Peter Cushing, The Later Years by Those Who Knew Him Best.
Peter Cushing is one of the most highly regarded performers amongst all manner of cinephiles. He has adorned our screens as Dr. Who, Sherlock Holmes, Van Helsing, Baron Von Frankenstein and many other iconic roles.
When Peter Cushing’s centenary was celebrated in 2013, Signum Books released a superb collected edition of his journals, entitled Peter Cushing: The Complete Memoirs. During the run up to the release I was in contact with Marcus Hearn, the official Hammer Films historian who had been in contact with the Peter Cushing Estate as part of his work in compiling and releasing the publication.
After speaking with Hearn and his associate Jonathan Rigby about their work on the Hammer films Blu Ray edition of Terence Fisher’s Dracula, which I wrote about for Diabolique magazine, they asked if I would be interested in speaking with Joyce and Bernard Broughton, who both worked and, upon occasion, lived with Cushing.
Joyce and Bernard were a delight. Witty, charming and absolutely full of wonderful stories about the great man. To receive the opportunity to share in so many first-hand accounts of Cushing’s life was a true honour. The generosity and graciousness which the Broughton’s presented me with throughout our discourse is something I often reflect upon, and so here are a selection of personal remembrances on one of cinema’s last true gentlemen.
Joyce Broughton first met Peter Cushing through a friend who was working in Spain, on the set of John Paul Jones (1959). “She came back and worked for him for a while, but had fallen in love with a Spaniard and wanted to leave England.” Joyce recalls, “She asked if I would work for him instead. I said that I couldn’t because, in those days, one didn’t go to work if you had children. Although I didn’t have any at that stage, I wanted to. She took several of our mutual friends along to be interviewed and either he wasn’t struck by them, or Mrs Cushing didn’t like them. In the end, I said I would work for him on a temporary basis, until he found somebody. I started with him in September and at Christmas time he asked me if I would work for him permanently. He said he wouldn’t mind how many children I had. I worked for him for 35 years after that, the longest temporary job anybody’s ever had I should think.”
As Cushing’s secretary, Joyce Broughton became exceptionally close to her employer, assisting him in all manner of duties. “If he needed me to work, I did the majority of things over the telephone,” Joyce notes, “He had what started out as a holiday home in Whitstable (which would later become his primary residence). If he needed me down there for scripts and things, I would travel down and take dictation, come back and type it up. Or else I would go up to London and take dictation there. I always travelled with my typewriter. I even used to bring it on holiday with me, and bring headed paper, just in case he needed me.”
In the early ’70s, when Joyce married Bernard, he also began working alongside Cushing to a degree.
“My ex-wife and I had a long joint association with Peter,” Bernard reflects “We had very different roles with him. She handled all the secretarial work and I was, well how do you put it? A factotum as far as Peter was concerned. I am a retired personnel director, and so had a reasonable idea about matters legal, about contracts and such things.”
1972 was a difficult time for Cushing, as Bernard explains. “When Joyce and I first got together, Peter was just coming out of a self-imposed period of isolation, concerning the loss of his wife Helen. Although Joyce used to see him reasonably regularly, things had died down a little. He really wanted to be left alone, as he took the loss of Helen very hard, but I did see him very regularly through Joyce and he lived with us, on and off, over the period we were married.”
This Is Your Life
In the late 1980’s, Cushing was approached to take part in the popular TV Biography programme, This Is Your Life, something which Bernard became involved with. “Peter had always said he would never do it, maintaining that he would do a Danny Blanchflower.”
Blanchflower was an English International footballer, who when Eamonn Andrews (the host of the show at the time) approached him with the red book and said “This is Your Life” (the ‘surprise’ format of the show), he walked away and wouldn’t have anything to do with the whole affair.
“This was a big problem at the time,” explains Bernard, “because it was live and on the air. Peter said he would do likewise. The TV people approached us, to speak with Joyce and I, and Kevin Francis, who produced most of Peter’s films. Also, Peter Gray who was another actor and a great friend of Peter’s (the two went through their early professional development together), as involved in those discussions.
Peter, Kevin and I all thought it would be a good thing if he were to do the show. We had an old house in Kent, which I had converted and met with Peter there to speak about it. No one mentioned that it was for ‘This is Your Life’; we were fishing, testing the waters as it were.”
Bernard went to Cushing’s house the following morning to follow up on it all. “He always liked to have an open fire going, as he lived right on the sea wall at Whitstable in Kent.” He recalls, “When I went down, he said “Bernard, they’re talking about me and This is Your Life aren’t they?’”, to which I replied “No, I don’t know what you’re talking about Sir, you’re imagining it.””
(Sir was the nickname which Joyce and Bernard used for Peter).
“He obviously wasn’t very satisfied with that. When I went down the following morning to do the fire, he said “Bernard, I want to know. Are they setting me up for This is Your Life?”
So I said, “OK, if you really want to know the answer, between us, yes.”
“I won’t do it.” Said Cushing.
“I really think you’d be wrong to take that view.” replied Bernard.
“Well, you’ve built up a long career, you’ve got a great persona. You’re an English institution. You’re more than just an actor and people want to share you, and if you were to walk away and do a Danny Blanchflower, it would be very bad all round. I think that people would be absolutely devastated if you did that.”
It was hard to make a stance such as this, but Bernard was adamant.
“I’ve spoken with Kevin Francis and Peter Gray, and that the three of us really think you should do it, however, Joyce does not.” He told Cushing.
“You know Bernard, the biggest problem that I would have is when Eamonn Andrews puts his head round the curtain with the red book and says ‘Peter Cushing; This is Your Life’, how on earth can I look surprised?” Cushing replied.
“Because you’re a supreme actor, that’s why! You’ll look surprised and it will work. If you don’t do it, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.” added Bernard, “With all that said, you think about it.”
Bernard laughs at the memory of it. “When I went down to see him later in the day he said that he was going to do it.” he adds. “That was the sort of relationship we had. As I said I’m a retired personnel director, and so know about business management. I could take a very objective view about such matters, and that is a good indication as to the depth of our relationship.”
The episode did go ahead and was broadcast on February 21st 1990. Michael Aspel was hosting by then and the show featured a barrage of stars such as Christopher Lee, Joanna Lumley, Ursula Andress and Peter Ustinov. “He was very kind enough to take me aside after the programme and thank me for making him do it.” adds Bernard.
The Later Years
Cushing was living with the Broughton’s on and off for some time by then. A situation which was implemented after Cushing fell ill. Joyce felt that he should come and stay with her and Bernard for a while. “The first time was when he had been taken to the hospital.” recalls Joyce, “I was called in and he was always very unhappy in hospitals, as he hated them. His wife had died many years before and when I went in to him he simply said; “I just want to get home.” I told him; “You can’t go home, because there’s no one to look after you, unless you come and live with Bernard and me. We’ll look after you until you feel better””.
“It must have been an immense strain for him to come and live with us,” says Joyce, “because I had two teenage children at that stage. We had a dog, two cats, a tortoise, rabbits, and he was a man that was very quiet, who lived alone in a cottage. He would always be playing music or working and then, suddenly, he was enveloped with all these goings on and a lot of rushing about. My children were very good though, from a very young age I taught them that Uncle Peter was just Uncle Peter. That, yes he was a famous film star, but that this was mummy’s job. It wasn’t anything to boast about and they never did. Even the children that came round from school when ‘Sir’ lived with us for a while would always come in round the back and the children would take them up to their rooms. He was never bothered by them, if you know what I mean. I don’t even think that the children even told their friends he was living with us. It was just one of those things, he was very much part of our family.”
“When he was in the last period of his life, after he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer, he didn’t know.” confirms Bernard, “Joyce and I had been away for a weekend, and we came home. He had an old housekeeper who, didn’t live with him personally, but would come in every day as she lived in the village. She said “Sir’s in hospital” and we went to the Kent and Canterbury hospital and he was sitting up in bed and you would have thought that he’d been hit in the eye by Rocky Marciano, he had a tremendously swollen eye. He simply said ‘Hello dears’.”
Cushing had nominated Joyce and Bernard as his next of kin, “So we were in a good position to be able to talk to anybody that mattered.” He confirms, “Whilst Joyce was talking with him, I had a quiet word with the consultant, a chap called Mark Rake, who was the oncology guy and I asked him what the score was. He said that the bad news was that he had prostate cancer, and as well as that he had secondaries. There was one behind his eye, which was causing the swelling; he also had them on his back and on his ribcage. I thought ‘Oh God’ and I asked him ‘What’s the prognosis?’ and he said ‘He’s got a year, fifteen months at the absolute most’ We were completely staggered by this. I thanked him for being so open with me.”
Bernard told Joyce on the way back home from the hospital and she broke down. “When we sat and spoke about it, this is where the labour relations side of my work came in, because you tend to think laterally. I said ‘I don’t think we should tell Sir’. I knew him well enough to know that I don’t think he would have really wanted to know that he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. I said that we should keep a lid on it, just in case the oncologist has got it wrong. I said that I think you should only tell two people, his solicitor, a bloke called Simon Pritchard, and his accountant. Joyce had, for example, a complete book of cheques for Coutts Bank in London, all signed by Peter. He would sign the whole book and give it to us, leaving Joyce to pay the bills; there was that sort of trust between everybody. I said that if we let it out that Peter has terminal cancer, his career will finish overnight and that will have a devastating effect on him. I said that we should keep a lid on it and see how it goes. As it was he lived for over 12 years after that day.”
“This was in 1982 when we were told that he had Cancer.” continues Joyce, “The consultant told me and I begged him not to tell Mr Cushing. I said “Please don’t. He’s not in the right frame of mind to accept that at the moment”. We didn’t tell him for four years afterwards, but he was initially only given a year to eighteen months at first.”
“One evening I came home from work.” continues Bernard, “He was living with us at the time and had a permanent room with us. We were 30 miles from Whitstable in a very nice old house. I went in to see him and he said ‘Well you kept a lid on this all right!’”
Cushing had been to see his doctor, who told him. “He wanted to know why he had to take so many pills and when he went into his doctor, he had to let him know. I said ‘Well sir, when it first came out, they said that you had a year on the absolute upside. Now, if you look at the last 5 years you have made 3 films and you’ve written part one of your autobiography. It just goes to show that people don’t always get it right and how wrong they can be.’ Peter lived another 8 or 9 years beyond there. That was the sort of setup that existed, we kept him going. He had this very nice old house, which he lived in in the most unprepossessing way, it was a big old 3 storey place in Whitstable and if you stepped inside, you wouldn’t be walking into the normal concept of a film star’s house.”
One of Cushing primary hobbies, aside from his miniatures and maquettes, were books. “There were around three and a half thousand books in his house.” says Bernard, “I was always making him bookcases. He loved his house. Later, when he was under the care of the Pilgrim’s Hospice, in Canterbury, he asked me to promise him that I would make sure he was kept in the house until the very last moment, until he could no longer physically manage to stay there.”
For the last few months of Peter Cushing’s life, Joyce would visit him with his lunch, and stay with him for afternoon tea. “We’d leave him for a few hours on his own, which he wanted,” explains Bernard, “then I used to go down about half past seven, give him something to eat and then I would stay there and sleep in the next bedroom. I stayed all night and by this time, he was three months off his death, so he had quite a bit of pain. He would wake up and I would hear him get up and I would go and see him and say ‘Sir, would you like a cup of tea?’ and he would reply ‘Lovely dear boy’. He spoke so beautifully as you well know, I’m a cockney as you can probably guess. Then we’d talk a bit, and those last three months of his life were wonderful, because I used to sit beside him on the edge of the bed or on the chair beside him and he would set the agenda about the sort of things he wanted to talk about. Even at that stage, he was lucid enough to say ‘I want you to give me one promise, that when you tuck me away, that you take Joyce away immediately and you both go for a couple of weeks in the sun’ That was him, in these extreme situations, he had the chance to think like that. He talked to me about it a lot and the subjects we covered, about his life, his works, the things which he had done well and the things he’d got wrong, it was almost semi-confessional. It was the most marvellous three months that I had with Peter.”
The relationship which had blossomed throughout the time which Cushing spent with the Broughtons was a warm and familial one, which both Joyce and Bernard reflect upon fondly.
“It was a fabulous experience for me, because he was such a wonderful man.” says Bernard, before adding;
“The other great thing about him was that he had a tremendous sense of humour and that’s something that we both shared. He really was wicked sometimes, and people would never associate Peter with that. He was a terrific character and great fun to be with. Also, of course, very modest. He was multitalented as you know, he was a tremendous watercolour artist, and was mentored by Edward Seago. He used to make the models for film sets, and his miniature theatres. He had a set in one of the rooms, where the entire wall was comprised of different sets. One of his favourites was R. C. Sherriff’s play about the war (Journey’s End). You must also remember that when he was at the very zenith of his career, for example, when he did Orwell’s 1984. When he did that there was no tape recording, he did that live and then he had to repeat it again the following week on BBC. That was all live. I think it was Donald Pleasance and André Morell in that production. But to be able to reproduce that play after a break of 10 days was absolutely incredible, but he had that sort of mind. That was Peter, artist, model maker, actor and author. He worked very hard on these autobiographical books, what he did was really good, and very commendable. It was another facet to his tremendous talents. He was incredible.”
When the subject of Cushing’s stance amongst aficionados of horror films arose, it was met with mixed feelings, which are apparently how the actor himself regarded that aspect of his reputation.
“I think sometimes he wished he didn’t have to do so many, because he had such a fantastic sense of humour and I think that he wished sometimes that he could have done many other types of films, but that didn’t become very possible.” says Joyce “I don’t know why, but that’s how it was.”
“He was a very special individual, and he made over 100 films, only of which about 16 of them were horror films for Hammer and one of the things that disappointed him was, and he used to say ‘My dear boy people remember me more for those sixteen films than they do for Hamlet, Moulin Rouge, The End of the Affair and Cone of Silence.’” adds Bernard, “Which were all very good films that he made. If you look as well at the scope of work which he did on TV, off the top of my head there’s Morecambe and Wise, Pride and Prejudice, The Browning Version, The Winslow Boy, A Tale of Two Cities. What a repertoire! He really was incredible, and in the middle of all of it, a totally unassuming man. He was never the big head, I’m a superstar. He was never one of those characters and I think that made him all the more loveable to anybody that knew him and loved him, as Joyce and I did.”
As our time drew to a close, Bernard recalled one last story about his friend.
“One of the nicest stories about dear old Peter occurred when his brother was dying of cancer. He said that he’d got this message about it and told me that he wanted to go and see him, but as he hadn’t seen him for many years, didn’t know if he could. I said ‘Sir, you really should because you won’t get another chance and you’ll be really sorry if you don’t. I’ll take you to Eastbourne.’
I took him to see his brother and he was delighted he did. He didn’t have too much to do with the rest of the family and so, when we got to the hospital he said, ‘Don’t leave Bernard; stay with me’ I said ‘I don’t think we should do that’ I used to speak with him quite openly, and he didn’t mind you criticising him as long as, preferably, you were right. I said that I was best out of it and that I’d meet him outside the hospital and that I’d wait in the car. He said ‘Right, well then for afterwards, will you book us all in for afternoon tea in The Grand Hotel?’ He said ‘I’d really like some nice scones and jam’, he used to love that sort of thing. I said ‘OK sir, leave it with me’.
When he came out the hospital he was with his nephew and a few others, there was about six of us in total. We went off to the hotel in Eastbourne. Peter used to feign indifference a lot of the time, when people would make a fuss of him. They took us in and sat us down, and when they brought out the food, it was these tiny things which weren’t proper scones at all. These were about an inch and a half in diameter, with two on a plate and one of these screw top jars of jam. I caught his eye and he gave me a nudge and there was mildew in the lid of his jam, which he showed me and I called the maître d’ over and said ‘Look this is Mr Cushing’s jam’ and we were promptly whisked off into the Grand Room and were made a terrible fuss over. Everything was relayed and they wouldn’t accept payment. When we were leaving Peter turned to me and said ‘Where’s that jam pot?’ I said ‘It’s on the table’, he said ‘Get it; we can use it somewhere else!’
That was Peter. I don’t know if you’ve seen any of his informal letters, but one of the titles he used would sign them ‘Peter and Helen’ and sometimes, if it was a little more formal, he would put Peter Cushing OBE MOG. That came from when I used to tell him that there were times when I wanted to give him another title and he would say ‘What’s that’, to which I replied ‘Miserable old git!’ It stuck and if you speak to anyone who was close to Peter will know that’s how he used to sign himself off.”
What struck me as I spoke with Joyce and Bernard was how lost they would become in their reflections of Cushing, and how simultaneously painful it seemed to recall his absence. It was as if it would suddenly dawn upon them mid-sentence that he was gone.
“I’m going on a lot, but I miss him so much.” concludes Bernard, “He’s been dead 18 years now and he’s left such a hole in our lives. He was part of the family. If he was at home, most Sundays I would bring him by for Sunday lunch and he would probably stay until Wednesday or Thursday. He came and went according to what he wanted to do. We were all part of each other’s world. He stayed with us until the last year, when the damn cancer really started to come through, but he was very brave about it all. To be with somebody that you know is dying, and someone who you are very fond of, is a terrifically traumatic experience. That last three months of staying with him and the chats we used to have, that was absolutely incredible. That was all topped off when the funeral took place at his house in Whitstable, and the town was absolutely jam packed. The whole place stopped and it was a little bit like when the troops came back from abroad, the entire town stopped to see Peter being put away. He’ll never be replaced and that’s for sure.”
“I’m really very touched that people are still so interested in Peter.” adds Joyce “Although he’s been gone for so long, I still work for him. I still have fan letters and there are still so many things that I do. I give some talks now and then for people who are interested and it’s lovely to think that his name is still around. So many of the big stars, I know Sir was a big star, but I’m thinking about Richard Burton and Lawrence Olivier, I’m sure that they’re not so much in the public eye today as Sir is.
He was just wonderful. Every single thing that he took on he absolutely looked into it in every single way. When he did Sherlock Holmes for example, he went to a teacher of the violin. He couldn’t play it, but he wanted to know how you would look if you were playing it, so he did all the right things. When he did some of the Dracula and Frankenstein films, he went to the hospital and went into the operating theatres to see how that happened. Anything that he did, he researched to the nth degree.
He would write on the sides of his script notes like ‘They should be wearing this….’ Or ‘They should do that’. He was so meticulous that everything was done correctly, and I think that’s why the Hammer films, particularly the Dracula and Frankenstein films, were so popular was because he made them real. Without being horrific, he would never have lowered his performance for any material.
He always used to say (about Frankenstein) that ‘It’s not horror darling, it’s about a man born before his time.’”