AN ACTOR IN SEARCH OF A CHARACTER

It was recently suggested by one particularly misguided individual that, in time, PETER WYNGARDE would only be remembered for playing General Klytus in Flash Gordon. This kind of fatuous comment is indicative of the kind of characters that frequent the Internet these days.

In view of such an ill-advised statement I thought it might be an idea to put together a collection of short editorials telling the stories behind some of the many characters PETER has played over the years, with contributions from the man himself.

BEN BUTLEY – (Butley)

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PETER as Ben Butley

At the time that PETER took Simon Gray’s play, ‘Butley’ to The Metro in Melbourne for its World Premier, Australia was hardly celebrated as a mecca for theatre goers. Most of the fayre found on Aussie stages in the late 60’s/early 70’s were musical cast-off’s from the West End – indeed, ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ had just finished a very successful run when Harry M. Miller’s production arrived in town.

Given the type of theatrical entertainment our Antipodean cousins were used to, ‘Butley’ must’ve come as something of a shock. PETER had wanted to completely change his appearance for the part by shaving off his familiar moustache and cutting his hair but director, Michael Codron, persuaded him otherwise, as he felt that keeping the Jason King look would help to sell tickets.

“When I told Tennessee Williams that I was taking ‘Butley’ to Australia”, PETER says, “he said to me how lucky I was to be able to perform great lines instead of old lyrics”.

On the day he arrived at the Metro’s stage door for rehearsal, he’d heard a man call to his friend across the street:

“What ya doing here, mate?”

“I’ve come to see Jason King playing a butler!” came the reply.

“It didn’t bode well,” PETER confesses. But in spite of that early glitch, every performance was a sell-out. “The theatre had just under 2,000 seats”, PETER explains, “and since the play was an intimate four-hander, we were often struggling to be heard.

“That said, we were very close to the people in the front row, and on the opening night I literally had to shove one man’s feet off the end of the stage while I passed!”

The story follows the exploits of a lecturer at London University who, following the breakdown of his marriage, shares his office and flat with a former pupil-turned-teacher. Butley spends his time flounders through a series of disastrous episodes involving his work and ex-wife, which he views through the bottom of an empty whiskey bottle.

One of Ben Butley’s traits is to greet any problem he encounters with anger and a barrage of expletives, which leads to his alienating just about everyone he knows. On one night towards the end of the run, PETER had been on stage for around 30 minutes, when someone in the Stalls called out: “Oi! We’ve paid good money to see Jason King, not some f*****g potty-mouth!”

Strewth!

KING MONGKUT – (THE KING AND I)

king You might think that casting PETER WYNGARDE in a musical was a rather strange thing to do given that was, and never has been, never known as a singer. But in fact, he had sung on stage before as the Chinese pilot, Yang-Sun, in the Royal Court’s staging of Bertold Brecht’s ‘The Good Woman of Setzuan’.

That said, PETER still didn’t think his voice was good enough to belt out the songs in this Forum Billingham production, so opted instead for the half singing/half talking style adopted by Rex Harrison in ‘My Fair Lady’.

But what he lacked in vocal quality, he made up for in his meticulous research of the part, which involved reading the original book and flying out to Thailand to meet the King’s great-great grandson.

“I learned that the King was a truly fascinating man, who’d spent twenty years in a Buddhist monastery, preparing himself to rule Siam. He was 63-years-old when he became King, He was very forward thinking in getting this prim Victorian governess to go out there and teach his children English”.

Nevertheless, it did prove to be a rather confusing time for him, which PETER tried to communicate to the audience. “I tried to put as much of the truth into the part as I could”, PETER explains “I didn’t play him romantically, as he was a very hard man, who didn’t know the meaning of love. Such things puzzled him, so when he began to have feelings for Anna, he railed against it”.

“For instance,” PETER continues, “the scene in the library with the Governess when he says, ‘So why should I be called to discuss matters of importance with… a woman!”

PETER designed all the costumes he wore as the King, and also chose the materials for each of them.

“I see things in shapes,” he says, “especially characters, and before I know it, I’m designing clothes. I saw the role of the King as both powerful and moving, so I wanted to portray him in a sort-of barbaric splendour”.

The production proved to be a huge success, both critically and with audiences up and down the country, with thousands being turned away when tickets sold out wit in hours of going on sale. When it finally moved to the West End, PETER appeared in all 260 performances.

“We had a block booking of 400 teenagers for one evening,” PETER recalls. “They screamed and sang along with all the songs, so it most more like a rock concert. Every last one of them were waiting at the stage door when I came out, so I spent around two hours signing autographs”.

There were a couple of funny incidents which PETER remembers fondly: “In one part of the show, we have a parade of all the royal children who approach the King with a rather regimented bow. Right at the end of the line is the youngest child – a three or four year old – who, at first is overlooked the King.

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(Above): PETER’s own sketch of the King’s costume

“There’s then a little tug at his trousers, and the King looks down to see the little child looking ut him. I bend down and picked up this sweet little boy or girl, who kisses me on the cheek… then pees all over me. It was stage fright!”

Another incident that came to mind was when the final scene, the death of the King, overran on the first night and PETER was told that if it happened again, a fine would incur, since all performances had to be over by a particular time.

“So on the following night, I had one of the stagehands stand in the wings holding a clock so I could see how long we had. During this very poignant scene, I spotted that we only had three of four minutes left, so I began speeding up my speech. All the kids who were standing around my death-bed all began giggling, which prompted one critic ask why the royal children should be sniggering so much at their father’s death!”

The King and I holds one of the happiest memories for PETER: “Hearing the first few bars of the musical score whilst still in my dressing room always gave me goosebumps. I was so sad when it was all over”.

JAN WICZIESKY (South)

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PETER as Lieutenant Jan Wicziewsky with Helena Hughes as Regina  

Not so long ago, I received an email from a gentleman who told me that he was presently writing a play based in the 1950’s about a young actor who, as a result of his own latent homosexuality, had taken the role of a closeted gay man in the first explicitly gay drama  ever to be broadcast on British television.

The reason that I was sent this missal was because, on November 24th, 1959, PETER had appeared in an Independent Television play entitled, ‘South’, and the author of the email – a gay man himself, had contrived to conclude that this was PETER’s way of announcing to the world in a clandestine way, ‘This is who I am!’

Whilst it was certainly a bold move for the time, PETER would’ve had very little, if ANY, influence on the character – not least because he was relatively new to the acting profession. Moreover, the person of Lieutenant Wicziewsky was the creation of the French-born playwright and author, Julien Green, and the producers were said to have insisted that the script should be stuck to rigidly.

The play – originally entitled ‘Süd’, was first performed on stage in 1953, so in spite of its status as ‘The first openly gay play shown on British TV’, it had already been around for several years prior, and with other actors in the role of Wicziewsky.

Whilst the play had originally been banned in Britain by the Theatre Censor, this small screen version, which was directed by Canadian, Mario Prizek, was set in America’s ‘Deep South’ just prior to the start of the Civil War. PETER, who played the lead role, has fallen hopelessly in love with another man, Eric McClure. Towards the end of the play, he breaks down and confesses his love for McClure, then allows himself to be killed rather than face life without him.

“As I recall, the play got a rather mixed reception,” PETER explains. “Not the regular ‘Well, I liked it’ or ‘I didn’t’ kind of stuff. The acting was, overall, described as excellent, it was the subject matter that divided them. Of course, at that time the mere mention of homosexuality in a play was enough to have the censors climbing the curtains, so it wasn’t at all surprising.”

So did he choose the play because, as our amateur playwright suggested, he wished to let out a silent scream?

“Absolutely not! I’ve always been motivated by interesting characters and thought-provoking works, and that was the ONLY reason I took the part. You could spot concealed messages in just about ANYTHING if you look hard enough.

“I was afforded full reign over the character of Jason King, who dressed in my clothes; wore my hair, and was a unashamed womaniser – the absolute antithesis of Jan Wicziewsky. I don’t whip women (The Avengers – ‘A Touch of Brimstone’), build bridges (‘Engineer Extraordinary’), or have ever been the ruler of Siam (‘The King & I’). It’s called acting, and shouldn’t be confused with reality!”

One story concerning his appearance in the play that PETER likes to tell, took place the day after ‘South’ was broadcast: “I was sitting on the bus on the way home, when I heard two old dears at the back of me whispering,” he recounts. “One whispered to the other, ‘I’m sure it’s him!’, and I thought to myself: ‘This is great. I’m finally getting recognised’.

“When the bus pulled up at my stop, I noticed that the two elderly ladies were getting off at the same place, so playing the gentleman, I held out my hand to help them down from the platform. It was then that one of them began battering me with her umbrella: ‘You filthy ********! You were in that play last night!’. Then the other one joined in. I was lucky to get home alive!”

How times have changed.

Sir Richard Westby – (Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Colour: The Further Adventures of Gallagher – Episode: ‘A Case of Murder’)

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PETER as Sir Richard Westby

Following his spectacular debut on the American stage in ‘Duel of Angels’, PETER found himself in big demand from US television producers, including Lucille Ball’s Desilu Studio and Disney. However, due to work commitments in Britain, both on TV and the stage during the early part of the 1960’s, it was only in ’65 that he finally managed to cross the pond at the invitation of Walt Disney himself.

Disney had seen PETER play Count Marcellus at the Helen Hayes Theatre on Broadway in 1960, and wished to meet the actor whose work he later described as being like “a comet blazing across the sky”.

PETER was flown over the California, First Class, from London and accommodated at the best hotel in Los Angeles. A lavish dinner was arranged in his honour at Disney’s home in Holmby Hills, and it was agreed that PETER would be seated next to Disney himself so that the two could chat about films and the theatre.

“All the family were there,” PETER recalls, “Walt himself, of course. His wife, Lillian and their two daughters. He said that he’d wanted me to appear in one of his TV shows for years, as he adored the British stage and felt he had a part for me in a show called ‘Gallagher’.

However, there was another reason why Walt had been so eager to get PETER over to the States:

“One of his daughters -I can’t remember now whether it was Diane or Sharon – had taken a bit of shine to me when she’d seen me in ‘Duel of Angels’. She’d begged her dad to arrange for us to meet. He spent the rest of the evening trying to talk me into seeing her on a permanent basis. I often think – if I’d have married her, I’d be a billionaire now!”

The story concerns the arrival in a small American town of a well-known British Shakespearian actor, Sir Richard Westby (PETER WYNGARDE), who is to star in a production of Hamlet. When a reporter from the local newspaper gives the play a harsh review, Westby challenges the hapless hack to a duel. However, when Sir Richard is murdered during a performance, the journalist becomes the prime suspect.

“Given the type of audience that Disney productions were aimed at in those days, there was a rather tame love scene in it between myself and Victoria Shaw. I decided to spice it up a bit, and we ended up rolling around on the floor with my head up her dress. When the Disney Gestapo saw the rushes, they blew their stack – saying they’d never get it through the censors, so we had to reshoot it!”

The scene was re-shot, but finished up on the cutting room floor, and was never used in the final print.

PETER says that he thoroughly enjoyed working on ‘Gallagher’, and wishes that he’d done more work in the States.

JASON KING (‘Department S’ & ‘Jason King’)

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Pre-shooting publicity shot of PETER as Jason King. Note the regular knot in his tie

Arguably, Jason King is the character people most associate with PETER WYNGARDE – at least in the UK. And whilst most fans might think that the roots of the author-come-investigator are firmly planted on the set of Elstree Studios, Jason’s conception actually happened at The Duke of York’s Theatre, London in April 1968.

It was at that time that PETER was appearing in a play set in the Caucasus called ‘The Duel’, which was based on an 1891 novella by Anton Chekhov. PETER had been cast as a scientist by the name of Nikolay von Koren. The role demanded that he grow his hair to almost shoulder-length, and to enhance the look, he also added a 19th Century-style Russian moustache.

It was at the time that rehearsals had started on the play in early 1968, that film and TV Director, Cyril Frankel and Screenwriter, Dennis Spooner, first approached him to play a character called Roger Cummerford in a new thriller series that was to be called Department S. Cummerford was to be an elderly scholar based at Oxford University who, during World War 2, had worked within Churchill’s S.O.E. (Special Operations Executive), thinking up all manner of trickery to baffle and bemuse the Nazi’s.

Frankel likened the character to ‘Q’ in the James Bond books, but much older. The premise was, that when the operatives of this ‘Department’ felt that they’d hit a brick wall with their investigation, they’d pay Professor Cummerford a visit, and he’s come up with some intriguing idea on how to solve the case.

“The first actor I had in mind for the role was Kenneth More,” Cyril Frankel said, “but Dennis (Spooner) felt that PETER WYNGARDE, who’d worked with us on The Saint, The Baron and The Champions, would be a far better choice. There was no doubt in my mind that he was an excellent actor, but he and I had butted heads once or twice in the past and I was concerned that he might try to steal the show”.

And so the Director and Screenwriter made their approach to PETER who, much to their shock and surprise, immediately turned them down, saying that he was committed to the play (‘The Duel’), and had no desire to pledge himself to a television series. They tried twice more between the January and April, 1968, but on each occasion got the same response.

At last came the opening night at the Duke of York’s, where the play received a warm reception from the audience. After the curtain fell, the cast – which included Michael Bryant and Elspeth March, all went en masse for dinner at a restaurant in Covent Garden to await the arrival of the first notices.

Unable to settle, PETER decided to take a walk and get some fresh air, but when he returned he could tell from the faces of his colleagues that the reviews weren’t as good as they’d expected. He also happened to notice that there were two other diners in the eatery: none other than Messers Spooner and Frankel. It was then that he picked up a napkin, and began to write: ‘I, PETER WYNGARDE, agree to do you television series’. He signed it and handed it to Frankel. They finally had their man!

“I was still committed to the play,” PETER explains, “so the idea was that I’d work at Elstree filming the series during the day, and then I’d do the play in the evenings. The trouble was, I had to be heavily made-up for the part of Cummerford, with a grey wig and beard. We filmed several test sequences but, for me, it just wasn’t working. Apart from anything, I was starting get a bit schizo, playing an aging professor one moment, then this young scientist the next. It was all too much!”

The last thing Spooner and Frankel wanted now, especially after spending so much time chasing PETER, was for him to throw in the towel. They were willing to listen to ideas. PETER told them that if they’d allow him to turn Cummerford into a more contemporary character, with his look, he’d be willing to soldier on. They agreed. It was now time to start looking for actors to fill the roles of the other Department S team members.

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One of the stipulations in PETER’s contract was that he would get the final say on the other members of the cast. It was in his dressing room at the Duke of York’s that PETER met Joel Fabiani for the very first time.

“I was taking a short break when there was a loud knock on my dressing room door,” PETER remembers, “and in walked this this hippy, with shoulder-length hair, ripped jeans and wearing these, round, John Lennon-style glasses. He stuck out his hand to me, and in this thick New York drawl, said: ‘Hi! I’m Joel.”

The next time PETER saw him was during a rehearsal for one of the first scenes in new series, but he could hardly recognised him: “His hair had been shorn and he was wearing just about the worst suit I’d ever seen in my life. It turned out that his wife had come over with him, and she’d insisted on choosing the fabrics for his suits. They were quite hideous!”  

It was at a private dinner with the actor, Michael Bryant and his wife – both long-time friends, that the names ‘Jason’ and ‘King’ were thought up: “I came up with the name, Jason,” expounds PETER, “and Michael’s wife came up with King. She also suggested that he should drive a Bentley – saying, ‘He must have the king of all cars!’

“I began working on drawings for the kind of clothes he should wear, and titles for the books. The name Mark Cain was a reference to Michael Cain. All the suits I wore in the series were my own. I ended up with 300 of them, and they cost around £500 to make which was an absolute fortune then.

“The idea of the wide tie-knot came about when they were taking some publicity shots, both for the press and to use on the Mark Cain book covers. One of the wardrobe people had loosened my tie during a break and I thought it looked good. I decided to keep it.”

And what about the turned-back cuffs: “We were filming in Venice,” PETER divulges. I was in a gondola, when one of my cufflinks came out and dropped into the Grand Canal. I thought, ‘Now what do I do?’ so I just oiked ‘em back, and it started a fashion!

“When the series became a success all around the world, everyone was trying to copy my suits. In Hamburg, it was terrible. I found there were seven shops advertising Jason King suits and I wasn’t earning anything from them.”

One of the perks of being the star of the show was that PETER got to “endorse” all the actresses who appeared in both ‘Department S’ and latterly, ‘Jason King’. “Everyone loved the ladies on the set. They were all young and very glamorous with log legs, and I’ve always been a ‘Leg Man’!”

It was no secret that PETER and Rosemary Nichols never saw eye to eye whilst they were filming ‘Department S’. “Joel and I got on fine – we were really good mates,” he recollects. “But, regrettably, Rosemary thought she was the star of the show, which caused friction between us”.

Nichol’s concurs: “I tried to develop my role as far as I could, but there was an obvious Jason King bias. In other series, each of the main characters had a chance to be the central person in about one in three episodes, but that never happened in Department S. I got tired of playing second fiddle to PETER WYNGARDE. I was not only glad to get out of Department S, I was relieved too!”

Joel Fabiani, however, had the complete opposite to say: “I still remember working with PETER with great affection. As for Department S – I always felt that any success the show had was due in no small part to PETER’s ability and imagination”.

Up until recently, PETER says he had no fewer than 56 Jason King suits in his wardrobe, but now there are only two left. “I’ve given them all away. After spending four years changing into five suits every day of the week, the last thing I want to do now is put one on.”

At least he’ll always have something to wear!

PETER QUINT (The Innocents)

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PETER as the spectre of Peter Quint

Miss Grose: Was he handsome?

Miss Giddens: Handsome, yes – and obscene!

When Jack Clayton decided to make a film version of Henry James 1898 novel, ‘The Turn of the Screw’, there was one thing he was determined not to emulate, and that was the popular Hammer series of films. Indeed, Director Clayton was anything but in-your-face. He wanted the scenes in his film to be frightening, but never explicit, and in spite of its nature, he desired more than anything a delicate, almost poetic feel to the film.

“There’s certainly a lot of subliminal stuff in the film,” PETER says. “Much of the supernatural matters occur in the peripheral view; the tiniest movements right at the edge of the screen, and so forth. You’re never quite sure if you saw something or not. I believe that Freddie Francis (Cinematographer) used colour filters over the lens which blurred the perimeters of the picture. He also employed something called a ‘Star Filter’ whenever Quint appeared, which gave him a sort of aura.”  

It’s said that Clayton “agonised” over the ghosts of Peter Quint and Mary Jessel. He was aware that, in spite of their occupying very little screen time, they would inevitably be the defining elements of the film. He also knew that he had to get the casting of these entities absolutely right. The list of actors who were said to have converted the part of Peter Quint is long and varied, and but include amongst their number Alec Guinness, Cary Grant and Peter O’Toole. How many of these were ever given serious consideration is academic, since the role was inevitably handed to PETER, and few could deny that his casting was a stroke of genius on Clayton’s part.

The script described Quint as a man with a ‘Peculiar insolence’, and in those days, PETER had a certain look of impertinence about him that suited the character. When his agent initially contacted him with a brief description of the person of Quint, PETER was immediately interested, but felt that he needed to meet Clayton to go over the finer details.

“I told Jack that I’d love to do it, but that I wasn’t sure what he (Quint) was like or how he should be played”, PETER says. “He told me that he’d already been approached by two well-known actors, but that he felt I could bring something more to the part. I was astonished, really, because I wasn’t sure what he had in mind. Of course, when he told me who the other two actors were (Grant and Guinness), I thought to myself, ‘How the hell do I play this Quint character now?!’”.

PETER was offered a 9-month contract, although he was told from the off that he was only likely to appear on screen for a couple of minutes, at most.

Filming was due to begin at Sheffield Park (near Hayward Heath, East Sussex), in February 1961. However, by the end of December 1960, they still didn’t have a satisfactory script and Clayton was getting worried. It was then that he brought in the American novelist and screenwriter, Truman Capote, who sprinkled some stardust on the script – although he was heard to say: “Those ghosts are much too real. Get rid of ‘em!”

Something quite prophetic had happened to PETER several years earlier while he was honeymooning in Taormina (Sicily) with his new wife, Dorinda Stevens.

“We were sitting in a hilltop café, when I heard this dreadful American voice behind me, saying ‘Oh, she couldn’t possibly play Anna Karenina…”, PETER recounts. “So I turned around to see who this screeching bitch was, and there sat Truman Capote! I just stuttered something about how wonderful I thought his work was, and he complimented me on my English. He obviously thought I was one of the locals.”

One of the ideas that PETER had was that he shouldn’t be introduced to the actors who played the children; Martin Stephens (Miles) and Pamela Franklin (Flora), until filming had started. However, kids being kids, they managed to locate his dressing room on the second floor and bombarded the outside window with stones until he looked out. “Their curiosity had obviously got the better of them,” PETER laments.

It’s interesting to note that not one reviewer at the time of the film’s release picked up on any of the psychological and/or sexual nuances that are apparent to modern audiences. Whilst critics today talk about the ‘obvious’ “sexual frustration” suffered by the Governess as played by Deborah Kerr, and the class differences between the Uncle and Ms Giddens/Ms Giddens and Ms Grosse, of course Quint and Ms Jessel. Even the actors themselves had wildly differing views as to who exactly who ‘The Innocents’ were, and what exactly the story was about. Deborah Kerr claimed it was about “A woman’s passion”, whilst Clytie Jessop, who played the ghost of Ms Jessel, says: “The story is clearly about a woman who’s lost her lover”.

Arguably the most memorable scene in the film, and certainly the most eerie, is the one where Quint appears at the window, terrifying the already shaken Governess. The original script merely called for Deborah Kerr to tepidly approach the window in order to draw the curtains. The segment had reached its 5th or 6th ‘Take’, when Ms Kerr confided in Jack Clayton that the scene simply wasn’t working. Clayton agreed, and decided to put the segment on the backburner and come back to it at a later date.

Latterly, Kerr had made a passing comment to PETER about the problem they’d been having with the scene, so he in turn approached Jack Clayton with an idea of his own: “I suggested to him that the ambience of the scene might be enhanced by the appearance of Quint,” PETER explains. “Not by his dominating the sequence, but in a totally subliminal way.

“Jack was always open to ideas from the actors, and he appeared willing to give my proposal a shot. I went on to suggest that we keep our plan from Deborah to see what kind of reaction we’d get when I suddenly appeared at the window.”

And so the cameras began to roll, and Ms Kerr went through the scene as she’d done five or six times before, but on this occasion Quint makes his appearance. Kerr immediately exclaimed that the hairs on her arms were standing on end.

“It was all down to presence” PETER insisted. “Not MY presence, but the presence of Quint. Without the ghost, the scene just didn’t work. Deborah defined the whole sequence by her reaction to him.”

Whilst everyone agrees that PETER approached the window as gracefully as… well, a ghost, there is some dispute as to how the effect was created. Dr Christopher Frayling – author of the BFI Film Classic book, ‘The Innocents’, he was standing on a truck (or Dolly), but PETER maintains that he simply walked up. Since PETER was there and Frayling wasn’t, then we can only take the actor’s word for it.

Interestingly, this particular part of the film has regularly been voted ‘The Most Frightening Scene in a Horror Film’, but there’s also a hint of something being played out. When the Governess originally sees Quint on the turret of Bly House earlier in the story, his face is entirely obscured in shadow. However, after Miss Gidden’s discovers a locket in the attic containing Quint’s likeness, she’s able to see his face clearly at the window. The question is: Was it actually Peter Quint at the window, or did the picture in the locket merely plant the vision of his face in her mind?

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The locket containing a likeness of Peter Quint

It’s clear that after she finds the locket, which had obviously been the property of the previous governess, Ms Jessel, Gidden’s becomes both disturbed but intrigued by him – she may even have fallen for him!

PETER agrees: “There’s definitely something about Quint. He loved to possess people, and did. He dominated his lover, Mary Jessel, and the boy, Miles. Yet in spite of him being the embodiment of evil, these people absolutely worshipped and adored him. The previous governess had, after all, died of a broken heart following his death. Did he now possess Ms Gidden’s?”

Probably the most poignant, and certainly controversial, scene in the film is in the final reel, where Miss Giddens finds Miles in the garden, surrounded by a circle of weathered statues. The Governess suddenly senses that she and the boy are not alone, and as the camera whips around, we catch the most transitory glimpse of Quint standing on the wall. One of the final sequences, showing Miss Gidden’s cradling the child’s lifeless body, was shot over PETER’s left shoulder, with his hand outstretched, as if he’s imposing his will upon the pair.

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Quint in the guise of a garden statue

“The film ends as it began, with the Governess wringing her hands, and trying to persuade us – or was it herself – that she only ever wanted to save the children,” PETER comments. “Again we ask ourselves, were Miles and Flora possessed by the ghosts of Ms Jessel and her lover, or was it all in Ms Gidden’s mind? I guess it’s up to the audience to decide”.

‘The Innocents’ didn’t do particularly well at the box office on its original release, especially in America, where they’ve always preferred a happy ending. Nevertheless, the film is now considered a classic and has had a profound effect on many people. Of Peter Quint, PETER says the following: “I loved working on ‘The Innocents’ and Quint was a wonderful part to play. I often wonder what Cary Grant might’ve brought to it?”

Certainly nothing nearly as charismatic!

NUMBER 2 (The Prisoner – ‘Checkmate’):

PETER has played a myriad of different characters during his career, and every one of those had a backstory – no matter how small – except for one: that of Number 2 in the Prisoner episode, ‘Checkmate’. It was if this individual had simply been parachuted in, and it was left to the TV audience to fill in the blanks.

Whilst that might add to the mystique of the character for the viewer, it didn’t give PETER much to build on when he was offered the part. To make matters even more bewildering for the actor, when he asked Patrick McGoohan – the creator of the series, how he’d like this “New Number 2” played, and was simply told: “Play him as yourself!”

“I was absolutely horrified when Pat (McGoohan) came back to me with that,” PETER says. “It’s the worst possible thing you can say to an actor. This guy (Number 2) was meant to be as nasty as hell. I wasn’t sure whether Pat was trying to tell me something!”

Initially, PETER had been pencilled in to be the full-time Village Administrator, but then McGoohan suddenly changed his mind, as he felt that bringing in a different actor to play Number 2 each episode would add to the charisma of the character. “I was terribly disappointed at this change of heart but, in retrospect,” PETER admits, “Pat was exactly right. It worked much better that way”.

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PETER as Number 2, with Patricia Jessel

Another promise that was reneged upon was that PETER would get the opportunity to visit the Village of Portmeirion, where the majority of the series was filmed, In the end, he didn’t get any nearer to North Wales than MGM Studios, which doubled for parts of ‘The Village’, the ‘Green Dome’ and the ‘Control Room’.

In spite of the disappointment of not filming on location, PETER says that he thoroughly enjoyed playing Number 2 – adding that the atmosphere on the set was one of enthusiasm and perplexity: “No one but Pat had a clue what was going on,” he explains. “We were all part of this mad, brilliant story, but none of us had any idea who these people were meant to be or why they were there!”

Another reason that PETER felt so comfortable on set was because he was given the opportunity to work with two close friends – Rosalie Crutchlie (‘The Queen’) and Ronald Radd (‘The Rook’). He and Radd had appeared together in the 7-part adaptation of Charles Dickens, ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ (BBC -1957), in which PETER played the lead character, Sidney Carton.

When asked what he enjoyed most about working on ‘Checkmate’, however, he cited the scenes in the Control Room, where he was given the opportunity to sit in the famous ‘Globe Chair’ used by all the Number 2’s and survey the Village on a huge screen: “I confess that looking up at that screen gave me delusions of grandeur. It did make me feel all-powerful.”

Possibly the most memorable part in episode for most fans (although it was not in the original script), was the scene in which we see Number 2 meditating in his private quarters, when he’s alerted to the escape attempt by No.6 and his followers. PETER was required to split a piece of wood in two with a single blow of his hand. Although the Props Department had offered to supply him with a lump of balsawood, PETER had always insisted on being as authentic as possible, so he declined. He practiced the Karate chop for days leading up to the scene being shot, just to make sure it would go off without a hitch.

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When the director, Don Chaffey, called “Wrap” on the final day’s shooting, PETER was asked if he might like to keep something from the episode as a memento, so he decided on the Dunlop sports shoes which he thought he might wear while playing tennis.

“I was wearing those blasted shoes when I was invited to take a boat over to France for a couple of days the following summer,” PETER said. “On board was an actor friend of mine and his wife, plus myself and my girlfriend. We were just off the coast of Cherbourg when a huge storm blew up from nowhere, and the boat almost capsized. We were lucky not to have all drowned. I never wore those ******* shoes again!”      

NORMAN TAYLOR (Night of the Eagle/Burn, Witch, Burn)

When PETER’s agent sent him the script for a new horror thriller entitled ‘Torment’, he wasn’t exactly doing cartwheels. Coming so close on the heels of his chilling portrayal of Peter Quint in ‘The Innocents’, he felt that it would be professional suicide to accept the part of Professor Norman Taylor in yet another paranormal film, and so immediately declined the part.

Feeling more agitated than angry, he decided to take a walk down the high street close to his London home to cool his heels. He sensed that his decision to turn down the film where entirely justified, when twice on his hike he was recognised as the fiendish ghoul, Quint. However, his mind was instantly changed when he passed by a high-end car showroom in Olympia, where he happened to spot what he described as “The most beautiful sports car I’d ever seen in my life!”

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PETER as Professor Norman Taylor

The object of his desires was a hand-built 2-litre Bristol 405, and he knew he had to have it!

Although he’d never been good with figures, PETER knew that he didn’t have enough in the bank to buy the car, which had a price-tag of £5,000, 17-shillings and 6d.; a veritable fortune in 1960. Indeed, when he did ask the bank for a statement later that day, he had less that £12.00 to his name!

It was then that he remembered the screenplay he’s been sent. He immediately ran back home him to call his agent: “Hello – Dennis. That script you sent me for ‘Torment’. Tell them I’ll do it for £5,000, 17 shillings and 6d!” He then left the number of the showroom and instructed his agent to call him there.

PETER was taking an enormous risk by asking for such a large sum of money, given that the entire budget for the film was only just over £10,000, and taking into account the fact that he was a virtual unknown in the world of cinema at that time. To give some comparison, Vivien Leigh earned £12,000 for ‘Gone with the Wind’. Nevertheless, he was hired, and was immediately impressed by director, Sidney Hayers, with whom he formed an excellent working relationship.

In spite of PETER’s motivation for accepting the role of Professor Taylor, his commitment to the part was absolute. He persuasively played a man whose cynicism and rejection of his wife’s beliefs are unconditional, even when the evidence is staring him in the face.

The script, which was an adaptation of Fritz Leiber’s classic novel , ‘Conjure Wife’, was felt by both PETER and Hayer’s to be somewhat “overloaded”, and whilst Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson and George Baxt were given the writing credits, it was actually PETER and Hayer’s re-write that turned ‘Torment’ into ‘Night of the Eagle’ – the classic we know and love today.

PETER is pragmatic when asked if he minded not being credited for his contribution to the script: “It rankles a bit, of course, but the important thing was the film, which I think turned out OK.”

Indeed, in one of the early drafts the story’s hero, Norman Taylor, had to find a gramophone needle that had only ever played Scriabin’s 9th Piano Sonata, otherwise known as The Black Mass. However, director Sidney Hayers decided to cut those scenes from the final film.

“A film script is really just a blueprint for a director to interpret,” PETER says. “It’s like a restaurant menu, which the chef’s brilliance concocts and we enjoy according to our tastes”.

As well as having a good working relationship with director Hayers, PETER also made an immediate connection with co-star, Janet Blair, who played his wife, Tansy. The chemistry between the two was evident on screen, even though Blair had initially believed that she’d be working with Peter Finch, to whom PETER has an uncanny resemblance. In an interview recorded just prior to her passing in 2007, she described PETER as an “an excellent actor, and very sexy man”.

His sex appeal was certainly made full use of, as the script demanded that he appear either minus his shirt, or writhing about in bed in just pyjama bottoms. One of the more enduring myths about film is that PETER insisted on wearing particularly tight trousers, which forced Hayers to shoot him from the waist up to get the film past the censors. Scriptwriter, Richard Matheson confirmed this in an interview he gave to an American horror magazine some years ago, yet both PETER and Sidney Hayers’ fervently deny the story.

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Filmed only from the waist up? Not in this scene!

“We did have a few problems”, Hayers’ admitted in an interview, “as WYNGARDE was blessed with a rather large appendage that we had difficulty disguising. The idea was to strap it upwards, but it just left him looking like he had a misshapen stomach.

“In the end, we resolved to strap it to his right leg. It wasn’t ideal, as it’s still visible if you’re looking in that direction, but it was the best we could do under the circumstances”.

Another star of the film that PETER found endearing was Lochinvar – a Golden Spanish Eagle who’d been loaned from London Zoo. PETER decided during a break in filming one day that he’d like to meet the bird, and went up to the dressing room which was being used as a makeshift aviary.

Lochinvar had a three-foot wingspan, and had arrived on set with his trainer, who was actually very well behaved in spite of his fearsome appearance. Nevertheless, his trainer warned that the bird could do real damage, and showed PETER the empty socket where his right eye had been.

In spite of such a caution, PETER insisted on doing his own stunts in the scenes involving the eagle – one of saw the bird swooping down from the roof of Hempnel College at a terrified Professor Taylor. For this, PETER had to have a piece of steak attached to his coat which the eagle, who hadn’t eaten for four days, would target.

Defying insurance guidelines, but winning the admiration of the cast and crew, PETER suggested that Hayers position the camera so that every terrifying emotion would be captured. Cameraman, Frank Watts, who also worked with PETER on both Department S and Jason King, admitted in a later interview that he’d “Never been so terrified in my life!”

While Watt’s was protected by a steel frame that was placed in front of the camera, his concern was all for PETER who had no such safeguard. “Can you believe anybody else but an actor would be so stupid?”, PETER asked later. Well, quite!

On the last day of filming, which involved the burning of the Taylor’s house, turned out to be a shocking experience for more than one reason. As PETER and Janet Blair stood watching the house go up in flames, a message arrived on set from Blair’s husband to say that their house in Beverly Hills had itself, just burned down.

“I remember turning to see a ashen-faced Janet stumbling towards me,” PETER recalls, “and she almost fell into my arms as her legs gave way under her. Thankfully, her family were all fine, but she had to take the first plane back to Los Angeles”.

PETER, who said that he had no views on the paranormal prior to working on ‘Night of the Eagle’, admitted recently that his participation in the film had probably made him “over-susceptible” to ghosts and spirits. “I laughed when it was suggested that my 15th-Century weekend home might be haunted,” he said, “but after making both ‘The Innocents’ and ‘Night of the Eagle’, I began to have my doubts”.

DRACULA (Stage)

Dracula is the part that very actor wants to get his teeth into, and PETER was just one of a long line of thespians who couldn’t resist him.

So immersed did he become in the vampire legend that he wrote his own adaptation of Bram Stoker’s chilling classic, which he brought to the British stage in 1975. And although many of his fans were shocked at first to see their hero as the bloodthirsty Count, sell-out audiences around the country proved that they were quite willing to accept it.

Dracula, in PETER’s view, is a myth for all seasons; an ageless figure with a sinister attraction for women.

As might be expected, his portrayal of the Count was both romantic and sensual – and a surprisingly contemporary figure, with long flowing hair and a droopy moustache.

“All that blood-sucking and the excited response of the girl when Dracula kisses her, it’s highly sexual”, PETER told me. “There’s a fascination for girls in his impeccable manners and mesmeric quality.”

But Dracula has a similar appeal to men, too. One of the mythical monsters best-known portrayers, Christopher Lee, once told of his “strange dark heroism”

PETER agrees: “Men find him irresistible because they cannot stop him. For women, there is their complete abandonment to the power of a man.”

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PETER as the Count

By coincidence, Bram Stoker was the acting manager of the Lyceum Theatre where PETER’s version of the story opened.

It is said that Stoker had written his extraordinary story especially for his great friend and actor, Sir Henry Irvine, who had thrown it aside contemptuously. PETER believes, however, that Stoker finally had his revenge when he turned the play into a novel: “If you read the text carefully,” he says, “You’ll find the description of the Count is identical to that of Irvine!”

Since the premier of the original at the Lyceum in London on 18th May, 1897, it is estimated that more than 400 Dracula-type films have been made in such far-flung places as Japan, Mexico and Turkey, as well as America and Britain, and it’s claimed that Dracula is always being performed somewhere in the world.

A national poll of women conducted in the mid-1970’s to find the ‘Most Dreamt-Of Person’ named PETER in the role of Jason King, with PETER in the role of Dracula in third place.

Although Christopher Lee and Bela Lugosi will always be synonymous with the part, PETER will always be remembered as the Count of their dreams!

More to follow…


The Hellfire Club: The OFFICIAL PETER WYNGARDE Appreciation Society: https://www.facebook.com/groups/813997125389790/

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