BRAY – IT’S HAMMER TIME

bray studios

Down Place was the house of Hammer from 1950 to 1966.  It wasn’t just a studio, but a home for many of the team, who worked together for a couple of decades. Most regulars remember the home-cooked food served at the studio, in particular the lunches. The bread and butter pudding was a particular favourite of new boy Oliver Reed. Christopher Lee would welcome wardrobe mistress Rosemary Burrow every morning with the greeting “Horrid !”, like a slightly annoying big brother. That relationship became distinctly Jungian when she married his stunt double Eddie Powell. And she wasn’t the only one to marry within the Hammer family, it was almost a tradition, even expected.

But then, Hammer was a family affair from its inception. In fact, the Hammer story is the saga of two dynasties. The name is derived from music hall comic Will Hinds’ stage name, Will Hammer, which they adopted for the new company in 1934.  Will’s son Anthony joined not long after. Despite the fact that they gave the company its moniker, Hinds is not the name most associate with Hammer, partly because Tony liked to remain in the shadows, but mainly because their family’s fortunes didn’t resemble a soap opera with a simmering Oedipal struggle at the heart of it. Albeit more Archers than Dallas, the saga begins with Enrique Carreras, a Spanish immigrant who co-founded a distribution company, Exclusive, which eventually merged with Hammer in 1949. The story only shades into myth when his son and grandson join the family business. James Carreras had initially resisted the opportunity to work with his father Enrique, as he was already a man of means, with a successful car dealership in London’s showroom quarter, Fitzrovia. His sales technique was legendary – Denis Meikle, author of A History Of Horrors, recounts the anecdote about Jimmy selling Joe Loss a car without an engine. He certainly had the patter, the naked opportunism and the larger-than-life personality of a smooth operator. But he had no interest in film, just the business. In particular the culture of business – he was a legend in his own lunchtime, if that lunch was held at the Variety Club. Whether he was good at making deals is another matter – he would often give up the rights to Hammer product too easily and too cheaply in order to turn a quick profit. But no-one in the company was prepared to question his authority.  “He did all the talking and we did all the nodding” is how his son Michael typified the relationship.

james carreras

michael carreras 1

If James was extroverted and gregarious, his son was afflicted with a hot head and sang froid that could easily be mistaken for aggression, and diffidence regarded as difficult. James was more interested in profit than content, whereas Michael wrote and directed several Hammer movies. And this is the crux of their drama.  Hammer never set out to become a by-word for horror. It happened almost by accident, after the success of 1955’s The Quatermass Xperiment, the latest in a long production line of radio and television adaptations that had defined the Hammer brand. The decision to follow it up with The Curse Of Frankenstein and Dracula was not an aesthetic one, or borne out of any love for the Gothic tradition, but based on one simple financial expedient: don’t mess with a winning formula. James Carreras did not know a back he could not slap, or an opportunity he could not exploit, or it turns out, bleed dry. By 1961, after the box-office disappointment of The Curse Of The Werewolf, Michael argued that the company needed to diversify into westerns, teen musicals, even social realism. When his efforts to expand were thwarted by his more conservative father, he abruptly walked out of the family firm and formed a rival company, Capricorn Productions. Unfortunately, it didn’t offer much in the way of competition, registering two flops in the first two years.  And just when Michael thought he was out, they pulled him back in, with an offer he couldn’t refuse – to write and direct The Curse Of The Mummy’s Tomb. A decision possibly informed by collective disinterest in his beloved Joe Brown musical What A Crazy World.

what a crazy world

His father’s point was underlined  in 1968, when Hammer became the first British film company to receive the Queen’s Award for Industry, an official slap on the back for the three million pounds in export earnings that it had just generated for the British economy. The same generic products that seemed past their sell-by date eight years earlier.

queen's award

Michael stubbornly tried to maintain his independence by retaining his production company, but spent most of his career cashing his father’s pay cheques. Denis Meikle suggests that Capricorn could never succeed because the film industry refused to support the errant son “for fear of offending the man who maintained powerful allies in the United States and who still supplied much of their popular product.” In 1971, Michael was appointed head of production at Hammer. Two years later, James Carreras pulled off the same trick that had duped Joe Loss decades earlier – he sold his son a car without an engine. When Michael bought his father out, he discovered just how bad the deals with American financiers had been. Hammer only owned 20% of the Hammer back catalogue, the other 80% of the rights resided with the Hollywood studios that his father had flirted with over the decades. If James didn’t quite sell the family silver, he had given them to third party ownership on a long term lease.  And those same studios were now refusing to distribute Hammer productions in the United States, claiming the quantity was too high, the quality too low and the nudity too explicit. There was no cash to flow.  In his retirement, James would boast to fellow golfers how he’d ripped off his own son. According to Michael’s wife Josephine, her father-in-law “never forgave. He always had his revenge, no matter how long it took.” Michael, in public, kept a brave face. In the years leading up to the Hammer’s demise as a film company in 1979, Michael still spoke bullishly of his plans to diversify: a jazz club, a book imprint, a Grand Guignol theatre and museum in the heart of London’s West End. Only the jazz club materialised.

It would be easy to cast James Carreras as the mercenary whose sole interest in returning a profit was short-term, myopic and reductive, who favoured a repeat-til-fade method of production that was like less movie making and more like factory farming. Similarly, it’s too convenient to paint Michael as the jazz-loving visionary who realised Hammer was a studio out of time in the 60s and 70s, and whose prophecies of doom were studiously ignored. This would disregard the fact that Michael was personally responsible for some of Hammer’s most wince-inducing attempts to get down with the kids, such as 1974’s Dracula And The Seven Golden Vampires, a swiftly arranged marriage between the gothic tradition and kung fu.  This was Hammer’s considered reaction to the  new competition, the modern American horror of Rosemary’s Baby, Night Of The Living Dead and The Exorcist, which was in turn subtle, metaphoric, visceral and psychological. When asked his opinions about contemporary American horrors in 1978, Michael Carreras proffered “I think once you’ve seen The Exorcist, you’ve seen them all.” Which is a bit much, coming from the head of a studio whose films were suffering a serious case of déjà vu. Although Carreras absolved himself on any blame for that, claiming the audience made him do it: “I must say that the fans were a little bit boring in the way they never accepted any slight deviations here and there in our films, they always really wanted the same picture that their elder brother or uncle had seen the year before remade for them.”  Even Dracula AD 1972, which placed Christopher Lee amongst the Chelsea flower-power set wigging out to “jazz spectaculars” at the Albert Hall, was a period piece, being at least five years out of date. 1972 was a year of mass industrial action, three day weeks and power cuts, which eventually resulted in the Heath government announcing a state of emergency. Meanwhile, some hippy entrepreneurs were turning away from free love to the free market. Richard Branson started the Virgin chain in 1972. None of this was suggested in Dracula AD 1972. When Hammer tried to tune in, the kids just turned off.

dracula ad 1972

Hammer moved from Down Place to Elstree in 1966, but it may as well have moved to a desert island, so out of touch it was from the rest of the world. The only news that seems to have reached it from the mainland was that the censorship laws had been relaxed about nudity. The full frontal assault at the start of Vampire Circus was the only indicator that this had been made in 1971, and not 1961, with its stale ingredients of blood-thirsty count, imposing castle, tremulous villagers and bountiful cleavage. The studio’s biggest success in the 70s was, in the venerable tradition of Hammer, a television spin-off, On The Buses. A sure sign that Michael Carreras had lost his vision was the news that Hammer was going to sign off with a big budget creature feature called Nessie, in which the monster somehow escapes Loch Ness, attacks an oil rig and, for co-production reasons only, swims to the seas around Japan, home of financial backers Toho Studios, where he eventually goes down with a fight. Unsurprisingly, Nessie was eventually grounded, and Hammer’s last hurrah was a superfluous re-make of The Lady Vanishes with fallen idols Elliot Gould and Cybill Shepherd.

nessie

lady vanishes

Down Place continued as a studio for hire into the 21st century, making amongst others, Rocky Horror Picture Show, exactly the kind of movie that Hammer should have been producing if it wanted to attract the demographic now known as replenishers, once known as young people. Hammer continued briefly after the last Carreras had left the building, with the remains of the management producing Hammer House Of Horror on television. The name subsequently passed through various hands, a brand without a product, a floating signifier, a duke without a duchy, until it was bought in 2007 by media mogul John De Mol, who has a track record in modern horror, being the father of Big Brother and other ghoulish television series. But at least this incarnation actually produced films rather than press releases, including Woman In Black, probably the first Hammer to make a sizeable profit since On The Buses forty years earlier.

on the buses

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2 thoughts on “BRAY – IT’S HAMMER TIME

  1. I am going to London again this year and saw all the ads for the Harry Potter studio tours. (not particularly interested) How I wish there was a tour of Hammer Studios. Loved these old school horror movies since I was a kid. I am well passed childhood now but still love them.

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