BOOK REVIEW: Peter Cushing: A Life in Film

cushingLIFPeter Wilton Cushing was born 100 years ago in Kenley, Surrey. David Miller’s gorgeous hardback book documents his career on stage and screen and also on radio. It covers his personal life too, giving a detailed and authoritative insight into one of the most iconic actors of the Twentieth Century.

Cushing died in 1994 and this book was originally published in 2000 as The Peter Cushing Companion. It has been updated to celebrate the centenary of his birth and includes a few recent developments and thoughts, but still includes Cushing’s Hammer co-star Veronica Carlson’s original 2000 foreword.

 

 

Miller starts the story, naturally, with Cushing as a young boy and outlines his early life during the First World War and his frequent bouts of pneumonia (which many children didn’t survive during this period). Not long into the book, however, we are into Cushing’s career as a stage actor and his early trip to America, where he found his first job with James Whale, on the set of his 1931 adaptation of Frankenstein. Thus begins one of the most extraordinary acting careers ever seen.

Miller presents each stage in his career in short, sharp, chapters which also touch on the major personal relationships in his life. He met his beloved Helen at the stage door at the Theatre Royal. His father told him he was failure as an actor just a few years before he won the Daily Mail Readers’ Award for Best Television Actor in 1953, and before he won his iconic role as Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Friendships and acquaintances are numerous, from Olivier to Morecombe and Wise, and of course, Christopher Lee and the Hammer regulars. There are also more personal moments in Cushing’s life, such as his collection of toy soldiers and his rationale for collecting them well into maturity. His passionate letter writing is also covered in some detail.

Most of Cushing’s major roles are looked at in-depth. Miller describes how the roles came about, describes the plots and the characters in detail, and then he talks about the post-release reactions. There are usually quotes from Cushing himself and his fellow actors, along with directors and producers. There are excerpts from newspapers and film critics post-release. On occasion, his films were derided, but the critics always found time to elicit praise for his performances. There are interesting details and nuggets of information galore. You should read it in order to discover fascinating facts and hear the stories of his contemporaries. There is even correspondence between the author with Cushing himself. Much of the book, unsurprisingly, deals with his work on the Hammer and Amicus films, and recounts Cushing’s experiences and thoughts about this work, which he stood by, even when the quality of the films deteriorated in Hammer’s final days. Peter Cushing had a particular dignity and quality that is rarely found today.

The book is full of cartoons, promotional stills, film posters, on-set shots and more. There are pages of full-colour plates which include rare posters, such as the Belgian artwork for The Curse of Frankenstein, covers of TV guides and stills from Cushing’s films. The book concludes with a detailed chronology of Cushing’s work, on stage, TV (including his appearances as himself, such as on a proto-Jackanory called Star Story), radio, documentaries and news interviews.

You might think that you know most of Peter Cushing’s iconic roles, but until you read this book, you probably don’t. Comprehensive doesn’t cover it. His work transcends genre. As well as the aforementioned Smith and Frankenstein, and as well as Dr Who, Van Helsing, Holmes,  Mr Darcy, Grand Moff Tarkin and a host of Hammer, Amicus and Tigon characters, he also performed in productions of War and Peace, plays by Shakespeare, Hemmingway and Coward, Richard III, The Avengers and Space: 1999.

Miller’s book is a warm and insightful look into the life of Peter Cushing, from his birth through his acting and personal life with every actor you could probably name, to his struggle with the health of his wife, Helen, and their life together in Whitstable, and his final days in a hospice in Canterbury. The final words tell of the tributes in Whitstable such as ‘Cushing’s View’ and the new pub ‘The Peter Cushing’. They speak of the affection the Cushing has in our memories, which highlights the impact he had as both an actor and a person, and why you should read this book if you are fan of film, of any genre.

 

Rating: 4.5/5
Reporter: Ian J Simpson

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