Tuesday, 7 March 2017

#TOOCOOLTUESDAY: PAINTING INTO A CORNER?


THERE WERE MANY 'could have been's' in the long career of Peter Cushing. On both small and big screen, and scanning the long litter of tantalizing titles and scripts, are as exciting, as they are frustrating. Putting aside the Daddy of all these no-goes, John Carpenter's 'Halloween', two names that appear to come up frequently as culprits of numerous Cushing non starters are the BBC and, as you would expect, Hammer films. The later was a company where the fate of a go-green light was finely balanced on a thumbs up OR down, following the flashing of some titillating artwork on a poster, unveiled at a meeting of money types looking to make a profit. The long and sad cry of projects that never got beyond treatment stage, makes for an emotional read! With Hammer it was always the bottom line of finance, the BBC was often crippled by it's own business model of, creativity by committee.


DISPITE THIS, during the 1950's and 60's Aunty Beeb did a tremendous job of presenting much ground-breaking, and exciting drama. However, it was the same BBC though that in its urge to unwrap a tv Christmas schedule that would keep the viewers glued to their programmes , that was instrumental in causing Cushing's absence from what could have been another Peter Cushing / Christopher Lee Hammer film smash. Based on the Barry Lyndon's play, 'The Man in Half Moon Street', or as Hammer came to re-tittle it, 'The Man Who Could Cheat Death', would have been that film. As it turned out, only Lee would appear in a minor supporting role, with actor Anton Diffring starring as the 'Man', one Dr. Georges Bonnet.


AFTER A VERY busy year and completing Hammer films one and only dip into Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes library, with The Hound of the Baskervilles, by October 1958, Cushing was looking forward to spending some time on preparing an exhibition of his paintings in the new year. The BBC however, were keen to get him on-board in their line up of stars appearing in their programming during the Christmas scheduling of 58.  Michael Barry (1910 – 1988) producer, director and executive at the BBC was very busy preparing a production of George Du Maurier's 'Trilby' for the festive programming, and very much had his eye on Peter Cushing to play the role that had brought much critical acclaim to  John Barrymore on screen and Herbert Beerbohm- Tree on stage. On September 9th Michael Barry received some sobering correspondence from Cushing television agent, Angela Hepburn : 


'I have some more information from Hammer films as to their plans for Peter's next production  for them. which ..... is to be 'The Man in Half Moon Street. At present they plan to start shooting this picture on or about the 10th of November. It will be a six to seven week schedule- generally six. Hound of the Baskervilles, on which he has just commenced work this week - and the start of Half Moon Street gives an available period of October 20th - 9th November approximately'. 

BARRY, DESPITE his impressive and long production experience must have chewed a couple of pencils on that one! But despite the tight schedule and restrictions, he was still very keen to go ahead with Cushing. In his reply to Angela Hepburn, Barry noted, 'Svengali belongs to a period that requires breadth and colour which I believe Peter would join me in appreciating' Barry had in 1952, he succeeded Val Gielgud to become the Head of Drama at BBC Television, a position he was to occupy for the next decade. He was responsible for commissioning several important productions, including the Quatermass science-fiction serials, and in 1954 suggested Peter Cushing to play Winston Smith in the famous adaptation of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. This latter production caused much controversy due to its supposed horrific scenes and subversive content.


THROUGHOUT the 50's Peter Cushing was Mr Television. Hardly a week went by without him appearing in the BBC's listings. He was the BBC's Mr. Darcy in their flagship 1952 production of 'Pride and Prejudice', he had won several television awards, a BAFTA and the BEEB still saw him as one of their stars. Also, since the launch of the 'Other-side', Independent Television the loss of their monopoly on the little screen, was starting to make Aunty wobble. ITV were starting to nibble away at the BBC's hold, and the Independent Television regional stations had started to broadcast around the UK. Whispers of competition, ratings and stars jumping ship, were staring to be heard along the hallowed corridors of Alexandra Palace and the Riverside studios. Which is why, when Barry was faced with the timing problem, he offed to reschedule and postpone the transmission of Trilby to Boxing Day, rather than loose Cushing.

Despite this, the casting of Cushing in Trilby, was not to be. The whole idea was shot down in a letter to producer Christopher McMaster from Angela Hepburn on November 27th 1958.

'It is with the greatest regret I have to tell you that Peter Cushing will not be available to play Svengali for you on the postponed filming date. As you may or may not know, Peter is under contract to Hammer films to do five films for them within the period of 18 months. This means virtually that he has approximately ten days to a fortnight off between each film and therefore his periods of availability are not only limited but also spaced far apart. In actual fact the film he is about to do (on a 12 week schedule) is not for Hammer but for another company - and therefore it follows that as soon as it is completed he has to return immediately to Hammer to start work on his next film for them. I explain this to you so that you can see how very little point there appears to be in postponing your production with the idea of Peter being available at a later date. I have just talked with Peter on the telephone and he liked the script very much indeed, and he is extremely sorry that he will not be able to play it.'


WITH CUSHING'S decision to not engage with the BBC festive drama roll out, a chill descended on their relationship. A reluctance to invite Cushing into new productions on reflection, is quite evident, though there were several inquiries from his agent, and the idea to explore to reboot interest in a production of 'Cyano de Bergerac', Cushing would not appear in any major BBC production for at least another five years in 1963.

THERE SEEMS TO be no defiant answer to the question, 'Why didn't Peter Cushing appear in Hammer films, 'The Man Who Could Cheat Death' ..other than, if there were a reason, it probably had more to do with Peter feeling, after an intensive period of work, and production companies pulling him this way and that, he was due some me time...and a focus on his passion for painting. Just weeks after all the fuss calmed down with the BBC, on December 3rd 1958, Cushing unveiled 'Here and There: An Exhibition of Water-Colours by Peter Cushing, at the Fine Arts Society in Bond Street, London. The 'non Hammer film' that Angela Hepburn mentioned in her correspondence, that would have made Cushing's BBC appearance impossible, never happened...and there is no paper trail or evidence of what it could have been. Cushing did not start work at Bray with Hammer, until later than predicted, on February 25th 1959 when THE MUMMY started to roll. By this time, having spent time needed, the exhibition was launched and open to visitors.
 

IT'S DIFFICULT to prove now, years on, but maybe it wasn't just about Peter making time for his exhibition, maybe there was something about that TRILBY script, politics or health matters, that lead Cushing to opt-out. The invitation to play Svengali for Cushing, would have been a terrific opportunity. Did Cushing really do the right thing, and pass on this chance, for his love of painting? Whatever it was, I can't help feeling that Cushing did feel a loyalty to the BBC, and when he had time to think about it, knowing his exhibition had to take priority, both  projects 'The Man Who Could Cheat Death' AND 'Trilby' had to go. Maybe in dropping out of the unknown film and 'Cheat Death' Cushing hoped it would be seen as a 'walking on glass' gesture to appease Michael Barry, Christopher McMaster at the BBC. Maybe Cushing hoped it would sooth what would turn out to be a definite sting, and ultimately sour their working relationship.


A FULL COLOUR DOUBLE PAGE SPREAD IN THE KINEMATOGRAPH WEEKLY APPEARED ON APRIL 30TH 1959 ANNOUNCING THE RELEASE OF THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH WITH LEE BUT MINUS CUSHING.
 
WHATEVER HAPPENED, 'The Man Who Could Cheat Death' did middling business, even though it didn't lack drama and had very good production values, with it's  beautiful sets from the previous Hammer hits, Dracula / Horror of Dracula, Hound of the Baskervilles and the Revenge of Frankenstein. Diffring did a great job under Terence Fisher's direction. Hazel Court shines. But for all of this, I don't think that the inclusion of Cushing and Lee together in this film, would have made it a better film... Their casting would have certainly made it a, different film.  Another classic maybe? Another opportunity to mine that rich seam of chemistry, that both Cushing and Lee demonstrated with wonderful results in twenty two other films, together. You may think, well, twenty two is a good number. I would have to answer, any opportunity to cast, the two greatest exponents of British Fantasy cinema, that was lost.... should make us all feel, quite, CHEATED.



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