Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Memorabilia at the NEC - when Chris met Robin (and Maddie, and Yvonne, and Yvonne, and Francoise, and Jacqui…)

Memorabilia 2012 - if you listen very carefully you can hear me crying in a corner

Regular readers of my ramblings may recall that last year I chanced my arm and set off to the Birmingham NEC, unsure of what I might find at what today’s young people call a “Memorabilia Expo”.
What I found was a bunch of smiling happy-to-chat old thesps, who regaled me with tales of their work for the British film industry during a golden age.
Filled with enthusiasm and confidence following this experience, I promptly failed to go to the next one, which happened in autumn last year. But this March, I found I had a window, organised my press pass, and went along for what I hoped would be a repeat performance of what was a minor triumph for your truly last year.
But would it be? Well, read on, MacDuff, and I’ll tell you…
This time, I elected to travel down to Brum by car - I live in leafy Cheshire and frankly, travelling by train is a pain in the arse at the best of times. I have to get in a car anyway to get to the nearest bloody station, so let’s face it - when it’s a choice between turning left to go to the station or right to go to the M6, there’s not really a choice.
Of course, this course of action was very nearly stymied by a certain Francis Maude, who had advised everyone to blow themselves up in their kitchens earlier that week and prompted a bizarre run on the petrol stations (as I write this, the one in our village is STILL devoid of fuel. Abso-fucking-lutely unbelievable). However, the night before I was due to travel down, the queues eased, and because the average driver in Cheshire has yet to figure out how to use the “pay at pump” option (they seem genuinely scared by it here, like it’s witchcraft) I sailed onto the Morrisons forecourt and parted company with £60 in the same way I would any other week.
So Saturday morning arrived, and off I fucked, down to the NEC. On arrival I was immediately stung for £8 to park, although this shock was offset by the sight of several Jedi getting dressed in the rain outside their cars in the car park. I guess they were too embarrassed to travel down in their gear. Funnily enough, I don’t remember Ben Kenobi getting out of the Millennium Falcon in a pair of jeans and disappearing round the back of the trash compactor to get changed. Sort yourselves out, Jedi, if you’re going to do it, do it properly.
The NEC was, as last year, mental. Lithe young girls in pink fright wigs being stared at longingly by overweight middle aged men in knock-off Last Exit To Nowhere t-shirts. Stormtroopers living out their life-long fantasies by telling people to “Move along, there”. About a million teenage Doctor Whos - mainly of the Smith/Tennant variety, but with a few Hartnells and Troughtons thrown in (and some middle aged Doctors too, who really should know better - as a rule, I‘d suggest that if you‘re a decade older than the age of the man playing the Doctor, you‘re too old. Plus, a balding 45 year old in a tweed jacket and bow tie just looks like a college lecturer, NOT a dashing young time lord). Plus a great many toddlers in Darth Vader outfits being dragged around toy stalls by their parents and constantly being told “DON’T TOUCH ANYTHING!”. By the end of the day I was so used to these cosplay shenanigans that as I sat in Hilton Park services having a burger, a tramp walked in and I thought “Obi Wan Kenobi”.
To be honest, I’d arrived a bit early. It was about 10.30am and it was insanely busy. I took a deep breath and wandered in, flashing my pass at anyone who looked remotely interested (all the NEC staff looked vaguely shell-shocked by what was going on around them). Thinking I’d acquaint myself with the layout first, I shuffled around the two hangars where the event was taking place (one for comics, one for memorabilia). I spotted a few familiar faces from the world of British horror films, all of whom were facing longish queues of fans clutching objects for them to sign. As I said, I was too early - I didn’t want to get in the way of the paying customers. I had a look at the many, many stalls dotted around, but that kind of stuff isn’t really my bag. I feigned interest at a mint condition Six Million Dollar Man doll, but to be honest, toys are for kids, and they’re meant to be played with. I had a brief flirtation with collecting vintage toys in my late 20s / early 30s, but since fatherhood came along (and the masses of toys that come with it) there doesn’t seem any need to have such things - MY Action Man explorer, 12” Darth Vader and Corgi Professionals Capri are all bunged in with the modern crap, slowly getting destroyed by a five year old who has no concept of keeping the original packaging, or that “inside toys should be kept inside”. I know that may make some readers cry, but get over it. And break out all those Star Wars figures from their original packaging and give them a good playing with. Have you seen Toy Story 2? That said, I was more excited than I expected to be to see a Death Star playset - I wanted one of those so bad, and it was a lot bigger than the promotional material back in 1980 had let on.
But I digress. If it’s possible to digress before you’ve actually started something. 900 words in and I haven’t actually said anything yet, it’s a new record!
Anyway, I got bored, so I thought it was about time I did what I’d gone there to do. For those who’ve never been to one of these things, I’ll explain the set-up. They take over one of the big halls in the NEC, and fill it with stalls. Then in one section, there are some temporary walls set up, with trestle tables, behind which sit the star guests. These guests spend the day saying “hello, you” to fans who have brought stuff for them to sign, or who buy photos from the stars, which they then sign. The people who attend bring great wadges of cash, and happily shell out between £10 and £20 for the privilege of having something signed. Depending on your point of view this is either insane or a perfectly acceptable hobby. I can’t quite make my mind up what I think. But then again, I’ve met a LOT of famous people over the years, and I’ve only ever asked for one autograph (Rolf Harris - he drew a Rolfaroo in my notebook when I was a cub reporter, which I now have in a frame).
This layout isn’t exactly conducive to a professional interview, but it is a great way to meet a lot of actors in a very short time. The problem is that it’s noisy, there are a lot of people wanting to speak to them (and are willing to pay for the privilege, unlike moi), and you do (it has to be said) get your weirdos there. On more than one occasion during the afternoon, my interviewee used me quite blatantly as a reason to shoo some borderline nutcase off (“I’m sorry, mate, I’m not being rude, but I’m doing an interview here”). For the record, I’d like to add that the vast majority of people I met - both actors and fans - were lovely. If you are a fan of old films, or sport, or cult TV, I promise you you’ll have a good time if you go along to an event like this. You can really just enjoy it and be yourself. Don’t let me and my natural cynicism put you off.
As I wandered through the guest section I caught the eye of Francoise Pascal, French saucepot from Mind Your Language and a couple of Brit horrors (Incense For The Damned and The Horrors Of Burke And Hare). She wasn’t being besieged by photo-toting fans, so I went over and said hello, and was very surprised that she remembered me from the Manchester Festival Of Fantastic Films from a couple of years ago, when we’d spent a pleasant half an hour or so chatting in the bar. Get me, ladies’ man. She’s a lovely lady and well worth a chat if you ever get the chance. And next to her was one of the holy grails I’d come to see, one Mr Robin Askwith. The sea of nerds in front of him parted, so I flashed my best “I’m not a nutter, honest” smile and said hello to the great man, shaking him warmly by the hand. I explained that Horror Hospital was the film that had started the British Horror Films website all those years ago, after my brother-in-law showed me an old Vipco VHS. It was my quest to find out more about what was pretty much a lost classic at the time, and failure to do so on the web, that led me to write my own review and create a website around it. A website that is now, lest we forget, one of the top rated horror film websites IN THE WORLD (sing it with me now).
“Ah, Horror Hospital,” he grinned. “Did you know Quentin Tarantino is a fan? Allegedly.”
People were queuing up behind me, so I asked if it would be okay if we had a proper chat later on, when the crowds had died down. He agreed, and I wandered off, happy.
But it was still very busy everywhere, so the best I could now do was shuffle around the stalls again, catch a brief look at the cast of The Walking Dead, find out what all the teenagers dressed like Manga characters were queuing up for (a bloke who does the voices for the cartoons, apparently - that‘s right, the longest queue of the entire day by some considerable margin was for a bloke WHO DOES THE VOICES IN A CARTOON. That‘s what the kids want these days), and marvel at how anyone could charge £10 for a Doctor Who VHS tape of a story you can now get on DVD. At one point I had to stop to make way for a full-on parade of grown men dressed as characters from Star Wars, who were doing a looping circuit of the entire hall.
Anyway, after having a brief cry in a quiet corner and a very expensive sandwich ruined by a young man with terrible body odour problems, I thought I’d better do what I’d gone there to do and speak to a few thesps. I wandered back over to that part of the hall, and the first free person I saw was one Jacqueline Pearce, probably best known for being Servalan in Blake’s 7, but let us not forget that she was also the young star of two absolutely cracking Hammer films - Plague Of The Zombies (where she gets her bonce lopped off with a spade) and The Reptile (where she gets her bonce covered in less-than-convincing papier mache “special effects”).
Now, I’m an old-school kind of journo, after 20 years in the game I still like to take my notes the old fashioned way. But for some insane reason I chose this point to thrown all that experience in the bin and try a taped interview. Which meant that I pretty much fucked it up royally, as all I could do was worry about whether my iPhone was picking up our conversation, and also didn’t have anything to do with my hands. So the interview, which I have just listened to, was pretty poor. She told me how much she enjoyed working for Hammer films, and I ummed and erred and told her lots of stuff she already knew. Still, she kept on smiling and even let me have my photo taken with her.
Servalan herself! And me. Guess which one's which?

Oh, and she’s got a book out, the bloke from the publishing company was very strict about me mentioning that.
Next up I went for and got Yvonne Romain, who I once described in a review as the unluckiest woman in the world due to her character lurching from one disaster to another in Curse Of The Werewolf. Now, there is a woman who has aged very well indeed - I’ve no idea how old she is, but Curse Of The Werewolf is bloody ancient so she must be knocking on a bit, but she certainly doesn’t look it.
“Most of the people who I’ve talked to today are interested in the horror films,” she smiled. “My first one was Devil Doll, which I think is still quite frightening. Sometimes if they come on late at night on the TV I’ll watch them. In fact, the other afternoon I showed my little grand children Curse Of The Werewolf. I thought they would be bored stiff, but they were riveted!”
I venture that they probably weren’t that keen on seeing their grandma abused to that extent.
“Yes - someone once pointed out that I was always beaten up in my films! I don’t know what it is about me. Even the Elvis Presley film I was in, Double Trouble, had me in a punch-up with Elvis. Elvis is the other thing people want to talk to me about - in fact, this is my first event and I brought a load of Elvis pictures - but they had all gone within the first five minutes!
“I can’t believe these films have lasted as long as they have. The whole business was much easier then than it is now, it was almost like a repertory company. You would go from one film to the next. Hammer was a lovely company to work for, I had a great time working for that one.”
I say that because of her looks and her name, I’d assumed she was actually foreign, like her neighbour at the event, Yvonne Monlaur. “I am part Maltese, so I was always cast as these exotic women. Exotic, beaten-up women!”
What a lovely lady - still beautiful and very down-to-earth, and genuinely happy to be remembered by these fans.
The two Yvonnes - who were both in nutty Brit horror Circus Of Horrors - are sitting next to each other, so I started chatting to Ms Monlaur. She, it turns out, is a very different kettle of fish. “You will ‘ave to come around ‘ere, I don’t hear so well these days,” she tells me in a proper ‘Allo ‘Allo broken English, much like that spoken by her character in Brides Of Dracula, which I start off our conversation asking about.
“Ah, my dear ‘Ammer, it was a great great pleasure. Everyone was charming with me, I have great memories. Peter Cushing! Ah - charming Peter. Mine was a very important and very nice part as Marianne. They wrote her role especially for me so they could explain away my broken English and my bad accent. I don’t speak English very well - these days I mainly speak Italian as I am always in Roma.
“It was a long, long time ago, but I remember the first scene I had was the very strong scene at the end of the picture when the mill is burning, because a short time before I had in real life a bad accident with a fire! I was very happy when it was finished. I don’t like fire, even though I am a woman of fire, because I am Sagittarius.
“David Peel was so moving - those two big fangs, he was very frightening. It was terrible make-up though! When we were in the cafĂ©  it was not possible to eat with him because his fangs came out and we kept laughing. We would through petits pois at each other during the lunch breaks to make each other laugh. The atmosphere was very relaxed. I have very, very good memories.
“I didn’t have a voice coach but I tried to work on my words every day - everyone else was English so it was not so easy for me. David Peel had a marvellous voice - very good diction, he helped me a lot.”
Once again, the queues are building so I grab a quick shot of Ms Monlaur but don’t get one of Ms Romain, which is a great shame.
Yvonne Monlaur. Listen very carefully, she will say this only once.

I then make my way over to one of my great crushes, the wonderful Madeleine Smith. I have no idea what to expect here, she’s obviously more of an old hand at this kind of thing than the two Yvonnes, having been an object of lust through a variety of films and TV shows until relatively recently (well, the 80s). I ask for an interview and she seems happy enough, but is then called away for a Hammer girls photo by the organisers. I am told in no uncertain terms to “sit there and we’ll do the interview when I get back”. I do as I’m told, and plonk myself down in the chair which is supposed to be occupied by Christopher Muncke, one of several imperial officers from Star Wars who are dotted around the arena. After 10 minutes chatting to Ms Smith’s allotted helper and waving away the intentions of Star Wars fans (do I look old enough to have been an Imperial captain in The Empire Strikes Back? Don‘t answer that), I suddenly wonder what the bloody hell I’m doing, and spotting that Robin Askwith is once again free, tell my new friend I’ll be back to talk to Maddy in a bit.
Ah, Robin Askwith. The man, the myth, the legend. The bloke with the red undies on in everyone’s favourite British horror film, Horror Hospital. A 24 carat dude with great hair and a personality to match.
He greets me with his trademark cheeky grin and we start talking. I explain that I’ve just been sitting like a chump waiting for Maddie Smith to get back from a photo shoot, just because that’s what she told me to do.
“Ah, you don’t want to do what a woman tells you, mate,” he cheerfully admonishes me. And do you know, he might have a point, in his sexist 70s way.
“The Confessions films are mainly what people remember,” he says, and then lists the horror films he remembers (for the record, they’re Tower Of Evil, the Flesh And Blood Show and Horror Hospital - I remind him about Queen Kong and he quite rightly says “that wasn’t really a horror film”).
“I ended up making those films because of the directors - in fact, that’s how I got a lot of my work, because the directors or producers liked me. So I did a few with Pete Walker, Richard Gordon and Lyndsay Anderson, who kept employing me while I was making films like Confessions, Queen Kong and Let’s Get Laid.
“I get a lot of feedback about Horror Hospital - like I said, apparently Quentin Tarantino is a fan. When I was working on Benidorm Steve Pemberton told me, because he’d also been told that Tarantino was a fan of The League Of Gentlemen. Steve’s also a big fan of Horror Hospital.”
The proof of the Tarantino pudding is in Death Proof, apparently - the killer car is direct lift from the 70s shocker.
Horror Hospital was great fun to do. And the thing about it was that there’s some great stuff in there - the camera work, when you watch it, you can see there’s some good stuff there. Lots of tracking shots and long takes, and they weren’t specifically because it was cheaper to do that! This was in a time when most low budget films would have a fixed camera pointing at one person, then pointing at the next person. Anthony Balch (the director) had some big ideas and he didn’t want to do that.
“It wasn’t supposed to be a bad film - it was supposed to be a good film about a bad film. We had a real laugh. Dennis Price was hysterical, Skip Martin was ridiculous.
“I played the whole thing completely straight, as did Michael Gough, he was sensational. But he would never talk about the film. He said it wasn’t that he didn’t like it, he just didn’t want to talk about it!
“I re-watched it recently. I was struck by how good the music was - it was just library music but it works really well. I think it’s fabulous. But I’m not a big fan of watching myself on screen, especially the comedies. I did have to watch them all when I was writing my autobiography, though.”
We move on to Pete Walker’s first foray into the horror world, The Flesh And Blood Show. “I remember being very stoned in Cromer with Ray Brookes!”
(Mr Benn, on drugs? Perish the thought. Although now you come to mention it, that would explain a lot…)
“I didn’t really have that much to do, I really did it because Pete Walker asked me to do it. And he asked me because he said it would be wrong if he didn’t ask me! I’d done Cool It Carol with him, which was very big in Belgium, so he wanted to use me again.”
At this point Rula Lenska walks over for a kiss and a “daaaaaaaaaarrrling!” and after the thespo pleasantries have been done, I remember she was his co-star in Queen Kong. Not a film I’ve seen, but I have seen the trailer.
“Some would say that was enough!” Robin laughs. “I think it’s crap!”
I say that the only thing I can remember about the trailer is the bit where he smiles at the camera and his teeth flash. “Oh, yes - that took bloody ages to get right! They used a special star filter to get that effect.”
So yes, kids, that really is Robin’s teeth glinting in the sunlight and not, as you’d expect, a dodgy 70s special effect.
We move on to a slightly less awful, and much easier to see, film - Tower Of Evil. Another film which formed the opening salvo of reviews for the British Horror Films website.
“That was great fun to do as well, a fine cast.”
(A ridiculously starry cast, as it turns out, for what is basically a barking mad triple X rated version of Scooby Doo)
“My biggest memory of it, though, is that I met Mia Farrow at Shepperton while we were doing it. I’d become friends with Jill Howarth during filming (read into this what you will) and she’d invited me along for lunch with her friend, Mia. It was only about half way through the meal I realised who she was.”
That’s what you get for partying hard with Ray Brookes, I suppose. Although on the plus side you do get to “spend time” with the gorgeous Jill Howarth.
This is only a sample of what we talked about, I’m afraid - Mr Askwith is a genuinely great bloke, and very chatty, and I spent more time laughing at his jokes and anecdotes than I did making notes. Then again, considering we ended up talking about some friends of his who live near me in Cheshire and my family holidays in Malta during the 1970s, it would exactly make riveting reading for you lot. But that’s the kind of guy he is, as happy to talk about bonking dolly birds on screen as he is to chat to you about your life.
I ask him what’s next - I had noticed there appear to be a couple of recently filmed horrors in the pipeline. But he just laughs. “Oh yes, Eldorado and Back2Hell. That’s Richard Driscoll - he assembles these amazing casts and makes these films, but he doesn’t seem too bothered about releasing them! Still, I get paid!
“I like to keep busy - I did Benidorm and every year I come over to the UK for a panto. I would like to do more television, but one thing I’ve never been tempted to do is reality TV. I’m a very, very private person, which is why I think I was lucky to be famous when I was. I got up to all sorts back then, but nothing was written about it at all!”
Robin Askwith and some weirdo

The queues are building once more, so we shake hands, I ask to have my photo taken with him (there was no way THAT wasn’t happening, even with my natural reservation against such things) and I leave Mr Askwith to do what he does best. And can I just add that whilst interviewing Maddie Smith my eyes wander at one point over to his table, where he appears to be chatting up what must have been the most attractive woman at the whole event, a tall young business woman who must have worked for the NEC or the company running the event. Nice one, Robin.
And so to the OTHER reason I drove 80 miles to Birmingham this Spring, Madeleine Smith. Hammer stunner and all round top-heavy comedic foil to characters as varied as James Bond and Eric Morecambe.
I hold out my hand and say “Hello Miss Smith” for the second time that day, and she waves it away with a starchy “oh, we don’t need such formalities!”
Is this a good thing or a bad thing? I have no idea, but she seems happy to let me sit next to her, so I carry on.
“I haven’t done a lot of these events,” she answers my opening gambit. “I keep them fairly slim - because if you do a lot of them people get used to seeing you. I have done a few this year, however, and I adore doing them. I love meeting the public, and I like the hands-on thing (oo-er), seeing the people who have supported me all these years.
“I’m both a private person and a social person, so this provides the perfect way of meeting fans. I can just sign autographs, or I can reach over and touch them… if I want to.”
Having seen some of them, I know exactly what she means. In fact, throughout the interview we are “helped” by just one of those types of fan, who doesn’t seem at all shy about suggesting just what he uses his DVDs with Ms Smith in for. Hmmm. I can’t help wondering what exactly he’s hoping to get out of this not-so veiled insinuation. A sudden offer from Maddie Smith to accompany him back to his tissue-strewn bedsit, perhaps.
Although she has been off our screens for a while, Maddie is still very much working - she tends to do a lot of theatre, and radio work, and our interview is interspersed with actor-y little conversations with the jolly Mr Muncke, who has now returned to his seat and has more in common with the Hammer starlet than they had realised. Tales of working with Arthur Lowe abound, and to be honest, I’m loving it.
“It’s cult. It’s cult!” she tells me in her clipped schoolmistress voice, reminding me of Julie Walters playing Mrs Overall when she’s out of character (if you follow me).
“They like to collect,” she says, showing me the selection of photographs on the table in front of her. “People mostly come to gawp at us. It’s a way of meeting fans - in the olden days this would have happened at the stage door!”
I steer the conversation away from the general public and towards her films.
Vampire Lovers was really done as a Japanese version. It was the dying days of Hammer and they were trying to inject a bit of life.
“We didn’t know those films would EVER be out on TV or DVD. They used to show in the fleapits, you see, at two in the morning. They were triple-x rated and a very tiny public would go and watch them.
“They were rubbish, but I did enjoy making them. They had wonderful directors. And I think that with time they have become better. And I really genuinely had to act in them.”
The talk of stage doors prompts the conversation towards Arthur Lowe, who they have both worked with, it turns out. “Arthur? You worked with dear Arthur?”
And I mention that Theatre Of Blood, in which Maddie appeared with Lowe, is regarded as a bona fide classic. A statement she agrees with.
“I took that part, and even dyed my hair blonde, just so I could act with that cast! That rubber head was in the make-up room for weeks!”
Which probably explains why it looked less than realistic when it finally appeared on screen, but I digress (again). I say that while we’re talking about classics (as opposed to “rubbish”), I’m a huge fan of The Amazing Mister Blunden. It turns out Maddie is, too.
“I wish to goodness they would show it again. Apparently, TV stations buy in bulk, or so I’m told, which is why they keep showing The Railway Children but not Mister Blunden.”
I can’t help thinking that if she turned up in person at the BBC film commissioner’s desk and demanded they show it, it would get shown. She’s quite a forceful woman, as it turns out - not in the slightest like her characters in those early films, who were all doe-eyed, put-upon waifs of some kind or other.
In fact, as I remind her, she was also in another genuine horror classic - Frankenstein And The Monster From Hell - in which she doesn’t speak but has to do all her acting mute. Until the end, as she reminds me, when she screams the place down.
“One thing these films were good for was my acting - these directors did get decent performances out of me. Basically and essentially I very much enjoyed them. And of course I was that innocent when I made Vampire Lovers. Oh, yes. Let’s leave it at that. But I was.”
The mind boggles. I ask for a photo, and she graciously accepts, adding “Oh, I suppose you want me to take my coat off?”
Maddie Smith. Aaah.

I’m far too much of a gentleman, so of course I just say, “oh no, you look lovely there” and take a quick shot. Her face lights up as I take the photo, and when I look at the screen on the back of the camera, I realise she still looks incredibly young. And I tell her. She grabs my arm and puts her head on my shoulder, saying “oh, thank you” as if I’m some kind of silver-tongued devil. But I’m not, I genuinely mean it.
And so, that’s it. I make my farewells and wander off, happy that once again the old Chris smile and the press pass worked their magic. I spoke to who I needed to speak to, I even remembered to grab photos of some of them. And now it’s time to wend my way home. Outside in the NEC’s foyer there are groups of Doctor Whos sitting looking happy clutching plastic bags full of fuck-knows-what, and a Boba Fett is having a mock gunfight with a Cylon Warrior. But who am I to judge? At the end of the day, I like old horror films, so maybe I’m not a million miles away from this lot. But if I do ever turn up at one of these events dressed like Captain Kronos, you do have my permission to kick me forcefully in the balls.
If a bomb went off in here, half the comic shops in the Midlands would close down within a month.