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Ingrid's Obituary


The Hammer Films Story - Part One

Introduces Hammer and the people who set the company on the road to the Queen's Award for Industry. Every picture they made is briefly discussed with an appreciation of the cast of main characters.
Peter Cushing and 'Ingrid Pitt'

Peter Cushing and 'Ingrid Pitt'

Hammer started, for me, at the Grosvenor Hotel in December 1969. It was at the height of my Premiere Queen days. A polite way of saying I was 'between films', a euphemism for out of work. ALFRED THE GREAT had just premiered at the Odeon in Leicester Square and everyone had moved on to the hotel for dinner and congratulations. I found myself sitting next to a military looking gent who spent most of the evening shaking hands with anyone who sidled up to the table and touched his forelock.

When things simmered down a bit he introduced himself. James Carreras. I dimpled prettily and said I was pleased to meet him. He complimented me on my last film - WHERE EAGLES DARE. I let him enthuse. He also asked me what I was doing next. Number one rule of a 'resting' thespian is never admit you haven't got a raft of producers just begging to put you in front of their camera. James nodded and I had the distinct impression he had heard it all before. He introduced me to his wife and for the rest of the evening we went through the same old formula of brightly inane conversation followed by awkward silences. When it was time to go I met Mr. Carreras again in the foyer. He offered me his card and suggested that I came to see him the following morning at his office in Wardour Street - he might have three roles for me. I disguised my feelings well. I thought it was a try on. At that time I was getting a lot of interest from 'Producers'. Usually an invitation back to their hotel room to discuss a script. Which usually led to the suggestion of a run through on the bed. And me a respectable girl! Next morning, after a restless night, I decided that the appointment was in his office and as I had nothing else planned I might as well go along. That was the first time Hammer became reality.

Enrique Carreras

Enrique Carreras

Whatever my existentialist view of Hammer's existence might be the real beginning for what was to become one of the best known film companies in the world was fifty years earlier. In fact the genre for which the studios became famous came about almost by accident thirty years later. Enrique Carreras (pictured, right), the esteemed papa of Jimmy, created Exclusive Films in 1928 as a distribution company. He hooked up with half of a failed comedy act, Hammer and Smith, in 1932 and acquired the rights to a couple of pot boilers, SNOW BOUND and SPILT SALT. Margarine was spread thinly on the bread for a while and the partners sat and worked out a plan for future trading. They decided that they would produce low budget films so that they always had something to work on when they were drawing the short straw in film distribution. Horror was the last thing on their minds. THE PUBLIC LIFE OF HENRY THE NINTH (1935) told the story of a down and out who starts singing in a pub called HENRY Vlll. He goes on to great success and gets the girl. It ran 60 minutes and was received more or less positively by the press. What a bonus for anyone who has this little gem locked away in the attic! For Hammer fanatics this is the Holy Grail. Not even the British Film Institute can claim to have a copy. In fact anything to do with this film is worth a lot of dosh. So it's worth keeping a watchful eye open at car boot and jumble sales. After all this time, if it is going to turn up, this is where it will be.

Bela Lugosi - The Mystery of the Marie Celeste

Bela Lugosi - The Mystery of the Marie Celeste

Although Henry IX wasn't exactly a block buster it pulled in enough shekels to merit another bash at production. This was really the foundation stone on which Hammer was to become indelibly associated twenty years later. As they would in many future films they took a subject already well known to the audience, contracted a famous but fading Hollywood star and made a straight forward no-nonsense film.

The subject was THE MYSTERY OF THE MARIE CELESTE (1936). And the decaying Hollywood stellar being? The prime Dracula, Bela Lugosi. The film explains why the ship was found completely abandoned in mid-Atlantic in 1872. No UFOs. No devastating visits from an awakened Kraken. No time warp. Just good old fashioned murder and mayhem and a convenient suicide. Lugosi provides both. The press , in general, were gentle with it and Variety even used the word 'excellent' in its critique.

With two limited successes under their belt the Hammer directors decided to take a bit of a gamble in their next film. Race wasn't quite the issue that it is today and PC was only identified with the bobby on the street. Paul Robeson was that rare commodity, an essentially natural opera singer. He was being acclaimed as the best after his triumph in EMPEROR JONES and had developed a taste for acting in SAUNDERS OF THE RIVER. Enrique approached him with a proposition that was too good to pass up.

The film was called SONG OF FREEDOM. A strong story and fairly controversial for the time. Robeson (pictured right) plays a London dock worker who finds out that he is the King of an African Tribe. He returns to Africa to find his people living in poverty. He has to overcome a bit of local opposition when the medicine man gets him fitted up for a ritual burning. Just as the flames are about to write finis to his operatic career he starts singing a song he learned at his mother's knee. It's the royal tribal song and his people overthrow the nasty medicine man and put him back on the throne. Robeson reserved the right to the final cut so what you see is what he wanted. Again the crits were good. Especially about Robeson's singing. With the quality of sound around in 1936 I'm surprised they were able to tell. Robeson was in the Malcolm X vein and an early champion of racial equality. This didn't go down well with the blokes shaking the reins and Robeson's career went into decline..

Paul Robeson - Song of Freedom

Paul Robeson - Song of Freedom

A couple of years went by at Exclusive without anything worth recording happening. Well there was the 1936 THE BANK MESSENGER MYSTERY. The actual mystery about this film is nothing to do with a bank messenger but something for Hammer fans to mall over. It was released in 1937 but seems to have gone straight to the Valhalla of films conceived with a bomb in the can. Even to have seen the film could make you unique in the academy of the cinema. Enrique was an All-Italian boy and the patriarch of the family in England. It was a forgone conclusion that James, who was born in England soon after his father had settled down, should come into the family business.. This he did in 1939 just as Hitler was getting his own extravaganza underway in Europe. James was called up, promoted to Colonel and posted to Southampton. His driver, ATS corporal Yvonne King remembers him well. "The Colonel used to ring me up and tell me to bring his car around. He had to go to London immediately. I knew what that meant. There was some new film out or something he wanted to see." she told me when I met her at a convention a couple of years ago. " I got to see a lot of films when I was driving him. I don't know what he was supposed to be doing and I didn't ask or tell anybody what we got up to on our trips up to London".

Back in 'Civvie Street' Carreras rejoined Exclusive in 1945. He was joined there by Anthony Hinds who had, like Jimmy, been with the company briefly in 1939 before going off to serve in the Royal Air Force. Hammer hadn't been in production for nigh on eleven years. Hammer was officially revived in 1949. In the meantime, under the aegis of Exclusive, they weren't idle. The catch penny title of DEATH IN HIGH HEELS is best forgotten. RIVAL PATROL and THE DARK ROAD fell easily into the same category. But just when everyone had written Hammer off along came DICK BARTON, SPECIAL AGENT. This was a street clearer on radio in the late forties. The adventures of Dick, Jock and Snowy were not to be missed. Noel Johnson, a neighbour of mine, told me that when the film was first discussed it was assumed that he would play the lead. He was the eponymous Dick Barton on radio and it seemed impossible that he shouldn't get the part. It is said that he priced himself out of the market. Noel denies this. Don Stannard who was fast becoming a Hammer stalwart played Dick and Snowy and Jock were played by George Ford and Jack Shaw respectively. I've got rather an affinity with this film. One of my golfing mates was in it . He played Snub. Ivor Danvers was a slip of a lad at the time but remembers it well. He went on to play Gerald Urquhart in Howard's Way. It was a fairly standard plot line but it had the irresistible radio show going for it. The story was about renegade Nazis trying to spread plague in England by poisoning the water supply. Dick is up to the Nazi's nasty intentions and they know that they have to eliminate him if they are to succeed. Snub foils a plot to shoot Barton and gets thanked by his hero. Dick wins through every trial and tribulation that is thrown his way. The reviews were almost rapturous and Jimmy made sure that everybody knew it.

The following year, riding high on the success of its predecessor, DICK BARTON AT BAY was rushed out. Stannard was still Dick and Ford was still Snowy but Jock seems to have been lost along the way. Again it is a ripping yarn with evil foreigners intent on knocking British aircraft out of the sky with the devilish Ray Gun, a nod to Flash Gordon, which has been developed by Professor Mitchell before he is kidnapped while talking to Dick on the telephone. Dick and Snowy are soon on the trail and track the evil Volkoff to a lighthouse. Dick arrives just in time to thwart Volkoff's dastardly plans to knock a British aircraft out of the sky, they fight and Volkoff is hurled to his death on the sharp rocks below. Mitchell and daughter are set free and presumably regain the death ray. Although the film was made in 1948 it wasn't released until 1950 as Special Agent was still doing good business and Jimmy didn't want to trample on his own toes.

Quite a few Hammer productions have a bit of a mystery attached. THE JACK OF DIAMONDS is one such film. It is registered as an Exclusive-Vernon co-production with the only link to Hammer being through the distribution company. It has now been brought in from the cold and gets recognition as a Hammer production in its own right. But again the label of 'lost ' had been applied to it in some quarters. I don't believe a word of it. I could swear on a stack of broken tomb stones that I saw the film on television one wet afternoon not more than a couple of years ago. It starred one of my favourite actors, Nigel Patrick. It had a neat plot about a boat hired by Patrick to find sunken treasure. Once the treasure is secure on board Patrick does the dirty on the rest of the assorted crew and casts them adrift in a dinghy. But he does not benefit from his treachery. After a high speed chase he is captured and made to pay for his sins, It was well received and added a quid or two to the coffers.

WHO KILLED VAN LOON, rushed out to fill a hole in the production schedule of '47, was destined to be 'lost'. It ran for only 48 minutes and leaned heavily on the furore created by the opening up of the Concentration Camps in Germany and Poland barely two years earlier. Its main claim to fame is that it opened up Hammer's private cinema in Wardour Street.

Soon after Jack of Diamonds wrapped Dick had his third and final outing played by Don Stannard. Another cracking story and an introduction for one of the men who was to become a part of the essential Hammer - Jimmy Sangster as Second Assistant Director. Another murky foreigner, Fouracada, has made yet another ray. Lethal rays were all the rage in the forties and fifties it seems. This one is a 'vibration ray'. Anything it is focussed on literally shakes itself to pieces. DICK BARTON STRIKES BACK is a much tighter story than the others and represents a new look at the thriller on the screen. The bit I remember vividly from this film is Dick climbing up the Blackpool Tower, holding on grimly as the whole tower vibrates, threatening to dislodge him. Instead it is Fouracada who is dislodged and falls to his death. The real villain of the piece turns out to be one of Barton's old mates who thinks he can do a better job of running the world than those who are about to vie.

The Exclusive directors were so happy with the vein of gold they had hacked into with Dick Barton that another one was already on the blotter. DICK BARTON IN AFRICA should have rolled in 1949 immediately after D.B Strikes Back. But tragedy intervened. On Saturday 9th July 1949 a party was laid on at the studios to celebrate the success of the film. For Stannard it was to be the last party before departing for the shoot in Africa. As Don and his wife Thelma left the party with a couple of fellow actors the car ran out of control, flipped and skid along inverted. Stannard was taken to Maidenhead but died on the way. The others were treated for shock and abrasions. Exclusive decided to cut Dick Barton from their repertoire. Don Stannard had been so identified with Dick Barton that they felt unable to substitute another actor. It's a pity they hadn't the advantage of knowing the Bond saga.

It was about this time that Michael Carreras came on the scene. He had been involved with Exclusive momentarily before being drafted into the forces in 1943. Demobbed he had helped out as Assistant Producer until the death of Enrique in 1950. There was an empty chair at the board room table and Michael was drafted in to fill it.

The Hammer Mob - Chris Lee, Yvonne Monlaur, producers Kenneth Hyman, Michael Carreras, writer and director Jimmy Sangster

The Hammer Mob - Chris Lee, Yvonne Monlaur, producers Kenneth Hyman, Michael Carreras, writer and director Jimmy Sangster

Now officially renamed Hammer Productions Limited with a logo of a blacksmith striking an anvil, Hammer were probably what Jimmy Carreras claimed them to be, the leading small production house in Britain. The company was lining up a whole series of productions backed or in some way affiliated with American Studios. Also Exclusive had negotiated a number of distribution deals that would prove to be not only lucrative but very helpful in a world not noted for wanting to take on British produced films. The quota system was still in place. This meant that British cinemas were obliged to take at least 30% British films if they were to benefit from a kick back from the revenue. The Dick Barton radio series had converted so well to the movie screen that the Hammer execs decided to try another. Dr. Morelle, a sort of cross between Sherlock Holmes and The Man of a Thousand Faces, wasn't exactly clearing the streets but it had a healthy enough following to attract Jimmy's attention. DR. MORELLE- THE CASE OF THE MISSING HEIRESS went into production at Cookham Dean in November 1948. The Man in Black was a top TV show fronted by the sepulchre voiced Valentine Dyall. Hammer linked them together and produced another gem. The story was pretty routine but it was produced in three weeks on a budget of a mere £15,000 - even allowing for inflation and dodgy bookkeeping that wouldn't pay for the honey wagon on a STAR WARS bonanza. With that sort of outgoing it didn't need legions of bums on seats to pick up a healthy profit. It was to be a one off. Not because Hammer didn't fancy following it up but because creator Ernest Dudley had visions of starting his own company to produce the series. Nothing came of his dream and so Dr. Morelle went into the black hole.

Hammer needed something quickly to keep the kettle bubbling. They were building a nice little company of actors and crew that were willing to work cheaply if they could be assured of a reasonable continuity of work. PC49 was a popular radio show so Carreras bought the movie rights. Main character was a bumbling but good natured copper who could be guaranteed to put the world to rights at the end of every episode. Hugh Latimer played Plod in THE ADVENTURES OF PC 49 but was replaced by Brian Reece in the follow up three years later A CASE FOR PC 49.

CELIA is mostly remembered for the furore it caused while it was being made at Cookham Dean. It had the local residents up in arms and for a time it looked as if filming was going to be stopped. They were complaining about the noise of the generators and the bright lights and cited local planning rules about industrial undertakings in the area. While the company lawyers kept the local councillors talking Hammer hustled the team into early completion. It was this incident which finally convinced Jimmy Carreras that the production company needed somewhere it could call home.

Oakley Court, Bray

Oakley Court, Bray

In March Hammer crews moved into the amazingly Rococo style Oakley Court. In the war it had been the headquarters of the General De Gaul's Free French Movement. It was ideal for the sort of films Hammer intended to make. It was also next to the Bray Studios. Bray studios had never quite been a full pint as far as studios are concerned. I love it. Not because I was never privileged to work there but even to this day they have a picture of me in the foyer - and my ego is so easily massaged. There was no sound proofing and most of the stages were built inside the house. But it was affordable and Hammer were ready for a bit of stability.

THE MAN IN BLACK was filmed at Oakley Court, right next to Down Place. Valentine Dyall's voice was hired to intone the ritual ,"This is your story teller - The Man In Black". Shadowy rooms and misunderstanding plus a man who was so versed in Yoga that he could simulate death and thereby unmask the villain who was trying to get the old lady's money was a well washed plot but played well enough to get satisfactory reviews. Jimmy Sangster was hiked another step up the ladder to First Assistant by director Francis Searle and Sid James was pulled in to play the first of many roles he undertook for Hammer. Hard on its heels came ROOM TO LET. This time Valentine Dyall was hired for more than his voice. He is a mysterious stranger who turns up at a B & B run by the mother of Curly Minter's (Jimmy Hanley) girl friend. He, Dyall, gives out sinister vibes and is suspected of being Jack the Ripper. But he fools them all by being found by Curly in a locked room, dead! The mystery goes unsolved . Curly tells his tale one evening at dinner to a group of friends. When he leaves they chew over what he has told them and come to the conclusion that the only one to have been in the position to do the dirty on Dr. Fell (Valentine Dyall) is Curly Minter. Room to let was another step in the direction that Hammer were about to make its own. The sets could have been used for Dracula without any sort of a make over.

But for the present Hammer were still seeking consolidation of its place in the film market. They tried a full blown comedy with THE LADY CRAVES EXCITEMENT. Hy Hazell and Michael Medwin starred with Sid James. It wasn't a great success. While the directors waited for the Down Place deal to be done they tentatively tried a handful of quota quickies without much success. The BLACK WIDOW virtually began and ended with its strong title and gave the cool Christine Norden an outing as the gal who became a widow to order. Next up was a stage play The Rossiters filmed as THE ROSSITER CASE. That was shot practically as staged and didn't light any fires. TO HAVE AND TO HOLD gave future Bond girl Eunice Gayson one of her early outings and features Harry Fine, a future Hammer co-producer, as an actor. It also seems to have disappeared. DARK LIGHT was the last feature shot before moving to Bray. This was more promising and Jimmy Carreras hoped that it would help to storm the barricades of the American market. In spite of promises it never made it across the Atlantic and was largely slagged off in the press.

Everything was set for the move to Down Place and the setting up of the Hammer Repertory company.

(First published in MODEL & COLLECTORS MART).

PART 2 OF THE HAMMER STORY

THE HAMMER STORY

The Writings of Ingrid Pitt