May 17th 1994, is a date of singular importance for fans of Hammer Horror. On that day, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing reunited one last time to record the narration for Ted Newsom’s documentary on Hammer Films, titled Flesh and Blood: The Hammer Heritage of Horror. Newsom’s project was a true labor of love. Working with a limited budget, he sought to get on-camera interviews with as many of the key surviving actors and production personnel as possible. His ultimate coup was in securing the services of Lee and Cushing. It would prove to be the first time that the two old friends had seen each other in a quite a few years, and it would prove to be their final meeting.
The event transpired at a small studio in Canterbury, Kent. The studio had been selected largely for the sake of convenience, as it was close to Cushing’s residence and the actor had also recorded some voice overs there in the past. Once all the details had been ironed out and everything was in place the director found himself in the enviable position of helping to guide the two legends through the paces one last time.
Cushing was the first to arrive and he was eager to greet Lee upon the latter’s arrival. Given that Lee hadn’t seen his old friend in so long, nothing could have prepared him for the shock. Cushing had always been a thin man, but years of pining for his beloved Helen coupled with terminal cancer had reduced him to a literal shadow of his former self. According to Newsom, Lee was visibly taken aback for a brief instant, then rallied and set about keeping his old friend in stitches for the duration of the session. Ever the pro, Cushing was ready and eager to get back to work for the first time since recording his vocal track for the album “No White Peaks” in 1991. Cushing didn’t remain idle by choice: he yearned to work and constant reassurances of future projects from his doting secretary Joyce Broughton kept him hopeful of doing just that. But the reality was, he was simply too ill and too frail to secure the necessary insurance guarantees that would enable him to continue working.
Sooner than give in to despair, Cushing spent his time charming the residents of his beloved sea-side town of Whitstable, gave interviews about everything from his career to his strong religious convictions and enjoyed long-distance telephone calls with old pals like Lee and Vincent Price. The opportunity of going back to a sound stage, even if just for a bit of voice over work, must have seemed heaven sent. Cushing accepted readily and threw himself into the project with enthusiasm … however, if the spirit was willing, the flesh had grown weak. The morning kicked off around 9 AM with some time set aside for the press to come in and ask questions and take some pictures and video commemorating the event. Lee and Cushing kept each other in stitches as they relived old memories and fielded questions from the reporters. Warned by Cushing’s secretary/care taker, Joyce Broughton, that Cushing's energy might start to fail if they didn’t get on with the show, Newsom started recording the narration around 11 in the morning; approximately two hours later, the track was finished and Cushing was ready for some much-needed rest. Before departing, however, the two men were given a chance to sit, laugh and relax as recordings of some of their favorite cartoons were provided on video tape; the spectacle of the imposing Lee and an ailing Cushing rollicking with laughter at the antics of Bugs Bunny and Sylvester the Cat would surely have been worthy of a film in itself, but this was private time for two old friends: no press were invited to partake in the ritual.
After that, the two men said their farewells and Cushing was taken back to his cottage in Whitstable. As Newsom tells it, Lee’s demeanor changed rapidly at that moment: shocked and deeply upset by his friend’s condition, he dropped the jokes and smiles once Cushing was out of sight and became comparatively curt and ill-tempered; the prospect of losing a friend so dear to him suddenly became a reality and his tendency to keep his feelings in check deserted him. One of the things often trivialized in Lee’s character is the staunch loyalty and affection he has for his friends and loved ones; as Newsom would later theorize, he is not a man who handles the loss of loved ones at all well and as such, facing the reality of just such a happening served to rattle him badly.
The documentary endured a tortured “birthing process” and was ultimately rushed through post-production when Hammer’s then-managing director Roy Skeggs (who controlled the British rights in exchange for footing the bill for Cushing’s pay day) told the gob smacked director that it was going to air in the UK in early August. Left with virtually no time (let alone money) to do the material justice, Newsom soldiered on and delivered on time. The first segment aired on August 6th ,1994; shortly before Cushing was admitted into the Pilgrim's Hospice at Canterbury. After a fortnight in the hospice, and between the two instalments of 'Flesh and Blood', Peter Cushing died on August 11th at the age of 81.
Much has been written about the end result, some of it positive, a lot of it negative, but Newsom is to be congratulated for pulling off a minor miracle and getting these two screen icons together one last time. The two men had very different careers and were in very different places by the time this final meeting took place: Cushing’s private life had disintegrated in 1971 when his wife died, but he took solace in keeping busy, accepting just about any offer he could fit into his calendar (resulting in quite a few films he really should have said “no” to doing), but ill health put him on the sidelines.
Lee, by contrast, had enjoyed a brief period of prosperity when he relocated to Hollywood, hoping to distance himself from being perceived as a horror film star, things did not go entirely as planned and he found himself appearing in films quite unworthy of his talents. He remained steadily employed, which was probably the thing that concerned him the most, but eventually he grew homesick and returned to England, grateful for the few good opportunities that came his way (notably hosting an episode of Saturday Night Live) and prepared to do what he needed to do to continue his career into his old age. In 1994, he would appear in several films, ranging from the sublime (A Feast at Midnight) to the ridiculous (Police Academy: Mission to Moscow), but things would gradually improve over the next few years.
At the time of the recording, Lee was just shy of 72, while Cushing was close to turning 81 (as fans will of course realize, they almost shared a birthday: Cushing’s being May 26th and Lee’s May 27th ; to look at the two of them, one would have thought there was a greater gap in age than that. Lee survived a heart condition that nearly killed him in the early 80s and was a vigorous, still commanding presence; Cushing’s condition had deteriorated to the point that he was almost unrecognizable.
At the time of writing, Lee is now just shy of his 92nd birthday and while he would age gracefully into his mid-80s, the cruelty of time coupled with a back injury sustained on the set of the Hammer production The Resident (2011) have slowed him down and he finally looks his age, if not older. As we reflect on this 20th anniversary of their last meeting, let us remember that Cushing’s death left a void which can never be replaced for fans of the classic horror film; with that in mind, let us cherish Lee for as long as he is with us, for we will likely never see this breed of actor again, especially in the ghettoized confines of the horror genre. But sooner than end things on a gloomy, despairing note, take solace in this: so long as there are fans out there who continue to enjoy watching their performances, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee will never die.
'ONE LAST TIME' The 20th Anniversary Feature was written by Troy Howarth
Graphics and Image Gallery: Marcus Brooks
Our deepest thanks to Stuart Hughes and Linda King.
With Very Special Thanks to Steve Reed