by Allan Fish
I never met Christopher Lee. Most people who were left deeply saddened by yesterday’s announcement of his death won’t have done either. But they feel as if they did. Only yesterday horror buff Mark Gatiss tweeted how he’d been a huge part of his youth and the fact is he was a part of the youth of several generations of film lovers. It seemed as if he was, to quote our Sam yesterday, indestructible, and on a personal level his birthday was only 24 hours (if 51 years) before mine. I’d hoped he’d live to receive a telegram from Her Majesty, and imagined him smiling at the irony. Elizabeth Windsor’s bloodline is impressive and can be traced back over a thousand years. “You can trace your lineage back to William the Conqueror, ma’am, not many can say that.” He wouldn’t have added, because he was too much of a gentleman, “I can trace mine back to Charlemagne.” He’d have scoffed at such proud sentiments.
Only on Sunday I was returning from my walk thinking of Johnnie Gielgud and how he’d seemed set for a century. I’d recalled Peter Vaughan’s exit from Game of Thrones the previous week and how it was so much more fitting – not just for Aemon Targaryen but for Vaughan – to get the Night’s Watch funeral that he’s denied in the original books. Peter probably isn’t going to retire, but at 92 it was a wonderful coda to a great career. I subliminally wished him health and a century and then turned my thought to Christopher Lee and wished the same for him. The following day I watched Arrow’s new Blu ray of The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), on which there were numerous extras provided by Lee, including audio readings. He’d not just played Henry Baskerville, of course; he’d also play Holmes himself, and Mycroft for good measure. Little did I know as I was watching that Lee had already died. It was typical of his nature that no fuss was made, the news only getting out four days after his passing.
Lee had mixed it with the best on screen from the start. The earliest appearance of his I recall was getting killed in a broadsword fight with Errol Flynn no less in The Dark Avenger (1955). He can be spotted in the Boulting brothers comedies Private’s Progress (1956) and Brothers in Law (1957) before his first iconic role for the studio that would immortalise him, Hammer. His turn as the creature in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) in truth hasn’t lasted as well as some of his parts, not helped by the make-up team having to stay so violently clear of the copyrighted Jack Pierce creation of the Karloff Universal classics. It was enough to set him on his way. He was perfect as a squaddie in Nicholas Ray’s Bitter Victory (1957) and then better than Basil Rathbone as the vile Marquis St Evremonde in A Tale of Two Cities (1958) – Rathbone was many things, but not aristocratic; Lee redefined stateliness. Then came his first turn as the fellow from Transylvania in Terence Fisher’s Dracula (1958). He wasn’t as creepy as Max Schreck or as hypnotic as Bela Lugosi, but again he was aristocratic, he was a Count down to his very sinews.
He’d repeat the role for Hammer numerous times, but even in the best of them, Dracula Prince of Darkness (1966) the ridiculous decision was made to have his Count not speak. (Not dissimilar to the way Karloff’s creature became merely a monster in Son on Frankenstein (1939).) Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968), Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970), The Scars of Dracula (1970) and those two awful modern day fang shows Dracula AD 1972 (1972) and The Satanic Rites of Dracula 1974) followed. By then, he had had enough and Hammer was all but extinct.
After the original outing in the cape, however, he cemented his reputation in a decade of work devoted to ghoulishness. As Henry Baskerville in a romantic lead, as the eponymous embalmed one in The Mummy (1959), as the American professor and Satanist in the B horror classic City of the Dead (1960), a bit in The Longest Day (1962), brilliant in The Whip and the Body (1963) for Mario Bava (but why did the English dubbing not include his own voice?), several turns as the Yellow Peril (notably The Face of Fu Manchu (1965)), excellent in the otherwise forgettable Rasputin the Mad Monk (1966), as the good guy for once and magnificent in The Devil Rides Out (1968), as Mycroft looking far more regal than Queen Victoria in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), in several cult Jess Francos including as a very sober and literate Count Dracula (1970), and as a sideshow, behind the scenes on that film in Pere Portabella’s masterful Umbracle (1970), reading Bram Stoker in his dressing room.
There would be numerous other horrors and anthologies as well, before another prize plum fell his way, the pagan Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man (1973), the film Lee himself was most proud of. Still, however, he was typecast as the villain; Rochefort in The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974), as Scaramanga in The Man With the Golden Gun (1974) – as David Thomson rightly said, he should have been Bond, he used to be in the SAS. More worthless nasties followed, but the occasional nugget – superb as Jinnah (1998) – before his Renaissance for the new generation. He was never better than as loyal servant Mr Flay in Gormenghast (2000), enjoying the most ridiculous of all screen duels with Richard Griffiths and muttering lines like “kitchen scum” with a relish we hadn’t seen for years. Lee loved Mervyn Peake but he adored J.R.R.Tolkien – he’d once met him – and he was never going to turn down the offer from Peter Jackson. He was magisterial, to use Sam’s favourite adjective, as Saruman in The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003); no matter that 20 years earlier he could have been Gandalf. A partnership and friendship with Tim Burton followed, but he was never properly used by Burton, and while his Count Dooku made him cool for the hip seventies generation, it was somewhat dispiriting; you wanted him to kick Yoda’s arse. There would be a couple of other nice moments – as the narrator of Poliakoff’s Glorious 39 (2009) and as the bookseller in Hugo (2011) before the inevitable return as Saruman, though by now too frail to travel to New Zealand, his scenes shot in the UK. And if The Hobbit films may have defined anticlimactic nearly as much as the Star Wars prequels, but we still loved to see him. At his BAFTA Fellowship award in 2011, the love and admiration of those present was as clear to see as his embarrassment at the fuss.
Soon after beginning my University degree in 2011, our tutor – also called Chris Lee – told us a story of when he met Lee with a mutual acquaintance in a pub. (I apologise to Chris if I get the details wrong, but this is the gist of it.) Lee went up to the bar to get some drinks and the barman looked on knowingly. “I know you, don’t I? You’re that bloke from the movies, Dracula. Whatsisname. You’re Christopher Lee.” Deadpan as you like Lee replied “no” and, pointing at my tutor, said “HE IS!”
Rest in peace, good sir.