From Zeppelins to Vampires and Star Wars! by Don Cameron
Like many things in life it was by chance that I found out about the centenary. I was in a bookshop in Whitstable, browsing through the well-stocked shelves, when I noticed the small poster. I stepped closer and read that Peter Cushing, who had lived for many years in the small seaside town, was being honoured.
I did not know much about the famous actor other than seeing him in scary movies, and I decided to do a little digging (I’m sure he would understand that bit..) and find out about the man who was quintessentially the good guy, and a fine actor.
Peter Cushing came into the world on 26th May 1913 and spent his early years in Dulwich, living with his parents and older brother on Desenfans Road. His father was a Quantity Surveyor, and the household was a happy place where plenty of games were played. One of Peter’s earliest memories, probably from the summer of 1917, was of Zeppelins flying overhead, like long, grey cigars drifting in the sky. When they arrived his mother hustled the two boys under the dining table, covered it with a sheet, and they made believe that it was a wigwam. Such game playing and pretending was something that Peter took to instinctively, and it stayed with him his whole life.
He attended the local kindergarten and thrived under the guidance of a friendly and caring teacher. And it was here that he got his first taste of acting, in a school play. He played the part of a cheeky hobgoblin and, dressed in a green costume, spent most of the show behind a large wicker basket. Such a talent could not remain hidden, and he was determined never to let it happen again!
Not only had he an innate talent for acting but he was also a very good artist. This was something he would develop in later years, and there are some of his paintings on show in and around Whitstable.
He went to Hollywood in early 1939 and had a part in Laurel & Hardy’s A Chump at Oxford in 1940. He then went to New York and made a few brief appearances on Broadway before returning home the same year to help the war effort. He was not accepted for military service due to injuries he sustained in school sports, but he did join the Entertainment National Services Association (ENSA).
After the war he performed in the West End and became a regular and familiar face on the then expanding television service. He appeared in numerous films and became a household name when he starred in the popular horror films for the Hammer Corporation, and as Van Helsing was the scourge of Dracula and his deadly, blood-sucking vampires.
Late in life he landed a role in the hugely successful Star Wars, something that brought him to the attention of a new, admiring generation. It was a long way from hiding under the table in Dulwich, but having dealt with real danger at such an early age, fighting inter-galactic foes was a doddle! Fear was not something that worried him, and his take on life is as good an epitaph as anyone would want:
‘You have to have a sense of humour, darling, to be alive. Even a bit mad. It helps to be mad.”