My heroes — please stop dying

 

(c) ITV / ABC / Thames

 

It’s not been a good few weeks for that small band of people whom I regard as my heroes.  Last month saw the passing of a musical hero, B.B. King, while earlier this month a cinematic one, Sir Christopher Lee, shuffled off this mortal coil too.  Meanwhile, a week ago, a literary and artistic hero, Alasdair Gray, had a close call with the Grim Reaper – the venerable author, poet, playwright, illustrator, painter and muralist suffered serious leg and back injuries after falling down a flight of stairs at his Glasgow home.

 

And now I’ve heard about the death of a televisual hero: the actor Patrick Macnee passed away at his home in California yesterday at the age of 93.  It’s a sad coincidence that Macnee has departed just three weeks after Christopher Lee, since the pair of them attended school together (at Summerfields Preparatory School in Oxford) and also performed together several times, including playing Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson in two TV movies in the early 1990s, Incident at Victoria Falls and Sherlock Holmes and the Leading Lady.  Macnee and Lee had also been the last surviving members of the cast of Laurence Olivier’s celebrated film adaptation of Hamlet, made in 1948.

 

In the 1960s, of course, Patrick Macnee imprinted himself on Britain’s cultural consciousness as the suave and unflappable John Steed in The Avengers (1961-1969): a series that even now, in this era of critically-acclaimed telly like The Sopranos, The Wire and True Detective, some folk would identify as the best TV show of all time.

 

(c) ITV / ABC / Thames

 

It started as a conventional thriller series where Macnee’s Steed – clad in a grubby trench-coat that was the antithesis of the dapper outfit he’d later become famous for – fought against criminals, gangsters and general bad guys in partnership with Ian Hendry’s Dr David Keel.  When Hendry left the show after its first season, however, The Avengers mutated.  Steed acquired a new partner, Honor Blackman’s Cathy Gale, a lady who was a dab hand at judo, had a fondness for wearing leather and gave as good as she got – all of which made her a revolutionary female character by the TV standards of the time.  And Steed himself had a sartorial overhaul.  He ended up wearing a Saville Row suit and bowler hat and carrying a brolly – the epitome of stereotypical, gentlemanly Englishness – and thus a 1960s icon was born.  No wonder that when The Avengers was shown in France, it was retitled Chapeau Melon et Bottes de Cuir (‘bowler hat and leather boots’).

 

Also changing in style were the stories.  The Avengers’ scripts became increasingly outlandish, so that by the mid-1960s Steed was battling invisible men, flesh-eating plants from outer space, household cats that turned into killers, and a troupe of clunking, unstoppable robots called the Cybernauts.  Responsible for many of the show’s bizarre storylines was the show’s main writer, co-producer and guiding light, Brian Clemens, who himself passed away at the beginning of this year.  Coincidentally, a few days ago, I was having a chat on Skype with the journalist, author, blogger, producer and comedy impresario John Fleming and he mentioned having interviewed Clemens back in the early 1980s.  Clemens’ imagination, Fleming recalled, was so fecund that even during the interview the writer kept coming up with story ideas, off-the-cuff.

 

(c) ITV / ABC / Thames

 

By the time Honor Blackman’s Cathy Gale had been replaced by Diana Rigg’s fey, bemused-looking Emma Peel and the show was being broadcast in colour, The Avengers had become so gloriously baroque that there was something almost insolent about its stylishness.  It was a cocktail of smooth, not-a-hair-out-of-place heroes and crazed, despicable villains, of fancy sets, fancy camerawork and fancy colours, of elaborate (but bloodless) fight-scenes and stunt-work, of vintage cars and country houses, of jokes and sexual innuendo.  It was espionage, action, violence, comedy, surrealism, science fiction, horror and kinkiness rolled into one.

 

If anything, Macnee’s chemistry with Rigg was even better than his chemistry with Blackman. And Rigg’s slinky costumes didn’t hurt the viewing figures, either – never more so than in the episode A Touch of Brimstone, wherein when she donned black boots, a corset and a spiked collar, with a snake as a de Sadean accoutrement.  It didn’t surprise me that when Rigg and Daniel Radcliffe appeared as themselves in a 2006 episode of Ricky Gervais’ TV comedy series Extras, the pervy young Radcliffe asked Rigg sheepishly, “Have you still got that cat-suit from The Avengers?”

 

One of the show’s many stylistic touches was that whenever Steed entered a public place – a street, a store, a railway station – that place was always shown to be deserted, so that Steed was always alone.  Clemens and his production team had decided that, even by 1960s standards, Steed’s suit-bowler-and-brolly look was too odd and anachronistic for him to be depicted, convincingly, rubbing shoulders with the Great British public.  This policy made the show seem even more surreal.

 

(c) ITV / ABC / Thames

 

The final seasons of The Avengers had Steed working with a new partner, Tara King, played by Linda Thorson.  She was less popular than her predecessors and there was less of a fizz between her and Macnee.  Simultaneously, though, the programme-makers inserted hints that she had the hots for Steed, which was a terrible idea.  The whole thing about Steed and his lady partners is that they’re just that, partners.  Despite the amount of flirtation going on they’re never going to end up in bed together.  Clemens was unhappy about the casting of Thorson, whom he thought lacked a sense of humour, and for that reason he added another character to the show, Mother.  Played by the portly character actor Patrick Newell, Mother was Steed’s pseudonymous boss — an ‘M’ to Steed’s James Bond.  With him around, Steed at least had somebody with whom he could make jokes and enjoy a little banter.

 

That said, I remain fond of the late-1960s Avengers because it was still offbeat and inventive and there still wasn’t anything else like it on television.

 

Macnee got a chance to reprise the role of Steed in 1976 when Clemens and co-producer Albert Fennell launched what would be a two-season series called The New Avengers.  This time Steed was partnered with Joanna Lumley’s Purdey – a character whom Clemens named after a type of shotgun – and Gareth Hunt’s Mike Gambit.  The young, virile Hunt was added to the cast because it was felt that Macnee, now in his fifties, was getting too long-in-the-tooth to handle the show’s action sequences.  Despite a few wrinkles, though, Macnee / Steed was as debonair as ever.

 

(c) ITV / The Avengers (Film and TV) Enterprises Ltd

 

The New Avengers is less fondly remembered than The Avengers and it suffered from financial problems, with the result that more expensive, fantastical episodes like The Eagle’s Nest and Last of the Cybernauts, which were in the same spirit as The Avengers in its glory days, were gradually phased out in favour of cheaper, more generic, espionage-themed ones.  But Macnee, Lumley and Hunt made a likeable and entertaining team and Lumley’s no-nonsense ballerina-cum-martial-arts expert Purdey became a mid-1970s icon.  (As a kid of 10 or 11 at the time, I can remember the Purdey Effect in the school playground.  Schoolgirls who’d formerly burst into tears when obnoxious schoolboys stole their packed lunches or pulled their pigtails would suddenly turn around and karate-kick their tormentors in the goolies.)

 

And I love a sequence in The New Avengers episode House of Cards where a visitor to Steed’s home notices framed photographs of Cathy Gale, Emma Peel and Tara King on his shelf and asks the distracted Steed about them.  Thinking that she’s looking at three other pictures, of three horses that he once owned, he says of Gale: “We went through some tricky situations together.  Faithful.  Reliable.”  Of Peel: “Very spirited and very special.  Fantastic creature.  Had to take a whip to her, though, sometimes.”  And of King: “Liked her oats too much.  I sold her to an Arab prince.  I think he eventually had to shoot her.”

 

Elsewhere, Macnee had a busy film and TV career, including supporting roles in Joe Dante’s fun werewolf movie The Howling (1979) and Rob Reiner’s mockumentary about the world’s worst heavy metal band This is Spinal Tap (1984), in which he played record-company owner Sir Denis Eton-Hogg.  And as Roger Moore’s side-kick Sir Godfrey Tibbett, he was one of the few good things about the 1985 James Bond movie A View to a Kill.

 

He also turned up on American television, including a 1975 episode of Columbo called Troubled Waters, in which he plays the pompous captain of a cruise liner where a murder is committed.  Peter Falk’s crumpled Lieutenant Columbo happens to be on board, taking a holiday with ‘the wife’; and he resolves to find the murderer.  This, though, does nothing for Macnee’s blood pressure.  Throughout the episode, Falk winds up Macnee more and more by constantly referring to his beloved ship as a ‘boat’.

 

I think the last I saw of Patrick Macnee was in the 1995 video for the Oasis song Don’t Look Back in Anger, in which he’s seen chauffeuring the famously-mouthy Mancunian Britpop band to an English country house.  Later in the video, he’s shown standing in silhouette, wielding that iconic brolly.  I was never much of a fan of Oasis or their retro-1960s rock sound, but I can understand why they wanted to hang out with Macnee.  No doubt they hoped that some of John Steed’s majestic 1960s chic would rub off on them.

 

(c) ITV / ABC / Thames

 

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!

 

From zimbio.com

 

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.

 

http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/postscript-christopher-lee

http://blogs.indiewire.com/leonardmaltin/joe-dante-and-john-landis-remember-christopher-lee-20150612

http://www.blabbermouth.net/news/alice-cooper-dedicates-his-legend-award-to-sir-christopher-lee/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EZ9se8i4ujs

 

(c) Seven Keys

 

Cinematic heroes 2: Ian Hendry

 

(c) BBC

 

“Do you know, I’d almost forgotten what your eyes look like.  They’re still the same.  Piss-holes in the snow.”

 

If those words, uttered by a sneering Michael Caine in Get Carter, the classic British gangster movie from 1970, aren’t engraved on Ian Hendry’s tombstone, they might as well be – for I imagine they’re what most people think of when they hear Hendry’s name mentioned today.  They come at the end of a tense scene where Caine’s Jack Carter encounters scuzzball Eric Paice, played by Hendry, at Newcastle Racecourse in High Gosforth Park.  Hendry was originally lined up to play Carter, the virile hero / anti-hero of the celebrated Geordie-land equivalent of Mean Streets.  However, by 1970 heavy drinking had taken its toll on his health and physique.  So instead he was given the supporting role of the weasely but memorably villainous Paice.

 

Hendry was resentful at losing the lead role to Caine.  The night before the race-course scene was filmed, an attempt to give it a read-through in the hotel where the cast were staying was reportedly a disaster due to Hendry being three-sheets-to-the-wind.  It’s said that Caine kept his professional cool in the face of Hendry’s drunken uncooperativeness, although he may have enjoyed the irony of the film’s climax, which sees Carter force-feed Paice a bottle of whisky before clubbing him to death with a shotgun.  Director Mike Hodges, meanwhile, thought Hendry’s resentment was a bonus because it heightened the tension between Carter and Paice onscreen.  Every cloud has its silver lining.

 

While researching this entry, I read a lot about Hendry’s alcohol problems, which came as a surprise to me.  When I was a kid in the 1970s, by which time his drinking was well out of hand, he seemed nonetheless to be ubiquitous.  He turned up on TV all the time – I remember seeing him in The Persuaders, The Sweeney, Thriller, Van Der Valk, Churchill’s People, Crown Court, Supernatural, The New Avengers and Return of the Saint – and he was in a fair number of films too.  Mind you, the taxman was giving him as much trouble as the drink, which was possibly an incentive to keep working no matter what physical and mental state he was in.

 

Born in 1931 in Ipswich, the county-town of Suffolk, Hendry worked originally in property management and also did two years of national service after World War II.  But he’d been interested in amateur dramatics since his schooldays and had even done a spell working as a circus clown’s sidekick – an experience that left him with an enduring love for the big top – and in 1953 he packed in the office job and enlisted in London’s Central School of Speech and Drama, where his fellow students included Vanessa Redgrave and Judi Dench.  After graduation from the school he spent the remainder of the 1950s doing stage-work and getting bit-parts in films, including one in Jack Clayton’s 1959 adaptation of John Braine’s novel Room at the Top.

 

(c) ABC

 

It was on television, however, that Hendry got noticed.  In 1960 he secured the lead role in a short-lived show, Police Surgeon, and a year later he was the lead in another show, The Avengers, which was anything but short-lived – it lasted until 1969, becoming ever more whimsical, surreal and outlandish along the way, and it made a 1960s icon out of its ultra-suave, bowler-hatted and brolly-carrying hero John Steed and an international star out of the actor who played him, Patrick Macnee.  It’s still talked about in some quarters as the greatest television series ever made.

 

In its earliest incarnation, though, Macnee only had second billing and Hendry was the real star – he played the show’s tragic hero, Doctor David Keel, whose efforts to investigate and avenge the murder of his fiancé by a criminal gang (hence the title The Avengers) bring him into contact with Steed.  Once the case is solved, Keel and Steed form a crime-fighting partnership.  Nearly all the videotapes of the episodes from the show’s first season were wiped, but looking at what remains (bits of the very first episode are viewable on youtube), it’s surprising how much like a standard British crime melodrama the original Avengers is – Steed hasn’t yet acquired his trademark suit, bowler and brolly and wears a decidedly non-debonair raincoat.

 

A strike that held up work at the production company, the Associated British Corporation, and the promise of a successful film career persuaded Hendry to depart at the end of the first season and once he was gone The Avengers morphed into the telly legend it is today.  Steered by producers Albert Fennell and Brian Clemens – Clemens was also the chief writer – it grew increasingly and gloriously baroque and Hendry was replaced as Macnee’s partner by, in turn, Honor Blackman, Diana Rigg and Linda Thorson.  I suspect the show wouldn’t have followed the iconic path that it did if Hendry had stayed on board – mind you, at least then we’d have been spared the truly horrible movie version with Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman in 1998.

 

Post-Avengers, Hendry’s 1960s films included Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) and Sidney Lumet’s The Hill (1965).  The latter was the first of several quality (if not so financially successful) movies that Lumet made with Sean Connery, who was trying to forge a serious movie career away from the Bond films.  It was set in a British army correction camp in the Libyan desert during World War II and Hendry excels at playing an evil-bastard sergeant who crosses the line in persecuting the camp’s inmates.  Interestingly, five years later in the 1970 film The Mackenzie Break, Hendry played another screw at a wartime prison camp – the twist being that the inmates are German soldiers attempting to escape from a British POW camp in northern Scotland.

 

(c) MGM

 

Meanwhile, in 1963, Hendry married the actress Janet Munro, who’d made her name appearing both in Walt Disney movies like Darby O’Gill and the Little People and Swiss Family Robinson and in sci-fi ones like The Trollenberg Terror and The Day the Earth Caught Fire.  When the Daily Mirror found out about their romance, Hendry’s star was so much in the ascendant that the newspaper reported it on its front page.  Munro, like Hendry, had a weakness for alcohol and a carelessness with money and their relationship seemed to encourage rather than banish their demons.  She died of a heart attack in 1971, a year after she and Hendry had separated, and her death propelled Hendry even further into alcoholism.

 

In 1969, he appeared in the science fiction film Doppelganger, the first venture into live-action filmmaking by producer Gerry Anderson, who was then famous for his TV-puppet shows like Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons.  Supposedly, Anderson was simultaneously shocked by Hendry’s drunkenness and taken by his charm – in the studio pub, Hendry had a habit of walking up to him on his hands (a trick he’d possibly picked up in his circus days) and saying to Anderson, “Evening, boss.”

 

After Get Carter, Hendry remained busy but an increasing amount of his work was on television – and although he was a regular face in British movies, it was clear by now that he wasn’t going to achieve stardom and would have to settle for ‘trusty-old-character-actor’ status.  Slightly frail and haunted-looking in appearance and with thinning hair – indeed, according to one account of his life I read, Hendry’s refusal to wear a toupee had damaged his chances of getting lead roles – he was equally adept at playing rodentine villains like Paice in Get Carter, harassed victims and, occasionally, heroes with more than a hint of vulnerability.

 

In the early 1970s Hendry started turning up in horror films, which he may have seen as one more nail in his career’s coffin but which helped to cement him in the affections of weird people like myself.  He was the luckless hero of the second segment of the 1972 anthology film Tales from the Crypt, whose stories were based on strips from old American horror comics like Vault of Horror, Haunt of Fear and Tales from the Crypt itself.  The film doesn’t do justice to its source material, although Hendry’s segment about a man who seemingly survives a horrific car crash and then can’t figure out why everyone he encounters runs away in terror – it’s because he’s actually… dead! – comes closest to capturing the comics’ visceral, in-your-face style.

 

He was also the hero of 1973’s Theatre of Blood, a comedy-horror movie that I could rhapsodise about all day.  It features Vincent Price as an insane and hammily over-the-top Shakespearean actor who starts murdering the snobbish London theatre critics who’ve bad-mouthed his performances, using murder methods borrowed from the Bard’s plays.  Hendry plays the youngest and least obnoxious critic, who halfway through the film has a sword-fight with Price modelled on the one between Tybalt and Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet and then, at the end, nearly gets his eyes put out as the Earl of Gloucester did in King Lear.  Hendry gets rescued by the police, however, and is on hand to pronounce judgement on Price when he finally plunges to his death through the roof of a burning theatre-building: “Yes it was a remarkable performance… he was madly overacting as usual, but you must admit he did know how to make an exit.”

 

Playing Price’s daughter in Theatre of Blood was none other than Diana Rigg, one of Hendry’s replacements in The Avengers.  And incidentally, the penthouse flat that Hendry’s character occupies during the film would later, in real life, become the home of Jeffrey Archer – to give him his full Wikipedia title, the “novelist, failed politician and former jailbird Jeffrey Archer.”

 

(c) United Artists

 

In 1974, Hendry appeared in Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter, an ahead-of-its-time Hammer horror-swashbuckler written and directed by his old Avengers comrade Brian Clements, who kindly billed him as ‘guest’ star on the credits.  Playing the film’s title role was the German actor Horst Janson, who’d been one of the prisoners in The Mackenzie Break.  Hendry also turned up in the opening sequence of Damien: Omen II (1978) with another great British character actor, Leo McKern.  Hendry and McKern have little to do, apart from die in a freak and presumably Damien-inspired accident, but it’s nice to see the pair of them share some screen-time.

 

Among Hendry’s later television credits was a guest appearance in the The New Avengers, the late-1970s revival of The Avengers that again starred Macnee, with Joanna Lumley and Gareth Hunt as his partners this time.  In the episode To Catch a Rat, Hendry doesn’t play a returning David Keel but a British secret agent who’s spent nearly two decades in a psychiatric hospital suffering from amnesia.  When a blow to the head cures him of the amnesia, he realises he has knowledge of a traitorous double-agent who’s been operating all this time at the heart of Britain’s intelligence establishment, and Macnee, Lumley and Hunt have to rescue him before the traitor has him killed.  Producers Fennell and Clemens saw to it that Hendry was first seen working undercover as a trapeze artist in his old love, a circus tent.  They also ensured that Macnee hailed Hendry at the episode’s end as an ‘old friend’ and told him, “It may be 17 years late, but welcome back…”

 

In the late 1970s Hendry was declared bankrupt and professionally he fared little better than he did financially.  His last film role was an uncredited part in the 1980 prison movie McVicar, although it would’ve been sadder if his film CV had ended with his previous cinematic appearance, which was in 1979’s dreadful Joan-and-Jackie Collins sex / disco / gangster epic The Bitch.  Meanwhile, on television, his 1980s roles were mostly confined to crime shows like Bergerac, The Chinese Detective and Antonia Fraser’s limp lady-detective series Jemima Shore Investigates.  His final role came in 1984, when he appeared in three episodes of Brookside, the flagship soap opera for the recently-launched Channel 4.  (When it started broadcasting, one of the first things Channel 4 did was repeat the mid-1960s episodes of The Avengers, thus introducing them to a new generation – myself included.)

 

Hendry died from a stomach haemorrhage on Christmas Eve, 1984, at the age of 53.  His last TV appearance was as a guest on an episode of This is your Life honouring his old Avengers co-star Patrick Macnee.  The episode also had contributions from Honor Blackman, Diana Rigg, Linda Thorson, Joanna Lumley and Gareth Hunt.  Hendry looked in terrible shape when he came on stage to greet Macnee, but at this gathering of Avengers alumni it would’ve been tragic if he, the original star of the show, hadn’t been there.

 

In this, the Internet era, there’s been a revival of interest in Ian Hendry.  He has an extensive official website devoted to him at http://ianhendry.com/ and a fan one at http://ian-hendry-true-brit.webs.com/.  Also, earlier this year, the first-ever biography of the actor, Send in the Clowns: the Yoyo Life of Ian Hendry by Gabriel Hershman, was published to good reviews: http://www.lulu.com/gb/en/shop/gabriel-hershman/send-in-the-clowns-the-yo-yo-life-of-ian-hendry/paperback/product-20974696.html.