Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Rediscovering Mike Raven (part one)

(Click here for introductory musings...)

If you look at the content of his whole (not very long) life, you can see that he never wasted a minute and was always creating in some way or another. Therefore his four films were not a major part of his life.
- Mandy Fairman

I don’t know if he would have liked to continue with films, but Mum certainly wouldn’t have let him!

- Dominic Fairman

As promised in my previous post, I have now reacquainted myself with the films of Mike Raven, and am more convinced than ever that only some kind of collective psychosis can explain why the story of this most supremely idiosyncratic of actors has been so wilfully under-examined by students of obscure British cinema.

There was a time, of course, when almost the entirety of British horror, even Hammer, was wont to be summed up, and as often as not dismissed, in a paragraph or two. But we’re beyond that now, and individualists like Pete Walker, once reviled, have now taken their rightful place among the British cinema mavericks. Few careers, studios or stars that made a mark on British horror still want for serious analysis. In fact, Raven is pretty much the only exception to this rule I can think of.
What follows is my first tentative efforts to correct this imbalance, and I am enormously grateful to Raven’s wife Mandy and son Dominic for taking the time to share their memories of the man and his movies with me.

Raven Had a Dilettante Streak

Mike Raven was born Austin Churton Fairman; the son of actor Austin Fairman and actress Hilda Moore. Though his pseudonym seemed tailor made for his appearances in British horror films, he had started using it professionally long before his movie career began.
Raven only appeared in four movies, but they represent a kind of microcosm of British horror as it was in the early seventies. As well as two independently produced starring vehicles, he took two supporting roles, one for Hammer and one for Amicus.
Though all reports insist he was intent on becoming a new horror star, and played up the image offscreen to encourage an air of mystique, you only have to look at his Wikipedia entry to see that movies were but a tiny part of a short but immensely crowded career.

Most famously, of course, he was a pirate and Radio 1 DJ. (Let me clarify: he was a DJ on Radio 1 and on pirate radio; he wasn’t a Radio 1 DJ and a pirate. Though to judge from his CV that’s one of the very few things he never tried his hand at.)

The films were merely one diversion among many, according to Raven’s son Dominic: “To Dad his films (although they remain very visible) were not nearly as important to him as his work as an artist or as his contribution to giving black bluesmen a proper voice during the 1960’s.”
They were “not a major part of his life,” his wife Mandy agrees.

In later life, he became a sculptor, and lived the artist’s life in a remote farm on Cornwall’s Bodmin Moor (familiar to all fans of Du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn) and it was this final chapter of his professional career that he most wished to be remembered by.
Cornwall was not merely central to his life, it was also the location of his two starring movies: Crucible of Terror (1970) and Disciple of Death (1971).
“The move to Cornwall was at my insistence,” Mandy recalls. “We both loved horses and he loved sculpting so we bought a moorland farm for me, started with 35 sheep and ended up with 800.”
“We always came to Boscastle for our family holidays and Dad loved Cornwall a great deal,” adds Dominic. “We first moved to the coast and then onto the moors where Dad took a keen interest in the archaeology of the area. He spent a lot of the last 10 years of his life sculpting and riding his faithful horse Jack, and he was (by his own choice) buried on the farm in a beautiful spot overlooking the moors.”

Though his press releases at the time of his horror films make great play of his interest in the occult, Raven was a Christian, albeit with a keen interest in comparative religions and esoteric dogma. His often troubled relationship with religion informs most of his sculptural work, as well as Disciple of Death, his most personal film.
His Christian faith was sincere, “but, being Mike, it’s more complicated,” Mandy recalls. “He was, as I am, a Roman Catholic which brings its own multitude of problems for a man of his fragility.”

Disc-jockey, horror star, sculptor, ballet dancer, writer, TV presenter, photographer, student of Magdalen College, Oxford and a Lieutenant in the Royal Ulster Rifles during the Second World War… one glance at Raven’s obituaries – which read like the result of a collision between the obituaries of at least ten different people – is enough to confirm that this is a life story worth getting to know a lot more of.
According to Mandy, he had embarked upon writing an autobiography: “He was going to write his life story, which was totally unbelievable, but did not get very far before he died. It was going to be called Fairman Has a Dilettante Streak: his Oxford tutor’s words!”

The Horror Star

“His favourite horror film was Witchfinder General,” according to Mandy. “He liked and admired Vincent Price immensely, and knew him and his wife when he was younger. I dislike horror films, but he did persuade me to go to a showing of The Old Dark House put on by the Gothique Film Society, which we both loved. Since he died I have watched Stigmata and loved it and I am sure he would have too. I know, I know; its anti-Roman Catholic, but entertaining. I know this was his taste in horror.”

Raven’s own appearances in British horror films are a mixed bag indeed.
The least remembered, perhaps, was the least ostentatious: as Enfield in the Amicus movie I, Monster (1971), a more or less straight adaptation of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Nowhere else would he appear in such illustrious company: third-billed behind Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing.
According to Mandy, it was a rewarding association: “He enjoyed working on it, although it was an entirely straight role. He very much liked Peter Cushing who was kind and courteous, and Stephen Weeks bothered to direct him and give him his time. I don`t think he was ever in the studio at the same time as Lee.”
(It’s just a pity Weeks didn’t find a role for him in his subsequent film, Gawain and the Green Knight [1973]: a lively chunk of English folklore that would surely have much appealed to Raven’s sensibilities.)

But it is Count Karnstein, in Hammer’s Lust For a Vampire, that remains his most high profile appearance, and it should have been his most important showcase. Sadly, for Raven, the experience of shooting a featured guest role at Britain's most prestigious horror factory was, to say the least, bittersweet. Chief among his frustrations was the studio's decision to dub his voice.
Hammer did this repeatedly and almost always misguidedly, and there was nothing exceptional about Raven’s treatment: many of the studio’s leading ladies, even Ingrid Pitt, suffered the same indignity. But in Raven’s case it seemed especially demeaning, partly because the substitution – by radio warhorse Valentine Dyall – was so very crude and obvious, but also because Raven was, after all, a man who made his living with his voice.

Mandy remembers: “He was not very good or happy being employed by other people, and his feelings regarding Hammer are best not repeated! To me they were a group of people who were stuck in a groove; it came as a bit of a shock after being in the music business. When I found out about the dubbing; Mike was still broadcasting at the time; I tried to convince Hammer that it was ridiculous but failed. The row was not inconsiderable.”
The shooting of the film, too, was not harmonious, according to Mandy, whose memories of director Jimmy Sangster echo his own published reflections on the production:
“Both of us liked Jimmy Sangster, who I believe died last year, and at the time of Lust seemed bored and tired of the sameiness of Hammer Productions. Maybe we were both wrong about this, but it was certainly our impression at the time. Hammer were in a cul-de sac and the Karnstein pictures were heading towards soft porn. Then Crucible of Terror came along, and that, after his experiences with Hammer, was a joy.”

(Part 2 to follow shortly)


Mark said...

Wow, I really set you off on something here didn't I? Absolutely first rate, well done that man!

John said...

Fascinating material on a horror star we don't know enough about. Well researched!

Holger Haase said...

Great stuff. I had no idea who were in touch with his family.