Christopher & Peter
After I wrote the horror romp ‘Hell Train’ I never really went back to it. I don’t think it was a huge success (although there’s a nice German edition), partly because I went with a small publishing house, partly because it was a bit too clever for the market. The plot concerns a writer hired to come up with a fast, cheap script for Hammer, and the script’s events unfold as a series of gaudy set-pieces.
Here the writer attends a script meeting at Bray Studios with his cast. The book was intended to be the film I would most have liked Hammer to make…
Peter Cushing was in his fifties, gaunt and small boned, but the litheness of his movements suggested surprising youth and fitness. Christopher Lee seemed even taller and grander than he had expected. It was rumoured that Lee was the son of an Italian countess, that he had aristocratic passions that included fencing and languages, but on screen he often seemed cold and aloof. Did he ever smile with his eyes?
Perhaps that was the secret of his friendship with Cushing. Everybody loved Peter; his warmth and authority lifted the dullest scripts. It made Shane wonder how successful Hammer would have been without the pair of them.
Christopher Lee gravely shook his hand. Peter Cushing smiled at him with great, watery blue eyes. He felt embarrassed by their deference, and nervously fingered the script pages on the table. Emma had sat with him typing until 2:00am, but the last section was still unfinished.
‘Have some tea,’ said Carreras. ‘It’s single estate high grown Ceylon. Thought we might break out the good stuff for a change.’
Tea was poured. Cake appeared. Everyone relaxed into their chairs. He realized that Carreras was waiting for him to begin. Shane cleared his throat.
‘I’m aware that Mr Cushing told the press he always wanted to make a film set on a train. And when – Michael – suggested I should write something with the same location, it chimed with my own ideas to develop such a project. I’ve always felt there was a theme at work in the Dracula films, the eternal battle to keep the Devil held at bay. I’m proposing we explore that idea in more detail. I see the train as a great repository of fates and fables, like Chinese boxes. That sounds kind of grand, I know. Let me see if I can simplify it.’
His confidence grew as he outlined the script. The assembly remained silent, only interrupting to concur or add a comment. He couldn’t imagine such a meeting happening like this in Hollywood. The executives would have been making power plays by now, cutting each other’s hearts out.
Lee steepled his long fingers, listening gravely and intently. When Cushing wanted to speak he merely sat forward slightly, and everyone turned to him. ‘I wondered – have you any preference about the roles you’d like us to play?’ He elegantly rolled his Rs. His language was clearer than glass, so that he never needed to raise his voice.
‘Well, I hadn’t really –’
‘Only I rather think I’m a little long in the tooth to play your vicar, although I’m sure Christopher could manage the deserter, Nicholas. Would I not be better suited to play the Brigadier?’
‘I daresay he has me earmarked for the Conductor,’ said Lee, ‘an agent of evil.’ He gave a deep mirthless laugh. Everyone else laughed, just in case they were turned to stone.
‘Certainly that was what I had in mind,’ said Shane.
‘Veronica Carlson would be good for Isabella,’ said Freddie Francis. ‘And Barbara Shelley for Miranda?’
Was this really how films got made in this country? It seemed an extraordinary way to hold a script session. They were already talking about casting without having read a word he’d written. Surely there was a point where the politeness ended?
‘It occurs to me that you could have some doubling up,’ said Carreras. ‘Roy Ashton’s brilliant at changing people’s appearances, and it might stretch the team a bit to have them playing more than one role.’
‘Interesting metaphysical idea,’ said Francis, ‘as if the tests were being played over and over with the same protagonists.’
‘Does that mean we get paid twice over?’ asked Thorley Walters. Everybody laughed. No.