24 January 2008
David Miller, author of The Peter Cushing Companion, meets Veronica Carlson, one of Hammer's most beautiful and accomplished leading ladies.
(interview first posted January 2001)
Veronica Carlson and David Miller at the launch of David’s book The Peter Cushing Companion
Picture by Peter Nicholson.
Veronica Carlson starred in three Hammer horrors. She appeared as Maria opposite Christopher Lee's Dracula in Dracula Has Risen From the Grave in 1968, played Anna Spengler to Peter Cushing's Baron Frankenstein in 1969's Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed and then appeared with Ralph Bates' youthful Baron in The Horror of Frankenstein in 1970. She also appeared in Tyburn Films' The Ghoul, again with Peter Cushing.
Although Veronica was born in Yorkshire, her father was stationed in Germany for the early part of her life and she lived on an RAF base. After a spell living in Kenley (where, coincidentally, Peter Cushing was born) Veronica attended High Wycombe College of Technology and Design, where she studied art. She now lives in Florida with her husband and three children and is a professional artist.
Did you start drawing as a child?
I have a school report which says ‘Veronica loves to draw’ and that was when I was four. I have never not drawn. When I went to Thetford Girls’ School I caused a bit of trouble. They would want to draw soppy things like flowers and bees and I said "I’d like to draw a face. I’d like to know how a skull works." I was told, "Veronica, go and sit down!" So I went to art college and found out how a skull worked. It’s rather a solitary thing, painting, and I’ve found that I like my own company.
You also participated in college dramatic productions.
We used to do things for charity, rehearsing in the lunch-hours and the evenings. There was a lot of operatic work. We did Trial by Jury and The Conspirators by Schubert, in which I played Bella. The musical director was going to do Offenbach’s La Vie Parisienne and I was supposed to be playing the lead. but I was about to sit my finals so I was told I couldn’t.
Is it true that James Carreras, the chairman of Hammer, saw your photo in the papers and hired you?
I’d done a couple of small parts in films and then I was on the front of the Sunday Mirror. A wonderful photographer called Ben Jones took me down to the south coast and took some photographs of me coming out of the water. Apparently Jimmy Carreras saw one in the Sunday Mirror and said "That’s the girl for my next picture." So I was called in. I had to have an audition of course, but I was given a part in Dracula Has Risen From the Grave. James Carreras was a lovely, affable man. I warmed to him straight away. He took me under his wing — which was a very comforting wing. I learned that it wasn’t just me, he was a person who was magnanimous, generous and thoughtful to everybody.
You were immediately working with some of Hammer’s finest.
Veronica with Christopher Lee in a publicity still from Dracula Has Risen From the Grave.
I was so lucky. Christopher Lee was very approachable and enormously generous. He obviously sensed that I was nervous, and made sure that I wasn’t nervous any more. I loved his Dracula — he was like a dark presence, like an animal. Freddie Francis is a brilliant cinematographer and I loved the look of
Risen From the Grave. I used to love walking around the empty sets, it was like being in a fairy-tale. At the first read-through, I found myself sitting at a table with all these exquisite people, Christopher, Rupert Davies, whom I’d admired for ages, Barry Andrews and dear Michael Ripper. On the first day my dressing-room was filled with flowers from the producer Aida Young and Freddie and good wishes from everybody — I felt like I was a star! I have a photograph that I cherish of the ladies doing my hair on the film — Freddie would call them Freeman, Hardy and Willis — hair, costume and make-up. My sister Elizabeth came to the set of Dracula Has Risen From the Grave and had a migraine because of the excitement. She couldn’t see and was very frightened. Kevin Francis, who was a runner for his father, was wonderful — he took her to the sick-bay and looked after her and gave her cold compresses for her head and water to drink. He couldn’t do enough for her. In the evening we went to a preview of The Devil Rides Out. Chris Lee was there, and was laughing and was loving it. Kevin Francis [who worked on the production and later founded Tyburn Films] was one of the sweetest people to me then.
How did you feel about working with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing?
Veronica and her pet squirrel Beastie, with Peter Cushing on the set of Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed.
Both of these men were great heroes — people I admired. So when I was lucky enough to get the film with Christopher, I didn’t think that I would meet Peter. And suddenly, there he was! He came in to help to accept the Queen’s Award to Industry. I was standing between these two men and suddenly I felt so special and so famous! Immediately after
Dracula they were talking about me doing the next one. It was a wonderful compliment that the film had been successful and they wanted me to do another one. I’d learned so much. In Frankenstein we not only had Peter but some of the best actors in England, Freddie Jones, Simon Ward, Maxine Audley and Windsor Davis. Terence Fisher was the director, and he treated me like a proper professional. He was happy to let me walk down the road on my own, so to speak.
Did you enjoy working with Freddie Jones?
Oh yes! In the scene in the cellar, I had a confrontation with Freddie. After Terry said "Cut!", Freddie came up to me and said "I saw real fear in your face, and I was moved." All these seasoned actors were giving me so much. Peter did too — it was the scene in the outhouse when I got out of bed and came down. Peter came in and as I went out I squeezed myself into the door frame. I don’t think we even rehearsed it, it was just an instinctive thing. He said "Darling that was wonderful, I really felt I repulsed you." Everything happened to poor Anna — if she hadn’t been killed she would have gone mad.
The rape scene was added quite late wasn’t it?
It was a terrible time. James Carreras was bound by the wishes of the distributor — I think if he had had a say in things we wouldn’t have done it. But they wanted more sex. If the rape scene had been in the script from the beginning it would have been better, I could have reacted to it. It would have been a whole different dimension to the awfulness of Frankenstein. We tried to find ways around shooting it — Terry got really distressed, threw the script in the air and walked off the set. I’d done an episode of The Saint with Roger Moore and Roger came from his set next door to comfort me.
Then you appeared in The Horror of Frankenstein...
Ralph Bates played the youthful Baron in The Horror of Frankenstein. Veronica co-starred with Kate O’Mara.
Jimmy Sangster was the director, with Ralph Bates and Kate O’Mara. It’s sad, but Jimmy is often slated as a director. He would take us to lunch and talk through what we were going to do. He said "If you’re going to laugh about anything, you can laugh about it now because when we get on the set we are going to be serious." Jimmy was a professional — he was a strict and wonderful director and I’d love to work with him again.
You later appeared in The Ghoul for Freddie Francis.
Freddie invited me back for The Ghoul and Kevin was a producer by then. They’d seen what I’d done in the meantime so we had lunch at Pinewood, and they asked me back! I was so comfortable to be working with Freddie again and it really was the greatest compliment they could have paid me.
How was Peter Cushing during filming?
Peter was very upset. He was probably at his lowest ebb [after the death of his wife, Helen] and he was filming the scene where, as Dr Lawrence, he had to talk about his wife committing suicide. When he acted, he wasn’t actually acting, he was living the role. He broke down and it was terribly difficult for all of us. He was having to cope with that in his daily life. Everybody who knew and loved Peter kept him working, because for him, working was better than thinking about Helen. If he could have seen the incredible reception that these films are getting now, it’s amazing. He would have been afforded such a welcome! That’s why I’m so glad you’ve done this book. It shows how much Peter did, and how much he cared about what he did.
Why do you think Hammer films are still so popular?
Veronica Carlson and David Miller at the launch of David’s book The Peter Cushing Companion in 2000. Picture by Peter Nicholson.
When we were doing the Hammers we used to come in early — it was rather against Equity regulations — but we wanted to be there. We didn’t want to miss a moment of it. We all wanted it to be perfect. Everyone wanted everything to be perfect. There’s a wonderful group of people out there that cherish everything that Hammer was. And realise
what it was. It was people like Freddie and Terry and Christopher and Peter who cared very deeply about what they were doing. And that’s why thirty years on people are still interested in Hammer.