David Miller’s new book Peter Cushing: A Life in Film is now available from most major retailers. Peter Cushing was brought to fame through his roles as Baron Frankenstein and Doctor Van Helsing in the acclaimed horror movies from Hammer Films Productions.
We recently chatted with the author of the new book to discuss Cushing’s memorable presence in cult cinema.
AMANDA DYAR: Your new book Peter Cushing: A Life in Film details the career of Peter Cushing. Can you tell us what motivated you to write this particular book?
DAVID MILLER: Growing up, Peter Cushing was one of those reassuring faces you’d see on television every so often. I wasn’t old enough to see the Hammer films in the cinema, so there was always something deliciously out-of-reach about them. Then when I started seeing the original Hammers on TV, I became aware of the sheer quality of them, and Cushing in particular. There are so many things to celebrate – the incredible ‘grown-up fairy tale’ style that Hammer developed and which Cushing himself helped to create. Then, when his autobiography came out, I really became enchanted with the man himself and his character – the way he was always determined to do his best; it was an inspiration. I wanted to pay tribute to that.
AMANDA: What type of extensive research went into collecting information for this type of book?
DAVID: I watched all the films and as much other material as I could – little of the early TV stuff exists because it was live. I also tried to read all the important plays he appeared in, some of which were very interesting. I interviewed a lot of people, and some of them are very elderly now! I was very lucky to get to see the BBC’s written archives, which has a wealth of original memos and correspondence – Cushing was a great letter-writer, and it’s all stored in there. There are letters from his wife, too, which are an absolute joy.
AMANDA DYAR: Was there anything that you found out about Peter Cushing and his career that surprised or fascinated you during your research?
DAVID: I was surprised to find out what a huge TV star Cushing was in the 1950s; there’s no equivalent to it nowadays – but knowing that makes it clearer why Hammer were so keen to sign him up. They had to snatch him away from the BBC, and it caused quite a stir. Another thing I am always surprised and slightly appalled at is how awful the typecasting problem was for people like Cushing and Lee – both brilliant actors – but they were just dropped; no one wanted them. Lee got round it by going to America, but he was younger; Cushing just quietly retired. He was ready to retire when he did Star Wars in 1976 – he was only 62 – but now that’s one of the chief things that keeps him in the public memory.
AMANDA: In Peter Cushing: A Life in Film, you manage to interweave his personal life into that of his work. How did you go about achieving this in a manner that would be appealing to the reader?
DAVID: The chronological order gives it structure, and I think that’s very satisfying, but the story unfolds rather delightfully. There are these very distinct periods in Cushing’s life, each one adding to the next – we begin in British repertory theatre, then the spell in Hollywood, back to Britain in the war for more stage work, then the pioneering days of live TV, then Hammer and the film career. There are crossovers, obviously, but really his work divides up so neatly that I’d have been a fool not to stick to that!
AMANDA: The book lightly touches on darker aspects of Cushing’s life such as his battle with depression and suicide attempts. How difficult was it to include this type of content without overshadowing Cushing’s legacy?
DAVID: It was difficult to write, certainly, because I was trying to get into the head of the man, and there are some very dark times, but I think it absolutely had to be included. He was quite honest and upfront about his depression and his insecurities, and it adds such a poignant dimension to the work. Somebody criticized me for not rooting out any sex scandals, but that was never the point of the book. Anyway, I talked to dozens of people who knew him, and every single one said he was utterly devoted to his wife.
AMANDA: Why do you think readers should pick up this particular book, and what do you hope they take away from it?
DAVID: I’ve tried to make the book as comprehensive as it can possibly be. We’ve packed in as many photos as we can; there’s some great color stuff. I hope people enjoy it, and I hope they get an impression of the man and the times he lived in. I hope that people who only know him as the Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars or Van Helsing will maybe look at some of the other fantastic performances.
AMANDA: What other projects are you currently working on?
DAVID: I’ve done some Blu-ray commentaries of Cushing films – Corruption and The Blood Beast Terror – which have gone down well; I’d love to do some more of those. I think there are some things being organized to celebrate Cushing’s 100th anniversary, screenings and so on. Those will be fun; you get to talk to other fans. I should really write about someone else, but the Cushing story spoils you as a biographer because it’s so rich! There’s still no one who quite compares with him.
To learn more, visit the official Peter Cushing: A Life in Film page on the Titan Books website.
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