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Hammer Films: The Unsung Heroes

Review by: 
Wayne Kinsey
Forward by Barbara Shelley
Publication Date: 
Tomahawk Press
Bottom Line: 

 Among the many books already available which aim to recount for the benefit of the general reader the unique history of the revered British film company Hammer Films Productions, two of the most detailed and meticulously researched have to be Wayne Kinsey’s excellent two volumes of production history, which, between them, catalogue the story of Hammer’s Bray Studio years from 1951 to 1966, and the ensuing troubled period, when production moved to Elstree Studios leading up  to the company’s gradual decline and eventual bankruptcy in the late-seventies. These tomes are essential mainstays of any Hammer aficionado’s sagging book shelf, but now they are about to be joined by a third, equally rich volume, as Kinsey – the founder of the fanzine “The House that Hammer Built” and frequent contributor to “Little Shoppe of Horrors” – unleashes his ultimate, and thoroughly comprehensive, tribute to Hammer’s great in-house team of skilled technicians, producers, writers and administrators; the people behind the scenes who, without exaggeration, were Hammer Films.  It is Kinsey’s contention that it was the unique structure of Hammer’s ‘country house’ studio system – tentatively first tried out at Dial Close in Maidenhead in the late-forties (when the company was still largely known by its Exclusive Films signature), and brought to its zenith when it took possession of and converted a rambling old mansion house at Down Place in the fifties, changing the face of the British film industry – that was the most important factor in establishing Hammer’s unique set of working methods and remarkable efficiency levels, which in turn resulted in an unmistakable ‘house’ style developing that became synonymous all over the world with quality, as well as with box office popularity.

The question that has to be addressed before proceeding further is, do we really need another book about Hammer Films? This is tackled by the author in his introduction by reiterating his belief that it is the people rather than the films that best tell the real story of Hammer; instead of the film-by-film production list approach, which is usually the standard way of dealing with film studio or production house histories, what Kinsey presents here is really a series of first-hand ‘coal face’ perspectives: numerous mini oral histories, gleaned from lots of detailed interviews with surviving production staff, either conducted by Kinsey himself for the book or else sourced from  many of the invaluable interviews that have been conducted over the years by dedicated Hammer scholars, and published in books and fanzines such as Dick Klemensen’s essential “Little Shoppe of Horrors”. Studiously combined, they create an evocative picture that brings home more forcefully than ever the truth about the much quoted happy ‘family atmosphere’ that has oft been said to have existed behind the scenes of the Hammer production house. These interviews really are detailed, and the list of subjects sought out for their particular perspective is uniquely comprehensive: obviously, all the people you’d expect to find in any book about Hammer are covered and extensively quoted: the ubiquitous Jimmy Sangster, producer/writer Tony Hinds, and producer/director/writer and eventually managing director of the company from the early-seventies to its demise, Michael Carreras -- all feature heavily; as do the great directors, cinematographers and production designers who were vital in establishing the look and feel of the Hammer product, especially  by the time the company was in the business of making its Technicolor Gothics, from the late-fifties onwards.

But what really marks out Kinsey’s approach in this volume from other attempts to tell the Hammer story, is his insistence on examining and giving voice to the experience of as many of the less visible technicians as possible, whose work normally goes unacknowledged in general accounts of the filmmaking process: production managers, 3rd, 2nd and 1st assistant directors, editors, sound recordists, camera operators, continuity persons, runners, focus pullers – each of these (and more) is afforded as much appreciation and as much space as the memories of the many contributors to the text will allow, in sixteen detailed chapters that have been copiously illustrated with at least a thousand rare behind the scenes stills and many evocative informal photographs to boot. In these pages we learn how Hammer built up a dedicated core team, members of a crew who would return again and again (especially during the company’s heyday at Bray), all working exclusively and pulling together on just one production at a time, before breaking up to convene again once the stages and sets had been re-dressed for the next project. But what this engrossing book really lays bare, with more flavour and detail than ever before, is the truly eccentric and idiosyncratic nature of the Hammer venture during those crucial years at Bray.

Kinsey’s book doesn’t stop with exposing the minutiae of the technical expertise behind the camera at Hammer, but documents with loving carefulness the actual day-to-day regime of the precise running of the converted studio at Down Place, interviewing administrative staff, secretaries and even the studio caretakers! The book is never more engaging than during these richly textured sections (it actually opens with an important but rather dry history of the company’s many distribution and production deals, before getting to the more readable material); and the book becomes rather a unique social history of a very particular moment in British film history as it recounts the anecdotes and gossip of the lowliest of clapper boys as well as the high and the mighty wheeling and dealings of James Carreras or Anthony Hinds at the other end of the scale.

There’s certainly no way you’d ever find a modern film company being run like the regime described within these pages -- something more akin to a cross between a family business and a prep school -- with the crew arriving every day via a specially laid on bus that picked most of them up at Hammersmith and stopped for a few more stragglers along the way (in the early days, it was extremely rare for anyone to own or drive a car!) and depositing them at the gate in time for an 8.30 am start, with breaks for lunch in the on-site canteens, and cooked meals laid on by Mrs Thompson: the sole Bray Studios cook (some rather sweet snaps depict Christopher Lee in his full Frankenstein’s creature make-up, queuing up to be handed a plate of pie and mash from a stooped little old lady). The anatomy of Bray is meticulously documented with the aid of innumerable figured photos and reproductions of carefully annotated ground and first floor plans that reveal the whole layout of the studio and its immediate grounds; Kinsey even gives you a tour of the many sections of the house and grounds that cropped up as locations in the films themselves.

 It’s the sometimes apparently trivial anecdotes that really bring this period in Hammer’s history to life with the most force,  tales such as that told  by one of the studio secretaries, Christine Stevens, recalling a daring daytime wages snatch, accomplished by someone climbing a ladder to get into the accountant’s office through a second floor window on a Friday afternoon, and snatching the waiting pay packets from a tray while accountant Ken Gordon  was on his lunch break; or caretaker Marje Hudd remembering the 1961 fire which caused extensive damage to the manor, luckily just at the end of the production of “The Shadow of the Cat”. Focus puller Harry Oakes and assistant director/production manager Hugh Harlow prove to be invaluable sources for a lot of the information and anecdote that accumulates over the course of the sixteen chapters of the book and they furnish the text with lots of rare or never seen-before photographs, including an eight-page colour section in the middle.

At nearly 500 large format pages, this is a weighty piece of work that is crammed with enough information to keep even the most dedicated and knowledgeable Hammer fan detained for hours, with detailed sections on the make-up, wardrobe and special effects departments as well as the Hammer stuntmen; there’s even a section on the family who supplied the coaches and horses for most of the Hammer films! The UK independent publisher Tomahawk Press have to be congratulated on their support of this marvellous piece of niche publishing: it’s clearly aimed at the confirmed Hammer Horror addict and is replete with the kind of obsessive detail on just about every technical aspect of the making of Hammer’s movies that you simply won’t find anywhere else. If there’s one small criticism I could make, it’s that it really seems like the book could have done with a comprehensive index as well as the list of source references, since the structure of it means that information on specific films and people will inevitably be scattered all over the text (although I guess this would have added quite a few pages to an already massive book!); but that aside, I can have no hesitation in recommending this lovingly told oral history of an era and mammoth compendium of information on Britain’s best loved film studio to all Hammer fans.

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