Afternoon Tea with Sherlock Holmes – Peter Cushing interviewed

Found among the papers of Peter Haining this account by him of a meeting with the Hammer Horror film star Peter Cushing. Haining worked with Cushing on several books including Peter Cushing's Monster Movies  (9 macabre short stories  all linked to Cushing's film career) and The Sherlock Holmes Scrapbook both with forewords by Cushing. These contributions were written by Haining and then approved by Cushing (after much correspondence, some slightly  rancorous- he appears to have been a perfectionist although all his communications end "God bless you, Peter Cushing")

Afternoon Tea with Sherlock Holmes
By Peter Haining

It was the perfect place to meet Sherlock Holmes: 'The English Tea Room' in Brown's Hotel, Albermarle Street in the heart of London's fashionable Mayfair district. Long associated with the great English tradition of taking afternoon tea - served with the hotel's own blend, home-made jams and clotted cream and tasty cakes and pastries the Nineteenth Century establishment is also steeped in literary tradition and has been patronised by among others Oscar Wilde, Rudyard Kipling and Agatha Christie who actually based her novel, At Bertram’s Hotel, on Brown's. Founded in 1837 by James Brown, a former valet to Lord Byron who referred to him as the 'gentleman's gentleman,' the hotel has become an oasis of elegance, comfort and fine cuisine in the heart of the bustling metropolis. Indeed, such is the timeless style of Brown's that it is not hard to imagine the great detective paying a visit and no surprise to me that Peter Cushing, associated with Holmes for much & his acting career and a man dedicated to his afternoon cup of tea, should have chosen it as his own haven whenever he was working in the vicinity of London on stage or in films and television.
I had the pleasure of meeting Peter there for the first time in 1976 and taking tea with him when we worked on his book, Tales of a Monster Hunter, commissioned by Arthur Barker Ltd. Entering through the portico in Albermarle Street, passing the two panels of blue and gold mosaic bearing the story of the famous hotel and sinking into the deep armchairs was an experience that somehow transported me to the world as it was when Holmes was busy about his investigations in London. Over a decade later, in 1994, when the book was revised and republished in paperback as Peter Cushing's Monster Movies, we again took afternoon tea - but this time in the Tudor Restaurant, also a place of quiet charm in Harbour Street close to his home in the coastal resort of Whitstable in Kent. It was during these discussions that Peter - himself every inch the 'gentleman' of the kind so admired by Byron and respected for his professionalism by fans all over the world - talked about his part in portraying the sleuth of Baker Street in the cinema and on the TV screen. They were discussions that proved full of insight...and a number of surprises.
Peter, noted for being unfailingly punctual and always immaculately dressed in the Edwardian style he favoured - dark jacket, patterned silk bow-tie and high buttoned waistcoat decorated with a golden fob watch chain - was already sitting unobtrusively in a corner of Brown's when I arrived. He had already ordered tea, in fact, and was enjoying a cigarette, which he invariably smoked with a white linen glove on his left hand to prevent getting nicotine stains on his fingers. For an hour we discussed the book that would contain a selection of his favourite stories associated with his career and the background information I needed to link these into a cohesive anthology. He relaxed as we talked and I took notes and tape-recorded his observations on several of the stories I had already thought would be ideal for the book. When I told him I would like to include a story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle because of his association with Sherlock Holmes, Peter smiled and began speaking in the mellifluous tones that are so familiar to anyone who has ever seen his acting.

CUSHING: Oh, yes, I've always loved his work. I first came across the Sherlock Holmes stories when I was a child. An uncle of mine was an absolute devotee of the adventures and I always remember him telling me about a friend of his who had been accused of molesting a lady on a train. My uncle said the man proved the lady was telling a lie rather as Holmes would have done. He called the guard and repeated what the lady had accused him of doing. "But it is absolutely impossible," the man insisted, "for look at my cigar - it has only about half an inch of ash on it. There was not enough time for me to have committed what she alleges." After that I thought Holmes must be a wonderful person and became a confirmed fan. I think I read all the stories while I was a homesick border at Shoreham Grammar School in Sussex to give me something to think about apart than my own misery. The only thing was the stories were in books so I didn't see until later all the wonderful illustrations by Sydney Paget that would influence my own performances.

The story of Peter Cushing's determination to become an actor while working in the drawing office of Purley Council, his years in rep and his decision to go to Hollywood in the spring of 1939 hoping to break into the movies has been frequently recounted as have the stories of his screen debuts in The Man in the Iron Mask and the Laurel and Hardy comedy, A Chump at Oxford, which started him on the road to stardom. He also revealed to me that he very nearly got a part in a Sherlock Holmes film while he was in America.

CUSHING: During my time in Hollywood I was lucky enough to get to know quite a lot of American and English actors. One of the leading lights was C. Aubrey Smith, a great stalwart of the British theatre who looked kindly on actors from the home country. He had a slightly altruistic motive in this in that had a great passion for cricket and frequently organised matches. When he asked me if I played I said yes, hoping that it might lead to introductions to producers, directors and even a famous actor or two. In fact, several well-known names played for the team including David Niven, Basil Rathbone and William Pratt who, of course, changed his name and became immortal as Boris Karloff. The first game I played in was a disaster. I dropped some easy catches and was bowled first ball. The truth was I was nervous at being in the company of such famous people. I was not asked to play again, but I did go along to a number of matches and became friendly with several the stars. Basil Rathbone was most charming and told me he was about to make another Sherlock Holmes picture to cash in on the public interest. They had made a very successful Hound of the Baskervilles and were about to rush out another Holmes film. As I was English there might be a part for me. I went along to Casting at Twentieth Century Fox, but soon found that all the parts had been filled. It was just one of dozens of job opportunities I pursued at that time so I soon forgot all about it. I would have liked the role of a villain! I certainly had no idea that one day I would play Sherlock Holmes in Hound of the Baskervilles in the cinema and on television, too.

Had he subsequently seen the Rathbone films, I asked him as a waiter brought us another pot of tea.

CUSHING: I think I have seen them all. I thought Basil Rathbone's performance was absolutely super. I was not happy with the way they updated some of the stories, though [Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon and Sherlock Holmes in Washington], but I suppose they were subject to the special circumstances of the time - the Second World War - and the way of making films then. I never care for anything to be updated unless it is so in the books.

The success of Twentieth Century Fox's Hound of the Baskervilles in 1940 made stars of Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Watson. The film that Cushing tried to get apart in was The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes which used five actors from its predecessor and many of the same sets - although the story line era plot by Professor Moriarty (played by George Zucco) to steal the Crown Jewels was not based on any of the original Conan Doyle stories. Before the film had been completed and released, however, Cushing was on his way back to war-torn Britain where he developed his art in the theatre, on television and became an international star in the late Sixties playing Frankenstein and Van Helsing in the Hammer movies. But the chance of bringing another great literary character to the screen always seemed to be just lurking in the wings.

CUSHING: A lot of people had said to me, "You ought to play Holmes. You look just like him!" Well, there was no doubt it was a jolly good part and when Hammer offered me the Hound of the Baskervilles in 1958 I was absolutely thrilled. I knew there was such a lot of detail about the character that Conan Doyle had provided that I would have plenty of information on which to base my character. By then I had collected all the original Strand magazines with the Paget illustrations, dozens of books about the Great Detective and even the complete set of 25 Turf cigarette cards, "Conan Doyle Characters". These I had to buy, as Turf was not my favourite brand! The film was shot at Bray Studios, which was actually a vast old house with huge grounds on the banks of the River Thames. The façade & the building was used for Baskerville Hall on Dartmoor and Frensham Ponds and Chobham Common providing the exteriors. The interiors were filmed on a sound stage in the grounds, The whole place was a bit off the beaten track and I remember when I was being driven down there for the first time it seemed a very suitable spot. A couple of surprises awaited me, though. Firstly, I was a bit concerned when I heard that Hammer was going to promote the picture on the basis that I would portray Sherlock as 'sexy'! The producer, Tony Hinds, also greeted me by congratulating me on loosing weight so that I could portray Holmes as a gaunt detective. I had to admit that I had actually lost the weight while recovering from a bout of dysentery I had contracted while filming John Paul Jones, in Spain about the Scottish-born founder of the American Navy. I was, though, very happy that mine would be the first Sherlock Holmes picture to be filmed in colour. I was also delighted to be working with my dear friend Christopher Lee as Sir Henry and that fine actor, Andre Morell, playing Dr. Watson.

I told Peter that I understood he had asked for a number of changes to be made to the script for Hound of the Baskervilles - and there had been problems creating a lifelike hound He chuckled quietly as the memories came back and put on his white glove to smoke another cigarette.

CUSHING: Yes, that's quite true. I did manage to get many & Holmes' mannerisms into the film, but there were a number of things in the script [by Peter Bryan] that I knew from reading the books he would not have said. I did not want to be difficult, but I felt if the picture was going to be successful we should not only make Holmes look the way Conan Doyle described him, but also speak like him. The best example I can think of concerned Holmes' fees. The one they had was absolutely wrong. I said, "Why don't I use the line that Holmes said, 'My professional charges are upon a fixed scale. I do not vary them, save when I remit them altogether.' Terence Fisher, who was the director, agreed at once, and I felt so much more into the part using Holmes' own words. The monstrous Hound, though, was a much bigger problem. The special effects department tried a number of breeders and even the people at Crufts to find a suitable dog. But they were all like pussycats and were more interested in being stroked and licking their make-up off than being ferocious! It rather reminded me of when I was playing Winston Smith in the live BBC version of Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1954 and I had a scene being attacked by some rats. Well, these genuine sewer rats were brought on the set and kept so well fed and warm that instead of rearing up to attack me on cue, they just curled up and went to sleep! The BBC had to ring up a pet shop and quickly get a couple & tame white rats, paint them black and then starve them for several days in order to take the place of the real thing! Eventually, one dog was found that seemed more suited for the role. Sid Pearson the special effects man had the idea of trying to give the illusion that it was enormous by putting it in a mask and dressing up three small boys as Christopher Lee, Andre Morell and myself to be filmed in long shot. He built a sized-down section of the moor, covered it with dry ice to simulate fog, and threw a piece of meat into the middle as the cameras started rolling. The next day we saw the rushes. They seemed just like what they were: comical - three small boys playing a kind of charade while a hungry dog gnawed on its bone. It was no surprise to me that the sequence was never used!”

Peter Cushing's performance as Holmes received generally favourable reviews in the press and the Sherlock Holmes' Society voted his performance as second only to Eille Norwood Sadly, though, plans for further films never materialised and Peter believed that the Conan Doyle Estate were not happy with the Hammer treatment and refused them permission to adapt any more of the cases. It was not, though, to be his last appearance as the great detective, he recalled as darkness began to draw in around Brown's and the lights in the room brightened almost imperceptibly. A member of staff discreetly added coal to the fire in the grate as our conversation continued.

CUSHING: I always hoped I might get another chance to play Sherlock Holmes and in 1968 I was asked by the BBC to take over the role from Douglas Wilmer. He had appeared in 12 episodes with the humorous NigeI Stock in the spring of 1965. With the benefit of hindsight, I know that although the programme was popular my performances were not as good as they could have been. My beloved wife Helen's health was growing worse and I know my concentration and thoughts were too often about her and not on my performance. She had often come to watch me at work and I missed her presence greatly, as well as her invaluable criticism and guidance. Filming was not helped by the BBC schedule which only allowed for ten days' rehearsal plus recording for each instalment. This included location work and we often got interruptions caused by the weather. I seem to remember that the series was actually being transmitted before we had completed all the episodes, which added extra pressure. Under all these circumstances, it made it very difficult for me to give my best and I think this showed.

Peter stopped at this juncture and lit another cigarette, drew silently on it for a while, seemingly lost in thought. I took out a copy of an interview he had given to Russell Twisk of the Radio Times when the programme was about to be shown on television. In it he had, with exemplarily professionalism, disguised his misgivings and again demonstrated his knowledge of the great detective by pointing out some of the misconceptions the general public held about Holmes - such as never having said, "Elementary, my dear Watson," and puffing on a meerschaum pipe which was a feature that had been introduced by the American actor, William Gillette on the Broadway stage. My host looked up from his reverie, glanced at the cutting I held out with a photograph of himself holding a pipe and let out another little chuckle:

CUSHING: The truth is that although I like cigarettes- it's one of my few indulgences - pipes always make me feel sick. I rather envy those who can puff away with sweet contentment and not turn a terrible shade of green. Because Holmes was forever being called upon in the script to smoke his pipe I often had to endure a feeling of nausea on top of everything else. It was really ironic when the Briar Pipe Trade Association gave me their 'Pipeman of the Year' award! I suppose we shouldn't be too surprised about some of the misconceptions that have grown up around Holmes. I mean it is a fact that because Conan Doyle wanted to kill the character off, when the publishers made him bring him back, he'd forgotten about so many of his mannerisms that it all becomes a bit inconsistent.

The 16, 50-minute monochrome episodes that made up Peter Cushing's The Cases of Sherlock Holmes were shown between September to December 1968 and probably until the advent of Jeremy Brett, as the sleuth of Baker Street would not be bettered on the small screen. The two-part version of Hound of the Baskervilles dramatised by Hugh Leonard launched the series with Gary Raymond as Sir Henry Baskerville. It was followed by Shoscombe Old Place featuring Edward 'The Equaliser' Woodward in the role of Mason, and A Study in Scarlet with William Lucas making the first of several appearances as Inspector Lestrade. Peter's last comment before completing the series was a poignant remark to Russell Twisk, ' “I think I could have lived in London in Holmes' time, but not now, "he says. He lives instead in Whitstable, Kent with his wife. This year they are celebrating their silver wedding anniversary.' In fact, less than three years later, on 14 January 1971, after a long battle with emphysema, Helen Cushing died. It would be almost a quarter of a century before I would see Peter again - and this time it would be in his other favourite haunt, Whitstable...

*                    *                    *

In the autumn of 1993, the London publishers Robert Hale approached me with a suggestion that Tales of a Monster Hunter, which had long been out of print, might be republished in paperback. It was a suggestion with which I happily agreed and told my editor I would need to consult with Peter. He was, as always, courteous and receptive to the idea and promised his co-operation if I cared to come down to Whitstable where he was now living in almost permanent retirement. He was also agreeable to the book's Introduction - which had previously appeared in the third person - being revised into the first person voice in which it had been given. Peter had requested the impersonal style in the original volume as he was then under contract to Weidenfeld & Nicolson to write the autobiography that would ultimately appear in 1986. Correct to the letter as he always liked to be in his business dealings, he felt that Peter Cushing: An Autobiography should have pride of place as 'his' story. Now, almost a decade later, he was happy to reverse this decision. We met, briefly, at his three floor terrace house on Seaview facing West Beach, packed with mementos of his life including photographs of Helen, a number & the watercolours painted in his attic studio, rows & more than 3,000 of his books - including 100 cigarette card albums - plus countless toy figures, old farm animals and a model steam railway. Then we walked along Island Wall into the town and occupied his favourite table close to the door in the Tudor Restaurant in Harbour Street. After outlining the revisions that would be made to the book - and a proposed title change to Peter Cushing's Monster Movies - I asked if he would talk about his subsequent appearance as Sherlock Holmes in The Masks of Death in December 1984. The self-effacing charm and wit was still just as much in evidence as it had been all those years earlier in Brown's Hotel. He had now, though, given up smoking the 50 to 60 Navy Cut, unripped cigarettes a day he told me were, "enough to knock out an elephant"- though here sitting across the table from me was the evidence that at 80 they had signally failed so to do.

CUSHING: After the BBC series I thought the only time I would be playing Holmes again would be in performances in the miniature theatre I had built in my home! *

•• Footnote: This spectacular model theatre with ten stage sets and 128 meticulously carved two-inch high actors - including the authentically dressed trio of Holmes, Watson and Moriarty - was auctioned after Peter's death at Phillips of London in July 1996. Estimated to sell for £10,000 it was finally bought by a German toy museum for £17,625.

The truth was that when they approached me I was 70 and I thought I was far too old to play Holmes as he appeared in the stories written by Conan Doyle. Also people had become used to seeing me on TV and films I had made 20 years earlier and they probably wouldn't realise how much I'd aged since then. There have been some who have seen me riding around on a bicycle that thought I must be Peter Cushing's father! Anyway, they told me that the story was an original one and the time had been moved to 1913 when Holmes was about 60, which was not that far from my own age. After retiring to keep bees in Sussex, he had been brought back to his old apartment in Baker Street where the Home Secretary visited him and begged him to undertake one last vital mission. With the clouds of war gathering over Europe, it appeared the Germans had invented a deadly poison gas that they were planning to leak into the homes of Londoners - and Holmes was the only man who could get to the bottom of the mystery.

Peter paused at this moment to pour another cup of tea, his mind obviously going over the events of the filming.

CUSHING: I thought the writer Norman Crisp did a very good job of keeping within the bounds of Conan Doyle. It was a joy for me to work with Roy Ward Baker, a director I had known in my Hammer days, and with my dear friend Sir John Mills, who I have known for nearly fifty years, playing Watson. He told me it was the first time he had ever played the part and it was one he had always wanted to do. Like me, he had read the books as a child and also seen the Basil Rathbone films. He though Nigel Bruce had played Watson as a rather splendid halfwit and wanted the chance to show him instead as an Army man and a doctor. It also reunited me with Anton Diffring playing an evil German [Graf Udo Von Felseck], Ray Milland as the Home Secretary and Gordon Jackson as a Scotland Yard Inspector, Alec Macdonald. I just loved having the chance to wear lots of disguises and even wore the same old ugly set of false teeth I had acquired from the BBC when playing Holmes in The Greek Interpreter almost sixteen years before! Sir John and I had a lot of fun with those scenes pushing would-be assassins from the doors of moving trains and climbing onto roofs, though we two old boys were never in the kind of danger it may have seemed to the viewer. During filming The Masks of Death, we were told there was talk of a series if it was well received. I remember saying, "They'd better hurry up, or I'll have to do it from my wheelchair!" Sir John never missed an opportunity to gee me up to write my autobiography. It was probably his prompting that made me do it. He threatened never to work with me again if I didn't! Writing that book brought back a lot of memories*

• •Footnote: Peter also wrote, The Bois Saga, a phonetic history of England with his own idiosyncratic illustrations, which was published in a limited edition of 500 copies in 1994. He had begun writing it in the early 1950's when he suffered a nervous breakdown, part & which took the form of locking himself in the lavatory for hours on end in the belief that he had forgotten something. The book was finally published at the insistence of his secretary, Mrs. Joyce Broughton, who had shown the manuscript to her dyslexic daughter who, to Mrs. Broughton's joy, had been able to read and understand it. A personally inscribed copy, Numbered 44, is one of my most cherished souvenirs of my acquaintance with Peter Cushing.

The rest of that autumn afternoon was taken up with other aspects of the book and dusk was falling as I bade Peter goodbye for what would prove the last time. As he walked slowly in the direction of his home, one of his earlier observations about Holmes suddenly came into my mind: "In ten years time we will have more fantastic gadgets than James Bond even dreamed off and then who’ll want to know him?" he had said. "But Holmes's brain power and gift of logical deductions leap the years; it is timeless." Less than a year later - and just weeks before the new edition of Peter Cushing' s Monster Movies was published - he died of cancer at the Pilgrim's Hospice in Canterbury on Thursday, 11 August 1994. His memory is, though, still fresh in the minds of Whitstable people and there is an ever present reminder of him in the shape of a handsome wooden bench-seat at Keam's Yard at a spot popularly referred to as 'Peter's Seat' or 'Cushing's View' bearing the inscription, 'Presented by Helen & Peter Cushing who love Whitstable and its people so very much, 1990.'
It is perhaps not surprising that the man so associated with Sherlock Holmes should have left an unsolved mystery behind him. Convinced that he and his beloved Helen would be united after death, he asked that his ashes were to be buried alongside hers at the 12th Century St. Alphege Church in Seasalter, adjacent to Whitstable. When fans began to visit the grave while Peter was still alive, however, and fearing still more would come after his death, he gave instructions that both should be interred "in a secret last resting place." The mystery as to just where the devoted couple now lie has never been solved.

8 thoughts on “Afternoon Tea with Sherlock Holmes – Peter Cushing interviewed

  1. R.M.Healey

    I have consulted a number of Sherlock Holmes fans and most agree with me that Douglas Wilmer was by far the best TV version of the great detective

  2. Anonymous

    Peter Cushing lives in Whitstable.
    I have seen him buying vegetables.
    I have seen him on a bicycle.
    Peter Cushing lives in Whitstable

  3. admin Post author

    Robin — imho its Jeremy Brett, Wilmer was good. I met him once in a bookshop in Woodbridge and he signed a Folio Soc Sherlock for me. Yes thanks Anon indeed Peter Cushing retired to Whitstable, there is a pub named after him therebut his vegetable buying days ended in 1994…

  4. R.M.Healey

    Not many people know this, but my late father sat next to Jeremy Brett in a airplane crossing the Atlantic back in the eighties. Beat that.

  5. Edwin Moore

    I have sat behind Judi Dench twice Robin, firstly at the launch of Andrew Gurr's Shakespeare book at the Globe, second at the dedication of the Oscar window at Westminster Abbey

    My tenuous link is that i always thought she would make a great female Holmes.

  6. admin Post author

    Thanks Edwin and Anon– so many Sherlocks, radio Sherlock Clive Merrison lives near and I have chatted with him..I always thought Dalziel and Pascoe would make a good Sherlock and Watson (with Dalziel as Watson) but sadly that actor is now singing in the heavily choir. Jude Law and Downey are just too noisy.

  7. Anonymous

    In my mind, Sherlock Holmes will always be the Holmes illustrated by Sidney Paget in the original Canon.


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