Stan the Man




It might be a stretch to describe Marvel Comics supremo Stan Lee, who died last week at the very venerable age of 95, as the Walt Disney of the comics world.  But he was surely the Disney of the Silver Age of Comic Books, which ran from the late 1950s to the beginning of the 1970s.  (The Silver Age came after a period when the medium had been in decline thanks to the rising popularity of television and the stultifying, neutering self-censorship imposed by the comic-book industry in response to crap psychologist Frederic Wertham and his scaremongering 1954 volume Seduction of the Innocent.)


The Marvel Comics superheroes Lee co-created with talents like Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby, such as the Hulk, Avengers, Fantastic Four and Spider-Man, are now as deeply embedded in the popular consciousness as Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and the rest of Disney’s iconic creations.  Mind you, it’s helped that in the last 20 years or so the Marvel characters have transferred with amazing success from the medium of comics to the medium of blockbuster movies.


When I was very young, it was difficult in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to find American superhero comics.  Only occasionally would I pick up an issue of Superman that’d somehow drifted all the way from the USA and crash-landed in the racks of the newsagent in my local town, Enniskillen – just as the baby Superman himself had drifted all the way from Krypton and crash-landed in Smallville in Kansas.  However, that changed in the early 1970s when Marvel founded a British-based publishing arm called Marvel UK, which led to titles like Spider-Man Weekly, The Avengers and the Mighty World of Marvel (with strips featuring the Hulk, Daredevil, X-Men, Fantastic Four and so on) suddenly offering brash competition to more traditional British fare like the Beano and Dandy on the kiddies’ shelves of the nation’s newsagents.


I’d known that Marvel UK was run for a couple of years by Dez Skinn, whom I’ve written about before in this blog.  But I didn’t know that before Skinn one of its overseers had been none other than Neil Tennant, later to become the witty singer of the Pet Shop Boys.  According to Wikipedia, one of Tennant’s tasks when transferring American-drawn comic strips onto pages destined for British shop-shelves was “indicating where women needed to be redrawn more decently”.


I was too young to figure out why, but I soon realised I preferred, say, the awkward, nerdish and accident-prone Spider-Man to the clean-cut, chiselled and scoutmaster-like Superman.  Yes, Stan Lee and his collaborators had hit upon the idea – obvious now, but revolutionary back then – that the most attractive superheroes are the most human ones.  They might be god-like in their strength, athleticism and sensory powers, but to be interesting they have to have the same foibles and insecurities that us ordinary mortals have.


But I didn’t like everything that came out of Marvel’s stable of superheroes.  I couldn’t work up much enthusiasm for Captain America or for the Fantastic Four.  (That said, I’ve always been haunted by a Fantastic Four story, simultaneously phantasmagorical and baffling, where the Thing takes possession of giant bulldog and escorts it along a twisting bridge into a weird, swirling alternative dimension, before they end up in a gothic castle battling android copies of Dracula, the wolfman, the mummy and Frankenstein’s monster.  Stan and the gang must have been on LSD when they dreamt that one up.)  On the other hand, while my partner has always strongly objected to Iron Man on the grounds that his human alter-ego, Tony Stark, is a playboy arms dealer, I felt sorry for him as a kid; because unlike other, more glamorously-attired superheroes in the 1970s he had to wear a dorky-looking tin suit.




In fact, the less that the Marvel characters adhered to the conventional superhero format, the more I liked them.  I was fascinated by Doctor Strange because his adventures didn’t take place in a vaguely science-fictional world like most superheroes’ did, but in a world that unashamedly embraced magic, demons and the supernatural.  Also, I loved Ka-Zar, who wasn’t really a superhero but a muscular Tarzan-like character who’d been reared by a sabre-toothed tiger in the Savage Land, a dinosaur-infested lost world underneath the Antarctic.  Ka-Zar had first appeared as a comic-book character in the 1930s, but Lee and Jack Kirby revived and updated him in the mid-1960s.  (Lee happily confessed to never having read the originals.)


Perhaps Marvel UK reasoned that British readers were slightly less enthused by superheroes than American ones because a fair number of its comics were actually based on literary franchises – or on cinematic ones, like Planet of the Apes and Star Wars.  One Marvel UK comic called Savage Sword of Conan first introduced me to pulp-writer Robert E. Howard’s brooding sword-and-sorcery hero Conan the Barbarian; while another had the self-explanatory Dracula Lives and in addition to Bram Stoker’s aristocratic vampire featured the vampire-hunting Blade, later to be the subject of a not-very-good movie trilogy with Wesley Snipes.


And I seem to recall one comic – maybe it was Mighty World of Marvel? – containing a strip called Master of Kung Fu, about a deadly assassin called Shang-Chi whose father is none other than Sax Rohmer’s literary Chinese super-villain Fu Manchu.  (Shang-Chi becomes a reformed character and starts working with Fu Manchu’s nemesis Nayland Smith.)  Not only did Master of Kung Fu cannily update Rohmer’s novels to cash in on the 1970s’ craze for martial arts, but it also managed to subvert their notorious racism by having a Chinese character as the hero.


The more I think about it, the more I understand that Stan Lee’s Marvel Comics, through Marvel UK, introduced me to a whole fascinating universe of stuff when I needed it, i.e. when I was a youngster desperate to have his imagination stimulated and empowered.  Now I accept that Lee was no saint.  There were rows and bitterness between him, Kirby and Steve Ditko over character ownership and who got credit for what.  Alan Moore once commented: “I really don’t have a great deal of respect for Stan Lee… when you start in the industry you find out that Jack wasn’t jolly and you find out why; and you find out that Steve wasn’t sturdy and you find out why; and you find out why Stan was smiling.”  Still, as the master showman who kept Marvel on the road, he was a big formative influence on me.


Accordingly, whenever I’ve watched a Marvel superhero movie in recent years and spotted the nonagenarian Lee making his customary cameo appearance in it, I’ve reacted almost as if I’ve just bumped into an old friend.  “It’s Stan,” I’ve felt like exclaiming.  “It’s Stan the Man!”




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