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23 November 2010

Ingrid Pitt (1937 - 2010)

Ingrid Pitt as Carmilla in The Vampire Lovers

Marcus Hearn pays tribute to the star of The Vampire Lovers and Countess Dracula, who died today.

Underrated as both an actress and a writer, Ingrid Pitt was a warm but stubbornly enigmatic figure. She was one of the most renowned stars of British horror cinema, although she only appeared in a handful of genre productions. And Hammer fans the world over regarded her as a friend, although few could agree on her real name, let alone the contradictory details of her personal history.

Born in Poland in 1937, Ingrid survived a Nazi concentration camp and later risked her life to cross the Iron Curtain. She initially settled in Colorado, where she lived on a reservation with Native Americans, before moving to Spain in 1964. She had a handful of roles in low-budget films before being cast in the wartime blockbuster Where Eagles Dare (1968). She was never more beautiful on screen, and joked that her co-stars Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton placed bets on who would win her affections.

James Carreras was similarly dazzled, and cast her as Carmilla in The Vampire Lovers. This was Hammer’s first production of the 1970s and the film that took the company into new, erotically-charged territory. Ingrid was already 32, older than most of the competition for the role, but her looks and spontaneity made her irresistible. And she didn’t baulk at the film’s controversial lesbian scenes.

There was further nudity in 1971’s Countess Dracula, but Ingrid could do little to lift the relatively tepid plot. Her relationship with director Peter Sasdy was fractious, and she suffered the indignity of having her voice dubbed in post-production. She fared better with a memorable cameo in Amicus’ The House That Dripped Blood (1971), but her typically uninhibited contribution to The Wicker Man (1973) was largely cut from the finished film.

In 1974 Ingrid met Formula One team manager Tony Rudlin, and she remained devoted to him for the rest of her life. Her genre career seemingly over, she tackled a wide variety of roles, with notable appearances in television series Doctor Who (1972 and 1984), Smiley’s People (1982) and the film Who Dares Wins (1982).

When acting parts became scarce Ingrid fell back on her other major talent, as a writer. A witty and opinionated columnist, she also wrote children’s stories, novels, reference books and an autobiography, Life’s a Scream, that laid bare the real-life horror of her childhood years.

By the time I got to know Ingrid in the mid-1990s I suspect her flamboyant screen persona had already begun to subsume her true personality. She would playfully refer to her own breasts as ‘Tom and Jerry’, and in restaurants order rare steak and Bloody Marys; all, I suspect, for the pleasure of seeing my shocked reaction. After one such meeting in a bar off Fleet Street, she asked me for directions to her next meeting in town. I told her it was simple, and that there was a tube station just down the road. This was my turn to surprise her. “Darling,” she said, alarmed at the prospect of travelling by public transport, “that would be absurd!”

In her last decade Ingrid’s health declined rapidly and our meetings became less frequent. Tony was always there for her, and escorted her to numerous film fairs, conventions and fan club reunions at the Polish Club in Hammersmith.

When Hammer returned to production in 2007, Ingrid was the first member of the old guard they called upon for a cameo appearance in Beyond The Rave. Two years later, I considered her a central part of my book Hammer Glamour. By this time I had known her for around 15 years, but this was the first time I had formally interviewed her. She was frail, but typically feisty in her defence of The Vampire Lovers. “It might have been shocking, but it wasn’t dirty,” she insisted. “I loved it when I had nothing on.”

Sentiments that will be echoed by us all when we remember Hammer’s most iconic leading lady.

Ingrid Pitt
21 November 1937 – 23 November 2010

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