It is with sorrow and respect that the speakers and organisers of The Highgate Vampire Symposium 2015 note the passing of British actor Sir Christopher Lee four days ago, at the age of 93.
There is a large crossover between fans of cult horror movies and Forteana, and we appreciate that many of our attendees will be experiencing similar feelings of nostalgia tinged with sadness at this time.
Decades before series such as Twilight and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, there is no denying that the seductive and iconic screen presence which Lee exuded whilst playing Count Dracula for Hammer House of Horror and other production companies, influenced perceptions of what a ‘vampire’ looks and behaves like for many people growing up in the 1950s onwards. Hammer’s occasional use of Highgate Cemetery as a filming location also seems to have influenced vampiric interpretations of N6’s resident ghost, with films such as 1970’s Taste The Blood Of Dracula, shot partially in the Circle of Lebanon and The Egyptian Avenue, cementing an albeit fictional link between tall, shadowy figures sighted in the vicinity and blood-sucking vampires.
In later life Sir Christopher, who was born in 1922, as Christopher Frank Carandini Lee, managed to achieve some balance with regard to his typecasting as Count Dracula, as he became increasingly sought after to play vastly different roles in blockbusters such as The Lord of the Rings trilogy. His filmography, however, is vast, and his characterisation ability certainly pre- and post-dated his Hammer Dracula films. For many it is his roles in films such as The Wicker Man (1973) and as Scaramanga in The Man With The Golden Gun (1974) which remain equally memorable, as well as more quirky appearances in films such as Dr Terrors House of Horrors (1965), and Horror Express (1972) to name but a couple.
Sir Christopher’s passing will no doubt be evoking different memories in all of us, of good and perhaps even frightening times watching his films, and enjoying his many interviews. Apart from his dignity and fierce intellect, those who felt and feel an interest in the man as well as the actor will also remember his sense of humour, and the following anecdote, recalled by a Highgate Cemetery tour guide in 2013, would no doubt have amused him:
One of my fellow guides used to (as a boy) sneak into the cemetery with his mates to explore and smoke cigarettes. One day he’d crept in and was walking around and in the distance noticed a very tall man on one of the pathways. The man was wearing a long black coat and was looking down intently at the headstones while reading their inscriptions. As my colleague approached the man, he looked up. It was the mighty Sir Christopher Lee himself, in the flesh, who was in the cemetery filming something or another. My colleague turned around and ran like hell (well, you would, wouldn’t you?) 😀
Symposium compère Paul Adams’ first ‘encounter’ with Sir Christopher was as a seven year old boy, when his father allowed him to watch a late night screening of Dracula Has Risen From The Grave (1968) on a black and white portable TV set. He got the bug, and in 2014 would find himself chronicling a life’s obsession with Hammer movies in his book Written in Blood : A Cultural History of The British Vampire, which includes a lengthy chapter entitled Lord of Misrule : The Rise and Fall of Hammer’s Dracula. Part of the chapter’s title is, of course, a nod to the title of Sir Christopher’s second autobiography, in itself an allusion to his role in The Wicker Man. Some of you Sir Christopher Lee fans out there may also find the video below fun, wherein Paul discusses with a live audience some of his favourite Hammer clips, including a restored version of the first Dracula film made by the studio in 1958, and Dracula A.D. 1972, presumed by many to have been inspired by events at Highgate Cemetery over the previous two years.
The newspapers are awash with obituaries and tributes for Sir Christopher, so we will leave you with a music video recorded by the big man himself. It is a bit of a tearjerker to watch today of all days, especially from 1 min 32 secs in, but for us it says it all. Goodbye, Big Chris, never to be forgotten.