For serious lovers of Hammer Horror there is a fabulous leather bound limited edition of The Hammer Story containing a parchment pages of six of the queens of Hammer Horror: Martine Beswick, Valerie Leon, Caroline Munro, Ingrid Pitt, Barbara Shelley and Madeline Smith. Without a doubt, Barbara Shelley remains the original queen of the Hammer genre beginning with The Camp on Blood Island and Blood of the Vampire. These early films would begin a generation of English horror films, which would be watched by millions across the globe and gain a cult status that few English films outside of the James Bond and Carry On franchises could ever equal until JD Rowling created the irrepressible, Harry Potter.
However these things meant little to this London born beauty, whom had spent her fledgling years building her name in Italian cinema in minor roles supporting such diverse actors as legendary tough guy Marc Lawrence (This Gun for Hire and Key Largo) and Italian stunner, Virna Lisa, a twenty-something Brigitte Bardot and the aging screen legend, Gloria Swanson. An English lady working in the romantic climes of Rome was learning her craft much differently from those attending NIDA or working on the backlots of the Pinewood or Ealing Studios. Nor was it like her teenage days busily working as a model in post-war London.
Perhaps the biggest turning point was not Barbara’s time in Italy, nor her being cast in the very poorly edited comedy, The Little Hut starring Stewart Granger, David Niven and Ava Gardner, rather than snaring the title role in the film, Cat Girl. A rather unsubtle updating of the 1940 classic, Cat People starring Simone Simon (the lady with the golden key) Cat Girl still provided Barbara Shelley an audience and some notoriety. After all, consider the film’s tagline: “To caress me is to tempt death!” and then consider the beautiful Barbara and many a male movie lover was definitely going to go with the deadly caress!!! The Shelley persona was on its way…
Not only do we have Miss Shelley’s three quintessential Hammer Horror films, but two other film classics with the Village of the Damned and Shadow of the Cat. When you add these two gems to the Hammer films, in which I also include my childhood favourite, The Gorgon, then they really do define Miss Shelley as not only the Queen of Hammer Horror, but why she has been dubbed, “The First Leading Lady of British Horror.” These five wonderful films coupled with Cat Girl really do enjoy the Shelley touch. On top of this, Barbara Shelley would make forays into drama and comedy as well as dozens of guest roles on hit TV shows as diverse as Dr. Who, Bergerac, and Eastenders in Britain and shows like The Farmer’s Daughter, Hazel and Twelve O’clock High in Hollywood. Miss Shelley’s role as Vannoza Canale in the ten part series, The Borgias is also a stand out performance in a career spanning nearly forty years until she retired in the 90s to pursue a career in interior design and decorating.
Through my friends at the wonderful British Animal Charity, Our Disappearing Planet, this is what the lovely Miss Barbara Shelley had to say in response to my questions….
David: Do you recall when you signed your first autograph and how you felt at the time, and did you sign while working as a model in London or when you began making films?
Barbara: In 1956 I was at a Variety Club garden party and a little girl said, “Miss Kerr can I have your autograph please?” So I signed my very first autograph as Deborah Kerr. The little girl was very happy and I was honoured to be taken for such an illustrious actress. In the next year, I signed Barbara Shelley, after having made some films myself!!!
David: You actually made several films in Italy before your career took off in Britain and you worked in the same films as some amazing actors and characters, including Brigitte Bardot, Virna Lisa and Vittorio De Sica. However there are two other actors who always amazed me, and they are Marc Lawrence and Gloria Swanson and I wondered if you had any interesting stories relating to these two amazing performers that you could share with my readers?
Barbara: I never worked directly with any of these actors other than Marc Lawrence and never met Brigitte Bardot or Gloria Swanson, but I did meet Vittorio De Sica. I made my first two films with Marc, who gave me lot of help and advice and his lovely wife Tanya used to hear my lines for me. They also helped me learn a little about filming too and I will always be grateful to them for providing me with such a gentle launching.
David: Could you share with us, one of the funnier or more unusual moments you encountered while working on a film set?
Barbara: Have you got a year say!!! There are so many laughs any happy film set. And I got to make over fifty films so I say, have you got a year?”
David: Do you collect any movie memorabilia or autographs, and if so what are a couple of your most enchanting treasures?
Barbara: I wish now that I had collected things from my films but alas I did not. I just have many happy memories and some photographs. I can’t think now why I didn’t collect stuff. Probably because you don’t realise how such mementos are a comfort until you get older. Remember that, eh! Start collecting now!!!!
David: If any person in history could sign their photograph for you, which person would you most like to sign for you and what would you like them to say in their dedication?
Barbara: Sir Winston Churchill and the dedication? What I said to him in the marvellous moment in late 1050 when I met him!!!! Which was “God bless you!”
Also, Oprah Winfrey. I’d like to meet her – she is an inspirational person, and the dedication! Perhaps “Nice to meet you, Oprah”
David: You are a very popular signer with dozens of fascinating images from your many films, and have raised thousands of dollars for animal welfare and I wondered if have any funny stories involving an autograph hunter or fan?
Barbara: I had a lovely time recently (Nov 2009) at the NEC memorabilia Show. Meeting fans who had travelled great distances just to see me! I was awestruck and felt greatly honoured by their interest. “Thank you, fans. I appreciate your appreciation. Bless you.”
David: Did you ever knock back making a film that you later wished you had made, or gone on to make a film you later wished you hadn’t?
Barbara: Regrets and the opposite about anything to do with a profession as unforeseeable as mine are useless and stressful. There are too many “outside factors” which decide what work you do or what work you miss out on. Really outside forces – the final choices are never really given.
David: Could you share with us a few of your favourite books, films, directors, songs and actors, please?
Barbara: Writers: Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet and Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving – Films: The Godfather (Part 1) and E.T. – Actors: Johnny Depp, Al Pacino and Meryl Streep – Directors: England - Roy Ward Baker and USA – Steven Spielberg
David: One of my all time favourite films is The Gorgon, I think because I saw it when I was very young that it had a very strong effect on me and especially adding to the vividness of my imagination as a child. In the way that the earlier Val Lewton’s films like Cat People never showed violence or horror, but were all the more creepy for it. And for me, The Gorgon had this sort of mystical quality to the horror being shown, which elevated it over many other horror films of the 60s. So, thinking about horror films from the past to the present, what horror films have really scared you, and which of your own horror films do you think comes closest to pure terror? And which remains your personal favourite?
Barbara: Dracula: Prince of Darkness gave me the best role of all and the creepiest moment to my mind is when Helen sees her husband’s body dripping blood from his slashed throat onto Dracula’s ashes in his coffin – ugh – nasty – creepy – terrifying.
David: And lastly, but by no means least, is there a story or moment from your life, which tells us something very different about Barbara Shelley, the person, rather than the actress who has graced our screen in so many charming performances?
Barbara: My autobiography will come out next year, so I can’t give away too many
things about myself at present. Sorry!!!!