A prolific star of the Elstree screen

6:33pm Thursday 16th February 2006

By Paul Welsh

Hands up all you aged cinemagoers who remember when they played the national anthem at the local cinema after the end of the film.

Then hands up all of you who sneaked out while the credits were still rolling to avoid having to stand and remain for the anthem! I wonder what reaction it would get today?

You may remember both ITV and the BBC used to end the evening's viewing with the anthem throughout the 1950s and 1960s. The practice started to alter when BBC2 was introduced in 1964 and they ignored the idea. Then the various regional ITV companies started to abandon it with the last being played on Southern TV in 1981. The BBC carried on the tradition until introducing 24-hour broadcasting in 1997.

Well, with that history lesson over, let us look at the career of the third planned recipient of a town council commemorative plaque later this year.

Christopher Lee began his screen career 60 years ago and has since notched up nearly 300 appearanances which must be a record for a living actor.

The town council is not just acknowledging that fact, but that Christopher is possibly the only living actor to have worked in five of the studios located in Elstree and Borehamwood.

Although now 83, his career continues to flourish and he recently told me he has six film scripts on his desk for projects in which he had been asked to appear.

When casting Christopher as Count Dooku in the recent Star Wars episodes, George Lucas commented: "While I was preparing the original Star Wars at Elstree I saw photos of Lee and Peter Cushing on the studio walls from their Hammer horror movies. That inspired me to cast Peter. Years later when I was casting Dooku I leapt at the chance to work with Christopher as he is a classic."

Christopher first came to Elstree in 1950 for Captain Horatio Hornblower. He recalls: "I got the part of a Spanish sea captain when the director simply asked me if I could speak any Spanish and could swordfence, which luckily I could.

"I did a fight sequence with the star Gregory Peck who was very inexperienced in using a sword."

Showbiz being what it is, Christopher's next job was as a floorwalker in Simpsons of Piccadilly in London, then he managed to get one line in the Elstree-made George Cole comedy Top Secret.

"My breakthrough came when Douglas Fairbanks Junior started making a series of television features at the British National Studios in Borehamwood in 1952. I was cast in various roles in 16 of them and even appeared with Buster Keaton and it proved an excellent training ground."

A more painful memory came when he was cast at Elstree as a villain in an Errol Flynn swashbuckler called The Dark Avenger.

"During a sword fight Errol slipped and cut my finger deeply and it remains scarred to this day."

Christopher also recalls working for the infamous Danziger Brothers at their studio next to Aldenham Reservoir.

"Their facility was not purpose built and I recall mud everywhere and very basic shooting conditions. You got £75 to star in one of their films, which we shot in just a few days."

Everything changed when he went to Hammer for a casting session to play the monster in Frankenstein.

"I went along and they asked me if I wanted the part, I said yes and that was that," he said.

Christopher was then cast as Dracula which only had a budget of £81,000 and he was paid a one-off fee of £750 with no spin-off rights or repeat payments.

It launched him to international stardom but today the role is not one of his favourite subjects and I understand he refuses to autograph any photographs of him in that part. Interestingly, he donned the cloak for the last time in The Satanic Rights of Dracula which was shot at Elstree.

Christopher has many memories of working in our town over the years. "I recall co-starring with Boris Karloff in Corridors of Blood at MGM and we became great friends.

"I also remember shooting a scene from Taste of Fear at Elstree in 1960 on one of the sound stages when I sensed someone watching. I was literally speechless when I saw it was Gary Cooper who was working on the adjoining stage."

Christopher's numerous other Borehamwood movies include the classic The Devil Rides Out, She and the last Hammer horror To the Devil a Daughter in 1975, where we first met.

In 1996 Christopher came to the studios to unveil a plaque celebrating his friend and frequent co-star Peter Cushing who had died a couple of years earlier. I had to stand beside him holding this fairly heavy metal plaque expecting a few comments lasting a couple of minutes. Instead Christopher, who was genuinely moved to be paying this tribute, spoke for 16 minutes!

I think this time I will ensure his plaque is securely bolted to a presentation frame but Christopher certainly deserves this honour to mark such a distinguished career lasting from those Danziger cheapies to the Lord of the Rings epics.

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