or admired him.  And those celebrities have included some of the coolest people on the planet: Samuel L. Jackson, Martin Scorsese, Sir Iain McKellen, Stephen King, Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Alice Cooper, Slash from Guns n’ Roses, Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols, Bruce Campbell, Bryan Fuller, the Soska Sisters, the human movie-factory that is Roger Corman (who, in between tweeting to promote his new opus Sharktopus Vs Whalewolf, said of Lee, “Your talent, kindness and generosity will never be forgotten”) and Boris Johnson.  There was a deliberate mistake in that last sentence – did you spot it?


I don’t think the Queen has tweeted her condolences yet, but Joan Collins has, which is the next best thing.


From @joancollinsobe


Indeed, I’ve seen the adjective ‘awesome’ thrown around several times in description of the great man and his career.  But in my opinion, Lee wasn’t just awesome.  To me, he discovered the kingdom of Awesomeness and then journeyed in there and planted his flag (probably a skull and crossbones) on top of the highest peak of Awesomeness.  And to support this opinion, I’ll now remind you of a few of the things that Lee did during his 93 years on earth.


Until his death on June 7th, he was one of the last people alive who could claim to have met M.R. James, the greatest ghost story writer in English literature.  As a lad Lee encountered James, who was then Provost of Eton College, when his family tried, unsuccessfully, to enrol him there.  Lee obviously didn’t hold his failure to get into Eton against James because in the early noughties he played the writer in the BBC miniseries Ghost Stories for Christmas.  (Previously, Lee had attended Summer Fields School in Oxford, where one of his classmates was none other than the future John Steed-of-The Avengers Patrick Macnee.)


Incidentally, though in the late 1970s he penned an entertaining autobiography called Tall, Dark and Gruesome, Lee didn’t seem to go in for writing per se.  But he had literary connections aplenty.  He was step-cousin of James Bond’s creator, Ian Fleming; and by the time Peter Jackson got around to filming the Lord of the Rings trilogy (2002-2004), he could boast that he was the only member of the movies’ cast and crew who’d actually met J.R.R. Tolkien.  He was also good friends with Robert Bloch (author of Psycho), the fabulous Ray Bradbury, and posh occult-thriller-writer Dennis Wheatley, whose potboiler The Devil Rides Out Lee would persuade Hammer Films to adapt to celluloid in 1968.


Talking of Wheatley and the occult, Lee reputedly owned a library of books about black magic.  As a kid I remember reading a film book called The Horror People by the critic John Brosnan, in which Lee told Brosnan that his occult books were for reading purposes only and he would never try to practice the dark arts because – yikes! – “It’s too dangerous.”


Lee’s military service during World War II included attachments with the Special Operations Executive and the Long Range Desert Patrol (which was the forerunner to the SAS), but he kept schtum about what he actually did with them.  Decades later, though, he may have unintentionally dropped a hint about his secret wartime activities to Peter Jackson when, on set, he discreetly advised the Kiwi director about the sound a dying man would really make if he’d just had a knife planted in his back.


In the late 1940s he got into acting, although not with much initial success due to his being too tall (six-foot-four) and too foreign-looking (he had Italian ancestry).  During this period he at least learned how to swordfight, a skill he drew on when appearing in various low-budget swashbucklers.  During the making of one such film, 1955’s The Dark Avenger, the famously sozzled Errol Flynn nearly hacked off Lee’s little finger; although later Lee got revenge when, during a TV shoot with the same actor, a slightly-misaimed sword-thrust knocked off Flynn’s toupee, much to the Hollywood star’s mortification (and no doubt to everyone else’s amusement).


(c) 20th Century Fox


And I’ve read somewhere that when he made the swashbuckler The Scarlet Blade for Hammer in 1963, Lee taught a young Oliver ‘Ollie’ Reed the basics of sword-fighting.  I’m sure fight-choreographer William Hobbs and the stunt crew who worked on The Three Musketeers a decade later quietly cursed Lee for this.  (He starred alongside Reed in the film, playing the memorably eye-patched Comte de Rochefort.)  From all accounts, the ever-enthusiastic Ollie threw himself into the Musketeers’ sword-fights like a whirling dervish, and eventually one stuntman had to ‘accidentally’ stab him in the hand and put him out of action before he killed someone.


In 1956 and 1957 Lee got two gigs for Hammer films that’d change his fortunes and make him a star – playing the monster in The Curse of Frankenstein and then, on the strength of that, Bram Stoker’s famous vampire count in Dracula.  Apparently, Hammer wanted originally to hire the hulking comedic actor Bernard Bresslaw to play Frankenstein’s monster.  I suppose there’s a parallel universe out there somewhere where Bresslaw did indeed get the job; so that the man who played Little Heap in Carry On Cowboy (1965), Bernie Lugg in Carry On Camping (1969) and Peter Potter in Carry On Girls (1973) went on to play Count Dooku in the Star Wars movies and Saruman the White in the Lord of the Rings ones.


Playing Baron Frankenstein in The Curse of Frankenstein and Van Helsing in Dracula was the legendary Peter Cushing and he and Lee would hit it off immediately, become best mates and make another 18 films together.  Such was Lee’s affection for Cushing that I’m sure he wouldn’t have minded the other day when the ever-reliable Fox News f***ed up the announcement of Lee’s death by mistakenly flashing up a photograph of Peter Cushing playing Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars (1977).


(c) Fox News


Lee was famously uncomfortable about being branded a horror-movie star and about being associated with Dracula – an association that might thwart his ambitions for a serious acting career.  He did, though, play the character another six times for Hammer, and an eighth time in the Spanish production El Conde Dracula.  Tweeting a tribute to him the other day, Stephen King said, “He was the King of the Vampires.”  So sorry, Sir Chris, but when the man who wrote Salem’s Lot says you’re the King of the Vampires, you’re the King of the Vampires.


(c) Hammer Films

(c) Hammer Films


As Dracula, he got to bite Barbara Shelley, Linda Hayden, Anouska Hempel, Marsha Hunt and Caroline Munro.  Last-minute interventions by Peter Cushing in Dracula AD 1972 (1972) and The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973) prevented him from biting Stephanie Beacham and Joanna Lumley, which must have been frustrating.  Meanwhile, the 1965 movie Dracula, Prince of Darkness was the first really scary horror movie I ever saw, on TV, back when I was eight or nine years old.  I’d watched old horror films made by Universal Studios in the 1940s, like House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945), in which everything was discreetly black-and-white and bloodless, so I wasn’t prepared for an early scene in Dracula, Prince of Darkness’s where Lee / the count is revived during a ceremony that involves a luckless traveller being suspended upside-down over a coffin and having his throat cut, so that blood splatters noisily onto the supposedly dead vampire’s ashes.  I suspect that exposure to that traumatic scene transformed me from the morbid, oddball kid I was then into the normal, well-balanced adult I am today.  Or maybe it’s the other way around.


Thanks to Hammer’s success in the horror genre, the late 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s saw a boom in British, usually gothic, horror filmmaking.  And during that boom, Lee did many cool and memorable, though evil, things.  He drove his car into Michael Gough and squidged off Gough’s hand in Doctor Terror’s House of Horrors (1965).  He forced Vincent Price to immerse himself in a vat of acid in Scream and Scream Again (1969).  He turned up as a nasty, snobbish civil servant and tormented Donald Pleasence in Deathline (1972).


He did bad things to, and had bad things done to him in return by Peter Cushing.  As a mad-scientist-cum-asylum-keeper in The Creeping Flesh (1972), he brought a monster to life and then, after the monster had attacked Cushing and driven him insane with fear, he coolly incarcerated Cushing in his asylum.  Whereas in The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973) Cushing chased him through a prickly hawthorn bush – hawthorns are apparently not good for vampires and the experience, Lee recalled in his autobiography, left him ‘shedding genuine Lee blood like a garden sprinkler’ – before impaling him on a sharp, uprooted fence-post.  Meanwhile, the 1972 British-Spanish movie Horror Express featured a decomposing ape-man fossil that’d come back to life, was possessed by an alien force, had the power to suck people’s brains out through their eyeballs, and was generally such an evil motherf***er that Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing had to join forces to defeat it!  Silly horror movies don’t get any better than this.


(c) Jack Morrisey / The New Yorker


Fluent in French, Italian, Spanish and German, Lee also found it easy to find employment making horror movies on mainland Europe, where the gothic tradition was raunchier, more lurid and looser in its plot logic than its counterpart in Britain.  He worked with the Italian maestro Mario Bava and with the fascinatingly prolific, but erratic, Spanish director Jess Franco.  Despite Franco’s cheeky habit of shooting scenes with Lee and then inserting them into a totally different and usually pornographic movie – something Lee would only discover later, when he strolled past a blue-movie theatre in Soho and noticed that he was starring in something like Eugenie and the Story of her Journey into Perversion (1970) – Lee held the Spaniard in esteem and championed his work at a time when it was unfashionable to do so.  (Since his death in 2013, Franco’s reputation has begun to improve and art-house director Peter Strickland’s recent movie The Duke of Burgundy is a tribute, at least in part, to the man.)


Franco also directed later entries in a series of movies about Fu Manchu that Lee made in the 1960s, in which he played Sax Rohmer’s super-villain in rather unpolitically-correct Oriental makeup and spent his time barking orders at Chinese minions, who were usually played by Burt Kwouk.  And when Fu Manchu’s secret headquarters got blown up at the end, Lee’s voice would boom imperiously through the smoke: “The world will hear of me again!”  A prediction that proved to be right.


(c) Compton Films


In the early 1970s, Lee finally got opportunities to make the sort of films he wanted to make, including Richard Lester’s two Musketeers movies (1974 and 1975); the ninth official Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun (1975), in which he taunted Roger Moore, “You work for peanuts – a hearty well-done from Her Majesty the Queen and a pittance of a pension.  Apart from that, we are the same.  To us, Mr Bond.  We are the best…  Oh come, come, Mr Bond.  You get as much fulfilment out of killing as I do, so why don’t you admit it?”; and Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), regarded by many as the best attempt at bringing Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s deerstalker-wearing sleuth to the screen.


In that latter film, Lee played Holmes’s snooty brother Mycroft – the role that Mark Gatiss now plays in the popular BBC TV version with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Holmes and Watson.  Lee also played Sherlock Holmes himself several times, including in a couple of early-1990s TV movies with Dr Watson played by his long-ago school chum Patrick Macnee.  And he played Henry Baskerville in the 1959 Hammer adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles, which had Peter Cushing in the role of Holmes.  But for some strange reason, nobody ever thought of casting Lee as Professor Moriarty.


(c) Hammer Films


In 1973, he also played Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man, a film that needs no introduction from me.  It’s sad to think that recent years have seen the deaths of nearly all the film’s main cast members – Ingrid Pitt, Diane Cilento, Edward Woodward and now Lee – leaving just Britt Ekland in the land of the living.  So take care of yourself, Britt.  Go easy when you’re dancing naked around your bedroom.


Later in the 1970s, no longer so typecast in horror movies and with the British film industry on its deathbed, Lee decamped to Hollywood.  He ended up appearing in some big-budget puddings like dire 1977 disaster movie Airport 77 and Steven Spielberg’s supposed comedy 1941 (1979), but at least he was able to hang out with icons like Muhammad Ali and John Belushi.  And he didn’t, strictly speaking, stop appearing in horror movies.  He was in the likes of House of the Long Shadows (1982), The Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf (1985), The Funny Man (1994) and Talos the Mummy (1998), although Lee usually made the excuse that these films weren’t really horror ones.


The Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf wasn’t really a horror film?  Aye, right, Sir Chris.  At least you got to snog Sybil Danning in that one.


From @sybildanning


Though he never relented in his workload, it wasn’t until the 1990s that Lee experienced a late-term career renaissance – no doubt because many of the nerdish kids who’d sneaked into cinemas or stayed up late in front of the TV to watch his old horror movies had now grown up and become major players in the film industry, and were only too happy to cast him in their movies: Joe Dante, John Landis, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Peter Jackson and Tim Burton.  Hence his roles in two of the biggest franchises in cinematic history, the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings ones.  Burton, meanwhile, ended up casting him in five of his films, though I suspect the only reason he put him in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2004) was so that he could have a scene at the end where Lee and Johnny Depp give each other a hug.  Aw!




When he was in his eighties, Lee must have wondered if there were any territories left for him to conquer – and he realised that yes, there was one.  Heavy metal!  He had a fine baritone singing voice but only occasionally in his film career, for example, in The Wicker Man and The Return of Captain Invincible (1983), did he get a chance to show it off.  In the mid-noughties, however, he started recording with symphonic / power-metal bands Rhapsody of Fire and Manowar and soon after he was releasing his own metal albums such as Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross and Charlemagne: The Omens of Death, which had contributions by guitarist Hedras Ramos and Judas Priest’s Richie Faulkner.  He also released two collections of Christmas songs, done heavy-metal style.  Yuletide will never seem the same after you’ve heard Lee thundering his way through The Little Drummer Boy with electric guitars caterwauling in the background.


Obviously, the heavy metal community, which sees itself as a crowd of badasses, was flattered when the cinema’s supreme badass – Lord Summerisle, Dracula, Fu Manchu, Rasputin, etc. – elected to join them and they welcomed Lee with open arms.  They even gave him, as the genre’s oldest practitioner, the Spirit of Metal Award at the Metal Hammer Golden Gods ceremony in 2010.  And the other evening, when Alice Cooper received the Legend Award at Kerrang magazine’s yearly awards, he dedicated his win to the just-departed Sir Chris.


(c) Charlemagne Productions Ltd


So was there anything this man couldn’t do?  Well, it seems the only thing he couldn’t quite manage was to live forever.  Mind you, for someone who spent his cinema career dying – even when he was in his mid-fifties, he claimed in his autobiography that he’d been killed onscreen more times than any other actor in history – but who always returned to perpetrate more villainy, it feels odd to be writing now that Christopher Lee has finally and definitely passed away.


And if anybody wants to congregate in a Carpathian castle after dark and perform a ritual to resurrect the great man, by dousing his ashes in copious amounts of blood (freshly drained from Boris Johnson), I’m up for it.


(c) Seven Keys


RIP, Sir Christopher


(c) British Lion


Alas, a moment that I’ve dreaded has finally arrived.  The name of Sir Christopher Lee – who was just about my most favourite actor on the planet – is currently trending on Twitter because it was recently disclosed that the mighty actor has passed away.  He died in hospital last Sunday after developing respiratory problems, but his death wasn’t announced publicly until today, after his family members had all been informed.


My many reasons for liking him included his productivity, versatility and venerability.  By the time he turned 90, which was three years ago, he’d made about 275 films and I’m sure he’d added a few more to that total (including the recent, high-profile third Hobbit movie) between then and now.  He was also Britain’s most linguistic actor – he spoke German, French, Italian and Spanish and also knew a bit of Swedish, Russian and Greek, and it wasn’t uncommon for him to assist in the dubbing of some of his English-language movies for foreign markets.


And he was surely Britain’s most literary actor too, because his massive film and television CV contained adaptations of stories by Lewis Carroll, Agatha Christie, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Roald Dahl, Alexandre Dumas, Ian Fleming, Rider Haggard, Washington Irving, M.R. James, H.P. Lovecraft, Mervyn Peake, Edgar Allan Poe, Sax Rohmer, Sir Walter Scott, Mary Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson, Bram Stoker, J.R.R. Tolkien, Jules Verne and Dennis Wheatley.


And he seemed to have been around forever.  He was making films back in the 1940s and if he hadn’t been legendary for anything else, he would have been on the strength of the mind-boggling fact that he was the only actor in history to have conducted sword fights with Errol Flynn and Yoda.  (Lee had a light-saber duel with George Lucas’s sentence-mangling space-muppet in 2002’s Attack of the Clones.)




In recent years, he popped up in movies made by the likes of Martin Scorsese, Tim Burton and Peter Jackson, all of whom, as nippers, had watched him avidly in the old Hammer horror movies that he made with Peter Cushing.  And he also – I love this – carved out a new career for himself by lending his distinctive voice to symphonic and concept heavy metal albums recorded with bands like Manowar and Rhapsody of Fire.  I can’t think of a cooler hobby to take up when you’re in your late eighties.


And of course, he was Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man (1974), a member of the landed gentry who was not adverse to burning the odd virginal Free Presbyterian policeman as a sacrifice to the pagan gods, in return for a decent harvest on his island estate.  Yes, this man was truly magnificent.


One of the sweetest comments I’ve seen on Twitter since the announcement of his passing was by someone who speculated that his dear old friend and Hammer colleague Peter Cushing might be waiting to greet him outside the pearly gates.  Yes, I can just imagine Cushing’s clipped, gentlemanly tones echoing what he said at the beginning of the 1972 Spanish-British horror movie Horror Express, when his character bumped into Lee’s character on a railway-station platform.  “Well, well, well…  Look who’s here!”


(c) Granada Films


Bond bows out: The Man with the Golden Gun


(c) Penguin Books


The Man with the Golden Gun was one of the first of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels that I read.  It almost put me off reading any more of them.  It was definitely not what I’d expected.


There were two reasons why the book bewildered me.  Firstly, I was ten years old and around the same time the 1975 movie version of The Man with the Golden Gun was showing in cinemas.  I’d seen clips of it on TV, which had Jolly Roger Moore battling hordes of karate-kicking, karate-chopping martial-arts trainees at a Far Eastern dōjō.  In the mid-1970s, popular culture was martial-arts-daft and so to me these looked like the most exciting movie-scenes ever.  So I was perplexed when I started reading The Man with the Golden Gun-the-novel and discovered that there wasn’t a single martial-arts fighter in sight.


It wasn’t even set in the Far East.  Most of the book’s action took place in Jamaica, which was Fleming’s main stomping ground in real life – he’d established Goldeneye, his house and estate, on Jamaica’s north coast.  (Later, briefly, Goldeneye belonged to Bob Marley and it’s now an upmarket hotel with an adjacent ‘James Bond Beach’.)  Fleming was obviously fond of using Jamaica as a setting, for he sent Bond there in the novels Live and Let Die and Dr No and the short story Octopussy as well.


More importantly, The Man with the Golden Gun was entirely the wrong book for a newcomer to Bond to start reading.  Fleming completed the first draft of it a few months before his death in 1964 and the manuscript was subject to posthumous revision by Fleming’s copy-editor William Plomer before it saw publication in 1965.  (I’ve heard claims that Kingsley Amis had input into the editing process too, although the book’s Wikipedia entry denies this.)  And as the last Bond novel, it carries a lot of back story.  By this point Bond had been married and seen his wife murdered (in 1963’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) and had tracked down and executed the murderer, Ernst Stavros Blofeld (in 1964’s You Only Live Twice); but at the end of the latter book he’d also gone missing.  In reality, he’d been stricken with amnesia, but he was believed killed in action by his London-based boss M, who went as far as to pen an obituary for him in The Times.


When The Man with the Golden Gun begins, Bond has not only been fed through the wringer but he’s also – since You Only Live Twice – been captured and brainwashed by the Soviets and sent on a mission to London to assassinate M.  So not only is this a weary and jaded Bond, but also (in the early chapters, at least) a robotic and murderous one.  It’s a long way indeed from the cosy, jovial world depicted in the 1975 film version, where, for example, Roger Moore quips, “Who would pay a million dollars to have me killed?” and M retorts, “Jealous husbands!  Outraged chefs!  Humiliated tailors!  The list is endless!”


(c) Eon Productions


However, a little while ago, I found a copy of The Man with the Golden Gun in a second-hand bookshop and thought that I’d give it another go.  How would it seem to me now, a good – my God, I’m old! – 39 years after I last read it?


So the book begins with a brainwashed Bond returning to London and trying to kill M: “A storm of memories whirled through his consciousness like badly cut film on a projector that had gone crazy.  Bond closed his eyes to the storm.  He must concentrate on what he had to say, and do, and on nothing else.”  M, however, realising “that death had walked into the room and was standing beside him,” thwarts the attempt on his life by activating a shutter of ‘Armour-plate glass’ that crashes down from his office-ceiling and shields him from his would-be assassin.  Then, with Bond in custody and receiving de-programming treatment, M has to decide what to do with the set of damaged goods that is 007.


He opts to send Bond on a suicide mission of his own.  This is to locate and kill one Francisco ‘Pistols’ Scaramanga, a hitman known as the Man with the Golden Gun on account of “his main weapon which is a gold-plated, long-barrelled, single-action Colt .45.”  Linked to Fidel Castro and the KGB, Scaramanga has lately assassinated half-a-dozen British secret-servicemen in the Caribbean and M is desperate to put him out of action.


A restored but still-fragile Bond arrives in Jamaica and finally encounters Scaramanga in the lobby of a local ‘bordello’.  He manages to convince the assassin that he’s a private security man called Mark Hazard and, conveniently, Scaramanga hires him to oversee security during an upcoming weekend when he’ll be meeting some business associates at his new investment, a luxurious (but still-under-construction) hotel.  It turns out that this weekend conference is really an assemblage of American gangsters, plus one KGB operative, who are planning various criminal operations in the region that’ll both line their pockets and boost the standing of Fidel Castro.


Bond learns what’s going on with the help of his old CIA friend Felix Leiter, who’s managed to secure an undercover position in Scaramanga’s hotel too; and of his former secretary, Mary Goodnight, who’s working now in British Intelligence’s Jamaican station (and who, inevitably, ends up as Bond’s love interest in the book).  At the same time, however, Scaramanga and his guests cotton on to Bond’s true identity.


In the novel’s climax, Scaramanga treats his weekend visitors to a ride on a local light railway line and then a hunting and fishing trip.  Bond is forced to accompany them, aware that later in the day he’s likely to be the main quarry being shot at.  But Leiter comes to his rescue – he stows away in the train and once it’s moving a gun-battle breaks out on board.  (An added complication is that, according to Scaramanga, Mary Goodnight has been captured and tied to the railway tracks ahead.)  Bond and Leiter crash the train and Scaramanga is the only survivor among the villains.  Injured, he flees into the bush and Bond pursues him.  The pair meet up for a final showdown in “a small clearing of dried, cracked black mud” that’s infested with snakes and land-crabs.


As my synopsis makes clear, the plot of The Man with the Golden Gun is as simple and one-track as the little Jamaican railway line on which its climax takes place.  What’s more disappointing, however, is the lack of detail and colour with which Fleming customarily embroidered his plots – making their fantastical goings-on seem a little more grounded and believable.  Fleming tended to insert more detail when he was working on later drafts of his books but in this case he didn’t live long enough to produce a later draft.  The Man with the Golden Gun feels rather drab as a result.


At the same time, when it comes to describing what Scaramanga and his friends are up to, the book is muddled.  Fleming seems unable to decide on one nefarious operation for them to work on, so he has them engaged in a mishmash of things.  They’re conspiring to destroy cane-fields in Trinidad and Jamaica in order to boost the Cuban sugar industry; to use arson attacks to wreck the Jamaican bauxite industry; and to destabilise Jamaican society by bribing local politicians to grant a licence for a ruinous new casino franchise.  (“There’ll be incidents.  Coloured people’ll be turned away from the doors for one reason or another.  Then the opposition party’ll get hold of that and raise hell about colour bars and so on.  With all the money flying about, the unions’ll push wages through the roof.  It can all add up to a fine stink.  The atmosphere’s too damn peaceful around here.”)  And for good measure, they intend to flood the US coast with narcotics too.


Meanwhile, credibility departs when Felix Leiter turns up as a supposed accountant working at Scaramanga’s hotel.  Scaramanga has just hired the most legendary agent in the British Secret Service, which suggests that he badly needs to overhaul his vetting procedures.  But to have also recruited one of the top bods in the CIA suggests that it’s not just his vetting that’s non-existent – his brain’s missing too.  This is particularly so as Leiter has ‘a bright steel hook’ instead of a right hand, thanks to a savaging he received from a shark in an earlier book.  Sporting an appendage like that, Leiter must be the most identifiable CIA agent in the northern hemisphere.


But The Man with the Golden Gun’s biggest let-down is its lack of characterisation.  Mary Goodnight is perfunctorily drawn.  She’s a feisty but obviously well-bred young English gal and, well, that’s it.  Britt Ekland was criticised for portraying Goodnight as an archetypal dumb blonde in the 1975 film version.  But to be fair to Britt, if she’d looked in the book for inspiration about how to play her character, she wouldn’t have found any.


Equally poor is the characterisation of Scaramanga.  Although the film adaptation of The Man with the Golden Gun is regarded as one of the worst Bond movies, critics agree that its single redeeming feature is Christopher Lee’s performance as the villain.  Lee invests Scaramanga with suave and sardonic menace.  He’s charming and sophisticated but these traits are tempered by his obvious lethalness and intimidating physicality.  (You only have to look at the stills of Bond and Scaramanga together to see how the six-foot-four-inch Lee looms over Roger Moore.)


(c) Eon Productions


So it’s a shock in the book when Scaramanga first opens his mouth and comes across like a macho / braggart lowlife in a Martin Scorsese film: “I sometimes make ’em dance.  Then I shoot their feet off.”  Talking in crass gangster-isms, the literary Scaramanga is a simple thug.  He’s no smarter or more cultured than the pack of Mafiosi – the amusingly-named Sam Binion, Leroy Gengerella, Ruby Rotkopf, Hal Garfinkel and Louie Paradise – who later turn up at his hotel.  In a normal Bond novel he might make a serviceable henchman.  But the big villain?  No way.


And yet, paradoxically, it’s Scaramanga who inspires Fleming’s best writing in The Man with the Golden Gun.  Two-dimensional he may be, but he at least gets an intriguing backstory.  He started off as a sharpshooter in his father’s circus and his first victim was a policeman – whom he shot dead after the policeman killed his favourite circus animal, an elephant that’d gone berserk and trampled circus-goers in a rampage.  This backstory was impressive enough for the scriptwriters to use it in the film version and they have Lee relate it to Moore when they first come face to face.


The initial encounter between Bond and Scaramanga in the book is memorable too.  On a hot Jamaican evening, the two square up in the reception area of a dilapidated brothel called Number 3½ Love Lane and Scaramanga treats Bond to a sudden and shocking display of his shooting prowess – he blasts two tame ‘kling-kling’ birds (Jamaican grackles) a moment after they take panicked flight from a nearby counter-top.  “The explosions from the Colt .45 were deafening.  The two birds disintegrated against the violet back-drop of the dusk, the scraps of feathers and pink flesh blasting out of the yellow light of the café and into the limbo of the deserted street like shrapnel.”  And Bond and Scaramanga enjoy a good final encounter too.  At Bond’s mercy, Scaramanga pleads for a minute’s stay of execution so that he can say his prayers.  Bond is unable to refuse – Watch out, James!  It’s a trick! – and the scene acquires a strange, almost Graham-Greene-like intensity.


Elsewhere, it’s fun to spot signs that the then-nascent Bond movie series was influencing Fleming – Dr No had been filmed in 1962 and From Russia with Love in 1963.  There’s a movie-like emphasis on gadgetry – notably the glass shutter that saves M from the brainwashed Bond – and Fleming slips in a reference to Honeychile Rider, the heroine of Dr No whom Ursula Andress had immortalised in the film version two years earlier.  We get a hint too that Fleming was impressed by the actor playing Bond onscreen at the time, the truculent working-class, Edinburgh-born, Scottish-nationalist, former-milkman Sean Connery.  He ends the book with Bond, recuperating after his showdown with Scaramanga, receiving the offer of a knighthood for his services to the Realm.  Bond not only turns down the offer, but sends back a surprisingly anti-establishment message via a cypher machine: I AM A SCOTTISH PEASANT AND WILL ALWAYS FEEL AT HOME BEING A SCOTTISH PEASANT…


It has to be said that when Sean Connery was offered a knighthood in 2000, he showed none of Bond’s reluctance.  He said ‘yes’ to the thing immediately.


I have no arguments with the many critics who’ve dismissed The Man with the Golden Gun as the runt of the litter among Fleming’s Bond novels – though its lowly status was inevitable considering Fleming’s state of health at the time of writing and the fact that he died before he could polish it up.  Still, I didn’t find the novel boring.  I kept turning its pages until the end.


And what a bitter-sweet end it is.  Fleming leaves Bond in the arms of Mary Goodnight but he indicates that it won’t be long before Bond is back in his old, wandering and philandering ways: “he knew, deep down, that love from Mary Goodnight, or from any other woman, was not enough for him.  It would be like taking ‘a room with a view’.  For James Bond, the view would always pall.”  So it looks like Bond will soon be saying ‘good night’ to poor Mary Goodnight.  But alas, it’s good night too for Bond himself in his most fascinating incarnation — the literary original, created by Ian Fleming.


(c) Eon Productions


Barking up the wrong tree


(c) British Lion Films


I’m a big fan of 1973’s classic British horror film The Wicker Man, directed by Robin Hardy, scripted by Anthony Shaffer, and about paganism on a remote (and fictional) Scottish island called Summerisle.  Indeed, I’ve posted about it several times.  For the sake of completeness, I feel I should write something too about its semi-sequel The Wicker Tree, which was also directed by Hardy and appeared two years ago.


I don’t particularly want to, but I feel I should.


For a decade The Wicker Tree was a movie that you occasionally heard rumours about but you wondered if you’d ever actually see.  The film was originally mooted in 2002, with the curious title of The Riding of the Laddie and with Hardy doing both directing and writing duties.  Acting names linked with the project then included Sean Astin, Ewan McGregor, LeAnne Rimes, Vanessa Redgrave and Christopher Lee – Lee, of course, had appeared in The Wicker Man as Lord Summerisle, the charismatic, crafty and decadent aristocrat who orchestrated all those pagan practices on Summerisle, and he’d more recently appeared with Astin and McGregor in the Lord of the Rings and second-cycle Star Wars movies.  No film appeared, but Hardy turned his screenplay into a novel with a different but equally curious title, Cowboys for Christ.


(c) Luath Press


A fresh attempt to get The Riding of the Laddie / Cowboys for Christ before the cameras took place in 2007, but before this, in 2006, there appeared an American remake of the original Wicker Man, directed by Neil LaBute and starring Nicholas Cage and Ellen Burstyn.  Set not on a Scottish island but on an American one, where a matriarchal neo-pagan community keeps its menfolk in shuffling subservience, tends to a giant complex of beehives and will do anything, however horrid, to ensure that its honey-harvest remains healthy, the remake received rotten reviews.  Indeed, it received five nominations at that Oscars-for-terrible-films, the Razzies Awards.


I avoided the thing out of principle, until one day I found myself on a long intercontinental flight and noticed it was offered as an inflight movie.  So I decided to give it a try.  Afterwards, I felt like chucking myself out of the nearest emergency hatch.


There’s many things to hate about The Wicker Man remake, including its lack of humour and its lack of music – the original was very amusing and had a lovely soundtrack of folk songs, compiled, sung and played by the late Paul Giovanni.  But what I found worst about it was the craven way it ducked the Christian-pagan conflict that was central to Anthony Shaffer’s script in 1973.  The original has an uptight Free Presbyterian police sergeant, played by Edward Woodward, searching for a missing girl on Summerisle and seeing the beliefs he’s held unquestioningly for so long treated by the pagan islanders with a mixture of incomprehension, ignorance and ridicule.  The exchanges between Lee and the increasingly-blustering Woodward mock Christian assumptions in a way that you rarely see in a horror movie.  For example: “We’re a deeply religious people.”  “Religious?  With ruined churches, no ministers, no priests?  And children dancing naked!”  “They do love their divinity lessons.”  “But they are… naked!”  “Naturally!  It’s much too dangerous to jump through the fire with your clothes on!”


The 2006 remake avoids all this and blandly keeps shtum about the religious beliefs, if any, of the investigating police officer.  I presume this was to avoid offending cinema audiences in church-going Middle America.


Meanwhile The Riding of the Laddie / Cowboys for Christ was scheduled to start shooting in 2007, but didn’t, and then again in 2008, but didn’t again.  It was meant to be shot in Dumfries and Galloway in southwest Scotland, which had provided the original Wicker Man with locations such as Creetown, Anwoth, Port Logan, Castle Kennedy and (scene of the unforgettable climax) Burrow Head.  However, the Dumfries and Galloway plans fell through too.


It wasn’t until 2009 that filming actually commenced, close to Edinburgh in the towns of Haddington and Gorebridge and the district of Midlothian.  By this time, the stars originally connected with the film had disappeared, except for Lee, and Lee’s participation in the project was severely curtailed after he hurt himself in a set-accident whilst shooting another film.  For a time, Joan Collins was said to be appearing in the film too, but she didn’t make it into the final cast.


Completed at last, the film – now called The Wicker Tree – was unveiled at a movie festival in 2011, got a very limited release in the USA in 2012 and later that year crept out with barely a whisper on DVD in the UK.  What reviews it received were unenthusiastic and I didn’t feel any urge to spend money on it until a month ago, when I saw a copy of the DVD selling at a discount in HMV.  So now that I’ve watched it, what can I say about The Wicker Tree?


(c) British Lion Films


Well, kudos first of all to Hardy for restoring the Christian-pagan conflict that the re-makers of The Wicker Man brushed under the carpet.  His main characters are a young Texan couple, Beth (Brittania Nichol) and Steve (Henry Garrett), who are serious evangelical Christians.  Not yet married, they wear purity rings, and they perform a gospel / county-and-western singing act.  Hardy tries to make them interesting by giving them backstories – before seeing the light, Beth was a dodgy Lolita-like pop starlet and Steve had a gambling addiction – but both Nichol and Garrett are deficient in acting ability, which creates a vacuum at the film’s core.  (Their inadequacy underlines how great Edward Woodward was when he played the equivalent role in The Wicker Man.)


Beth and Steve’s church in Dallas sends them to Scotland on a mission to convert the ‘heathens’ there.  Presumably by ‘heathens’, they mean ‘atheists’ or ‘members of misguided Christian denominations who’ve got it wrong’, rather than ‘pagans’.  In Scotland, the young twosome get invited to the village of Tressock in the Scottish Borders by the local Laird, Sir Lachlan Morrison (Graham McTavish), and his wife Delia (Jacqueline Leonard).  The Morrisons are keen that the duo should participate in Tressock’s May Day celebrations, and…  Well, if you’ve seen The Wicker Man, you’ll know where this is heading.  What bothered me was how upfront the Morrisons are about being pagans – proper pagans, not just atheists or whatever.  I’d have thought their openness about worshipping ancient gods would warn Beth and Steve that this is all very fishy and they should be running 500 miles in the opposite direction, but it doesn’t.  The pair of them, one can only conclude, are really stupid.


Also, as Tressock isn’t a distant island like Summerisle, but a village on the Scottish mainland, I’d have expected people in the surrounding, normal villages to start making a connection between Tressock’s odd customs and the way that people are vanishing there every May Day.  Logic, however, is not The Wicker Tree’s strongpoint.


Unfortunately, quite a few things are not the film’s strongpoint.  Whereas the humour in the original film was admirably balanced between wit and bawdiness, here the humour is all over the place.  Some of it fails to be funny at all and there’s at least one scene, involving Jacqueline Leonard, her butler (played by Clive Russell) and a dead pet, which feels like it belongs in another pagan-themed British movie, the 1988 meisterwerk that is Ken Russell’s Lair of the White Worm.  Now when I’m in the right mood – i.e. after consuming about ten pints of beer – Lair… seems so deliriously bonkers and camp that it’s rather enjoyable.  But I’d have liked a new instalment in The Wicker Man series to be a bit more… you know, dignified.


Elsewhere, things are dropped into the film almost randomly, never developed or never explained.  There’s a nice idea involving a local nuclear power station, run by Morrison, where an accident in the past caused the area to be contaminated and the men to become sterile – hence the community’s interest in those fertility rituals that are part-and-parcel of paganism.  In the original movie, Edward Woodward gradually learns about the parlous state of Summerisle’s agriculture, which explains why the islanders have turned to human sacrifice – desperate situations require desperate remedies.  Indeed, he confronts Christopher Lee with this fact at the film’s climax.  Here though, the nuclear-power-station storyline simply disappears halfway through the film.


On the other hand, the wicker tree of the title turns up near the end without any explanation.  The object looks admirably sinister on the movie poster, but what is it actually for?  What does it symbolise?  Why does it have to be a wicker tree?  One gets the impression that Hardy and his producers decided at the last moment that, in order to attract fans of the original movie, they needed a wicker something.  And a tree it was.  But they didn’t have any time to integrate the thing into the script.


There’s a final disappointment with The Wicker Tree.  Its predecessor took a real delight in exploring paganism and showing how the belief-system had, subtly, permeated every nook and cranny of the outwardly normal-seeming community on Summerisle – down to the sinister human-shaped and animal-shaped confectionary on sale in the local sweetshop.  (Check out this youtube clip at  But The Wicker Tree has no such interest in detail.  Tressock is full of pagans, there’s going to be a sacrifice on May Day, and that’s mostly it.


Actually, because Tressock is supposed to be in the Scottish Borders (where I’m based), I assume Hardy drew some inspiration from the ‘common ridings’ festivals held by the Borders towns during the summer.  As well as commemorating historical events like 1513’s Battle of Flodden, they celebrate an old practice whereby townspeople would ride along the boundaries of the local common lands and guard against encroachment, raids and plunder by lawless brigands.  Hence at the festivals you get masses of people on horseback, in riding gear, trotting through the countryside and splashing through the rivers.  Also, in one festival, the Kelso Civic Week, the principal man is known as the ‘Laddie’.  So I’m guessing this is how Hardy got his original title, The Riding of the Laddie.


And there’s a sequence near the end of the film where Steve – persuaded to become the principal in the Tressock festival – takes part in a traditional event that sees the Laddie pursued by the villagers, on horseback.  This slightly resembles a scene from a proper Borders riding, but in the real thing, although they may look like they’re on a hunt, the riders aren’t chasing anything.


For the record, there’s little, if anything, in the Borders common ridings that can be traced back to paganism.  The equestrian events I’ve just described celebrate a practice that started in the 13th and 14th centuries, long after the worship of Celtic deities had died out.  None of the ridings take place as early as May Day — they only really get going in June.  The Peebles festival, the one I have most experience of, is called the Beltane, which obviously sounds pagan and Celtic, but it was actually inaugurated in 1897 as a way of celebrating Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.  You’ll see a fair number of men dressed up as women — at the Beltane, for example, in the fancy-dress parade and during the Rugby Club show that’s traditionally performed outside Peebles’ Tontine Hotel — which is certainly something of a pagan trope.  But I very much doubt if any of the participants believe they’re acting in imitation of old pagan fertility rituals.  More likely, they’re just having fun with fishnet stockings, mini-skirts and lots of chest and bum-padding.


(c) British Lion Films


But anyway, back to The Wicker Tree.  For all my criticisms, I did enjoy it considerably more than The Wicker Man remake.  As I said, like the original film, it pitches Christianity against paganism and it attempts to be humorous, though sometimes not successfully.  And like its distinguished predecessor, it draws on folk songs for its musical soundtrack, though inevitably, without Paul Giovanni, the music isn’t quite as good this time around.  And if you can see beyond Nichol and Garrett’s non-acting, the supporting cast is fine.  Graham McTavish is solid as the villainous Lachlan Morrison – McTavish, incidentally, is best known for playing Dwalin, the fearsome Mohican-headed, Glaswegian-accented dwarf in The Hobbit movies – and Clive Russell gives a performance of enjoyable, pantomime-style villainy as Beame, his lumbering manservant.  The injured Christopher Lee, alas, is reduced to a cameo performance.  We catch a glimpse of him in a flashback, appearing to a young Lachlan Morrison and encouraging him to go to the pagan side.  He might be Lord Summerisle but this is never made clear.


The best performance, though, comes from the strikingly-named actress Honeysuckle Weeks, who plays the village’s resident nymphomaniac / temptress.  Her role corresponds to that of Britt Ekland in the original Wicker Man, but Hardy’s script makes her a more nuanced and sympathetic character and Weeks tackles the role so whole-heartedly that she totally eclipses the vapid Nichol.  Particularly good is a dreamy scene where Garrett happens across Weeks while she bathes naked in a country stream, hoping that the river deity will impregnate her.  One only wishes that the film had contained more moments like this.


Also good – in a chilling way – is a scene near the end where Tressock’s population turns on the Christians, chanting a pagan song with the same lyrics that were in a gospel song that the duo, earlier, had sung to those villagers.  As well as being disturbing, this acts as a subtle reminder of Christianity’s predilection for borrowing things from older religions, to make itself more palatable for converts.  Just as you’ll find in old churches carvings and sculptures of things that are recognisably pagan, so Beth and Steve’s Christian song turns out to have a pagan antecedent.  Actually, this scene should have served as the film’s climax, but Hardy insists on following it with further stuff – and the further stuff isn’t as good.


To sum up, then, The Wicker Tree isn’t as bad as The Wicker Man’s American remake, but it’s disappointing nonetheless and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who wants their fond memories of the 1973 classic to stay unsullied.


The irony is that the original Wicker Man is now seen as a milestone in a British movie sub-genre that’s been dubbed ‘folk-horror’.  In British folk-horror films, the threat is something that comes from Britain’s own historical or folkloric past – such films don’t rely on monsters imported from continental Europe or from Hollywood, such as vampires, werewolves or zombies.  And just as The Wicker Tree limped out on DVD in 2012, a slew of new British folk-horror movies, made by younger filmmakers and of a higher quality, were also appearing.  I’ll be writing about those films in another post, very soon.


Happy 100th, Mr Cushing




The actor Peter Cushing, who was born a century ago today, is remembered as a fixture of British horror movies, but for me it’s a role he played in a non-horror film – a swashbuckler set in the 18th century – that best sums up his unique persona.  In 1962’s Captain Clegg, he plays a prim village vicar, given to gently chiding his congregation during church services when their hymn-singing isn’t as energetic as it should be.  However, it transpires that being vicar is just a front for his real activities — for after dark he reveals himself as the titular Captain Clegg, a fearsome former pirate who now, ruthlessly, runs a smuggling operation that his parishioners are all part of.


(c) Hammer


In his private life, Cushing would have made a perfect village vicar.  He spent his free time in the quiet town of Whitstable on the Kent coast and was a birdwatcher, model-maker and painter of watercolours (as well as being patron of the Vegetarian Society).  Famed for his gentlemanliness, the critic John Brosnan remarked that in the 1970s you could go through the entire British film industry and find nobody with a bad word to find about him.  Indeed, Carrie Fisher, who played Princess Leia in 1976’s Star Wars, said the hardest part of her role was summoning the hatred that, onscreen, she had to show Cushing’s villainous, planet-destroying Governor Moff Tarkin — so charming was Cushing towards her off-screen.


Saintly though the real Cushing was, many of his film characters had definitely gone to the dark side.  Several were cold-blooded and fanatical scientists who assumed that the ends justified the means, no matter how unspeakable the means might be — including Baron Frankenstein, whom he played in the series of horror films that Hammer Films based on Mary Shelley’s novel, very loosely, between the late 1950s and early 1970s; and in 1958’s The Flesh and the Fiends, Doctor Robert Knox, who was the real-life Edinburgh medical lecturer that Burke and Hare supplied with freshly-murdered corpses.  Later in his life, as Cushing’s gaunt features grew even gaunter, he got increasingly cast as Nazis, of which Moff Tarkin was one variation.


Such was the strange dichotomy of Cushing the person and Cushing the movie villain that it’s a pity he never got around to playing Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde.  (He did, though, appear as the lawyer Utterson in a version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s celebrated horror story, 1970’s I, Monster, where the main role was taken by his very good friend and frequent co-star Christopher Lee.)


But he played good guys too – most notably Van Helsing in five of Hammer’s Dracula movies; and Sherlock Holmes in Hammer’s 1958 version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, in a sixteen-episode BBC television series in the 1960s and finally in a television movie in the mid-1980s.  His BBC performances as Holmes are much admired, although Cushing, a perfectionist, felt that the show’s hectic shooting schedule didn’t allow him to give the role his best.  With uncharacteristic causticity, he told the actor Douglas Wilmer (who’d played Holmes in a previous series) that he’d “rather sweep Paddington Station for a living than go through the experience again”.


(c) Hammer


He also played Winston Smith, the doomed hero of George Orwell’s 1984, in a television version in 1954, scripted by Nigel Kneale and performed live before the cameras as TV plays invariably were in those days.  By then in his forties, Cushing was as thin, gaunt and haunted-looking as you’d expect a citizen in a cruelly totalitarian society to be, so he gave Smith a physical as well as emotional believability.  (You can now watch the play in its entirety on youtube — though you’ll probably wince at the fact that it was posted there by the Glenn Beck Book List.)


Cushing’s popularity in 1950s British television prompted Hammer Films to hire him for the first of their colour-shot horror movies – The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957, Dracula in 1958 and The Mummy in 1959 – which began a long tradition of British horror filmmaking, still in existence today thanks to movies such as Ben Wheatley’s Kill List.  Cushing didn’t particularly like horror films but was philosophical about being typecast in them.  If cinema audiences wanted to watch him in them, he thought, fair enough.


Conventional wisdom has it that Cushing saw his career flourish while British Gothic cinema itself flourished, in the late 1950s and during the 1960s.  However, his career declined in the 1970s when British horror films, and British films generally, lost their popularity.  I wouldn’t agree with this idea, however.  Maybe it’s because his 1970s movies, which began to appear on TV when I was in my early teens, were the first Cushing movies I was exposed to and so they occupy a special place in my heart.  Or maybe it’s because Cushing’s performances became even more intense and powerful after his wife Helen, whom he adored, died in 1971.  Anyway, I feel it’s in those 1970s films that you get his best work.


(c) Tigon


In 1972’s Twins of Evil, for example, he plays Gustav Weil, the leader of a band of Nathaniel Hawthorne-style puritans who come into conflict with a vampire cult.  Weil is so sanctimonious and zealous, obviously tormented by psychological demons as well as by the bloodsucking ones around him, that he tips over into villainy and the viewer’s sympathies end up more on the side of the vampires.  Meanwhile, I remember being genuinely upset by the nihilism of the same year’s The Creeping Flesh.  Cushing’s character here is a kindly archaeologist who digs up a skeleton that might just belong to a mythological creature called the Evil One — the devil, basically.  Flesh reconstitutes itself on the skeleton and the Evil One comes back to life.  The film ends with it stalking the world again while Cushing, whose warnings about the thing are dismissed by everyone as a madman’s ravings, is imprisoned in an asylum run by a villainous rival (played as usual by Christopher Lee — he and Cushing made 22 films together).


(c) Amicus


I wasn’t a big fan of the horror-anthology movies made by Hammer’s rival studio, Amicus, but in the midst of the stories in their schlocky 1972 compendium Tales from the Crypt, Cushing gives a performance that’s rather heart-rending.  In Tales‘ third story, he plays a kindly, melancholy old widower, tormented by snobby neighbours who believe his presence is lowering their neighbourhood’s tone and lowering their property prices.  They wage an escalating hate campaign against him, spreading lies and rumours that deprive him of everything he holds dear – including his pet dogs and the friendship of the local children – until he is driven to suicide.  (This being a horror film, he doesn’t stay dead for long, of course.)  The story is genuinely upsetting because Cushing’s acting conveys the tragic consequences of a real-life horror – the spitefulness that human beings are capable of.


To be fair, Cushing appeared in his share of duff movies, but his acting skills could make any film seem about 50% better in terms of quality than it actually was.  A case in point is Freddie Francis’s ropey 1975 film, Legend of the Werewolf, where Cushing is a joy as an amiable Parisian pathologist who has to work out why so many cadavers are suddenly appearing on his slabs with fang-marks and claw-marks.  He was also good in the barmy 1972 British-Spanish co-production Horror Express, which puts him and Christopher Lee together on the Trans-Siberian Express in 1906.  Cushing and Lee are on the same side for once and play their roles like bemused horror-movie versions of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in an old Road movie.  Also on the train is a freshly dug-up, alien-possessed and reanimated prehistoric ape that has the power to suck its victims’ brains out through their eyeballs.  “Is Professor Saxton’s fossil still at large?” inquires Cushing at one point with appropriate dryness.


(c) Granada


With his appearance in Star Wars, Cushing entered the era of the modern cinematic blockbuster, but because of ill-health and because by the late 1970s the British film industry had come close to extinction, it was his last high-profile role.  (It’s a pity that he turned down John Carpenter, who offered him the role of Doctor Loomis in the first Halloween movie.  Carpenter wanted ‘an old British horror guy’ to play Loomis and eventually recruited Cushing’s fellow old British horror guy, Donald Pleasance.)


Cushing spent his final years in his beloved Whitstable, where he became a local legend.  Not only does the town have a pub named after him, but his residency there inspired local punk band the Jellybottys to write their most famous song, titled with admirable directness Peter Cushing Lives in Whitstable.  And this year, to mark the centenary of his birth, horror writer Stephen Volk penned a novella called Whitstable, set in the town in 1971 during the months following Helen Cushing’s death.  The novella sees a grieving Cushing approached by a youngster who, confusing him with the vampire-hunting Van Helsing he’s seen in horror films, begs him to protect him from his abusive stepfather, whom he believes is a vampire.



Many film actors of Cushing’s generation plied their trade in the staid, black-and-white British dramas, romances and comedies of the post-war period, aimed at domestic audiences, and they have faded from the public’s memory now.  But Cushing bestrode a more dynamic strand of British film-making — the British Gothic, which presented its blood and grue in lush Technicolour red and which appealed to international as well as home audiences with its sensationalism and sensuality.  As a result, he remains fondly remembered.  At times icily villainous, at other times a font of avuncular charm, he’s as iconic as ever.