Of all the actors, writers or directors associated with the horror genre, arguably the most beloved and admired as a human being is Peter Cushing. Much of this stems from the multiple accounts of his good nature and professionalism. Unlike his frequent co-star and good friend Christopher Lee, he seldom spoke ill of the films he appeared in. He approached each role with dedication. Surviving documents show that his preparation was remarkably detailed, right down to the choice of costumes and hair pieces. He was, by all accounts, a class act. Like so many people who have been enshrined, however, the reality is somewhat more complex - yet it is seldom reported, let alone alluded to. A number of writers have tried to come to grips with Cushing and his legacy, but few have attempted anything beyond the most routine of biographies, with an emphasis on the many films (91, in total) he completed between 1939 and his death in 1994 at the age of 81. David Miller's book Peter Cushing: A Life in Film would have seemed an ideal opportunity to paint a proper portrait of the man himself, but it, too, charts a safer course.
The book kicks off with a loving introduction by Cushing's co-star from Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed and The Ghoul, Veronica Carlson. Carlson was able to get to know Cushing before the death of his beloved wife Helen, and she also saw how her passing affected him when he appeared at his most forlorn in The Ghoul. She notes the change in his character and recounts her time with him with genuine affection.
After that, Miller takes over with a bit of biographical background. Miller's prose is engaging enough, but he fails to dig beneath the surface or ask any probing questions about his subject. Instead, we are subjected to the usual portrait of Cushing as a hale fellow well met - a reputation which was undoubtedly well earned, but which doesn't allow one to really understand him and what made him tick. As a biography, the book doesn't really bring anything new to the table - we hear much the same anecdotes that have cropped up in the other books on Cushing, thus giving the book a sense of deja vu.
Miller is more successful at charting the films and Cushing's meticulous work therein, though even here he resists the urge to buck convention by towing the conventional line that the actor was always at the top of his game. The closest he gets to being openly critical is in his write up of the minor Vernon Sewell cold war thriller Some May Live (1967), which does indeed feature Cushing in one of his less memorable performances. Cushing's rather difficult-to-take "old duffer" portrayals in the Dr. Who films and At The Earth's Core would appear to be as accomplished as his iconic turns as Dr. Van Helsing and Baron Frankenstein in this context, but ultimately it is very much a matter of opinion.
Ultimately, one doesn't wish to be too hard on Miller or his efforts. Writing about Cushing is a difficult task. He is so revered, so beloved, that any attempt to cut through the cliché and find the three-dimensional human being underneath is bound to be met with suspicion, even hostility. Miller doesn't elect to take that approach and one can't really fault him much for it - after all, he is a true blue fan and his passion for the subject is evident on every page. The end result may not be the definitive tome on Cushing, but that's perfectly OK. It's an enjoyably breezy read, beautifully illustrated, which allows one to take in the diversity of Cushing's career - which went well beyond the confines of low budget genre fare for Hammer and Amicus. The folks at Titan Press are to be congratulated for making this such a polished and classy looking production, one befitting the nature of its subject only too well.