A Lee-centennial

 

© British Lion Films

 

The British actor Sir Christopher Lee, who was born on this day exactly 100 years ago, was a man who embodied evil to generations of film-goers.  He played 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.  But up until his passing in 2015, I didn’t so much regard him as the embodiment of evil as one of the coolest people on the planet.

 

Lee did a lot during his 93 years and not just in terms of acting – though his movie resume was awesome, with some 275 titles to his name by the time he entered his tenth decade.

 

He was, incidentally, an incredibly 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, Rider Haggard, Washington Irving, H.P. Lovecraft, Mervyn Peake, Edgar Allan Poe, Sax Rohmer, Sir Walter Scott, Mary Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson, Bram Stoker and Jules Verne.  In real life, 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 (1959), 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.  And 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 2000 he played the writer in the BBC miniseries Ghost Stories for Christmas.

 

Before getting into acting in the late 1940s, Lee did military service during World War II, which included attachments with the Special Operations Executive and the Long Range Desert Patrol , the forerunner to the SAS.  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.

 

His first years as an actor did not see much 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.  Incidentally, I love the fact that Lee could boast of being the only actor in history who’d conducted sword fights with Errol Flynn and Yoda.

 

© 20th Century Fox

 

And I’ve read somewhere that when he made the swashbuckler The Scarlet Blade for Hammer Films in 1963, Lee taught a young Oliver 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.  (Lee 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 actually got the job; so that the man we know as Little Heap in Carry On Cowboy (1965), Bernie Lugg in Carry On Camping (1969) and Peter Potter in Carry On Girls (1973) went on in that universe 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, in which for much of the time they did bad things to each other.  As a mad-scientist-cum-asylum-keeper in The Creeping Flesh (1972), Lee brought a monster to life and then, after the monster had attacked Cushing and driven him insane with terror, he coolly incarcerated Cushing in his asylum.  Whereas in The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973) Cushing chased him, as Dracula, through a prickly hawthorn bush – hawthorns are apparently harmful to vampires and the experience, Lee recalled in his autobiography Tall, Dark and Gruesome (1977), 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 and had the power to suck people’s brains out through their eyeballs.  It was such an evil motherf***er that Lee and Cushing had to join forces, for once, to defeat it.

 

© Granada Films

 

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 when he passed away, Stephen King said, “He was the King of the Vampires.”  So sorry, Sir Christopher, but when the man who wrote Salem’s Lot (1975) says you’re the King of the Vampires, you’re the King of the Vampires.

 

As Dracula, he got to bite Barbara Shelley, Barbara Ewing, Linda Hayden, Anouska Hempel, Marcia Hunt, Caroline Munro and Valerie Van Ost.  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 where Lee / the count is revived during a ceremony that involves a luckless traveller (Charles Tingwell) being suspended upside-down over a coffin and having his throat cut.  The sight and sound of the blood splattering noisily onto the supposedly dead vampire’s ashes traumatised me.

 

© Warner Pathé / Hammer Films

 

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 memorable, often 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 snobbish senior-civil-servant type and tormented Donald Pleasance in Deathline (1972).

 

Lee was probably Britain’s most linguistic actor, speaking German, French, Italian and Spanish and also knowing a bit of Swedish, Russian and Greek.  Thus, he 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 in 1963’s The Whip and the Body and on several occasions 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 it wasn’t fashionable to do so.  Since his death in 2013, Franco’s reputation has improved and art-house director Peter Strickland’s movie The Duke of Burgundy (2014) is a tribute, in part, to him.

 

Franco directed the later entries in a series of movies about Fu Manchu that Lee made in the 1960s, in which he played Sax Rohmer’s supervillain in un-PC Oriental makeup and spent his time barking orders at Chinese minions, who were usually played by Burt Kwouk.  As well as retaining some of the racism that was prominent in Rohmer’s books, the series generally wasn’t up to much in terms of quality.  However, the film’s endings have always haunted me.  Invariably, Fu Manchu’s secret headquarters would blow up and then Lee’s voice would boom imperiously through the smoke, “The world will hear of me again!”

 

© Eon Productions

 

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 super-sleuth to the screen.

 

In that latter film, Lee played Holmes’s snooty brother Mycroft.  Lee also played Sherlock Holmes himself several times, including in a couple of early-1990s TV movies with Dr Watson played by the impeccable Patrick Macnee, whom decades earlier had been Lee’s schoolmate at Summer Fields School in Oxford.  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.

 

In 1973, he also played Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man, a film that needs no introduction from me.  Actually, next year is the film’s fiftieth anniversary.  I trust the Scottish Tourist Board will celebrate this fact on May 1st, 2023, by lighting lots of wicker men, with lots of sanctimonious, virginal, Free Presbyterian policemen inside them, along the coasts of Scotland.

 

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 rub shoulders with icons such as 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).  Amusingly, Lee usually explained this by arguing that these weren’t really horror films.  The Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf wasn’t a horror film?  Aye, right.

 

© New Line Cinema / WingNut Films

 

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, 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 the Lord of the Rings / Hobbit ones, plus five movies directed by Burton.

 

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.  The festive season 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.

 

© Charlemagne Productions Ltd

 

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.

 

So: singing heavy metal, speaking eight languages, being perhaps the 20th century’s greatest screen villain and, probably, bayoneting Nazis to death.  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 penned his autobiography in his mid-fifties, he reckoned he’d been killed onscreen more than any other actor in history – but kept coming back, it feels a bit odd to be writing about Christopher Lee in the past tense.

 

Actually, if anybody wants to congregate in a Carpathian castle after dark and perform a blood-soaked ritual to resurrect the great man, I’m up for it.

 

From the Independent

Richard Matheson – he was legend

 

© Orion Publishing Co

 

Something has got me thinking about Richard Matheson, the science-fiction and horror author and screenwriter who passed away in 2013 at the age of 87.

 

What thing?  Well, the news that the anti-Covid-19-vaxxers in America, determined to plumb the depths of stupidity to find new reasons for not getting vaccinated, have found the stupidest reason yet.  Speculation is rife that the vaccine could turn you in a zombie.  You know, like one did in the 2007 sci-fi / horror movie I am Legend, with Will Smith, which was based on Matheson’s 1954 novel of the same name.  This has prompted one of the movie’s scriptwriters, Akiva Goldsman, to step up and announce on social media: “Oh.  My.  God.  It’s a movie.  I made that up.  It’s not real.” In fact, the source of the contagion in the movie wasn’t a vaccine but a virus, genetically reprogrammed by Dr Emma Thompson to combat cancer, going spectacularly rogue.

 

In Matheson’s novel I am Legend the monsters are vampires, not zombies.  Also, what turns people into those vampires isn’t the movie’s lab-reprogrammed virus, but a mysterious pandemic.  However, the book’s premise of the world being suddenly and nightmarishly turned upside down and a small number of uninfected humans finding themselves menaced by those who’ve been infected and turned into monsters, including their own loved ones, was one that a young George Romero appropriated for his seminal 1968 movie Night of the Living Dead.  In doing so, Romero made it the blueprint for at least 80% of the zombie movies that have lurched across cinema and TV screens ever since.

 

In the novel, the number of uninfected humans is small indeed: just one, Richard Neville, who is alone in the world during the daytime and then under siege in his fortified house at night, by the vampires that everyone else has turned into.  Gradually, Neville, researching the plague, stumbles on scientific explanations for the vampire-like symptoms of its victims, why they drink blood, why they can only be killed by stakes through the heart, and why they have an aversion to sunlight, garlic and crucifixes.  I am Legend also ends with an unnerving psychological twist.  Neville, who’s spent his days roaming the surrounding city and staking the slumbering vampires, realises that the vampires are now the normal ones and he’s become the monster of everyone’s nightmares, the deadly legend of the title.

 

It’s a pity that though I am Legend was filmed on several occasions, and though Matheson lived to a venerable age, he never got to see a satisfactory celluloid version of it.  The novel received its first film treatment in Italy, where Rome unconvincingly stood in for Los Angeles, with the cheaply and incompetently made L’Ultimo Uomo della Terra (The Last Man on Earth).  Neville was played by Vincent Price, whom Matheson admired as an actor but thought was miscast in the role.  L’Ultimo Uomo della Terra was at least fairly faithful to the book, unlike the subsequent film versions, 1970’s The Omega Man, with Charlton Heston, and the 2007 one.  In The Omega Man the vampires have become a group of demented albino mutants called, with an unsubtle reference to Charles Manson, the Family.  In the Will Smith version of I am Legend they’re even less impressive, a bunch of bald, hyperactive zombies animated by some shoddy CGI.

 

Both the later movie versions lack the courage to portray Neville as being totally alone and eventually have him encounter other, as yet uninfected survivors.  They also lack the courage to include Matheson’s game-changing ending.  Instead, they close with Heston and Smith depicted as Christ-like figures who nobly sacrifice themselves for the good of what’s left of humanity.  Neville was a more interesting character when he discovered he’d become a bogeyman.  Still, disappointing though all three film versions are, there’s at least a good graphic-novel adaptation of I am Legend available.

 

© Gold Medal Books

 

The more I reminisce about Matheson, the more I realise what a wonderful and influential writer he was.  His other big – though ‘big’ perhaps isn’t the most appropriate adjective – novel of the 1950s was The Shrinking Man (1956).  Its hero, an archetypal middle-class American male called Scott Carey, is exposed to a radioactive cloud that causes his body to shrink at the rate of a seventh of an inch every day.  Thereafter, Carey’s world turns nightmarishly upside down too, though at a more gradual rate than Richard Neville’s.  First, he experiences psychological and sexual humiliation as he finds himself increasingly dwarfed by his normal-sized wife.  Following an assault by the family cat, no longer a loveable moggie but a carnivorous monster, the now-tiny Carey loses all contact with humanity and finds himself trapped in his house’s basement where the dangers facing him become formidable indeed.  A common spider, for instance, takes on elephantine proportions.  And Carey’s shrinking doesn’t stop, let alone get reversed.  At the book’s close, he muses, “If nature existed on endless planes, so also might intelligence.”  Thereafter, he dwindles away into infinity.

 

A year after its publication, the novel was filmed as The Incredible Shrinking Man, directed by Jack Arnold and with Matheson providing the script.  Matheson was unhappy with how Arnold structured the film.  He told the story in linear fashion, whereas Matheson wanted it to begin with the shrunken Carey in the basement, reliving what had happened to him via a series of flashbacks.  However, it’s still one of the best science fiction movies of the 1950s.  It crucially retains the novel’s bleakly philosophical ending.  I can remember seeing the film on TV as a kid and being genuinely upset when the ending defied my expectations that things would finish on an upbeat note.  The Incredible Shrinking Man was, incidentally, one of the great J.G. Ballard’s top ten favourite sci-fi movies.

 

© Sphere Books

 

As well as novels, Matheson was a prolific writer of short stories, many of which were collected in four books called the Shock series.  Shock 1-4 were published in Britain in the 1970s by Sphere Books, who decorated the covers with lurid and gory images – the antithesis of the unsensational, non-violent and thoughtful works inside.  The stories I remember best include Long Distance Call, about a woman plagued by mysterious phone calls that, she discovers, emanate from a local cemetery into which the telephone wire has blown down; The Children of Noah, about a motorist who finds himself in Kafkaesque predicament when he breaks the 15-miles-per-hour speed limit of a tiny American town called Zachary; and the brilliant The Splendid Source, in which a man embarks on a quest to find out where dirty jokes really come from.

 

Long Distance Call was one of several Matheson stories that were turned into episodes of the celebrated TV anthology series The Twilight Zone (1959-64).  The best of these, adapted by Matheson himself, was of course Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.  In this, William Shatner essayed his second-most-famous role, that of a just-released psychiatric patient who’s on board a plane and, looking out of the window, sees a gremlin dismantling one of the engines on the wing.  Whenever he tries to alert the crew and fellow passengers, the beastie inconveniently disappears from view.  Particularly memorable is the moment when the traumatised Shatner dares to peek through the window again and discovers the gremlin pressing its face, which resembles that of a hare-lipped teddy bear, against the outside of the glass and staring in at him.  The episode was remade as a segment of the movie version of The Twilight Zone in 1983, with John Lithgow in the Shatner role, and ten years later it received the ultimate accolade – it was spoofed in a Treehouse of Horror edition of The Simpsons, with Bart Simpson the only passenger on the school bus able to see a gremlin sabotaging its engine.  This version was called Nightmare at 5½ Feet.

 

© Universal Pictures

 

Other episodes that Matheson penned for The Twilight Zone were also influential.  A World of Difference is about a businessman who makes the mind-blowing discovery that he’s a fictional character and his life is actually a movie.  Furthermore, the movie has just had its production halted, meaning he’ll have to live in the ‘real’ world as the declining, drunken movie star who’s been playing him.  This clearly informs Peter Weir’s 1998 film The Truman Show.  Meanwhile, Little Girl Lost tells the tale of a child who, one night, falls from her bed and into another dimension, a mysterious, misty void from which she can hear her parents’ concerned voices but can’t escape.  A young Steven Spielberg no doubt saw and remembered this one, because the same idea features in 1982’s Spielberg-produced Poltergeist, though this time the little girl is sucked into the other dimension through the household TV set.  And yes, The Simpsons spoofed it too in Treehouse of Horror.

 

Steven Spielberg has much to thank Matheson for.  Matheson’s short story Duel, based on an experience he had on November 22nd, 1963 – of driving home depressed at the news of Kennedy’s assassination and being harassed by a large, tailgating truck – was filmed as a TV movie in 1971 by Spielberg and gave the young director his first big critical success.  Again, Matheson wrote the script.  Duel-the-movie has motorist Dennis Weaver and the psychopathic driver of a 1955 Peterbilt 281 truck get into a deadly game of cat and mouse around the roads and highways of rural California.   We never see the truck driver himself, just his immense, bellowing, dinosaur-like vehicle.  Duel is the archetypal man-versus-machine story and, again, has been influential.  Stephen King basically rewrote it (but upped the ante by adding lots of malevolent vehicles) with his short story Trucks, which he later filmed as Maximum Overdrive (1986).

 

The made-for-television movies that filled American TV schedules in the 1970s kept Matheson busy.  As well as Duel he scripted The Night Stalker (1972) about a reporter called Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) who investigates a series of killings in modern-day Los Angeles and discovers that the perpetrator is a vampire.  The Night Stalker was successful enough to eventually spawn a TV show called Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-75), also starring McGavin, in which Kolchak investigated other strange cases involving monsters and supernatural phenomena.  Though short-lived, the show was a major inspiration for Chris Carter, whose massively popular The X-Files (1993-2018) had a similar theme.  Carter acknowledged his debt to Kolchak by having Darren McGavin guest-star in two X-Files episodes.

 

Meanwhile, the TV anthology movie Trilogy of Terror, from 1975, was based on three of Matheson’s short stories.  The first two segments are unmemorable, but the third one, which Matheson scripted from his story Prey, is great.  It stars Karen Black as an insecure woman who tries to shore up her relationship with her boyfriend, a lecturer in social anthropology, by buying him an antique ‘Zuma fetish doll’ as a birthday present.  The doll is a hideous-looking thing and sports a many-fanged grin resembling a Venus flytrap.  Before she can give the doll to its intended recipient, it comes to violent, gibbering life and she spends the evening fighting it off in the confines of her apartment.  Black’s plight is the inverse of the shrinking man’s.  She’s normal-sized and the threat she faces is tiny, but terrifying.  This also creates the template for Joe Dante’s movie Gremlins in 1984.  In particular, the scene in Gremlins where Frances Lee McCain fights off a horde of the sneering, reptilian mini-monsters in her kitchen, employing a blender and a microwave oven as weapons, is very reminiscent of Trilogy of Terror.

 

When he wasn’t writing novels, short stories and television scripts, the ever-industrious Matheson was writing for the cinema.  In the early 1960s, he scripted several of the movies based on works by Edgar Allen Poe that were made by American International Pictures and directed by Roger Corman: The House of Usher (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), Tales of Terror (1962) and The Raven (1963).  All told, Matheson did a good job of preserving the original stories’ gloomy, clammy spirit, whilst meeting the commercial demands of a studio and a director who were already famous for their exploitation movies, and keeping engaged a star – Vincent Price – whose performances tended to slip into the knowingly hammy when his material bored him.  The movies aren’t the most faithful adaptations of Poe, but they’re surely the most fondly remembered ones.

 

© Academy Pictures Productions / 20th Century Fox

 

Matheson also worked on British movies.  For AIP’s trans-Atlantic rival, Hammer Films, he scripted The Devil Rides Out in 1968 and managed to turn Dennis Wheatley’s bloated, reactionary novel about upstanding Anglo-Saxon aristocrats fighting a bunch of ghastly Satan-worshipping foreigners into something rather good.  And in 1973, he adapted his haunted-house novel Hell House for the screen.  The result was The Legend of Hell House, directed by John Hough and starring Roddy McDowall, Clive Revill, Pamela Franklin and Gayle Hunicutt as psychic investigators trying to get to the bottom of terrifying supernatural manifestations in the titular mansion.  The movie’s ending, which has the surviving investigators finding a hidden sanctum where the psychic forces are emanating from an embalmed body, played by a very un-embalmed-looking Michael Gough, is pretty stupid, which Matheson himself admitted.  Still, John Hough directs the film’s scary set-pieces with vigour and there’s an unsettling electronic score by Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson.

 

Matheson was a modest soul and in interviews he usually seemed puzzled that so many people could be so inspired by his work.  He might have ended up a very rich man if, like his famously litigious contemporary Harlan Ellison, he’d bothered to sue every filmmaker and writer who’d ripped off his ideas.  Mind you, he’d probably have spent all his time in court, so I’m glad he just turned the other cheek and devoted that time instead to writing his marvellous stories.

 

© Cayuga Productions / CBS Productions

The real Princess Diana

 

© ITV / ABC / Thames

 

2020 has been a rotten year and I suspect it still has more rottenness in store.  One of the many reasons why I’ve found it so godawful has been because it’s seen the deaths of two actresses who meant a lot to me, firstly because they both had leading roles in James Bond movies and I’m a big James Bond fan, and secondly because they both starred in one of my favourite TV shows, The Avengers (1961-69).  I’m talking, of course, about Honor Blackman, who died in April, and now Diana Rigg, who died last week.

 

I never got to see Diana Rigg perform on stage, where she appeared in plays by Edward Albee, Bertolt Brecht, Anton Chekov, Noel Coward, Henrik Ibsen, Molière, Jean Racine, George Bernard Shaw, Tom Stoppard, Tennessee Williams and, obviously, William Shakespeare.  Nor did I catch her when, after becoming a Dame in the mid-1990s and being recognised as a national treasure, she appeared in prestigious TV productions like Rebecca (1997) or Victoria & Albert (2001), both of which resulted in her winning or being nominated for Emmy Awards.  I was living abroad and didn’t have access to English-language TV at the time.

 

I didn’t even watch her much-praised performance as Olenna Tyrell in the TV show Game of Thrones from 2013 to 2017, since I thought I should first read the George R.R. Martin books on which the show was based – something I’ve yet to get around to doing.

 

Despite what I’ve missed, however, I offer here a collection of Diana Rigg performances that I have seen and remember fondly.

 

Playing Tracy di Vincenzo in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is ostensibly about James Bond (George Lazenby in his one-and-only shot at the role) tangling with his arch-enemy Ernst Stavros Blofeld (Telly Savalas).  However, it also explores Bond’s emotional side and highlights his vulnerability.  Key to this is OHMSS’s sub-plot about the romance between Bond and Contessa Theresa ‘Tracy’ di Vicenzo (Rigg), daughter of the boss of the crime syndicate the Unione Corse of Corsica.  At the film’s end, Blofeld is seemingly vanquished and Bond and Tracy get married.  Then Blofeld makes a sudden reappearance in the final scene, sprays their honeymoon car with bullets, kills Tracy and leaves Bond as a babbling wreck.

 

Fascinatingly, for a film franchise that’s often accused of de-humanising the Ian Fleming novels that inspired it and emphasising big, dumb spectacle at the expense of characterisation, Tracy is a more fleshed-out character in OHMSS-the film than in OHMSS-the-novel.  She’s given more to do and, played by Rigg, has a sparkle that’s missing in the rather aloof, ambiguous character that Fleming sketches.

 

© Eon Productions

 

Particularly memorable is her appearance after Bond escapes from Blofeld’s Alpine headquarters.  Hunted by Blofeld’s henchmen, exhausted, frightened even – something that Lazenby, despite or perhaps because of his acting inexperience, conveys well – he takes refuge in a crowded Christmas market / ice rink in the local town.  Just as he thinks he not going to make it, Rigg comes to his rescue, unexpectedly skating into view in front of him like some heaven-sent angel of mercy.

 

Playing Sonya Winter in The Assassination Bureau (1969)

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service wasn’t the only instance in 1969 of Diana Rigg rubbing shoulders with Telly Savalas.  In Basil Deardon’s black comedy The Assassination Bureau (based on an unfinished Jack London novel), she plays an aspiring female journalist in Edwardian London sent by Savalas’s unscrupulous newspaper proprietor to investigate a secret criminal organisation offering assassins for hire.  Armed with a bagful of money that Savalas has provided, Rigg brazenly hires this Assassination Bureau to assassinate its own chairman, Ivan Dragomiloff, who’s played by Oliver Reed.  Admiring Rigg’s audacity, Reed accepts the commission and, with her in tow, spends the movie zigzagging around Europe dodging the efforts of his own board of directors to kill him.

 

It’s a pleasantly silly film and, admirably, doesn’t waste any time in setting up its convoluted premise and getting into the action.  Rigg is delightful as the uppity Sonya Winter, determinedly doing her job and flying the flag for women’s rights amid a world of starchy, patronising male chauvinists.  Meanwhile, Reed had only just played the brutish Bill Sikes in Oliver! (1968) and at the time was in contention to play James Bond, although his reputation for drunken offscreen hi-jinks put 007 producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman off the idea.  His pairing with Rigg in The Assassination Bureau is no beauty-and-the-beast affair, however.  He dials down the roughness and dials up the charm so that their chemistry together is actually very pleasing.

 

© Paramount Pictures

 

Playing Edwina Lionheart in Theatre of Blood (1973)

Douglas Hickox’s brilliant comedy-horror movie Theatre of Blood has Vincent Price as an insane and hammily over-the-top Shakespearean actor who starts killing the snobbish London theatre critics who’ve bad-mouthed his performances, using murders methods borrowed from the Bard’s plays.  “They’re not going to start killing critics for giving bad notices, are they?” exclaims the campest critic Meredith Merridew, played by Robert Morley, who eventually meets a grisly fate modelled on events in Titus Andronicus.  As the corpses pile up, murdered in ways suggested by Julius Caesar, Troilus and Cressida, Cymbeline, Richard III, Henry VI: Part One and even The Merchant of Venice (Price rewrites it so that he can extract a pound of flesh from Harry Andrews), the youngest and least obnoxious critic, played by Ian Hendry, and the investigating police officers, played by Milo O’Shea and Eric Sykes, turn to Lionheart’s supposedly normal daughter, Edwina (Rigg), for help.

 

Distraught about what her father is doing, yet repulsed by the critics who destroyed his career, Edwina is initially a troubled and conflicted character.  Yet as the film progresses, it transpires that Rigg is having as much fun in her role as the Bard-quoting, soliloquizing Price is in his.

 

Taking the mickey out of herself in The Morecambe and Wise Show (1975), The Great Muppet Caper (1981) and Extras (2006)

Rigg never took herself too seriously.  She teamed up with Britain’s most famous comic double-act Morecambe and Wise for their 1975 Christmas TV special, where she appeared in the inevitable Ernie Wise-penned play.  This featured Rigg as Nell Gwynne, Eric Morecambe as Charles II and Wise as Samuel Pepys.  (“Have you read Ernie’s play?” demands Morecambe.  “Yes, I have,” replies Rigg.  “And you’re still here?”)  Better still is her appearance in The Great Muppet Caper, the second movie starring Jim Henson’s much-loved puppets, in which she plays the snooty fashion designer Lady Holiday, who’s robbed of her jewellery by a gang led by her devious brother (Charles Grodin).  Predictably, Miss Piggy approaches Rigg in the hope of securing a job as a fashion model and insists on showing Rigg her portfolio: “This is me reeking grandeur!”

 

And then there’s a 2006 episode of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s comedy show Extras, which is about a struggling actor (Gervais) trying to make ends meet with bit-parts and uncredited roles in films and on television.  This scenario enables the show’s gimmick of having real, famous actors and actresses play versions of themselves – usually twisted, unpleasant versions.  In this particular episode, Gervais gets a three-day job in a new fantasy film starring the then-17-year-old Daniel Radcliffe and Dame Diana Rigg.  The joke is that Radcliffe is a randy, boorish and clueless teenager.  Whilst eating with him in the studio canteen, Radcliffe tries to convince Gervais that he’s a man of the world by whipping a condom out of his pocket – he’s unravelled it but seems to think he can still put it on – and then accidentally pings it through the air to a nearby table, where it lands on the unamused Rigg’s head.  Radcliffe asks her for his ‘johnny back’ and gets a schoolmistress-ly reply: “May I have my prophylactic back, please?”

 

Later, Radcliffe sidles up to her and inquires, “You still got that catsuit from The Avengers?”  Rigg retorts: “Go away, Daniel.”

 

© BBC / HBO

 

And that brings me nicely to…

 

Playing Emma Peel in The Avengers (1965-67)

By the time Rigg joined The Avengers in the mid-1960s, the show, under the guidance of creator Brian Clemens, had gradually mutated from being a conventional action / thriller show with Patrick Macnee’s John Steed and Ian Hendry’s Dr David Keel as a pair of crime-fighters to being a television phenomenon that did everything on its own terms, both determinedly non-realistic and restlessly inventive.

 

Rigg’s tenure on The Avengers was surely its golden era.  With her Emma Peel character partnering Macnee’s now surreally debonair Steed, and the show being broadcast in colour for the first time, it was a self-confident cocktail of the funny, the silly, the fantastical, the baroque and, occasionally, the gothic and the kinky.  (The kinkiness factor came to the fore in an episode called A Touch of Brimstone, wherein Rigg dons a costume comprising a spiked collar, whalebone corset, black leather boots and a snake.  Funnily enough, this attracted the highest viewing figures of any episode in The Avengers’ eight-year history.)

 

Rigg brought to the show a bemused, unruffled quirkiness that was the equal of Macnee’s majestic imperturbability.  She was also his equal in being proactive, having no qualms about wading into fights to show off her martial arts prowess or hurtling around in a Lotus Elan.  As a villain in one episode remarked, “She’s well and truly emancipated, is that one.”

 

Rigg wasn’t comfortable about the fact, but Emma Peel also became a sex symbol.  She couldn’t well avoid it, being ephemerally gorgeous and clad in a succession of leather catsuits, mini-skirts and mod-inspired outfits that, inevitably, ended up being sold in the ladies’ fashion shops of the real Britain.  Wisely, though, sex was off the agenda in her character’s onscreen relationship with Macnee’s Steed.  The two indulged in a relaxed, platonic flirtatiousness and left it at that.  Macnee did get a kiss from her at the end of her final episode on the show, when she left him with the parting advice: “Always keep your bowler on in times of stress, and watch out for diabolical masterminds.”

 

Appearing at the height of the swinging 1960s, but tongue-in-cheek and light-hearted rather than smug, which is how I find many productions from the time, The Avengers, and especially the Emma Peel-era Avengers, projects a charming and not-taking-itself-seriously notion of Britishness that seems light-years removed from the discredited, embittered, clapped-out Britain of 2020.  The death of Diana Rigg, who’d been one of the last links with the show, just seems to emphasise that it’s now all in the past.

 

© ITV / ABC / Thames