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Hammer Horror History

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The story of horror at Hammer…

It all began in May 1957 when Hammer, a small outfit which made unexceptional features and documentaries, released The Curse of Frankenstein.

It grossed 70 times its original production £65,000 production cost and signalled the break through for Peter Cushing, who played the amoral scientist Baron Frankenstein, and Christopher Lee whose make-up for the monster took three hours to apply. Although the Baron was beheaded in the first film, Hammer brought him back for a sequel with a brief “get out” at the start to show how he’d cheated the guillotine.

Realising the potential of horror, Hammer swiftly introduced another classic character. Directed by Terence Fisher, Dracula introduced Christopher Lee as the vampiric embodiment of evil – ‘The terrifying lover who died… yet LIVED! Cushing played the Count’s frail but dogged enemy Van Helsing. Lee brought a brooding menace to Dracula but critics accused the film of being too extreme. The public, however, loved it.

After that, Dracula films flowed like blood – there were six in all, the same number as Frankenstein – and the Count had a permanent coffin set up at Hammer’s Bray Studios.

Brides of Dracula (1960) disappointingly, did not feature Lee although it was equally atmospheric and stylish, and quite erotic for the early 1960s. Lee returned in 1965 for Dracula – Prince of Darkness, which was actually the proper sequel to Dracula. Although Cushing was missing, Barbara Shelley, Andrew Keir of Quatermass fame, Francis Matthews, Suzan Farmer and Thorley Walters provided capable support.

The story concerned two English couples blundering around the Carpathians who were ‘invited’ to Castle Dracula to be terrorised by Lee, who didn’t have a single line of dialogue. In the next film, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, Dracula was enraged by a Monsignor who tried to perform an exorcism on his castle. Vengenace involved taking the priest’s niece (Veronica Carlson in her Hammer debut) for his bride. By the time of Lee’s final appearance in the Satanic Rites of Dracula Dracula in 1973, even the Count had become bored with immortality. His attempt to steal away Van Helsing’s grand daughter Jessica (Joanna Lumley) before destroying the world with a new strain of bubonic plague thus ending his supply of blood was an apocalyptic form of suicide. The final confrontation between Van Helsing and the Count took place as the clock struck midnight.

Time was up for Dracula after which Lee declared: “I will not play that character anymore… it is now part of my professional past, just one of the roles I have played…” In order to take advantage of the same set, cast and crew and to save time on developing new stories, many Hammer films were made back-to-back – Dracula: Prince of Darkness and Rasputin, the Mad Monk shared many of the same cast and crew; the same set was used for the destruction of Dracula and for Rasputin’s fall from a window to an icy grave.

So that audiences wouldn’t notice, films were then released on double bills with different halves of other back-to-back pairings. Cunning or what? Hammer in the 1960s, was at its imaginative zenith thanks to Frankenstein, Dracula and other gothic mini-masterpieces. But as the decade wore on, its films became increasingly formulaic and included more psychological thrillers. As box-office receipts fell, more emphasis was placed on sex. Hazel Court and Barbara Shelley, who’d offered allure without revealing all, gave way to ‘sex kittens’ whose chief purpose was to get their kit off as often as possible.

Hammer were masters of publicity and loved to show off fresh female talent at showbiz bashes. The posters too were impressive works of art with blood curdling slogans such as “drink a pint of blood a day” which was the strapline which accompanied Taste the Blood of Dracula and the Curse of Frankenstein’s boast that “no-one who saw it lived to describe it”.

It didn’t always have the necessary effect on critics. The reporter from the Daily Worker said of Curse of Frankenstein: “I came away revolted and outraged, this film disgusts the mind and repels the senses.” A third, somewhat lesser, series in the Hammer back catalogue was the Mummy films, starting with 1957’s The Mummy.

Hammer again plundered the Universal back catalogue to produce a stylish job. The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb followed in 1964 and The Mummy’s Shroud in 1967. Of Hammer’s other horror films, many played on well known stories, often with a twist. In 1971, Peter Sasdy directed Hands of the Ripper, a straightforward shocker concerning the daughter of Jack the Ripper (Angharad Rees) and the possibility that she had inherited his less pleasing characteristics. An idealistic psychiatrist (Eric Porter) believed he could cure her, but found himself out of his depth.

In 1971’s Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde, a variation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic, Ralph Bates transformed into Martine Beswicke after experimenting with female hormones while searching for a youth potion. Hammer also produced varied takes on literary classics from Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles, with Cushing as an icy Sherlock Holmes and Lee as Sir Henry Baskerville, to the Phantom of the Opera with Herbert Lom as the betrayed and lovelorn Phantom. Perhaps best of all was Rasputin: the Mad Monk, in which Lee led Barbara Shelley, Francis Matthews, Suzan Farmer (all from Dracula, Prince of Darkness) in an historically inaccurate romp through the corrupt Czarist court.

By the 1970s audiences were being offered a greater variety of shocks and Hammer’s output had become mundane compared to Hollywood, which was producing the likes of Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen and The Exorcist. In 1976 Hammer produced its last horror film – To The Devil A Daughter. Richard Widmark played an American writer trying to prevent Christopher Lee’s priest from impregnating a 16 year-old nun (Nastassia Kinski, daughter of Klaus) with the child of Satan.

The company which had won a Queen’s Award for Industry for exports in 1968 was out of the film business, part of a wider decline in the British film industry which in 1975 reached a new low when it did not produce a single feature film. Hammer’s last film, the Lady Vanishes, starring Elliot Gould, was a dismal re-working of Hitchcock’s earlier version.

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Kick-Ass TV Heroines: Xena – Warrior Princess

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Xena Warrior Princess

What was not to love about Xena? As Lucy Lawless says: “Xena is a bad-ass, kick-ass, pre-Mycenaean girl.” Evildoers, clearly, must stand down, but not only bad guys (and girls) have Xena-phobia. Even heroes quake when she swings her broadsword.

Originally created as a syndicated complement to Kevin Sorbo’s Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena pretty much kicked Herc to the curb. It was like when the Bionic Woman made us lose interest in the Six Million Dollar Man–only more so.

Unlike Lindsay Wagner’s early half-woman, half-machine, Xena wasn’t prone to frailty. Nor did she need robot parts. In fact, the Warrior Princess never lost. If she’s down, it’s not for long.

Plus, she was in touch with the dark side: This big-boned bruiser had definite moments of blood lust, as well as lust of some other varieties. Garbed in a leather miniskirt and armed with her trademark razor-edged, boomerang-action chakram, we watched Xena single-leggedly kick down entire platoons of Roman soldiers.

Sure, there were murmurings about Xena and her softer female sidekick, Gabrielle (actress Renée O’Connor). So what if they liked to conserve bathwater by doubling up? And what’s wrong with close friends frenching once in a while?

Then again, maybe it was true–and there’s anything wrong with that.

Actress: Lucy Lawless
Show: Xena: Warrior Princess
Character: Xena

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Classic TV Revisited: McMillan And Wife

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McMillan And Wife

Starring Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James, McMillan and Wife was a super cute crime-solving saga from the 1970s made for the NBC’s Mystery Movie series.

Who were they?
Hubby was the debonair San Francisco police commissioner Stewart McMillan.

And wifey?
Sally was a foxy, rather scatterbrained dame with a knack for finding corpses.

Worked down the morgue did she?
Hardly. Sally’s finds were usually in some glitzy mansion which the couple were frequenting for a weekend cocktail party. She also had a habit of getting her life threatened or being kidnapped.

Who was in it?
Tragic Hollywood star Rock Hudson no less. He took on Stewart McMillan in his first TV role, after years as a matinee idol with movies such as Giant.

Tragedy?
Fans of the lantern-jawed star were dismayed when he went public about having Aids. He had long kept his homosexuality secret. He carried on working in ’80s glam drama Dynasty, but make-up could not disguise the deterioration of this once-statuesque man. He died in 1985, aged 59.

What about Sally?
That role fell to raven-locked Susan Saint James. The Ali MacGraw lookalike was previously in shows such as Alias Smith And Jones and The Name of the Game.

Other characters
A vital ingredient to McMillan And Wife was sharp-tongued housekeeper Mildred, played by Nancy Walker. Somebody needed to keep the place tidy while they gallivanted about solving crime.

Famous guest stars?
Kim Basinger

The couple’s conception?
Like Hart To Hart, the idea was borrowed from Dashiell Hammett’s Thin Man books of the ’30s.

Gritty crime drama?
Hardly. These were cosy whodunnit cases, where the brutality of murder was never portrayed. The show was more about the interplay between McMillan and Sally.

Had viewers arrested?
Certainly in the US. It was the fifth highest-rated show in 1972 and 1973.

Fate of the golden couple?
Susan Saint James quit in 1976 over a contractual dispute. Nancy Walker also packed away her duster as housekeeper Mildred.

The dame’s exit was a fatal blow?
Certainly for the character of Sally – she was killed off in a plane crash. But Rock soldiered on with new assistant Sgt Steve DiMaggio (Richard Gilliland). The show became McMillan.

A winner?
Audiences dwindled and the plug was pulled.

Distinguishing features?
Cosy pillow talk, cocktail parties, Rock Hudson, pyjamas and numerous corpses.

Do say
Let’s go to bed. Turn the light out, darling.

Don’t say
Must you eat toast in bed, darling. Apologies, but I’ve got terrible flatulence. Separate bedrooms.

Not to be confused with
My Wife Next Door, Harold Macmillan, The Merry Wives Of Windsor and Mr And Mrs.

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Classic TV Revisited: The Royal

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The Royal

The Royal was an ITV drama commission and was inspired by its sister programme Heartbeat.

The lowdown: This nostalgic family drama is set in the swinging 1960s and centres on the staff of a cottage hospital in Yorkshire. Newly qualified doctor David Cheriton (Julian Ovenden) is determined to make a difference to the world and arrives at St Aidan’s Royal Free Hospital in Elinsby full of big ideas. But he clashes with the hospital’s secretary TJ Middleditch (Ian Carmichael) who is determined to run things his way. Then there is the Matron (Wendy Craig) who rules her nurses with a rod of iron and tries in vain to stop them being distracted by the handsome arrival.

Memorable moments: Watch out for former Heartbeat favourite Bill Maynard who crosses dramas and continents as Claude Jeremiah Greengrass. Greengrass has returned from a Caribbean holiday with a mystery illness but that doesn’t stop him trying to earn a fast buck. It doesn’t take long before Claude attracts Matron’s ire.

Trivia: The Royal is a family affair for real life husband and wife Robert Daws (Ormerod) and Amy Robbins (Weatherill). No fewer than seven members of their clan have appeared in the series including their daughters and stepson.

Michelle Hardwick, who played receptionist Lizzie, says her favourite moment in the whole series didn’t come on screen but in the actors’ green room. She says: “I was sitting in there with Wendy Craig and Honor Blackman and we were having a lovely conversation. I sat back and thought ‘Wow, this is great, I can’t wait to tell my gran’.”

A modern day set version called The Royal Today aired 7 January – 14 March 2008.

First broadcast: 2003

Starred: Wendy Craig, Ian Carmichael, Michael Starke, Robert Daws and Julian Ovenden

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