Christopher Lee: The last gentleman of horror

SO MANY FILMS. In the absence of real friends, lonely children may well compensate by surrounding themselves with obsessive collections and for me it was always cinema. Horror films were a particular favourite and so, therefore, growing up in the late seventies and early eighties, thanks to the betamax and then VHS, even in the darkest shadows of my childhood, I was surrounded by friends. If you’re reading this, chances are they were your friends too and I would like for us to remember them now.

In the days of only four television channels to choose from, Friday and Saturday were the best nights to meet new friends. I remember BBC1 or 2 would often resurrect horror double-bills on a Friday, usually a Hammer or Amicus, and Channel 4 had a spell of unleashing the Universal horrors on a Saturday. Covers pulled up tight and steaming hot chocolate in hand, some of the films were good and others, looking back, were positively shocking and not in a good way. All however, in the eyes of a pre-teenager at least, still awake long after his bedtime, were unforgettable and cherished classics. The faces of the people that I met on those Friday and Saturday nights, taped and then replayed endlessly, will be forever imprinted in my mind and, even now, they are as vivid to me as anyone that I have known in real life beyond the confines of a television or cinema screen. Those strong, distinct and ever perceptible faces belonged to Lon Chaney (both of them), Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Peter Lorre, Basil Rathbone, John Carradine, Vincent Price, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. These were the friends that I never actually met. Except one…

chrislee4.jpgIn the summer of 2002, Christopher Lee was guest of honour for the grand opening of the Cinema Store in Nottingham. The second installments of both the Star Wars prequels and Lord of the Rings franchises were due for release that same year but Mr. Lee was also there to promote a new book written about him by Jonathan Rigby. The ping of the lift heralded his arrival and as the doors parted to reveal this icon of horror and fantasy cinema, it is no exaggeration to say that he was every bit as charismatic in person as he was on screen in countless mesmerizing roles. However, it must be said that I observed a certain lack of amusement from Mr. Lee as he was greeted with tedious and banal questions by fans as they queued to meet him. So when is Attack of the Clones released and what about The Two Towers? Not to mention his vexed expression when faced with endless questions regarding a certain vampire. It can be a daunting experience to meet your hero as it is but this did little to calm my nerves.

When it was finally my turn to make a fool of myself, I stuttered and mumbled something about how much I always wanted to meet him and Mr. Cushing and how much their work had meant to me as a child of those dark and aforementioned shadows. Perhaps sensing my nervous disposition, something rather wonderful happened and the most sorcerous of smiles appeared upon his face as he joked about how I’d have to wait until I travelled to the other side to meet dear Peter. Of course, I’d seen this smile many times before, usually when he was about to do something particularly cunning or diabolical on screen but this time it was warm and comforting, immediately putting an overly serious and introspective fan at ease. I shook his hand and said thank you. A fleeting moment, undoubtedly one of millions that Mr. Lee has had to put up with over the years but I will never forget the kindness and sensitivity with which he “handled” me.

chrislee2.jpgSo, if like me, you have spent immeasurable hours in the company of Mr. Lee, or at least his remarkable legacy of films, you will feel a great sense of loss today. Sir Christopher Lee has died. He has gone to the other side. He was the last true gentleman of horror. Perhaps when it is my turn to travel to other side, we shall meet again – both Mr. Lee, and indeed, Mr. Cushing – those happiest of screen enemies.

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