Book Review: Peter Cushing - A Life in Film

Appraising Peter Cushing is probably a thankless task. He was the dignified face of British horror, a presence that sanctified all the excesses of heaving bosoms and gory nastiness that we all pretended not to like. Cushing appeared as a kindly uncle figure, beloved by the kinds of wasters and outsiders who spend too much time indoors with the curtains closed. For his faithful followers, proffering any opinion of Cushing that equates him as less than the Olivier of terror or a saint amongst men would cause great wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Approaching Cushing's life in his centenary year, a writer needs to be duly aware of his target audience. He needs to decide whether his approach is laudatory or personal, playing either to the fanatics or the nostalgic many. David Miller tries to cover all bases with a collection of synopses, archive clippings and recollections following the great man's acting career. For each play, for each film, and for each piece of television, our author explains the circumstances behind each offer, basic plot details, and the critical reception of each work.

This makes for an exhaustive thoroughly researched encyclopaedia of all things Cushing, but not an exploration into what made the man tick and what his performances revealed about himself. Still, if you wish merely to walk in Cushing's thespian steps, then the narrative told here is a straightforward and warm one that you can pick up or put down as you choose. For example, if you want to discover Cushing's time in Hollywood then his few roles will be recreated and earlier interviews recounted to give some flavour and colour.

The few insights offered are nearly always kindly, as they come from friends and colleagues keen to replay the courtesy that Cushing showed them. He is painted as charming, chivalrous and a supremely well intentioned man. Excerpts of letters to producers and the BBC are portrayed as warm missives, rather than currying favour or petitioning for work. The disappointing denial of career opportunities are not explored or their impact upon the actor described in any revealing detail, although Miller is careful to feed the idea that Cushing may have been denied the praise due a great actor.

One particularly odd anecdote sticks out in the book as evidence of deliberately slight analysis. In the midst of the opening chapters of these 192 double column pages, a short paragraph tells us that Cushing feeling low sets out to kill himself one day as a young man but that a combination of good weather and a beautiful view dissuades him. Miller chooses to recount this story without real examination of why his subject was "low" and barely stops before continuing on to Cushing's efforts to get into the theatre.

No great motivation and little thematic analysis is applied to the man and the work, as this is no thesis or academic book. Surprisingly low assumptions are made of the reader's awareness of relatively modern history in the text with explanations of McCarthyism offered twice and regular repetition where an actor or crew member crossed paths with the subject again.
I guess though that Miller's approach is dictated by a lack of access to a private man and limited materials so he makes the best of portraying an attractive figure rather than exploring avenues he doesn't have any real background on. An example of this is the way Cushing falls out of step with theatre as a former regular lead in the likes of Rattigan or Coward who doesn't appreciate the angry young men and the kitchen sink drama.

The book has a foreword by Hammer starlet Veronica Carlson, and 16 pages of colour and black and white photos of the subject, many unpublished and candid. The hardback is robust and the print quality easy to read, the books size suggests it's a coffee table book, although I found it easy to carry and read on the go.

David Miller deserves credit for holding together such a large subject. Cushing worked for 60 years, appearing in 130 films and TV shows and innumerable plays - Miller covers as much of this work as must be humanly possible and has clearly researched the theatrical work thoroughly as well. It is in this respect that this volume succeeds as a companion to an extraordinary career, a reference guide for fans and casual readers alike. Those, myself included, wanting something more psychological or scholarly will need to look elsewhere.

Peter Cushing: A Life in Film was written by David Miller and is published by Titan Books on the 19th April 2013.

Click here for more details and to buy the book from the Titan website


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