Here’s a transcript in which ‘Doctor Who’ isn’t mentioned once, but it’s with a former Doctor and it’s very entertaining. I’ve always felt that it wouldn’t be too hard to get the two Dalek films into the TV show canon, especially with the fob watches that have turned out to be pivotal in the last couple of series, so I definitely count Peter Cushing as a ‘proper Doctor’. So here he is in a long interview with Dick Vosburgh, and while there’s no ‘Doctor Who’, he covers ‘Star Wars’, ‘Sherlock Holmes’, ‘1984’ and the Hammer films. I’ve cut parts out, but the original video is definitely worth watching.
Q: How did you get into acting?
A: I think as far back as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be an actor. I was always dressing up and playing Let’s Pretend, and putting on Mother’s hat and so on, I’m sure Freud would have something to say about that. I didn’t know how to go about it, I was writing all these letters and no-one would answer at all, so I went to dea Dad and asked if he could help me get to Hollywood. And he said Yes, my boy, and he produced a ticket for me but it was only one way. And I’ve wondered since if he felt that I would make enough to get back on my own, or if he felt that I wouldn’t get back at all.
I’d always understood that it was sunny California, and I arrived at the terminal in an absolute downpour. And I had on a tweed suit, being frightfully British of course and whacking great bags, and I walked from downtown Los Angeles to Hollywood, it was a question of economy, and I arrived there at the YMCA and in a very well-rehearased speech I said ‘I have just arrived from England to get into films, I have an Ingersol watch, very cheap but very reliable, worth $16, would you please accept it as security until I’ve got into films to pay?’
It’s extraordinary, very lucky, that I should arrive in Hollywood when James Whale was directing a film with Louis Hayward (‘The Man in the Iron Mask’), Louis Hayward played twins, a good brother and a bad brother, and James Whale wanted an actor who could play opposite Louis on these screens, but knowing this actor would never be seen, it was split screen, and whoever played opposite him would end up on the cutting room floor. And I was allowed to go and see the rushes, and I saw myself giving appalling performances, but I was gradually able to tone it down to a filmic level.
Q: You were as much a movie fan as a movie actor when you were in Hollywood, weren’t you?
A: Oh, still am. Yes, it was simply wonderful to not only meet these legendary people who’d just been shadows on the silver screen to me, sitting in the 1,9’s when I could afford it. Ida Lupino was doing a picture with Humphrey Bogart, and it was up on location in the big Bear Mountains, ‘High Sierra’, and Louis Hayward and I went up to stay with Ida, and Bogart was simply wonderful. Very unsure of himself, not at all the tough characters he played, which goes for all actors, we’re all bags of nerves. And he demonstrated, because I asked him to, his quick draw and firing. He was absolutely marvellous, he’d take a quarter, toss it up in the air and nine times out of ten before it hit the ground he’d have knocked it for six. It was absolutely marvellous.
Q: Thanks to Louis Hayward, who provided you with a generous cheque, you got as far as New York, where you performed your first war effort.
A: Yes, not very successful, dear boy. I was walking down the street and I saw a hospital saying ‘Give blood for Britain’, and I thought that was all I had to give. I went in, gave a pint, walked out and fell flat on the pavement. I was hauled back inside and given two pints! All English actors were given medicals and I was pretty low, I think, having knocked myself around playing rugger many years ago, and I was told to stand by. They don’t need cannon fodder yet, I was told by the medical officer.
I got up as far as Canada, to the YMCA, said ‘I’m broke’, as usual, but they just happened to be short and let me do night shifts. I always seemed to be arriving as they were short of something. But I got a job in the art department of a film in Montreal. They were doing the special effects for a film with Eric Porter called ‘The 49th Parallel’, and they wanted twelve swastikas. So I took them home to do them, and I stuck them on little pins to dry, and was later met by two Canadian mounted police, and they were there to arrest me.
Q: And that was how you met your wife?
A: I’d been up to the ENSA office, and as I came down there was this dear lady, it was just as though we’d met again. We hadn’t, we’d never met before, but it was as though we had, quite remarkable. We sat together immediately and ran through the lines (for ‘Private Lives’), and she knew it backwards, so we soon got through that and started to talk of other things, and we just knew immediately that the rest of life in this world and the next, we would be together. It’s not a question of even falling in love, it was meeting up with your soul, it that doesn’t sound too high falluting. I do owe everything to Helen, I was greatly blessed.
Q: You admit in your book that you married for money.
A: (laughs) Yes, Helen had, I think, ten pounds and I had fifteen.
Q: One of the plays, A.E. Matthews was in the cast.
A: (laughs) Yes, Matty was famous for, what was it, longevity. Apart from being a wonderful comic actor. And he professed to reading the obituary column in the newspaper every morning to see if he was still alive. And Matty had this thing of having a rest between the matinee and the evening performance, and the Call Boy tapped on the door for the half hour, because in those days you got a half hour call, and he didn’t get any reply so he opened the door and saw Matty lying there prone, so he rushed to the Stage Manager and said ‘Mr. Smith, Mr. Matthews is dead!’, and when they later discovered he wasn’t, Matty called the perpetrator to his quarters and said ‘You must never do that in future, it causes dismay, what you must do in future is you go to someone in authority and say very quiety and calmly I think Mr. Matthews is dead’.
Q: How did you get into television?
A: What had happened was my dear, dear wife had been absolutely wonderful, I hadn’t worked for years, we had no money, we just had each other, which is wonderful. She said ‘I’m going to write to all the directors and producers at the BBC and say that you’re free’. I said ‘Darling, no-one’s heard of me except you, Mum and Dad’, she said ‘Don’t be silly’. I thought it was be awful, I was very unhappy about it, but the very next day I got many replies, and one especially from Harold Clayton offering me the leading part in ‘Cornelius’. Helen gently explained, ‘What happens, Peter dear, is that you have everything against you as an actor apart from photogenic looks and talent. You’re nervous as a race horse, you don’t like people watching you when you work’ and several other things, and we’ve got to put all this together. I forget how many plays I did at the BBC, but more than half of them were already established successes from the theatre. I think you’d have to be a very bad actor not to come over fairly well in many of those parts.
Q: It must be ‘1984’, a very controversial TV play, that’s best remembered.
A: We had the scene where the villains of the piece, the people run by Big Brother, anyone they thought was a rebel, they’d find his achilles heel and use it. And Winston Smith, the greatest hero in all fiction, they found out that his fear was rats, and they confronted him with them to make him do what they wanted. So two rats had to be got hold of by the BBC Props department. I don’t know if they still exist today, but two rat catchers were contacted, and one of them went to the sewers to obtain two, and they were plonked onto the set in a cage, looking very pathetic and shivering, with lovely arc lamps warming them, and people kept coming by and dropping cheese in, and they were loving it, they were thinking ‘This is the life’. Their part was to leap at my throat, snarling with teeth like Dracula, and by the time we came to do this scene they were fast asleep, having a marvellous time.
Fortunately, this was just a rehearsal, so the call was put out to the sewer man, but he wasn’t available, so they had to nip down to the nearest pet shop and get a couple of fawn-coloured tame ones, which had to be painted grey by the make-up department. And a great notice was put up, ‘These animals are not to be fed under any circumstances’, so as they day went on they were getting hungrier and hungrier and angrier and angrier. Now this was coming up to transmission night, the Sunday night, and we kicked off at about half past seven, and by this time they were ravenous, they were howling, these rats, tame rats, howling for their grub, to such an extent that they had to be removed to another studio. I was given a monitor, and a bit of cheese was dangled, they leapt up, I was given a cue and I had to scream.
Sunday nights were reserved for drama, and there was a live repeat on the following Thursday. Not tapes, but some other form of reproduction had been introduced to television, and I don’t mean this in any way against technicians, whom I have the greatest regard for, but the BBC moguls felt that it would be more fair to the technicians if they recorded the second performance. To me, it lost the edge, the second performance, because it builds up to such a… There were questions asked in the house as to whether the repeat should be allowed the following Thursday.
Q: In the 1950’s, you were acknowleged as the uncrowned king of British television, you were called Mr. Television in the press. How did you film career get re-started?
A: I was awfully lucky, as a leading man, to get into films when I did, because it was a time when film people weren’t keen on anyone to do with television, because television was keeping people away from cinemas, really for the first time in its history. Except for one company, which was Hammer, who felt that if someone was well-liked on television, if they could get him on screen, they might bring a few more people back to cinema. Having seen the original ‘Frankenstein’, with James Whale directing, a pretty jolly good film, I thought this would be a wonderful film to make. I had my agent call them up, because they’d tried to get me before and I’d never been free.
They did it within the budget and on schedule, and America couldn’t believe that such a quality film could be made within that time and for that amount of money. It just took off, went all over the world, particularly America, where they were bonkers about it. Japan loved it, adored it. So that, really, put the seal on my international fame. Within the first week, it had paid for itself. Hammer went absolutely raving mad, poured the money back, spent £70,000 on making ‘Dracula’.
Q: You’ve played Professor Van Helsing five times now, on screen. What is it that you like about the character?
A: Basically it’s what the fans like, which is the triumph of good over evil, which I think in this day and age is so important, that although Dracula keeps popping up, and so does the Devil – you’ve only got to add a ‘d’ to evil, take an ‘o’ from good and you’ve got God and the Devil, the two greatest antagonists the world has ever known. In the books, he’s written as a little man who almost literally speaks double Dutch, and when I was cast I said ‘Oughtn’t we to get a double Dutcher’, and Tony Hines said ‘No, I think we should play him as you’, so it became almost one of my parts. I never saw the picture where Olivier played Van Helsing, but I think he played him much closer to how Bram Stoker wrote him.
He kept whipping out so many crucifixes from so many pockets, practically from his ears, that he was like a salesman. And right at the very end, the denoument of the picture, he takes out a crucifix and forces Dracula into a ray of sunlight. I thought ‘Let’s do something more than that’, because I came from the Errol Flynn days when you always had a fight, a leap from a balcony… so I said ‘I know we can’t build a balcony now, but we’ve got this marvellous long refectory table, and there’s this curtain window, now what if I jumped up on this, ran along it, did a flying dive, catch the curtain, the sunlight hits old Drac, I jump back onto the table, grab the candlesticks, jump down and make a cross?’. These films were mocked and scorned upon at the time, now they’re held in great reverance in the British Film Institute as masterpieces of their time. It’s an odd old game. I really felt I had made it, which is a wonderful feeling.
Q: You also played Sherlock Holmes…
A: Sherlock Holmes, Robinson Crusoe, Billy Bunter and Mr. Pickwick are said by the pundits to be literary figures who’ll last for all time, which is wonderful. To have played Sherlock Holmes, I think you’re extremely lucky if you have those drawn features as drawn by Sidney Paget in the wonderful Strand magazines, that helps a great deal, I think. Many clever, awfully good actors have played the part and don’t look like him, but I think it’s a plus if you happen to have that sort of physog. Very difficult part to play, of course, becuase he goes up and down like a yo-yo, and you’ve got to be awfully careful when you’re playing a part like that, that it doesn’t become annoying to the audience and a bit clever-clever, you know?
Watson’s no fool, and I think it’s a great mistake if Watson’s ever played as a fool because (a) Holmes would never put up with him, and Holmes had this incredible mind and all his observations were based upon the simplest things.
Q: You’ve been very lucky with your Watsons.
A: Well, yes, when you think – Andre Morell, Nigel Stock, Sir John Mills, well you can’t go much better, can you? It’s this lovely relationship between these two men, this brilliant Doctor, with two or three wives so he must have had something going for him, as well as being a clever medic and a great chum to Holmes, and every generation breeds a new generation of lovers of the character. But the only thing is that Holmes is very fond of pipes, and if you ever see me on the screen smoking one of those things and looking as though I’m enjoying it – it’s not lit, you see, it’s a dummy, something to suck – it’s really very good acting, because I find it desperately nauseating, I have to keep a glass of milk under the chair otherwise I might disgrace myself all over the set.
Q: What was the ‘Star Wars’ experience like for you?
A: (laughs) Oh, you’re naughty. You’ve been reading things about me. (indicates his feet) Berman and Nathan have looked after me for years and years and years, and they’ve never let me down once, except of this occasion. I was dressed rather like an Edwardian chauffeur, as Grand Moff Tarkin, and a pair of riding boots, tight fitting. Incidentally, I’ve often wondered what a Grand Moff is. Sounds like something that came out of a clothes closet. Anyway, they hadn’t got time to have my boots made for me, which is often the case because I have very big foot. So there I was on the first day, stomping around, and it was agony. So on the second day I said to George Lucas, ‘George, I’m not asking for close-ups, but do you think you could shoot me from the waist up?’, and he said ‘Why?’ and I explained the reasons and he said ‘Oh, alright’ and he gave me a pair of carpet slippers, so for the rest of the film I stomped around as old Grand Moff Tarkin, looking extremely cross, in carpet slippers.
Q: What, then, do you think is the attraction of the horror movie?
A: I query your use of the adjective ‘horror’, because horror to me is films like ‘The Godfather’, or about the way, because they depict things that actually happened, which facts of history and all the appalling aftermath. Whereas most of the stuff we do is fantasy, and I think that’s a much better title. I think (a) it’s escapism, (b) it’s fantasy, and strangely enough, here’s another point which I think interests audiences in the picture I make, it’s the power of good over evil.