This is a Hammer Film… Convention – 80 Years of Hammer at Westminster

Frankenstein and the monster from hell
Hammer horror – Peter Cushing and Shane Briant in Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, 1970.

Late last October I took a trip to a rather special event in London: The 40th London Film Convention, celebrating 80 years of Hammer.

Buoyed by the enthusiasm of the Hammer Lovers group on Facebook, the possibility of meeting friends, and a visit to the ‘Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination’ exhibition at the British Library, I found some cheap accommodation and booked my tickets for November.

Hammer films are an enigma to many – throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s, this small British studio created a stream of memorable horror and Sci-Fi films, a number of which have achieved classic status. The studio hired a remarkably talented range of actors, writers, directors and crew who, in bringing ‘quality’ and panache to the proceedings, were able to rise above the generally meagre budget and exploitative intentions of the productions. Though Hammer ceased making movies in 1979, the enduring popularity of movies such as Dracula, The Curse of Frankenstein and Plague of the Zombies, has secured the studio a loyal fan base.

Travelling down from Edinburgh on a late train, I stayed Friday night in some rather basic, if comfortable accommodation. Early next morning I set off for Westminster, the venue for possibly the biggest gathering of Hammer actors, directors and producers since the last reunion took place at Bray Studios – Hammers’ first home, in 2007.

[pullquote]For one Saturday in November, London Film Convention transformed Central Hall, Westminster, into a bustling warren of signing desks and memorabilia stalls, cast and crew reunions and talks celebrating Hammers 80th birthday.[/pullquote]

The signing queues were long.

The commercial reality of the convention scene proved quite startling, no photo with your hero without purchase or a donation to charity, and with over 50 stars in attendance, some fans obviously arrived with remarkably deep pockets, or perhaps they had been saving up all year – events on this scale are rare.
Better yet, bring your own poster or still if you do want something signed, as the prints on offer may not be to your liking, and arrive with a plan, or a must meet list. Though the Westminster event proved so busy, even a simple plan proved difficult to follow.
Of course, you can buy an entry ticket for the talks and reunions instead, held in a relaxed side room, where you can hear your idols discuss their experiences, and ask questions in the Q&A sessions afterward.

Dracula has risen from the grave
Hammer-abilia – stills and posters such as this UK Quad for Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, were in abundance at the Westminster event.

Hammers’ ‘Queen of Horror’, the fabulous Barbara Shelley, now a spritely 82, was at the top of my must meet list.
It’s 30 years since I first saw Barbara in Hammers’ Quatermass and the Pit, a film I adore to this day, and I was eager to ask her if she remembered anything of the shoot – to which Barbara replied ‘the nauseating smell of stagnant water and mud on the set!’
Later, in conversation with event organiser Thomas Bowington, Barbara spoke more on Quatermass, and reminisced about her ‘nude’ scene in Rasputin: The Mad Monk, and swallowing a ‘fang’ while being ‘staked’ in Dracula, Prince of Darkness. She also spoke of a recent injury she received to her hand in a bus door, and the drivers ambivalence to her injury. A reminder perhaps, of societies impatience with the elderly.
Thanking her fans for their continued love and support brought a tear to her eye. A very gracious lady indeed.

Barbara Shelley – the most enchanting of Hammer’s leading ladies

Barbara Shelley - the most enchanting of Hammer's leading ladies
Barbara Shelley – the most enchanting of Hammer’s leading ladies

I also exchanged a few brief words with the delightfully warm and friendly Linda Hayden. Linda spoke of the location shoot on Blood on Satan’s Claw, including her scenes in a ruined church. Blood on Satan’s Claw is one of those particularly atmospheric and quirky British films (though not from Hammer) which, well, gets under your skin. And Linda’s role in the movie as Angel Blake is both pivotal, and memorable. I had to have her autograph!

Linda Hayden Autograph
Linda Hayden Autograph

Familiar faces – Hammer stars gather at Central Hall, Westminster

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In perhaps the highlight of the day-long discussion stream, Hungarian director Peter Sasdy gave the most insightful talk on his varied career as a director. Stepping the Westminster audience through the process of making a movie, from screenplay through location selection to shoot. Touching on his work for Hammer and the iconic BBC TV movie The Stone Tapes. Chatting openly about the actors he has worked with on films such as I don’t Want to be Born, and Taste the blood of Dracula and Countess Dracula for Hammer, including poignant memories of his friendships with Ralph Bates and Ingrid Pitt.
I wish i could have recorded the discussion, Mr Sasdy could not have indulged his audience more, un-repeatable and fascinating.

Peter Sasdy reflects, celebrating 80 years of Hammer at Central Hall, Westminster 2014
Peter Sasdy reflects, celebrating 80 years of Hammer at Central Hall, Westminster 2014

I did indulge in a further autograph – Veronica Carlson, Veronica is a talented and successful artist, and seeing the care and thought she put into her signings I knew I wanted her to sign a still for me.

Veronica Carlson Autograph
Veronica Carlson Autograph

My day finished with a screening of Vampire Circus, though many fans I imagine headed home or to impromptu gatherings in local hostelries with some of the Hammer stars.

Quite a day.

Oh, and I did surface on the Sunday in time to meet my friends and get along to the ‘Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination’ exhibit at the British Library.

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