Sunday, 27 March 2011

Memorabilia memories - part 1

I’ve been running this website for nigh on 11 years now, but I’m a relative newcomer to the idea of actually getting out there and meeting the people connected to these films. In fact, the first time I did it was last September, when I packed up a notepad and camera and travelled a whole half an hour on the train to a freezing cold Manchester for their annual Fantastic Films weekend.
The less said about the surly welcome I received, or the fleabitten venue, or the general haphazard nature of the proceedings the better (it was not the ideal introduction to the world of horror fandom, let’s put it that way). But as the day wore on it became apparent that behind the lack of sheen there was a certain something – namely a friendliness and a feeling that everyone was thoroughly enjoying themselves – that permeated through everything. Being a somewhat cynical person who has pretty much kept his love of these films under his hat (apart from to the thousands who frequent this site), it came as a nice surprise to find that there are other people – and mainly sane, normal people – who like the stuff I like.
Even more of a surprise to me was the reaction I got from the stars who attended. I expected a bunch of miserable, bitter old thesps who were attending for a free bar and were sick to the back teeth with 40-something men wanting to talk to them about a barely-remembered film they did for peanuts back in the late 60s. But that just isn’t the case. I only talked to a few of the special guests, but they couldn’t have been more happy to share their memories. One – genre fave director Norman J Warren – actually arranged for me to do a full interview with him at a later date, which I did and will be on the site soon. Whilst I was chatting to him, who should sit down next to us but Francoise Pascal, the French “bird” from 70s sitcom Mind Your Language and films such as Burke and Hare. She was funny, flirty, and still very attractive, it has to be said. She didn’t hold back on the risqué anecdotes, either – although sadly I didn’t have my notebook out at the time. We were also joined by her partner, who proceeded to tell be about how they had met during the orgy scene in Incense For The Damned. “You can see my arse going up and down at one point,” he told me. “You can’t see my face but you can tell it’s me cos of my tattoos”. They told me they had lost touch after the filming wrapped but had met up again recently through Facebook, of all things.
But I’m wandering off the point, interesting though these snippets might be.
This weekend I had the opportunity to have another go at meeting a few of the people from the films I have been mercilessly taking the piss out of for the past 11 years. The Memorabilia event comes to the NEC every six months, and my brother in law went to the last one and came back with tales of how he had finally met his idol, Robin Askwith (yes, the bloke out of the Confessions films and BHF classic Horror Hospital). He was raving about how good the event was and recommended I went along to the next one. So in February I checked out who would be at the March event – and was blown away by the people attending. Bond Girls, Doctor Who stars, even Dirk Benedict out of Battlestar Galactica. Who I had no interest in meeting, but even so – Face out of the A Team, wow. So I organised a press pass, and yesterday found me sitting on the train to Birmingham.
I have to say there was a certain amount of trepidation involved. This was no “Fantastic Films weekend”, this was a properly organised, swish event, involving Q&A panels, £10-a-go autographs and something called “cosplay”. Even with my press pass I had no guarantee I would actually be able to talk to the people involved, given that I was neither prepared to wait in a big queue or hand over my hard-earned for an autograph. I was fully prepared to have a wander around, catch sight of the odd faded starlet over a sea of heads (I am quite tall) and check out some of the posters for sale before setting off for home, empty handed (as it were). What actually happened was this:

I arrived at the NEC, and was immediately staggered by the scale of the event. One of those enormous halls they use for Coldplay concerts and the Motor Show, absolutely packed with stalls and people, even at just after 10am. After wandering around a bit, and catching sight of the occasional faded starlet, I checked out the posters on sale and then decided that I’d give my press pass a go.
Aware that everyone else there was paying good money to meet these people, and I wasn’t, I picked my targets carefully, trying to make sure that I wasn’t getting in anyone’s way or stopping anyone from getting their stuff signed.
Spotting a gap in the queues, with a half-remembered idea that he’s quite a nice bloke at conventions, and what I believed was a fairly decent opening gambit, I made for John Levene, the man who will forever by remembered as Sergeant Benton from Doctor Who.

After introducing myself I explained “I was hoping to talk to you about Psychomania – you’re responsible for my favourite line in the whole film!”
(He plays a police officer working on the front desk of a police station, who reacts in a remarkably professional manner when two undead bikers roar in through the front door on their machines).
He looked at me, a broad grin on his face, and roared “that’s my favourite scene as well!”
It looked like I was on safe ground.
“The director (Don Sharp) liked me, you see, and gave me three movies. When you’re liked you feel secure, and when you feel secure you perform better. He said ‘John, I want you to do a death scene. I need you to look like you’ve been killed by this powerful force’. I went to the carpenter – the studio floors were all wooden then – and I got this 10 inch nail. I banged it into the floor right near the place where I had to die. You can see it on the film if you look closely – I got my foot hooked round the nail so my body could look more contorted. A 10 inch nail helped make my death scene look so good!
“Nicky Henson reacted very well to my line when he came into the police station. He showed they were frustrated and angry, and that’s why they killed me!”
John was also in Brit horrors Dark Places and When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth. “I was in it at the very beginning, wearing a loincloth and chanting ‘Akuna’ or something. We all hitched our loincloths up as high as we could to try and get more screen time!”
In 1975 he appeared in Permission To Kill, an international thriller starring Dirk Bogarde and Ava Gardner, and which saw him turn down the chance to jump into bed with a future James Bond. “My part called for me to do a love scene with Timothy Dalton, but I couldn’t do it – so they cut it out. Although Dalton does still deliver the line ‘hmmm – a bit of beefcake at last!’”

Trying my luck, I asked if I could take a photo of him – and he immediately jumped up and grabbed me, handing my camera to his colleague. I wasn’t expecting this (and it probably shows on the photo), but it was a thoroughly nice way to start the day. Later on I saw that big grin several more times, and he’d even put on his Sgt Benton jacket. The man is an absolute star!
In the same room was Mary Collinson, one of the Twins Of Evil from the Hammer film of the same name. Realising that she was being unmolested by the crowds at that point (who were all converging on Linda Hayden – more of her later), I thought “in for a penny” and went over. This time I was expecting a frostier reception, and I also didn’t have an opening gambit (“Hello, I’ve seen your boobs” didn’t seem particularly appropriate). The Collinson twins have kept out of the limelight since their heyday so I thought she mustn’t have much interest in talking about her time with Hammer.
Wrong.
“It’s only the third time I’ve done this,” she explained, a big grin on her face. “The last time was about 10 years ago.
Twins Of Evil was 40 years ago – it’s unbelievable.”
I say that the film was shown on the BBC quite recently. “I live in Italy and it has never been shown on the television there, but I understand it is shown quite regularly here.”
Asked what it was like working for Hammer, she says: “It was an experience – a beautiful experience. Especially to meet and work with people like Peter Cushing. We weren’t actresses, so it was an unbelievable thing for us to do. Yet years later it is still there – it’s amazing.
“We weren’t expecting it to be as big a film as it was. We must have done something right! We were there at the right time, with the right people who helped us along.”

I ask for a photo and she leaps up and grabs my arm. This is getting to be a habit, and I’m in danger of looking like Gordon Smart from The Sun. “Ooh, it’s lovely to be having my photo taken again after all these years,” she says. All I’m thinking is “this is one of the Collinson twins!”
But I also vow to remain behind the camera for the rest of the day.
Spurred on by everyone being so nice, I decide to really chance my arm this time, and head over to Britt Ekland. “Can I talk to you about some of your films – like The Wicker Man?” I ask, giving her my best smile.
“I suppose so.”
Ouch.
After the enthusiastic reception I received from my first two targets, this one is more of a challenge, but it is Britt Ekland, after all – and I do like a feisty woman.
“I was pregnant when I did it, so it was a very difficult time” (Does anyone else know this? Is it a scoop? Probably not, but I’ve read a lot about The Wicker Man over the years and this was news to me. Then again – women being pregnant, meh). I venture that the weather wasn’t very nice, either. “It was bloody freezing!” comes the reply.

I’m finding it hard to keep up the shorthand and think of questions, so I ask to take a photo. And to be fair to her, she looks stunning on the picture, so either she knows how to turn it on for the camera or she actually didn’t mind my line of questioning that much.
Sitting near to her is Annette Andre, Jeanie Hopkirk from Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased). I know she has no links to British horror films, so I don’t wander over for a chat, as the only thing I can think to tell her is how much I was in love with her when they showed the repeats back in the early 90s. She really does still look amazing, though. As do they all, really. It’s the bone structure, I believe.
I spy a familiar-looking jolly face and make a beeline for him. It’s John Carson, Hammer stalwart, but probably most famous for being the man who proved difficult to kill in the classic Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter.

In between signings, he explains that he’s another “new boy” to this kind of event. I ask him about his death scene in Captain Kronos, where his friend, the venerable Captain, tests out just what kind of vampire he has become by attempting to kill him in a variety of ways.
“Ah, yes!” he laughs. “We had a tape of that after the film was finished and my children, who were very young at the time, weren’t allowed to watch it. One day they conned the au pair into letting them see it, and they wouldn’t talk to me for a week!
“It was fun working with Brian (Clemens – the genius behind Kronos, The Avengers, The Professionals etc) because it was horror with a difference. He was trying to break the mould of horror films at the time, which were ‘more cleavage, more blood’, and actually make a film with a good story. He is a good story teller, and it’s a fun film. It was regarded as not so good at the time, but it has stood the test of time, hasn’t it?”
John also starred in Hammer’s Plague Of The Zombies, which it is obvious he has a high regard for as well.
“I don’t work these days,” he says. “What I miss is the relationship with the camera crew. You have to get on well with them to get good results.
“I have different memories of each of the Hammer films I worked on,” he says. “What I remember about Taste The Blood Of Dracula was the stellar cast I was working with. And the director, Peter Sasdy, was a good friend. I worked with him for many years. A lot of the filming was done at Highgate Cemetery as well, of course – with all the sycamore roots growing through the mausoleums. When it’s foggy there you don’t need any special effects to make it look spooky! It’s a quite extraordinary place.”
I’ve been doing quite well on the classic horror front, and as I wander around I notice there’s a bit section set aside for new British horror film The Hike. Later on I’ll sit in on a Q&A session with the stars and director of the film, and get a sneak peek – but for the time being I decide to have a quick chat with just one of the people involved - Barbara Nedeljakova – as not only is she blummin’ gorgeous but I know she’s been involved in a couple of other recent Brit horrors, too. Barbara, in case you didn’t know, is one of the young ladies whose role it is to seduce young men in the Hostel films. Yup, that’s right. Her.

An upcoming film is a high-brow concept film called Strippers Vs Werewolves. Which part is she playing, I venture. “ A stripper,” she smiles. “But… oh, I probably shouldn’t say. It might be a spoiler.”
What’s it about? I ask, obviously coming across as a complete fuckwit. “It’s a comedy horror about a bunch of strippers who get in trouble with werewolves. Then they decide to turn the tables. It’s full of strong female characters and it’s very funny.”
She’s also in an upcoming feature called Isle Of Dogs. Which isn’t a very good title for a film. Try saying it out loud. See?
Isle Of Dogs had a premiere at Fright Fest, but now the director is making some changes. I believe it should be done soon.”
Hopefully they’ll be changing the name, lest they get completely the wrong target audience showing up to the cinemas.
I suggest she’s getting a name as a scream queen, what with a role in the upcoming final Children Of The Corn film, too.
“Yeah, I kind of want to get away from that,” she says. “I love horror, it’s great fun, but I’d like to do some drama.”
More about The Hike later – but it’s worth adding that I did have a brief chat with the director, Rupert Bryan, who tells me it has yet to have a UK release as it needs to be “re-cut to tone it down a bit”. Given that we’re living in a world where The Human Centipede and A Serbian Film exist, I have to ask what on earth he’s created there. “I dunno,” he smiles. “We didn’t think it was that bad!”

This is proving to be a longer post than I expected – part 2 soon, featuring Sheila Staefel, Melvyn Hayes, Edward de Souza, Honor Blackman and Linda Hayden!

1 comment:

Saltwell said...

Some fascinating anecdotes. It seems that most celebrities who've had a career of any length are approachable by necessity. Common sense really - if you want to get more work, you have to get on with people. It's still nice to hear about actors etc being friendly. I was particularly interested to hear John Carson's stories - a very good actor who has appeared in some great, if small budget, productions. (You hear stories of people who were a success, got 'above themselves' and aren't so successful any more. The only names I can think of at the moment are Simon Dee and Jimmy Nail, but I'm sure there are more.) I look forward to reading the second part (which of course is already there).