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19 August 2011

Marcus Hearn remembers Jimmy Sangster

Jimmy Sangster & Marcus Hearn at Bray

Hammer Films historian Marcus Hearn pays a personal tribute to the legendary screenwriter Jimmy Sangster.

It was 1995, and a busy day in the Hammer Horror office at Marvel Comics. Snowed under with editorial duties, I had been oblivious to the call from reception, so they sent my guest through anyway. I looked up from my work to be confronted by a slightly crumpled figure, who had already sat down. “Jimmy Sangster,” he announced, without extending his hand. “So what’s all this about then?”

Immediately intimidated, I grabbed my jacket and offered to buy Jimmy a drink. In the pub I explained about the magazine, and he told me something about his career. It struck me that Jimmy was one of the most self-effacing people I had ever met. He had written more Hammer films than he could even remember, and seemed dismissive of many of them. Even some of the acknowledged classics “could have been better... but we did our best with what we had.”

With the ice broken he gave me his phone number and asked if I wanted anything written. He was bored, he explained. The following day I was in Hammer’s Elstree office and mentioned the meeting to the company’s then chairman, Roy Skeggs. “You’ve asked Jimmy to write something for you?” he said, smiling. “Did you give him a deadline?” “Yes,” I replied. “I said he could have four weeks.” Roy laughed. “I expect it will be waiting for you tomorrow.”

True enough, I discovered that Jimmy fell hungrily upon his commissions, turning work around with impressive speed. Five years later, the same thing happened when he delivered the manuscript of his memoir Inside Hammer. I was pleased it had arrived so early, but disappointed that it was so short. I decided to call him. “Hello love,” he said, disarmingly. I soon discovered that being referred to as ‘love’ meant that you were all right with Jimmy. And that was all right with me. “Um, I love the book, Jimmy, but it needs a bit of work...” “Of course it does,” he replied. “It’s only a first draft. That’s always how I’ve worked – the producer gets the first draft and sends it back for a rewrite.” “Oh, yes, of course,” I replied, secretly delighted that I was now part of the same creative process that had given the world The Curse Of Frankenstein, Dracula and Taste Of Fear.

Jimmy had been baffled when I asked him to write Inside Hammer, arguing that he had already written his autobiography, Do You Want It Good Or Tuesday? I said that this book would be different because I wanted him to rewatch all 24 of his Hammer films, and provide a new perspective on their merits or shortcomings. He rose to the challenge, which in some cases meant watching his own films for the very first time. The book speaks for itself, but needless to say it was as wry and self-deprecating as its author. Between the lines, however, I think it betrays Jimmy’s deeply hidden pride at having played such an important role in creating Hammer horror.

We recorded numerous DVD commentaries together, and in 2003 Jimmy wrote another book for me. Screenwriting: Techniques for Success was also something of a challenge to put together, but unlike Inside Hammer I’m not sure we ever arrived at where we needed to be. It soon became clear that Jimmy didn’t actually have a ‘technique for success’ – for the first time in his life he had been asked to analyse exactly how he had written all those incredible screenplays, and reading the result I came to the conclusion that much of Jimmy’s success could be attributed to sheer instinct, rather than the application of any unique formula.

By this time we were friends, and I enjoyed socialising with him and his wife, the actress Mary Peach. In 2008 I interviewed Jimmy on stage at London’s National Film Theatre. In common with all his appearances at festivals and conventions he was greeted with huge warmth by Hammer fans, although he was apologetic for repeating anecdotes he felt they must have heard before. After the event he told me he was constantly surprised by the people asking for his autograph. “Some of them are dressed very strangely,” he said, describing the Gothic apparel fans were wearing. “That’s because you wrote some very strange films,” I said. “What do you mean by that?” he said, looking me in the eye. “It’s a compliment Jimmy,” I said. “Look at the bright side – if you’d made a career writing drawing-room comedy nobody would want your autograph.” And with that he turned away, but I could see he was stifling a broad grin.

A longstanding heart condition reduced Jimmy’s mobility in recent years, but every day he made the arduous journey up three flights of stairs to the office at the top of his house. Occasionally I would accompany him to provide the latest updates on the revitalised Hammer, before we had lunch in the pub down the road. Although he was frail, he had lost none of his old spirit.

I last saw Jimmy in May this year, when I visited him to photograph some of his memorabilia for my book The Hammer Vault. As usual, the conversation began with him asking me, “Seen any good films lately?” And as usual, he had seen far more than me. As a member of the American Academy he devoured all the latest releases, often before they made it to British cinemas.

He told me he was now on Facebook, and had enjoyed re-connecting with Hammer star Shane Briant. Although they had never made a film together, Shane had often joined Jimmy and his great friend Ralph Bates drinking beer and playing snooker after a day’s filming at Elstree Studios in the 1970s.

Jimmy said he had enjoyed Hammer’s Let Me In, and was glad the old firm was getting back on its feet. “I wonder if they’re looking for any scripts?” he enquired, only half-joking.

He asked to see a copy of the book as soon as it was ready, and we agreed to meet soon. It was not to be. He died at home, with Mary by his side, on 19 August.

Almost exactly a year before, I had given my baby son the middle name James, partly in honour of Jimmy. I’m sure he didn’t think I was serious when I told him what I’d done. Well Jimmy, I meant every word. Thanks for everything, love.

Marcus Hearn

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