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Hammer Films: The Unsung Heroes by Wayne Kinsey

1/12/2011. Contributed by Geoff Willmetts

Buy Hammer Films: The Unsung Heroes in the USA - or Buy Hammer Films: The Unsung Heroes in the UK

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pub: Tomahawk Press. 484 page illustrated large softcover. Price: GBP25.00 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-9557670-2-9).

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‘Hammer Films: The Unsung Heroes’ by Wayne Kinsey is the fourth of his books on the film production company. Uniquely, it isn’t focusing on the actors in front of the camera, although they do appear in the many photographs here, but on the production company people itself in the end credits who bring the films together. Considering Hammer tended towards making one film at a time, it was inevitable key members of production were repeatedly used, turning the unit into a family of sorts and this comes over in the interviews herein.

In some respects, you would think that this could be dull but the way Kinsey has organised things, there are a lot of extra articles reviewing aspects of Hammer Films’ activities so it isn’t just a lot of biographies with interviews. Even more importantly, there is a detailed explanation as to what their posts entailed with each section and which still goes on today. As such it also gives insight as to job requirement if ever you wanted to get into the industry and skills required. Each biography also contains interviews with the people themselves so you can’t get closer to the horse’s mouth so to speak and with the years passing, this makes this book of historical interest. I was also surprised that even a few pages in that I was finding it easier to identify who the people were from the photographs.

Did you know that the company name was derived from ‘Hammersmith’, a borough in London for those who live abroad, which became the name of a two man vaudeville comedy act called ‘Hammer and Smith’ aka William Hines and Enrique Carreras who founded the company. It’s also fascinating reading about James Carreras’ arguments with the British Board Of Film Censors about the differentiation of horror and sex films, the latter is where the ‘X’ certificate was named after. It wasn’t until later in Hammer’s life that the two began to be blended together.

There are a lot of inside stories and insights. Like the rights to Russell Thorndyke’s ‘Dr. Syn’ novels being mismanaged by its publishers and how Disney and Hammer had specific country rights and why the latter ultimately decided it would be easier to change its name to ‘Captain Clegg’. Interestingly, those involved say that neither film was typical of either company.

It is also enlightening that these histories extend before and after their times at Hammer and like director Terrance Fisher points out, they weren’t simply in the horror genre. Indeed, it’s fascinating how many were involved in the likes of ‘The Avengers’ or as with the cameramen, dropping in the odd remark that they worked on the likes of the first two ‘Alien’ or those ‘Star Wars films. The people behind Hammer really did make their mark on a lot of films in other parts of their careers and were highly respected.

Speaking of cameramen, Jack Asher’s explanations of how he arranged the lights to ensure he got the most out of the colours for filming in the colour process is truly enlightening and his own expertise that nearly won him an Oscar.

It’s interesting seeing the same stories from different perspectives and they are spread out far enough so not to become tiresome. The same is also true of comments made about various directors and actors.

The life of Assistant Director Bert Batt has to be one of really interesting ones and why he was held in high regard. If you’ve seen the 1963 film ‘Zulu’ and wondered how they managed to get so many warriors surrounding the fort, then look to how Batt did it is a fascinating read.

Likewise is AD Bill Cartilidge and his explanation on how to get a union card when you hadn’t a job already in the film industry. It also probably explains why so many in the industry at the time were so humble as they had to work their way up through the ranks.

One question that I always wanted answered was who was Christopher Neame and his biography here points out that the assistant director/production manager and actor are actually two different people and there is still some confusion over that. The same applies to Monty Berman, the costumer and TV producer are actually two different people contrary to some belief.
Production Designer Bernard Robinson was involved in many Hammer productions and much credit is given to him for recycling sets and making the best out of a low budget. The more I read this book, the more I feel how much we take for granted in what we see on the screen.

The chapter on the people who did the make-up for Hammer was insightful to the problems of working to a tight budget and seeing a lot of the work end up on the cutting room floor due to the censor. It was fascinating reading how Phil Leakey got started in the business cos his dad knew someone and moved from one department to another and lucked out by being taught by an American make-up artist working over here. Thankfully, his rather jovial suggestion as to one of the ways to dispose of Dracula wasn’t carried out. This chapter is stacked with photos because they had to be taken for reference. So much of the work done by these people was ground-breaking at the time and outside of Amicus, there just wasn’t any other company doing such horrific effects in the UK at the time.

Many of the people involved have been given various awards and accolades over the years both at Hammer and afterwards. Sometimes there are interesting connections like composer James Bernard learning a lot of his craft with Benjamin Britten. If you ever wondered who composed the eerie whistle tune for the Hammer TV series, ‘Journey To The Unknown’, then Harry Robinson’s section is a must, especially in sharp contrast he also composed the ‘Hoots, Mon’ single in the 60s that ended up being used in a sweets advert a decade or so ago.

I suspect for many people, the special effects chapter is going to be the lodestone. It also gives a superb account of the life of Les Bowie and how when he was a POW in World War Two, he was the one who faked the clothes and identity cards for those who escaped which got him into cinema after the war. Bowie was very much a groundbreaker, figuring out a way to speed up doing matte painting and ended up teaching so many of the other special effects people along the way. The stills of his work showing the models against what was shown on film are still jaw-dropping. Interestingly, in that time period, what was shown on the screen in the UK was slightly different to what could be shown abroad. Considering that the US censorship is even stricter than ours, one can only assume this was mostly for the European and Japanese market (the latter being more bloodthirsty) and it might make you wonder as to whether we’ve ever seen complete versions of many Hammer films. This comes very much from Sydney Pearson’s descriptions of Dracula’s death in their first film of the vampire.

The lengthy discussions from special effects man Brian Johnson, another from the Les Bowie school, and Ray Harryhausen are sheer magic to read, filling you in on all kinds of things not just with Hammer but also with other companies. There are also a lot of Harryhausen’s storyboards for ‘One Million Years B.C.’.

Stunt work was never really revered when it was first used and it was the likes of Joe Powell and Jock Easton who turned it into a profession. With Hammer relying on staging such things in their films, they really had their work cut out for them and often were the first to do such stunts. Eddie Powell’s reminiscences are the most detailed, especially as he stood in for Christopher Lee and for other productions he stunted for Gregory Peck. Powell was also the adult alien in ‘Alien’ and as most of it was stunts, it was mostly him. I suspect it was contractual as to who played what in the credits though. There’s also an interesting photo of the two stuntmen who played the yeti in ‘The Abominable Snowman’ in case you’ve never seen their full costumes.

With two columns to a page this is a really long read and double the usual page count. I should point that the book isn’t entirely text as when it comes to stage design and make-up, there are numerous pages devoted to re-using sets and showing them and such.
I was a bit puzzled by some of the note numbers being full-size and thought for a while they were leftover insert marks. I could see the odd one being missed but there’s really far too many for its editor not to have missed. The notes themselves don’t carry any extra information so you can leave them alone anyway.

This truly is a fascinating book and if you have an interest in Hammer Films, then this is a must to own and worth its money. You not only get insight into a lot of people’s careers but anecdotes from across the industry. The length of my review should speak for itself. Don’t miss it.

GF Willmetts

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