Peter Cushing, Star of Many Hammer Horror Films
Leaving his life with writer Paul Dehn, here composer James Bernard talks about his career writing music for a series of English horror films…
Back to the Hammer Films, although I find this a lot more interesting --
So, there you were with The Quatermass Experiment, and jumping into the Frankenstein and Dracula films. Was all of this a cultural shock for you?
Not at all. I'd been reading horror stories since I was a boy. It's always amazed me later -- the three books that I had adored in my boyhood were The Devil Rides Out, She, and The Hound of the Baskervilles. I must've read them in my middle teenage years. So later ,when I found myself actually writing the music for the film versions of these books, I thought this was almost a miracle! So it was no shock at all. In fact, I had been collecting anthologies of horror stories for as long as I could remember.
The only regret that I tell people is that I would've loved to have written more romantic scores, like She. In the Dracula things, for which I'm eternally grateful, there wasn't always a chance to do a really nice, romantic score. There were two, little romantic bits in Taste the Blood of Dracula and Scars of Dracula. I just adored the whole business of film making. It's unfortunate that as the composer, I wasn't called down to the set all that often. I usually didn't see anything until the actually filming was mostly or completely finished. I was never on the set unless it was during a scene that needed music during the actual filming, like the Egyptian nightclub scene in She, where you need the Arab music. All that Arab music is mine.
I thought that was all archival music.
I'm very pleased by that. You have to immerse yourself, and see how it sounds, and than create something that is evocative of that sound. Another instance is in Kiss of the Vampire. There is a scene where there is a vampire ball, and all of the sort of Viennese waltzes are by me, too.
Again, I had thought that was archival!
No, it was me! So, when they needed that, I wrote several waltzes that blended one into the other, and wrote one main one. If all goes according to plan, Silva Screen will record some suites from She, and the main waltz from Kiss of the Vampire, to a new arrangement I have done. There were some themes from She that I would've liked to have expanded, and I have done so for this new recording. There never was much time for it in the movie. I was always sad they didn't ask me to do The Vengeance of She.
When you were going to do the first Dracula or Frankenstein film, were you familiar with the tradition of movie music from American horror films?
Not at all. I used to love going to the movies, but I never made any studies. It was just my idea on how to do it, really.
And you had no familiarity with the Italian vampire operas of the last century?
Not at all. It was all new to me. I did what I thought would be right. Paul and I used to think of things together, and when it came to Dracula, he said that the name Dracula certainly suggests something musically. That's how I came up with the theme. Listen, next time, and you'll hear: "DRAC -- u -- la!" And that was just from the two of us chatting.
The closest I had ever come earlier to thinking like this, was with the Duchess of Malfi, which as I said, is really sort of a horror play.
As the quality of the Hammer Dracula films declined, did it affect at all your enthusiasm for composing for them?
I can't really be objective about that, I was too closely involved. I really wouldn't like to offer an opinion on that. Some of the later films, like Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell, were very good. It was a great loss, of course, when Terence Fischer died. But because I was not involved in too many of the later Hammer Films, I don't think I can offer an opinion.
You wrote a wonderful score for what might've been the best of the later Hammer films, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed.
I like that film and I like that score. I was called-in when the film was more or less complete, and I would see the film in a little viewing theater in Soho, and plan out the music. At this time, I'd put together a music breakdown when the film was near its final cut. We'd go through it reel by reel, and if the producer was Anthony Hinds, he'd sometimes be there, and the director too, if he was interested. Terence Fischer was such a charming, wonderful man, but he never came to our music sessions! I once said to him, "Terry, don't you ever want to come and see what we're doing?" And he said, "No, I know nothing whatever about music, and I feel it's not my part of the film. I'm always happy with what you music boys do, and I trust you!"
Anthony Nelson-Keyes, when he produced, would call me now and then for my ideas on the main theme. I remember banging out for him an idea for Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed on a battered, upright piano. He smiled, and said "Press on!"
The editor, his assistant, and soundtrack people would be there, too, to integrate sound effects like thunder and sounds of rain. And after all that was done, I would end up in my music room with my manuscript and my piano.
I haven't changed the way I work. I've just done this 90 minute score for Nosferatu, and I just worked with manuscript paper, a pencil, a ruler, an India rubber and a grand piano.
With all of your work appearing on CD, did you anticipate the tremendous longevity of, and continued interest in, your work?
Not for a single moment. Nor did Hammer! For all the people involved, especially on The Horror of Dracula, it was just one of those golden moments where things came together totally by chance. A chance teaming that really delivered the goods. Hammer was doing a number of films of all types, and I was just doing my work amidst the usual panic, working most of the night, to get the thing finished on time.
So it is quite wonderful that all this interest has come round that people want to hear the score without seeing the movie!
Any memories of Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee?
Cushing was always so sweet and so charming. I last saw him in 1994, when my friend Ted Newsom made the documentary Flesh and Blood. We went down to Canterbury, and the last thing poor Peter ever did was record his part of the narration for this documentary. We took Christopher Lee down with us to Canterbury, we all came to Peter because he was so ill, and found a studio in Canterbury. Peter came with his nurse Joyce, and her wonderful husband, who both looked after him wonderfully. Peter and Christopher had a delightful reunion; I don't think they had seen each other for some time. Peter was just the same, he was so frail and thin, but he was charming and sweet as ever.
Christopher, is of course, a charming man, too. Brilliant and erudite, a gifted linguist, a man with a strong personality. I have happy memories of them both. And my days at Hammer.
So ends our interview with James Bernard – a fascinating life!