Thursday, September 4, 2014

An Interview with Hammer Films Star Veronica Carlson

The only female lead to play opposite Christopher Lee's Count Dracula and Peter Cushing's Dr. Frankenstein, Veronica Carlson is a true Hammer Films icon. She made her Hammer debut in 1968 with Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, one of the studio's best vampire films. The talented, blonde-haired actress followed it with the equally-impressive Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969) and the dark comedy Horror of Frankenstein (1970). Today, the still radiant Ms. Carlson lives in the U.S. and remains in high demand for film convention appearances. She also paints portraits, several of which have been auctioned for charity.

Café: How did you go from modeling to acting?

Veronica Carlson: I had a photograph of me coming out of the waves in a white bikini on the front page of a tabloid newspaper. Jimmy Carreras (a Hammer executive) saw that photograph and said he wanted me in his next Hammer movie. So, I went for an audition and I ended up with Dracula Has Risen from the Grave. 

Café: Had you seen any Hammer films before that movie?

VC: I was a great fan of Hammer. When I went to college--which I did at 16--and before I went to college, I loved Hammer movies. My friends in college loved them, too. There was one occasion when we knew there was a new Hammer film coming out and two or three of us just decided to skip class that day and go see it. We couldn't wait for the evening show, because we also had evening classes. We decided the better class to skip was the afternoon one, so we did. In those days, there were two films and, prior to the second one coming up, we looked around the theater and half the class was there--and unfortunately, so was the professor. He stood up and said: "I shall expect all of you back in class later when you've watched the film. But don't forget, that I've already passed my exams. You've still got yours to go." He let us off with a rather stern warning. But that's how popular Hammer films were and how much we enjoyed them.

Café: Who came up with the idea for the marvelous rooftop sequences in Dracula Has Risen from the Grave?

On the rooftops in Dracula Has Risen
from the Grave
VC: I think it was in the script and the sets were absolutely extraordinary. Of course, the only way my character could get from her house to see her boyfriend was to go across the rooftops, so people wouldn't see her as they walked through the street. The sets didn't look very high. As you're on the ground looking up, you think: "Oh, that's not bad. " But then when you were up there, looking down, it seemed an awful lot higher--but I enjoyed doing those scenes.

Café: Were there any particular challenges for the actors?

VC: The only setting I was really nervous about was when I was being carried up to the castle on that mountain. It was in the studio. Christopher's (Lee) stunt double, Eddie Powell, carried me and my head was hanging over the precipice. I was very well aware of this and I was trying not to stiffen up in Eddie's arms to make it difficult. That one did make me nervous. Another thing that made me nervous was careening through the woods at the top of that carriage trying not to fall off. I gripped the bar on the coach tightly with my hands. None of it was perilous, of course. They didn't put us in any danger.

Café: You co-starred with Hammer's two biggest stars: Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. What was it like working with them?

The scene where Christopher Lee
provided the "eye line."
VC: It was a joy. You make assumptions about people and I found how wrong I was. I expected Christopher to be a very aristocratic, rather aloof, dignified man. I was a bit afraid to approach him, but I found him to be the exact opposite. He was very approachable. He was not aloof. He is very dignified. He's got such an aristocratic air and look about him, but he was so kind and so thoughtful in every thing that we did together. He discussed things with me. He asked if I liked the thought of doing something a certain way. I must have thought he was very nice, because I asked him if he would sit for a portrait and he agreed to do so. In thirty-five minutes, I did a sketch of him. He has a lovely, dignified face. That shows you how relaxed I was around him. He gave me an eye line, too, during the filming of Dracula Has Risen from the Grave and I'll never forget that. I was supposed to be looking up, having been thrown to the ground and kidnapped by the lady in the pub. I was to look up and see Dracula and (director) Freddie Francis held up his hand behind the camera and said: "This is your eye line." And then this beautiful voice said: "No, Freddie, I will be her eye line." And Christopher stood right there and he acted off camera as if he was on camera. He gave me all the impetus and input into my reaction. I've never forgotten that. I have always been so very grateful. That moment, I felt true fear. You can't act to a hand. That shows the kind, thoughtful man that Christopher Lee really is.

Café: What about Peter Cushing? I know you're a big fan of his.

Veronica with Peter Cushing.
VC: Everybody is. Every convention I go to, I'm asked about Peter. People wish they could have met him or they were lucky to have once met him. Peter was a sweet, lovely man to work with. I even introduced him to my parents. It's impossible not to love Peter. He was one of the kindest, most sensitive people I have ever met in my life. He got me through that awful rape scene that was thrown into Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed. We worked on that together and he resolved the problems as best he possibly could. Anyway, that's another story.

Café: One of the best sequences in any Hammer film is in Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, when the water pipe bursts in the garden and exposes a corpse. How did you prepare for this scene?

Drenched in water for perhaps
the second time.
VC:  I didn't really. I knew what was going to happen. The fire department was there. I had to run in completely dressed and dry and just go through it. And, of course, when the force of that water hits you, it takes your breath away and you just take it from there. But George Pravda (Dr. Brandt) had to be put on a board with ropes to help me pull him. I didn't have the strength to pull him out of that mud. I had gotten so cold that I had to go to Roger Moore's dressing room. His dressing room had the deepest bath in it. He was away filming so I was allowed to soak in the bath to get my my body temperature back up because I was so very cold. I thought my teeth were going to break, they were shattering so hard. When I had to do the scene where I was screaming at my poor neighbor, they had to water me down with a watering can. I said: "Well, I hope you've made it warm water." "No, that's not a good idea," they said. "It has to be cold, because otherwise you'd just get even colder." I thought they were lying...that is so not true. Anyway, the water was just as cold the second time. You just have to laugh at these things.

Café: You starred in films directed by Hammer's two best-known directors: Terence Fisher and Freddie Francis. How would you compare the two of them?

Veronica and Peter Cushing in a
publicity still for Fisher's film.
VC: I had each director at the right time. My first real role was in Dracula Has Risen from the Grave and Freddie Francis was endlessly kind and patient. He was a gentle director with no bossing and no shouting. He would give me my morning hug. He would talk about the scene that we were going to do and made me feel totally relaxed and comfortable. He did do a reshoot of a scene with me if he didn't like the result in the rushes the next day, like when I had to walk and see my boyfriend drinking that beer on the stem in the cafe. He didn't want me to go to the rushes because he said I was too critical of myself. So, I didn't go to the daily rushes. I was lucky then because I gained confidence. When I went into my next film, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, Terry Fisher was a sterner director with me. He expected me to know more than perhaps I actually did. He was the right guy at the right time. I think if I'd had Terry first, I would have been very, very nervous. He got on so well with Peter (Cushing). They just chatted about. I remember the first day's shooting, I was sitting down on some steps and Peter was alongside me. Terry was there, with his foot on one step, leaning and saying: "How do you want to kill her, Peter?" And Peter was saying: "I've given that a lot of thought, Terry." And then he proceeded to tell Terry how he wanted to kill me. I kept trying to interject with: "Wouldn't this be a good..." They'd say: "No, that wouldn't be a good idea." It was like I wasn't there. It was like listening to a bedtime story of how they were going to kill me. That's how it was decided best to do it. I even asked Terry if I could die with my eyes open and he said: "Certainly not, darling, that would never get past the censors." So, I had to die with my eyes closed.

Café: How would you describe the working atmosphere on a Hammer movie set?

VC: Happy, very happy. It was a very convivial, lighthearted atmosphere, though very serious when we were working. The crew was so obliging. It was just a happy family. There was no dissent. There were no problems. There was no grumbling.

Café: Do you think Horror of Frankenstein would have fared better if it had been marketed as the dark comedy it was?

A publicity still with Ralph Bates
and Kate O'Mara.
VC: I was so upset about that situation because I took Hammer seriously. I felt that very keenly. Jimmy (Sangster) knew that. It was a sort of "laughing at Hammer" reaction. I didn't want that to be that way. You always get people that sneer at horror films anyway. But this was sort of sitting up and begging for it. Jimmy was a lighthearted, serious man--an adorable man--but he just had to have this nudge-nudge, wink-wink humor in the film. I thought it was so degrading to Hammer and he knew I felt this way. He was a fine director, but he just got the message wrong as far as I was concerned. He and Ralph (Bates) got on like a house on fire. They were like two kids together when they got together, super senses of humor really. I'd sit there at lunch time sometimes and just have to walk away. Either the jokes were a bit bawdy or my stomach was hurting from laughing so much because they were so funny. As soon as Jimmy hit the set, he was a serious director. I just thought the film's innuendos mocked Hammer rather than celebrated it.

Café: Many of your American fans are unfamiliar with your 1972 TV series Spyder's Web. What can you tell us about it?

VC: I don't know really. Patricia Cutts, who played the lead, had some weight issues and the directors would get cross with her. It became an unhappy situation in so many ways. I was not particularly happy on that one. What I did like was rehearsing for two weeks and then we'd do the shoot on Saturday. That was fun. I worked with some wonderful actors and actresses in that series, so that was educational and I learned a lot. I think Patricia died not long after that. I don't know why. She did a play in Coventry once and because I lived in Coventry at the time, I went to see her. She came back to our home and we entertained her. She was a very sad lady. She'd had a huge tragedy happen in her life, which I won't discuss. It took her will to live away eventually. That's how it seemed to me.

Café: Is it true that you were almost cast in a James Bond film?

VC: Yes, but I was then under contract to Hammer for the final film I agreed to do. I was not unhappy about that. I walked into Saltzman and Broccoli (the Bond producers) to be interviewed and they said: "Oh, we've got our blonde girl." But that all fell through because I wasn't going to walk away from my happy family, not at all. I don't remember which Bond film it was. I was very torn at the time and I didn't want to think about it. It was whichever Bond film was being made when the Horror of Frankenstein was being made. I don't dwell on things I can't change.

Café: How did you become interested in painting?

This portrait was auctioned for the
Peter Cushing Memorial Window.
VC: I always have been, since I was a very little girl. My first school report was: "Veronica loves to draw." I've always wanted to paint. I went to art school when I was 16, then to college and got a bachelor's degree. I do portraits. I've got a portrait I've just completed of Peter and Vincent (Price) together and had it made into prints. I've done many portraits throughout the time I've been with Hammer. I did several of the ladies that have worked for Hammer that were commissioned by a gentleman from Switzerland. I donated a portrait of Peter Cushing to Whitsable, to his secretary so she could auction it. They wanted to put a window in the church to remember Peter by. There was one portrait, sold at Bray Studios, of Ralph Bates after he passed away. His widow, Virginia Wetherell, was there. I donated that portrait and it went for a very nice sum to raise money for pancreatic cancer research. I've found I can do good things with this gift I have. I just love to work at my easel when life permits me to.

Café: Do you still stay in touch with other Hammer performers and, if so, whom?

A photo from Veronica's Facebook page.
VC: I see Caroline Munro and Martine Beswick. I've met some of the other Hammer girls at a function a couple of years ago in London. All the Hammer girls were there: Stephanie Beacham, Valerie Leon...I'm trying to think of them all now. It was a wonderful time and it was for charity as well--Our Disappearing Planet. There is supposed to be another Hammer reunion this November 8th in London, but I haven't gotten the details on that yet. They've been in touch with me twice, asking if I was going to attend. They're going to try to get all the people that have ever worked for or with Hammer together at one huge function. Sadly, we've lost performers like Kate O'Mara. She passed away not long ago. Yvonne Monlaur is a dear friend of mine. She lives in Paris and I'm hoping she will be coming over for the Monster Bash with Caroline Munro and me. I used to know Ingrid Pitt very well. I miss her very badly. She was a lovely, vibrant woman. Simon Ward has passed away as well. Dear, oh dear, this is becoming a sad interview.

A resin model kit of Veronica will be
unveiled at Resintopia.
Café: Do you have any upcoming appearances that you'd like to share with our readers?

VC: The Hammer day at the London Film Convention on November 8th, which is supposed to be a very, very big to-do. I'm doing the Resintopia Plastic Model Kit and Statue Expo on September 12-14 in Fairfield, New Jersey. Then next month, I will be at Cinema Wasteland Movie & Memorabilia Expo on October 3-5 in Strongsville, Ohio (near Cleveland) and at Monster Bash on October 10-12 in Pittsburgh.

To learn more about Veronica Carlson, you can follow her Twitter @VCarlsonOffic.

(Editor: The James Bond film in question was probably Diamonds Are Forever. It was released in 1971 and Horror of Frankenstein came out in 1970.)


Unknown said...

Terrific interview. Like Kate Bush, I'm a big fan of "Hammer Horror".

Kevin Deany said...

Wonderful interview with one of my favorite Hammer ladies. A friend of mine has one of her paintings. A wonderful artist.

Anonymous said...

Her description of Peter Cushing is exactly what I thought it would be. I was not a fan of "Horror of Frankenstein" either, but I enjoy watching it now because of the cast. Nice interview.

Gilby37 said...

She is just as sweet and articulate in person. She broke down at last year's Monster Bash when discussing Peter Cushing -- it was obvious they were close friends. You asked new original questions which was great -- Well Done!!

toto2 said...

Rick, you are an excellent interviewer! This was such a fun read with the incredibly beautiful and multi-talented Veronica Carlson. It was very interesting to learn about her work with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee as well as her directors. I truly enjoyed seeing the photo of her portrait of Peter Cushing, too. Bravo!

Anonymous said...

I loved reading this interview. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but I loved Carlson's anecdotes and the glimpse into filmmaking it allowed. Thank you for sharing!

Rick29 said...

She was a delight to interview, too. Charming, funny, and honest!

Unknown said...

Beautiful woman.

Unknown said...

I think the Bond film would have been On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969) - the comment about finding their blonde girl fits more with the array of young women (Blofeld's Angels of Death. Three fellow Hammer actresses, Joanna Lumley, Julie Ege and Jenny Hanley also appeared in OHMSS. VC might have been considered for the role of 'Scandinavian Girl' which Julie Ege eventually played.