A recent day-trip to Whitstable brought to mind a man of whom I have many fond memories; for Whitstable is not only famous as the place where some of the tastiest native oysters snuggle down in their beds, but also as the residence of that pre-eminent vampire-sleuth-and-slayer, the most gentlemanly film actor of his age --- PETER CUSHING.
The fact that the Hammer House of Horror star made his home beside the long shingly shore of this little town on the Thames Estuary, has now been honoured by naming a street CUSHING'S WALK and designating a spot on what passes for an esplanade, CUSHING'S VIEW...
I first met Peter Cushing when I was in my early twenties. I had ambitions to write and came up with the (not very original) idea of a book about 'actors' and one of the people I approached for an interview was Cushing.
I had already written him several letters as a fan that had led to a correspondence and he responded to my request for an interview with an invitation to visit him at Pinewood Studios where he was filming what would turn out to be one of very few turkeys in his prolific career, Nothing But the Night.
On the appointed day, I was treated royally: given a seat on set to watch filming (I was fascinated by the fact that Cushing, a chain-smoker, wore a white cotton glove on his right hand when not on camera so as not to get nicotine stains!) and I was introduced to his co-stars, his long-time screen nemesis, Christopher Lee, and the pneumatic Miss Diana Dors.
Then I was toured round the studio lot and was shown all those wonderfully phoney facades (walk through the door of a Mexican town and find yourself in a Cornish fishing village!); taken to lunch in the commissary (sitting at the next table to one of my film gods, Ken Russell, who was then filming Savage Messiah); and, after the interview, given a lift back into London by Cushing and Paddy, his Irish chauffer/stand-in.
The book never got written but we maintained our correspondence and, years later when I was presenting a book programme on the BBC, I twice got to interview Peter when he published two volumes of autobiography.
My last memory of this warm, courteous and generous man was of his going through the second volume, Past Forgetting, correcting various typos in his immaculate copperplate handwriting - to the complete frustration of his publicist, who wanted to whisk him off to his next appointment!
Anyway, back to Whitstable...
I am sitting propped up against one of the groins on the very windy beach when a man with a loud know-it-all megaphone-voice scrunches over the shingle, holding forth to a companion who hangs on his every word. "Oh, yes," says Megaphone, "I know this beach like the back of my hand..."
I tune-out for a while - to avoid crucial levels of boredom - but then, suddenly, pick up on a name that I know...
"Peter Cushing?" Megaphone is saying, " Oh yes, that's his house over there - the black weather-boarded one..."
"Do you ever spot him?" asks his friend eagerly.
"Well," replies Megaphone, "of course, he's a bit of a recluse, you know, so we don't see him about much nowadays..."
Hmmm! Not too surprising really... Not when you think that the dear man has been dead for almost THIRTEEN YEARS!