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Peter Cushing - The Complete Memoirs

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Peter Cushing
Publication Date: 
Signum Books
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This new hardcover publication brings together the two volumes of memoir that were written by Peter Cushing and first published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in 1986 and 1988 respectively -- a few years after ‘the Gentleman of Horror’ retired from the acting profession. Not long before he wrote the first volume, simply titled “An Autobiography”, Cushing had been diagnosed with prostate cancer and was living with (and being cared for in their home) his steadfast secretary Joyce Broughton and her family -- having earlier been given a doctor’s prognosis that had at the time left him with no longer than eighteen months further to live. There’s little sense or indication in the text, though (which is written with a delicate, humorous lightness of touch throughout that somehow seems to encapsulate the poised charm of the man), of a mortal reckoning hanging over the writer of this brief but fastidiously crafted piece of work, other than its occasional recognition of an inherent tendency towards melancholy and a nervous exhaustion that had seemed periodically to afflict Cushing anyway; instead his main concern is to shine a light on the devoted relationship which came to exist between himself and his beloved wife Helen Beck -- contrasting within the book’s pages his early life and upbringing with the all-consuming spiritual union that came to define their marriage from very early on after Cushing first met the St Petersburg-born Russian émigré, after which the two of them found themselves serving alongside each other and acting all over the country for ENSA: the organisation set up to entertain British troops during the Second World War. This was the union which Cushing continued, for the remainder of his life, to credit with bringing him the strength and peace of mind he needed to be able to pursue his craft as an actor of the stage and screen.

This first volume covers with great humour and an almost Wodehousian finesse, Cushing’s childhood and early adolescence growing up in the London suburb of Purley. Here we learn of the hidden Cushing family tendency towards involvement in the theatrical profession (his paternal grandfather had been a member of Henry Irving’s company at the Lyceum, and a step-uncle was a skilled music hall performer) and how the infant Peter spent a good deal of time during his most formative years kitted out in girls’ dresses with pink ribbons adorning his long, uncut curly blond locks because his mother had yearned for a girl! He paints an amusing portrait of himself as a greedy child, much prone to stuffing anything into his mouth he could ingest – including garden worms! After detailing his half-hearted attempts to appease his father and pursue a respectable trade working as a civil servant in the Surveyors offices of Purley district council, the memoir goes on to examine the young Cushing’s first faltering attempts to break into acting, despite being debilitated by a decidedly non-standard South London accent, as pointed out to him in no uncertain terms during the horrendous audition for Allan Aynesworth that he attended (and amusingly recounts here) at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

The volume then moves on to cover those hard-won early years spent as a repertory actor in pre-war Britain, and his mixed fortunes in Hollywood having daringly decided to take a crack (on the eve of war with Germany) at making it big there after just three years in the profession, saving up the money to get him to New York, then taking a cross-country train trip to Los Angeles. The ambitious young would-be screen star did manage to get signed by RKO Radio Pictures and with luck and a young man’s chutzpah obtained the breaks that led to his appearance in films such as James Whale’s “The Man with the Iron Mask” and George Stevens’ “Vigil in the Night”. This was a period that even saw him managing to befriend Hollywood comedy duo Laurel and Hardy while attaining a small supporting role in their film “A Chump at Oxford” in 1940. But still, the internal crises that were always to blight his well-being from time to time, surfaced again as the Second World War took hold and, now anxious to contribute to the war effort but unable to do so because of ill-health, the homesick Cushing longed to return to England. He ended up abandoning his Hollywood life and was left virtually penniless and living in a New York flophouse on 42nd Street, surviving on donuts and coffee and unable for some time to cover the travel expenses needed to convey him back to his native land.

After eventually managing to get back to England (his convoy narrowly dodging the battleship Tirpitz to do so) and having his life transformed once again by his meeting Helen, the postwar years proved initially just as bumpy for the sensitive but gentlemanly theatrical, despite the life support he now had in the form of the devoted ministrations of his ever loving wife. The couple’s fortunes went from lows marked by extreme poverty and ill-heath to the high of Cushing finding himself placed under the patronage of Lawrence Olivier as part his Old Vic Theatre Company and, with Helen in tow, accompanying Olivier and his wife Vivien Leigh on their prestigious fund raising tour of Australia and New Zealand; as well as this fantastic experience, he appeared in Olivier’s 1951 production of “Anthony and Cleopatra”, which was staged as part of the Festival of Britain celebrations soon after the company’s return to England.

But then, down to earth with a bump ...  eighteen months of unemployment followed this extraordinary high point, and led to Cushing being forced to set aside acting and utilise the artistic talents he’d honed as a teenager during the evening courses he attended at the Croydon School of Art instead. He found employment for a time as a commercial artist, becoming a silk scarf designer after a manufacturer from Macclesfield offered to pay for him to come up with more of the beautifully wrought patterns he’d created for one of his wife’s scarfs as a birthday present for her when poverty prevented him from buying her anything more expensive. Cushing’s love of arts and crafts led to his developing some significant talents in areas other than his acting: he had a great interest in model building, painting and illustration, and such activities frequently came to provide succour and relief during times of stress: ‘I have found that art enables me to relax when I am not acting,’ he writes. ‘Apart from landscapes and drawing, I sculpt miniature figures and make model houses from paper and glue.’

Although this first autobiography was (and is) extremely strong in relating a detailed account of these early years, and also covers Cushing’s first blooming as a TV star and the wider public recognition this brought him for the first time in the early '50s  (laying equal emphasis on Helen’s vital role in bringing about this massive change in his fortune through here determined letter writing campaigns to various TV producers) the book disappointed some fans for its relative lack of coverage of Cushing’s Hammer years and his subsequent career as an icon of postwar horror in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Since by some miraculous stroke of good fortune the original eighteen month prognosis he’d been given eventually turned into a further fruitful twelve years of life, watched over throughout by the ever faithful Broughtons, Cushing still had time to rectify such omissions in his second volume published two years later, which this time ranged backwards and forwards across the great man’s entire career to deliver, in the same intimate but impeccably proper style, an anecdotal series of reminiscences revolving around some of his greatest stage and screen roles.

 “Past Forgetting” is a much more piecemeal affair, despite chapters being arranged as though recording the orderly progression of a play, from curtain up and Act One Scene 1, to the closing epilogue. Cushing here adopts a slightly less chronologically structured approach and instead attempts to fill in gaps left by his previous book with mostly light-hearted anecdotes from his earliest days as a Hollywood actor to his late career appearance in “Star Wars” as Grand Moff Tarkin, in which he wore carpet slippers because the boots provided with his costume (‘it looked like some kind of Edwardian chauffeur!’ he writes) hurt his feet too much! He also reproduces letters and notes written him by his beloved wife, whose death in 1971 he never fully came to terms with; and there’s some delightfully playful correspondence reproduced between himself and the great raconteur and performer Peter Ustinov.

Signum Books has brought these slim, long out-of-print writings together under hard covers for the first time – accompanied by a shorter piece of autobiography, “The Peter Cushing Story”, originally composed for press serialisation in 1955, just at the time when the actor was at the height of his first brush with fame after becoming a star of the fledgling British TV industry who was now regularly appearing in people’s homes in live broadcasts for the BBC broadcast from Alexandra Palace. Included among the roles which made him a household name during this period was his appearance as Mr Darcy in a 1952 adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice” and his controversial role as Winston Smith in Nigel Kneale’s adaptation of George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” – the role that gained him the sobriquet (a taste of things to come) ‘The Horror Man’, and led to questions being asked ‘in the House’ about the malign influence this new-fangled television  might be having on the nation’s morals. But this short piece of serialised autobiography was published a few years before that fateful first assignment for Hammer Films, “The Curse of Frankenstein”, which would set Cushing firmly on the road to worldwide prominence and  and even greater association with the horror genre.

The Cushing prose style throughout all three works proves itself a sparkling window into the heart of the man himself: effortlessly likable, charming and soufflé light in its breezy good humour, even when tackling the periodic episodes of nerves, self-doubt, breakdown and despair that seem to have been a permanent fixture of the actor’s character, afflicting Cushing at intervals throughout his life from young adulthood onwards but only really starting to dominate after the tragic death of his wife Helen from the pulmonary condition which had probably terminally set its mark upon her from very soon after their first meeting, despite Cushing’s relentlessly devoted attempts (amid the joys of the later successes of his career) to find suitable care for her and nurse her back to health.

The two volumes are themselves contextualised and brought into even sharper relief by introductory contributions from Joyce Broughton and writer Jonathan Rigby, who each are able to enhance the experience of reading these autobiographical accounts by bringing to them some personal reflections upon the man and his life, each grounded in their own individual relationships with the actor, as devoted aide and long-term fan respectively.

Broughton provides a touching Forward in which she recalls first being employed by the Cushings (whom she came to refer to affectionately as ‘Sir’ and ‘Ladyboss’) in 1958, when they were then living in Kensington; she continued to work for them after they moved in the early 1960s to their idyllic seafront home situated in their beloved Whitstable on the Kent Coast, which is also where Cushing initially retired to in his later years. Broughton vividly conveys a sense of the child-like nature inherent to Cushing’s gentlemanly persona: it was a constant of the home life he and Helen enjoyed during their marriage but this joie de vivre faded after her death, during which time Cushing entered a stage of depression in which he was no longer inclined to socialise, but buried himself in his work merely as a means of escaping the all-consuming grief which had by now overtaken him. Thankfully, Broughton also relates how Cushing’s latter years, during the period after he came to live with her and her family, saw him begin to find some meaning in his life once again, and before his death in 1994 he had even rediscovered in his old age his former love of painting. Rigby, meanwhile, provides extra insight into the events so deftly covered in the texts themselves; particularly how Cushing’s acting gained a new level of emotional vulnerability and fragility after Helen’s death, which can be seen in his roles in films such as “The Twins of Evil” and “Tales from the Crypt”. He charts the change in critical attitude to Cushing and his work over time and how a deep affection for the man has continued to linger long after his death in 1994, by which time his enduring status as the Gentleman of Horror had already been firmly established.

Rigby lived in Whitstable while he was a student at the University of Kent, and often saw the great man riding his bicycle about town or having lunch at the Tudor Tea Rooms. He was also privileged to encounter him during a book signing session which took place after a public appearance in Canterbury to promote the publication of “An Autobiography”. His account of that meeting, brief though it was, well illustrates the attitude of awe, deep respect and love with which his fans have always been inclined to react to this somehow most fastidiously Edwardian of modern actors (Rigby even obtained a ‘dear boy’ for his efforts!) Together, these concise yet beautifully written works of reminiscence fittingly mark 2013 as the centenary of the birth of a man who continues to be revered as one of the most cherished players in the pantheon of great horror legends. Highly recommended.

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