Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Beating the Count



The novella Whitstable is a beautifully researched, but unexpectedly harrowing tribute to my favourite actor.


"My heroes have always been cowboys...", sang Willie Nelson in 1980.
Mine have always been old men.  Well, older men: professors, ‘mentors’, scientists and perhaps most especially, doctors.  The young ‘square-jawed’ heroes just bored me.  A commander who shot and punched his way out of a problem was nowhere near as interesting to me as an otherworldly scientist who could call upon vast reserves of knowledge and experience to logically think his way to a resolution.  Even if the mature, learned figure surrounded by uniformed ‘heroes’ wasn’t entirely good, like Doctor Morbius in Forbidden Planet, or even something of a buffoon – Doctor Smith in Lost in Space – a ‘qualification’ always trumped a rank or title in terms of my interest and sympathies.

And if this intellectual, less obviously heroic character could do the physical stuff as well, then I was really behind him.  This might be the application of an obscure or alien martial art, or simply the courage to take sudden and desperate action:

“And he was coming towards you and your eyes went like this – “ He shot a glance to his left.  “And you saw the red curtains and you jumped up and ran cross the long, long table and tore them down and the sunlight poured in…”

In this passage from Stephen Volk’s 2013 novella Whitstable; a young boy excitedly recounts the climax of Hammer’s 1959 Dracula, to Peter Cushing.  But he isn’t just after an autograph: he wants ‘Doctor Van Helsing’ to save him from a real vampire.
The central concept to this short story, written last year to commemorate the centennial of the late Cushing’s birth, sounds charming and probably the prelude to a gentle and loving, possibly even sycophantic, tribute to a much-loved actor.
Actually, in just 132 pages, Whitstable will put you and Cushing through the emotional wringer in ways that Van Helsing’s worst nightmares couldn’t match.  Consider that the story is set just after the death of his beloved wife Helen, when even opening his eyes in the morning seems like a pointless exercise, then ponder what the real-life equivalent of a corrupting, predatory vampire might be and you’ll glimpse how dark the road which Volk leads the reader down really is.

Cushing’s legendary impeccable manners, religious faith and scrupulous regard for the old world values of respect and compassion are tested to their breaking point in the seemingly uncaring and often profane world of the early 1970s.  Many times his films are paralleled (including a horrifying home invasion which can’t quite breach his threshold, uninvited) as this gentle man out of time seems so utterly helpless against the brutal forces of darkness.

Putting real people into fictional situations is not new, but strikes me here more than ever that using a public figure (in this case someone only ten years gone), and all that we knew of his loves, hopes , fears and vulnerabilities in a concocted tale might be treading the very fine line of good taste.
Many have said that they hoped Cushing might have approved of Whitstable, and having finished it in a single afternoon (almost unheard of for me) I can only add my own wish to that sentiment.  It might be harrowing and challenging, but Whitstable is certainly still a loving tribute to Cushing and as with his countless films, good does finally triumph over the most appalling evil.
Highly recommended, but don’t expect a gentle ride.

Of Cushing himself, as with many of my heroes, my Mother made the introduction.  It’s difficult to remember exactly where – it might even have been an episode of Space 1999!  I had read about his films for years, possibly completely missing his cameo in the campily-disturbing Scream and Scream Again, so I suspect it was Star Wars where I first really saw him – fittingly, on the big screen.  Once again the young heroes didn’t get a look in for me.  Tarkin’s cold destruction of Leia’s entire planet, quelling of the squabbling lesser dignitaries, and that last, fleeting glimpse of his icily calm profile before the Death Star detonates all stuck in my mind.  He even convincingly threatens Vader with a single, flint-hard line.
And as usual, Cushing’s fellow cast could only rhapsodise about working with the ‘Gentle Man of horror’, Carrie Fisher often remarking about how impossible it was to hate the man who blew up her planet.
Be kind, I doodled this in the back of a school exercise book when I was 14.
And it seemed to continue to be his atypical performances where I would catch Cushing.  His running-gag appearances on Morcambe and Wise, playing my hero in Doctor Who and the Daleks and Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles.
Peter Cushing in the lead role of Doctor Who and the Daleks (1964)
In the early 1980s TV2’s ‘Sunday Horrors’ opened a treasure trove of Hammer and I finally saw Cushing’s Van Helsing and Victor Frankenstein.  Naturally, he was as sublime, steely and dynamic as I’d always hoped. But even if I had somehow impossibly been disappointed by his two most well-known roles, it wouldn’t have mattered at all  -Peter Cushing had somehow already become my favourite actor.
Far more accomplished than the parts usually afforded him deserved, and hugely prolific - I’m thrilled by the fact that , even now, there is still a huge amount of his work I am yet to see.

To finish, I am yet again going to defer to another’s far more skilful writing.  In the audio reading of Cushing’s autobiography, Past Forgetting, he reads this ‘fan letter’.  In Cushing’s distinctively perfect diction, scrupulously observing every consonant and finding hitherto unsuspected syllables in every-day words, this letter is possibly the best of its kind ever written, and encapsulates perfectly why this gaunt, gallant gentleman continues to mean so much to those of us who’ve seen his films:

In the endless of fables of good and evil, which we tell, and want told to us, you are the teller, and the tale.

The kind conjurer, the vulnerable miracle worker, with sleight of mind you can steel your face and eyes to become the glacial fire that would wreck a world. You can leash, and unleash the very devils of hell.  You are the raised rapier behind which no fiend could reach.  Grey, grained oak from a remembered childhood, that held the earth and sky in place.

But most of all, you are the long-awaited story-teller.  No-one gives life to a legend as you do, the beloved enchanter, enfolding us in the simple power of a gesture, turning each moment like a spinning apple on a stem, until it falls into our upturned hands.  And the only price we pay is loss of ignorance.
Mary-Anne Rosberg, a Fan, 1978 

  
Living in Britain in 1994, I found out about Cushing’s death when I discovered
I had recorded this unscheduled, short tribute shown the night before.

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