I’ve been involved with the Hellfire Club for almost 30 years now, and have experienced many peaks and troughs during that time.
The high points have been many: meeting new and interesting people; being interviewed by newspapers, TV and radio shows; but most of all, developing what now feels like an unbreakable bond with the most enigmatic actor of his generation, PETER WYNGARDE.
During PETER’s early days on the stage and screen, fan mail would generally be sent either directly to the theatre where he was performing, or to either the BBC or one of the regional ITV companies – depending on which programme he’d appeared in. In those cases, most of the letters would either be answered by the television company concerned or forwarded on to his agent.
In 1957, however, following the broadcast of ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ in which PETER played the hero, Sidney Carton, the BBC reported receiving over 4,000 letters from adoring (exclusively female) fans – the most they’d ever taken delivery of for any actor, before or since.
In January, 1969, Christine Read – an employee of EMI-Elstree, formed a fan club to handle mail for both PETER and Joel Fabiani, which had been generated as a result of their appearance in Department S. However, when PETER’s mail began arriving by the truck-load, it was decided that he should have his own club, while Ms Read continued to handle letters addressed to Fabiani.
In 1970, The Official Peter Wyngarde Fan Club was formed by a lady called Jeanne. Membership cost 50p annually, for which fans would receive a membership card, mini poster of PETER as Jason King, plus a badge bearing the legend ‘Member of the Peter Wyngarde Fan Club’. Members would also get a bi-monthly, photocopied newsletter, which would give details of PETER’s activities and forthcoming plans.
In 1978, Jeanne handed the Club over to Jacky Chapman. The format remained the same, with a one-page newsletter, but unfortunately by the mid-1980’s, the Club had folded.
Newsletter, poster and membership badge from the Original Peter Wyngarde Fan Club
THE HELLFIRE CLUB
At the very end of the 1980’s until the late 90’s, I worked in video shops – both rental and retail. During this time, I met a number of people who shared the same interests as me – one of whom was Andrew Pixley, whose name many fans of the ITC stable of work will recognise. A friend of mine from Liverpool (now domiciled in London) had, for many years, produced a fanzine for the pop singer, Marc Bolan, called ‘The T-Rex Times’, and I’d always fancied the idea of doing something similar myself.
I mentioned this to Andrew one morning when he came into the (retail) shop where I was working at the time, and he suggested we meet up on my day off and have a proper chat about it. A few days later, he, his girlfriend Uma and I, met in a local pub and spent a lovely afternoon talking about the old series of the 1960 and 70’s – many of which were having a bit of a revival courtesy of the ITC Home Video releases.
It just so happened that a promotional pack from ITC had arrived at the shop that week, which included sleeves from the forthcoming Department S videos. I mentioned this to Andrew, who then suggested that I consider producing a Department S fanzine, given that no one was doing one at that time (there were already fan clubs and appreciation societies for most of the other series: The Persuaders, Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), The Avengers, The Prisoner etc.). The trouble was, I hadn’t a clue about the series, as I was too young to have seen it when it’d been broadcast the first time around. Of course, this was WAY before the time of the Internet, so it was difficult to look up an actor or TV programme and have it all laid out for you. Nevertheless, Andrew gave me his number and asked me to think about it, saying that he’d be willing to give me some information on the series should I decide to go ahead.
We’d just got a new Assistant Manager at the shop where I worked, who I got along really well with. When I mentioned to him that I was thinking about starting a Department S ‘fan club’, to my surprise, he seemed to know quite a bit about its star – PETER WYNGARDE. Until that point, I’d only ever seen the name on the credits of Flash Gordon, so had no idea what he’d done besides this. PETER sounded really interesting, and whilst I was beginning to have reservations about how limiting it might be to focus on just one series of 28 episodes, I decided to sound Andrew out about my starting a PETER WYNGARDE appreciation society.
To my relief, both Andrew and Uma seemed really enthusiastic about the project, and were generous in supplying me with all the information they could muster about PETER. It was Andrew who suggested I contact PETER’s agent to request any material (photos etc.) they might have about him – including, if possible, a C.V. of his work. He also recommended that I contact PETER himself to enquire if he’d be willing to give the ‘Society’ (I’d decided it would be an ‘Appreciation Society’ as opposed to a ‘Fan Club’) his blessing.
I suggested to Andrew that I might produce a ‘mock-up’ of what I hoped would be the first issue of our magazine to send to PETER when I finally plucked up the courage to write to him; in that way he could see what I was capable of producing and, more importantly, that I was serious about it being an on-going project.
Again, without the aid of the Internet, I wondered how I might find the name and address of PETER’s agent. I decided to write to the BBC (why the BBC, I have no idea. It was probably the only place I could think of at the time!), and they very kindly pointed me in the direction of International Creative Management (ICM), who were based in Oxford Street, London.
In the meantime, I’d been trying to think of a name for the Society. I really didn’t want to call it ‘Department S’ or some such, as that might send out the wrong message. In the end I settled on ‘The Hellfire Club’, since it gave the feel of it being something that only the initiated P.W. fan might be privy to.
I took an absolute AGE writing and rewriting my letter to PETER – choosing every word as carefully as I was able. Eventually I had something I was relatively happy with, and so I parcelled it up with the obligatory Self Addressed Envelope and the first issue of the new Hellfire Club ‘magazine’. All I could do now was wait.
As it was, I left for work every morning before the postman called, so each lunchtime I’d call home to see if he’d brought anything for me while I’d been out. Nine whole days came and went before I heard the much anticipated words from my Mum on the other end of the phone: “There’s something here for you with your own handwriting on the envelope”. I now spent the rest of the day talking myself in and out of what I thought that envelope might contain: was he agreeable to my proposal, or was he merely telling me to F*** O**.
I must’ve stared at that envelope for 20 minutes before I opened it. Mercifully, my fears were immediately allayed when I read the first couple of lines of PETER’s beautifully handwritten letter:
Dear Miss Bate,
I cannot believe that I am being made such a fuss of. Yes, of course I would be delighted to give my full backing to your appreciation society, and will help you in any way I can….
Now came the REALLY scary bit. Firstly, I had to work out how much each issue of the Club Magazine would cost to produce, so I made a list of every printer in my home town to get estimates. Once that was settled, I set up a bank account separate to my own into which any membership fees would be paid. The next thing was to publicise the Club, which I did by writing to all the other ITC/Cult clubs and fanzines to ask if they might give us a mention. I also placed ads in various magazines, including TV Zone, Cult TV and Action TV. All I could do now was wait to see if anyone responded.
In the meantime, I tried to compile a list of all PETER’s theatre, TV and film appearances. I wrote letters to the British Film Institute, who sent me some invaluable information. However, when I contacted Granada I was told that I’d have to pay something like £15 per hour (“or part thereof”) for a search of their archives, which was an amount I really couldn’t afford.
I then received a letter from PETER in which he said that he still had some material from his former Fan Club, including photographs and other odds and sods, which he’d be “delighted” to give to me the next time I was in London. My God! Does this mean that I might actually get to meet him?
During the intervening weeks, I’d started to receive a trickle of responses to the ads I’d placed in the aforementioned magazines – the first of which came from a certain Mr Al Samujh, whose name some might recognise from articles in this blog. He became Member No.1 of The Hellfire Club, and has been with us right through to the present day. Indeed, he was the very first member of the current incarnation of the HFC on Facebook.
As luck would have it, I already had plans to travel down to London just six weeks after receiving PETER’s letter to attend an event with my cousin. I wrote to advise PETER of the dates I’d be there, and he asked me for a phone number where I might be contacted. Since I had a B&B booked in Paddington, I gave him their number (no mobile phones then!).
The first time I ever spoke to him was on a Friday. I was in my hotel room, sitting anxiously on the bed watching TV, when the phone rang. I recall not being able to find the remote control to turn the volume down, so I switched the telly off at the wall, forgetting that the main light wasn’t on, so I ended up in complete darkness.
At first, I heard the voice of the hotel receptionist, who advised that I had a call; I then heard some very familiar tones on the other end. I can’t remember exactly what PETER said to me as I was so nervous, but I did manage to catch the bit where he said he’d call at the B&B around 6 O’clock on the Saturday evening, en route back from his day’s pistol shooting. The moment he hung up, I excitedly called my Mum to tell her I’d spoken with him.
My Mother had never been a fan of PETER’s. Indeed, when he was at the height of his fame as Jason King, she said she’d often wondered what all the fuss was about. She did recall a story of when she’d gone to the primary school across the road from where we used to live to meet my cousin out of school in the early 70’s. There’d been a group of young mother’s there who were eager to get back home to see re-runs of ‘Jason King’ on TV, as they all thought the show’s star was “absolutely gorgeous!”
I went to meet an old friend on the Saturday morning, and we spent the afternoon in the West End, but I made sure I was back at the B&B in good time for PETER’s arrival. I was startled by the phone ringing around 5pm; it was the receptionist to tell me I had a visitor. I shot down the stairs and there, in the foyer, was this gorgeously rugged man peeping out of the window onto the street.
Dressed in jeans, Timberland boots, a blue polo shirt and black baseball cap, he instantly turned around as I came through the door. I knew immediately that it was PETER, as he was still sporting his famous Jason King moustache. He smiled and held out his hand: “At last, we meet!” he said. He apologised for being earlier than arranged, explaining that he’s got finished (shooting) sooner than expected.
We stood and talked for a while, then he looked out onto the street again where he’d parked his car: “I hope it doesn’t get towed,” he quipped, “or you might end up having to put me up for the night!” It was then that he handed me the material from his former fan club, as promised. Before leaving, he gave me a huge hug (I remember the stubble of his cheek being really prickly!), and we said our goodbyes. I wondered then if I’d ever see him again. Little did I know that, almost 30 years down the line, we’d have shared so many things – trips to the theatre, holidays, illnesses, many highs and a few lows, or that we’d end up being inseparable soul mates.
Over the weeks and months, the Hellfire Club went from strength to strength. We began by getting membership requests from all over the UK, but as the word spread, we started to pick up members in America, Canada, Australia and across Europe.
As I got to know PETER’s work better, and contributions from our members began to arrive, the Club Magazine – which was issued quarterly, began to evolve with more in-depth reviews, interviews and opinion. PETER also made a number of contributions himself, and we were able to publish many handwritten letters from both him, and those he’d worked with, such as Diana Rigg, Joel Fabiani and Anne Sharpe (to name but a few).
Two issues of the Hellfire Club Magazine
PETER and I were also developing a very close friendship, as we were now exchanging three or four letters and phone calls each a week. I would also stay with him whenever I was in London.
Although I enjoyed producing the magazine, it was really hard work, as I was doing it entirely single-handedly, in addition to answering members questions and queries, researching articles, contacting possible interviewees and sourcing material to using in forthcoming issues – and all whilst holding down a full-time job.
Having seen a number of other fan clubs and fanzines fold towards the end of the 90’s, and in view of the enormous workload involved in producing the magazine, I decided that it might be time to transfer the Society onto the Internet. And so in the autumn of 1999, after 28 issues, the very last edition of the Hellfire Club mag was mailed out to our members.
THE HELLFIRE CLUB GOES ONLINE
In January 2000, I went out and bought a new computer and had British Telecom install an additional line to the house (in those days you really had to have a separate landline to run the Internet). I really hadn’t a clue how to build a website, but with trial and error, I managed to get it done. The hardest (and most laborious!) part was transferring all the reviews, articles and interviews from the Hellfire Club magazines onto the new ‘Site. Although I’d taken the precaution of storing them all on floppy discs (remember them?), they weren’t compatible with my new PC, so I had to copy every word of them manually onto the new Website.
Unlike with the ‘original’ Appreciation Society, there was no membership as such, but both PETER and I were delighted to find that the vast majority of our members had followed us over to our new online base. Although things got off to a relatively slow start (you had to register with various organisations who’d help push your website up the search engine listings, but it could often take months to get recognised), visits to the Site slowly began to pick up once I was able to contact some of the other clubs and societies with an online presence, and we exchanged links.
Of course, once we started to get noticed, we began getting visitors from every corner of the world, including such exotic locations as South America, Japan, India and even Iran. Certainly, by the end of 2000, we were getting well over 1,000 hits per week.
By 2005, however, having spent 15 years at the helm, I decided that it was time I put the Society on the back burner for a while – not least because I was in the middle of studying for my (university) exams. By the time I came back a few years later, everything had changed… and not always for the better.
FACEBOOK: AN ERROR OF JUDGEMENT?
In March 2014, PETER asked me if I might consider reforming The Hellfire Club. By that point, I’d finished all my university courses and had graduated. Although I was open to the idea, I knew that I wouldn’t have the time at that juncture to devote to a website the size of the previous one. Although I still had all the H.F.C. files on disc, they looked positively archaic compared to what was then online, so it would literally mean starting all over again.
Whilst I’d used the Net frequently during the intervening years – mainly for research purposes, I’d never frequented any of the Social Media sites, so why I chose Facebook to relaunch the Society is anyone’s guess! It was most probably because I knew I wouldn’t have to devote quite so much time to it has I’d done previously, given that fans would have the opportunity of posting stuff of their own, thereby offering our members the chance to interact with other fans around the world. What I didn’t anticipate was that, while the genuine fans would receive and appreciate the new Site in the spirit it was intended, there were others who’d join solely for the purpose of posting malicious and insulting messages. Fandom was no longer the harmless and friendly place it’d once been!
WHAT IN HELLFIRE IS GOING ON?
The new incarnation of the Hellfire Club opened its doors in March, 2014 and, much to my delight, we began to get membership requests right from the off. Once again, I did the rounds asking sites of a similar ilk if they’d give us a mention and I did the same in return. By June of that year, we had around 500 members, which PETER was absolutely thrilled about – saying that now I was taking care of him once more, “I can breathe again”.
Everything seemed to be going swimmingly until we began receiving messages from a section of our membership who I now refer to as the ‘Gay Mafia’*. Whenever I’d post an interview (with either PETER or A.N. Other); quote from a book, post a photograph of PETER with an ex-girlfriend and/or a recollection from a former girlfriend etc., the same people would respond with accusations that I’d fabricated the information (even though said books were in the public domain and could easily be verified). The suggestion was that I was either attempting to airbrush over an inconvenient truth or, that I was “homophobic”.
It started getting to the point where everything I said was being questioned or disputed by these individuals, who professed to be more familiar with PETER WYNGARDE than he himself was! Indeed, when he’d read their posts he’d ask who these persons were and if he was meant to know them. It transpired that their perception of PETER had merely been garnered from newspaper articles and here-say – a point which I made in an earlier piece on this Blog entitled, ‘Sex, Lies and Red Tape’.
To be honest, I’d never encountered this kind of conceit before, so I really didn’t know how to react to it. Again, it must’ve been my naivety at play, as I tried to rationalise what was going on. Imagine a person approaching a complete stranger on the street, and without knowing a thing about them, they’d claim to have intimate knowledge about that individual and/or of their closest friends and family, in spite of the fact that neither had met before nor even spoken to each other!
As the administrator of a fan site, I’m just one of thousands on the Net. However, I’m in the almost unique position of being closely associated with the subject of the Group or Club. As a result, I’m party to a lot of information about that person which is not in the public domain. So whilst these people were perpetrating misreported stories from the press via a webpage that was meant to be supporting PETER, and quoting passages from books that they didn’t know the background to, I was forced to bite my lip and keep my counsel.
I was beginning to realise that, what I’d hoped might be a pleasant return, was quickly becoming a battle of wits with a group of people with a definite agenda.
WE’RE NOT IN KANSAS ANYMORE
It was now obvious that the good ol’ days were well and truly behind us. Nowadays, grown men and women join a group or society for the sole purpose of hurling abuse at its members and those who run it. The whole feel of so-called ‘Social Media’ was beginning to have a sinister atmosphere about it – like the mask had slipped, and that sites like Facebook and Twitter were allowing certain sections of society to show it true face.
On two separate occasions over the next six months our Facebook page was hacked into, which occasioned in some of our members being harassed with sickening abuse and threats via email. As a result, I’ve since been forced to regularly change our Password and Username.
More recently, we had someone who, for reasons known only to himself, would repeatedly post the same homophobic slogan on the Site, and attempt to cause controversy with quotes or passages from celebrity biographies in the hope that someone might rise to it. When I’d add a new article, review or comment, he’d invariably be there to enquire who my sources were and where I’d got the information from. For the record, I probably have the largest collection of PETER WYNGARDE-related material on the planet, with literally thousands of magazine and newspaper cuttings, original screenplays, plus hundreds of personal letters both to and from PETER.
It transpired that this individual was a semi-regular contributor to at least two national daily newspapers (The Guardian and The Independent) but, as was pointed out by a member of The Hellfire Club who’d looked the idiot up, he routinely failed to publish his sources – “Do as I say and not as I do”?!)
When finally he was shown the door, he retaliated by declaring me a “liar”. This accusation was levelled at me because, at some point, I’d mentioned that PETER had attended Oxford University for a short time in his youth (PETER had actually referred to this fact many times himself in interviews). By the tone of this allegation and other grandiose statements contained in a message to me, one might’ve thought this person held a privilege position within PETER’s inner circle, given the level of intimate knowledge he claimed to have. As if to demonstrate how much time he had to waste, the ridiculous oaf decided to go through the University register to see if he could find the names ‘WYNGARDE’ or ‘Goldbert’ listed therein. However, in his haste to point an accusing finger in my direction, he failed to realise that PETER had used his stepfathers name from the age of 11-19, so all the time the gormless sod had been searching for the wrong name! As is often the case, stupid is what stupid does proving, if any more proof were needed, that he didn’t know quite as much about PETER as he thought he did.
Excruciatingly, his discomfort didn’t end there. In response to a request I’d made for articles for this Blog, an American fan had sent me a review of the 1964 TV adaptation of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, in which PETER had played Oberon. The moment I realised it’d been taken from another website, I deleted it and replaced it with my own work. In the meantime, this buffoon had contacted the original publisher to alert them to the terrible crime he was convinced I’d perpetrated, little knowing that the mistake had been both identified and rectified weeks earlier, leaving him looking like a prize prat yet again!
Astoundingly, he then posted a self-satisfied message on his own Facebook page – supposedly to highlight to the world what a moron I’d been for displaying an article on The Hellfire Club page which, he asserted, proved a point that he’d been labouring to make for months (it was, in fact, a passage from actress, Carol Cleveland’s autobiography, ‘Pom-Pom’s Up! From Puberty to Pythons and Beyond’). His self-congratulation was short-lived however, since one of our Club members quickly suck up his hand and announced that it was HE who’d posted the article, not I! (Duh!)
Why someone should chose to join a society which celebrates the work of someone they obviously despise, then devote hours of their time striving to demean the administrator of that group, is probably something only a psychiatrist could determine. To my knowledge, I’ve never met this person nor, apart from repeatedly warning him to back off, have I ever had any dealings with him. Despite the fact that I’ve been engaged in nothing more decisive than running an online fan club, this individual had apparently took it upon himself to police the Site, then elect himself judge and jury. Quite what he hoped to achieve by this I really don’t know, but what’s certain is that this wasn’t the behaviour of an adjusted mind. Certainly, the level of unsolicited attention he was giving to me could easily have been viewed as stalking.
Without a hint of irony, this fool would go on to exclaim: “Your obsession with PETER WYNGARDE has driven you insane” (this was, again, in reference to the Oxford University claim, referred to previously). After sharing an extremely close bond with PETER for almost 30 years, during which time we’ve supported each other through illness, successes, tragedies, births, deaths and all points in between, I can safely say that I’m WAAAAY past being “obsessed” with him or anyone else (another example of a complete stranger asserting to know us better than we know ourselves). The hypocrisy, of course, is that this statement came from an individual who’d spent weeks of his own time leafing through university registers, frequenting our webpage and otherwise prying into our (PETER and I) private affairs!
A SIGN OF THE TIMES
Whilst I’ve enjoyed – and continue to enjoy, running The Hellfire Club, I now believe that the abuse that PETER, the Club and I have personally received in recent months is indicative of society itself rather than anything else. It would appear that some people are only happy when they’re trying to make others miserable, and that they’ll go to any lengths to achieve their aim. While it’s true that these idiots only feel empowered when hiding behind a computer screen, I also maintain that it’s really their mask that’s slipped. Though they might like to portray themselves as civilised human beings the rest of the time, it’s only when they’re hurling abuse at strangers that they show their real selves. A case in point is the individual referred to earlier: whilst contributing to a national British daily newspaper, he was simultaneously leaving homophobic slogans on our Facebook page (and quite possibly others). Here was the supposed face of respectability who, when challenged and finally barred, cajoled a third party (or fabricated an additional Facebook profile), to continue his campaign of abuse! The paradox, however, was that his terms and expressions said far more about him than they ever could about PETER or I.
Of course, fan sites are not unique in this respect, but they do provide an easy target. I know of several fan sites that have been forced to close as a result of sustained ‘Trolling’, with several administrators randomly being sent death threats. When someone asks to join our Society, I have to give them the benefit of the doubt and hope that they’re applying for the right reasons. It’s unfortunate, but as a result of recent events, I’m suspicious of EVERYONE, and have come to expect the worst from each person who joins us. I hate that it has to be like this, having become accustomed to a far more convivial atmosphere in the past, but needs must.
When I spoke with PETER about our first incident of Trolling in March of 2015, he really couldn’t comprehend what had happened or why. He was initially of the impression that there was a personal vendetta against us. He simply couldn’t get his head around why an individual or, in this case, a group of people, would undertake to do such a thing – at least to someone who they’d never met or even spoken to. Whilst to a point, he could accept the motivation of a revenge attack on someone who’d caused them harm, this was entirely beyond the scope of his understanding. I had to explain to him that, if it hadn’t been us, it would most probably have been someone else – it was that random! There was literally no rhyme or reason to it; they do it simply because they can!
I’m entirely aware that there are some people who begrudge seeing others enjoying themselves, and will inevitably seek to destroy anything they either don’t understand or cannot be a part of. While I was fully intent on closing the Club following the shameful attack we suffered in March of 2015, PETER was entirely right – to have done so would’ve given these morons exactly what they wanted.
While many people consider PETER to be one of our greatest living actors and a true legend, others do not. Both of us understand and accept that. But by the same token, we expect to be able to go quietly about our business without having to suffer insults and verbal abuse. Is that really too much to ask?
*N.B. We doubtless have many gay members, but not all would profess to know more about PETER than someone who’d been with him for 30 years!
The Hellfire Club: The OFFICIAL PETER WYNGARDE Appreciation Society: https://www.facebook.com/groups/813997125389790/