Jimmy Sangster

INTERVIEW JIMMY SANGSTER – production manager, writer, producer, director for the legendary British film studio Hammer.

Jimmy Sangster (1927-2011), was one of the first members of a company that eventually became the ultra-cult Hammer Studios in Great Britain. In fact, Jimmy Sangster, along with other of the company’s directors and actors, such as Terence Fischer and Christopher Lee to mention a few, became a cult figure himself.

The interview was recorded in 2006 at the Hammer Film Festival, the first festival organised by Les Films du Spectre, today’s organiser of the Strasbourg European Fantastic Film Festival.

It was conducted by Hammer expert Jean Pierre Berthomé, who, with Sangster, were our festival guests. You’ll find recommended reading on Hammer and more on Jean-Pierre Berthomé at the interview’s end.


Jean-Pierre Berthomé: Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get involved with Hammer Films? 

Jimmy Sangster: I was working on a movie produced by a guy called Mario Zampi from Exclusive Films[1]. Exclusive Films wanted to make a movie, but they didn’t have an outlet and Zampi disappeared with, I think, the money. So Hammer had to do it themselves. They took over the whole crew from the Mario Zampi picture and I was third assistant. The same day that I started with Hammer, Michael Carreras started too – he was the production accountant and we shot a Dick Barton movie, Dick Barton Strikes Back [1948]. Dick Barton was a radio detective series and the film starred Don Stannard.

We shot that and then suddenly they started shooting Man in Black [1949]. We shot the films in three or four weeks, outside London in a place called Cookham. There was a series of houses – the first was Cookham – that was near Maidenhead, and then we finally went to a place called Oakley Court, which was a big chateau on the banks of the river Thames, where we shot a lot of very cheap movies.[2]

Then Hammer signed a contract with a company in America with a guy called Robert Lippert, who started sending us over-the-hill Hollywood stars, a guy called George Brent, Paulette Goddard, Mary Chapman, Hillary Brooke, Dane Clark, Richard Carlson.

Berthomé: That was a way of getting American distribution.

Sangster: Yes exactly. Terry Fisher directed a couple; Ken Hughes directed some and they were quite fun. Then, I am not quite sure how – because I was involved in other things – I got to make The Quatermass Xperiment, which was based on a television series, and it was a huge success which surprised everybody. And then we thought we should do another science fiction thing right away.

Nigel Kneale didn’t want make a Quatermass 2 at that stage, so we were sitting around the office one day with Tony Hinds and Michael Carreras – I was a production manager then – and said what about a story where the monster or the threat doesn’t come from outer space, it comes from right here [indicating inside himself]. Tony Hinds said “fine, and what if we did so and so, and Michael came in with how about so and so, and Hinds, who was running the production company, agreed and told me to go away and write it. I told him I wasn’t a writer and that I was a production manager, and he said: “Write it, we’ll pay you. I order you to go and write it. If we like it, we’ll buy it and pay for it.”

And they made it. I was production manager. It was very rare to get the writer to be the production manager and it turned out to be a very unhappy experience. We had this switching in directors, a fugitive from the Un-American Activities Committee, so we had to go and get another director, a guy called Leslie Norman to come on the job because he was told to, but he made our lives a misery.[3] But he made quite a good movie.

Berthomé: We are talking about X the Unknown which was started with Joe Losey. You had already written a script for him, A Man on the Beach. It was very short, I believe.

Sangster: Yes. A Man on the Beach, very short, a half an hour maximum.

Berthomé: It was a three reeler.

Sangster: Yes, with Donald Wolfit.

Berthomé: What was the idea with those three reelers? You had no distribution prospect at all.

Sangster: No distribution at all. I have no idea. To this day I can’t remember. I can’t remember writing it and I really don’t know why I wrote it. I saw it the other day actually and it looked OK. Let’s face it, Joe Losey was a very good director, but why we made a 30-minute picture I don’t know. I don’t know what the release plan was or anything.

Berthomé: Yet, it’s strange and there seemed to be no chance of getting it distributed.

Sangster: I don’t know if ever did get distributed.

Berthomé: Did you work with Losey on X the Unknown?

Sangster: No, I didn’t. By that time he would have started working on the script I would have already left the picture. I wrote a picture for him later.

Berthomé: Which means that in fact you prepared the script with the producer rather than the director.

Sangster: Yes, that was Hammer in those days. The director was not involved in pre-production.

Berthomé: Does that mean that the director would ask for any necessary changes much later?

Sangster: Yes, as long as the changes were not too big. We had a lot of very well-behaved directors. “Here’s the script, that’s the schedule, now go away and shoot it.”

Berthomé: Apparently you worked uncredited on Losey’s The Criminal.

Sangster: Yes, I wrote it.

Berthomé: Really? You wrote it?

Sangster: Yes, it was an original story of mine. I was very silly and it was my own fault. I wrote it, I delivered it and everybody said they were happy with it. It wasn’t Hammer; I can’t remember what company it was. And then four or five months later I read an announcement in the trade press about The Criminal by Alun Owen and Jimmy Sangster. I called and said “who in the hell is Allan Owen” and they told me that Joe Losey had wanted another writer. I said “yes, but you didn’t say anything, you didn’t tell me,” and I got so angry I said: “Take my name off of it, take it off!”. So they took my name off it. It was my own stupidity.

Berthomé: The film was quite successful and it got quite good reviews.

Jimmy: It was a good movie.

Berthomé: Was it faithful to your script?

Sangster: Very.

Berthomé: Patrick Magee was super in it.

Sangster: It was a silly mistake when I told them that they hadn’t told me and I did not want my name on it. I was like that in those days.

Berthomé: I’d like to go back to the beginning. How did you get into cinema? Where did you start? Were you born into the business?

Sangster: No, but I was a huge film fan when I was 10 or 11 and I just knew I was going to be in the movies. I just knew it somehow. My first chance came when I was 15. I got a job as a projectionist. It was easy in those days because everyone was off at the war. I got a job as a projectionist and got fired. Then I got a job as a camera assistant and I got fired from that one too.

Berthomé: In London?

Sangster: Yes, and then I got a job with a writer-director called John Paddy Carstairs. He took a shine to me. I was assistant on a documentary we were making on the Navy, and he was in the Navy and a liaison officer on the set. He knew I got the sack, so he said: “I’ll get you a job at Ealing if you like”, so he got me a job as a third assistant at Ealing.

Berthomé: When was that?

Sangster: I was 17, so it must have … you work it out; the war was still on. At Ealing, the first film I worked on was called Pink String and Ceiling Wax with Googie Withers, directed by Robert Hamer. I was about to start on a third one but I got called up and off and went into the Air Force for the next two years. I was very cross; I knew everyone was coming out of the army and taking all of the jobs and that I would have terrible trouble getting one myself. But I got lucky. I got the Mario Zampi job as soon as I got out which led to the Hammer thing.

Berthomé: In fact, you were not a script writer at Hammer.

Sangster: No, not for 10 years.

Berthomé: You were a production assistant.

Sangster: First of all, I was third assistant, second assistant, then first assistant.

Berthomé: To production or direction?

Sangster: To direction, on the set all of the time. Then I became production manager which I didn’t like. I like being on the set and production manager is in the office. I was production manager for five movies, then I started writing and while I was writing, I wrote X the Unknown. And somebody saw it and the Warwick production company called me and I took the job. I was still production manager at Hammer and one day I was sitting in the office – we were between productions and there wasn’t much going on – writing away on The Day of the Triffids, when Michael Carreras came in. I was like a little school boy who had been caught cheating, and was shovelling paper and pencil into the desk drawer. He asked me what I was doing and I told him I was writing a script for Warwick. “What! You’re working for me; you’ve got to make up your mind. Do you want to be a writer or do you want to stay in production?” was his reply.

I told him I wanted to be a writer, but that I had a new baby and had bought a new house and needed a weekly salary which I was getting at the time – 35 pounds a week – and that was enough to live on. I explained that I couldn’t give up a regular salary. Carreras then told me that he would guarantee me one script a year for the next three years. “How much?”, I said. When he told me that he would pay 750 pounds each, I realised I could live on that much money, even with a brand-new house and a new baby. So I said fine and became a writer and left Hammer’s regular payroll. And for the first six months I didn’t sell a thing, nothing. Not one thing. Nothing! I’d never stopped writing, and I didn’t sell a thing. And the same day that I was going to go to Michael and ask for my job back as production manager, I got a letter from a television company. I had sent them a script months before and had forgotten about it. […]

Berthomé: Then you came back to Hammer as a script writer?

Sangster: Yes, but purely on a free-lance basis. All the time I was writing these Hammer films, Frankenstein and Dracula and things like that, I was also writing other stuff as well.

Berthomé: What sort of scripts were you writing?

Sangster: Well, I wrote for other companies, I wrote for a company called Tempean, a thing called The Trollenberg Terror, which I think they called The Crawling Eye, and I wrote The Siege of Sidney Street, in which I played the part of Mr Churchill.

Berthomé: Really? Young Churchill, I hope …

Sangster: Yes, young Mr. Churchill; we shot it all in Dublin, I remember. And I wrote the Blood of the Vampire for Tempean, and I wrote the Hellfire Club, which was for a company called New World Productions, also for Bob Baker and Monty Berman.[4] With Bob and Monty we used to call those movies “tits and swords”. I think I wrote a couple more for them, but I can’t remember what they were called. I made about seven movies for them, at the same time I also wrote the very first episode of The Saint, the television series.

Berthomé: The Hellfire Club was one of those films where they did different versions for different countries.

Sangster: Did they?

Berthomé: More tits or less tits.

Sangster: Yes, “the Japanese version”, they used to call it. And at the same time as I worked for Warwick, I did another script for them, I think. The script for The Day of the Triffids never worked. They just didn’t make it. They made it much later on.

Berthomé: They made it a few years later, with …

Sangster: … Howard Keel. And by then I’d written five Gothic horrors, two Frankensteins, two Draculas and the Mummy. I went to the movies twice in the same week and saw Les Diaboliques and Psycho and thought: “Hey, I can do that.” So I decided I was going to change directions. I wrote speculative script – a spec script.

Berthomé: What do you mean by “spec script”?

Sangster: I mean I wrote it, but nobody had ordered it. It was the first thing I had written that nobody had ordered. It had no buyer. I took it to a couple of people, and sold it to one of them. I was going to produce it and it was going to be directed by John Gilling. The producer was Sydney Box. But he had a heart attack and the company was taken over by his brother in law, Peter Rodgers, who made all of the “Carry on” movies, but he didn’t want to make this movie. So I said I’ll buy it back and I rushed around trying to sell it to Baker and Berman but they didn’t want it either because I insisted on producing it.

Berthomé: They were their own producers, in fact.

Sangster: So then I took it to Michael Carreras, who loved it and was OK with my producing it. I wanted to get back on the set and inside the studio. Michael took the script around – we were working for Columbia at the time and Hammer were making films for them – and showed it to a guy called Mike Frankovich, who was running Columbia in the UK and told him that I wanted to produce it. Frankovich pointed out that I hadn’t ever produced anything and Michael told him not to worry, that he’d be sitting on my back the whole time and that was it. I became a producer. After that I made a whole bunch of psycho-type pictures – Maniac, Paranoiac, Nightmare, you name it I made it. And it was a lot of fun. That was where I met Freddie Francis the first time, and then, what then? I went to America.

Berthomé: Then you became a director.

Sangster: No, that was after.

Berthomé: You did Frankenstein.

The first time I went to America, I sold a script and made two films for Movie of the Week; they were the first two movies that ABC America television made of my novels. I made them at Pinewood Studios.[5] They were about a rather downbeat private eye who used to work for MI5, and the scripts were quite good. Trevor Howard agreed to play the private eye and Laurence Olivier said he would play the head of MI5. He had about five scenes and off I went to America. They loved the scripts, but they said “Trevor who? Trevor Howard. Wasn’t he that guy in the train station saying goodbye to that woman all the time”, and I said I’ve got Laurence Olivier, to which they replied that they would cast it themselves and sent me Robert Horton. He was a dear man, straight out of a cowboy series, but Jill St John was going to be in the picture and Sebastian Cabot was to play the Laurence Olivier part. They turned out to be pretty disastrous, but they were the first two movies in Movie of the Week and that sort of got me into America.

I sold a storyline to Aaron Spelling, who was big time even then. It was all cast and I happened to be out on something else and my agent called me and told me that Aaron Spelling had called him last night to say that he couldn’t sleep and that he had turned the television on and watched a movie called a Taste of Fear, which was very similar to the script that I had just sold him. I said it wasn’t similar; it was exactly the same script. But I changed the title and they made it with Barbara Stanwyck. Then I came back to England and got my first directing job: Horror of Frankenstein [1970].

Berthomé: It was very violent.

Sangster: Was it? It was supposed to be very funny. I tried to make it funny. But that was the problem, people didn’t laugh. But I had the most wonderful time directing, and I met my best mate. He was in both of them and we had a wonderful time.[6] But they were terrible movies. I was a very bad director. Very bad. I loved doing it but I wasn’t very good. Trouble is when you are writer, director or producer, it’s like being God. Nobody can argue with you or tell you when you are making a mistake. And you do make mistakes. And if you make a mistake, you have the producer to tell you that maybe you shouldn’t do that, but I didn’t have anyone to do that because I was the producer, so I made a terrible mess of those movies.

Sangster: And then I got a job, the first big job I got in America, with a fellow called William Castle. He used to make horror films.

Berthomé: Oh yes, he made The Tingler…

Sangster: And he got a contract to make a series for CBS I believe, called Ghost Story, and asked for me to be his story consultant. I had my agent calling me to tell me that they wanted me to be a story consultant at Columbia. I said “what’s a story consultant?” and he told me it was a script editor, and I said “what’s a script editor? He said you get the scripts for the series. I said I had never worked for television and asked him what the money was like. He said it was good so I said I’d take it as long as I could get a contract to direct three of the episodes. That was fine with them so I went to Hollywood with a 13-week contract with an option. If they liked me, I could stay, and since they liked me, I stayed for a whole year on the series. They called me in one day and told me I had another five episodes to shoot and I had better decide which ones I wanted to direct. I was so very deeply involved in the series; the pressure and mechanisms of directing TV series episodes was so terrifying that I told them that I no longer wanted to direct. All I did was direct what they called the book ends of the show.

Berthomé: Yes, the first and the last …

Sangster: … and that was it. By the time we finished I had got an American wife, an American house, a Bentley and I was very happy. Also, as a script editor you employ writers to write your scripts for you, and the writers I employed in turn became script editors on other series, and they would ask me to do something, and so there were about 20 of us writing. There were dozens of one-hour shows in those days, and about 25 one-hour-dramas – Wonder Woman, The Million Dollar Man, McCloud, dozens of them and they paid very well. I could write four at a time. It was a wonderful time. I used to sneak in a couple of movies and even wrote one which John Huston directed.

Berthomé: Really?

Sangster: Called Psycho

Berthomé: Oh yes …Phobia.

Sangster: I never saw it.

Berthomé: You’d better not.

Sangster: And then I just decided, I didn’t decide to, I came back to England …

Berthomé: At the end of the 1970s because Phobia was then.

Sangster: I spent 14 years in America basically.

Berthomé: But it was sort of like work in a factory.

Sangster: Yes absolutely. I remember that I met some sort of guy working on a series called Movin’ On. It was never shown over here. It was about two truck drivers working down south – it was a very good show. Claude Akins was the star and this producer wanted to get the job to make the series, but he didn’t have a script editor. One night at a party he was speaking to the guy who had employed me on Ghost Story and this guy, Joe Roberts, said “well there is this English guy called Jimmy Sangster that is good on the job” and the other one said, “yes but he’s English”. And the other said “well do you want somebody who knows something about truck driving down South or somebody who knows about writing”, and he said writing, so I got the job and I stayed another three years. And we made another three shows.

In the end, I was producing a show called Young Dan’l Boone down in Knoxville. That was funny too. We made the Movin’ On series of 18 episodes, of which I wrote 14 of them. It was easier to write them myself than to tell somebody else how to do it. Ernie always said that I was the highest paid writer in Hollywood. I worked very hard and I enjoyed every moment of it.

Berthomé: Let’s go back to the Hammer days. Back to the nucleus. How comes you were chosen to write Curse of Frankenstein (1956), the film that started the Hammer revival of horror classics?

Sangster: Well, I was there, I had written for them before, so they said let Jimmy Sangster write it and Sangster wrote it. They knew I knew how to write a script; I had written X the Unknown.

Berthomé: Did you know from the beginning that it would be in colour?

Sangster: Yes, I did, and that was very important. We had arguments with Universal. They told us that we couldn’t make a Frankenstein film and we told them we could because it was n the public domain. Then they said we couldn’t have a monster that looked like Boris Karloff, so we said fine and we made a different monster. Actually, they were quite angry with us …

Berthomé: … which was resolved later when Hammer concluded an agreement with Universal.

Sangster: Yes, so I wrote that and then Dracula came along.

Berthomé: In the 1931 American version of Frankenstein, the setting of the original story is quite modernised. Why did you decide to reframe the story in the past, not go back to Mary Shelley’s time, but to some period in-between, rather Victorian? Why was that? Hammer had never made a costume film before; their films were all modern. The idea of going back to the past was an important one.

Sangster: What period was the Mary Shelley?

Berthomé: It would be early 19th century whereas your version is set some 60 years later.

Sangster: Well, it was much prettier, the clothes were prettier. The period was never a problem. You could take any story and put it in any period at all.

Berthomé: Yes, but my point is that it takes place in a time when people believed in science, and the main point with your Dr Frankenstein is that somewhere he is right. He may fail ultimately, but he’s right whereas in the American film he is a failure.

Sangster: I don’t know, I never saw any of the American films.

Berthomé: What I like in your approach is that that Frankenstein, your Baron Frankenstein, is aware of what he is doing.

Sangster: But he is the villain. That the point. The monster is never the villain. The monster can’t help it. Frankenstein is the villain. Which comes out more in the second Frankenstein, I think. I haven’t seen it for a long time.

Berthomé: It is very good. Your Frankenstein is much closer to another family of villains, which are the great criminals and masters of the world, and which are quite different from Mary Shelley’s conception of Frankenstein as a modern Prometheus. Yours is more interesting or at least interesting in a different way. How much of the original story did you use?

Sangster: Very little. Once you’ve read the story and have got the basic storyline, you don’t need to go back to the book.

Berthomé: In fact, the events are quite complex.

Sangster: You know the most important thing is to read the book and know the story. Then you’ve got to tell it in 120 pages so you just forget the book. You’ve got your storyline and you just tell that the best you can in the time you’ve got. You’ve got 1 hour and a half to do it in.

Berthomé: Did you start out assuming that the part would be played by Peter Cushing?

Sangster: No, I started without knowing who was going to be doing anything. You’ve got your script; you set it up; you get the money, and then you cast it and get a director.

Berthomé: Yes, but casting someone like Peter Cushing, who was not a young man while, in fact, Baron Frankenstein was a young man in the book and in the American film too. In your film, you’ve given him some substance.

Sangster:  I am not quite sure what the question is.

Berthomé: I mean that having a middle-aged man play the part was quite important.

Sangster: Yes, but we made him young to start with. I don’t even know the name of the actor who played him young. But yes, he was middle-aged. What was he supposed to be, about 30 something?

Berthomé: Yes, 30 then, but he was much surer of himself, which is very important for the character. Usually in other films he comes on screen as some sort of illuminated type, and in yours, he’s very straight on. He knows what he is doing and wants to do it. Which I find to be quite a radical change for that time and a very important one. And probably even more so in The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958) which followed.

Sangster: The second one was my story. I honestly can’t remember much. All I can remember is his cheating the guillotine at the beginning and his going to London and having his nameplate “Frankenstein, Dr” and that’s all I can remember about it. I can’t remember what the monster is like and I saw it only once about 50 years ago.

Berthomé: One of the things I like in those first two films is that Baron Frankenstein is right and he is successful. It is not his fault that that the creature degenerates; it’s because of some outside accident which means that even if he is a villain, as you keep saying …

Sangster: (interrupts) …. yes, it’s an accident that somebody bashes the brain.

Berthomé: That means you made a very important contribution, which is significant.

Sangster: Good.

Berthomé: And then, again, I think it’s very important that in Shelley’s novel and in the first James Whale film the events are triggered by electricity and lightning whereas in your film chemistry is much more important.

Sangster: That was because of Bernie Robinson, the art director.

Berthomé: It makes for better colour but it is also a more scientific approach. Frankenstein is no longer defying the Gods by stealing the force of their lightning; he is just experimenting in his lab with brightly-coloured chemical solutions

Let’s move on to Dracula then. Obviously, the idea was to start exploring the big monsters. Then Hammer signed an agreement with Universal which meant that they could use the previous films. Did the fact that you were working with Universal change your approach?

Sangster: No, I never saw the Dracula films; I read the book and I wrote the script. I never saw a Dracula film before. I have seen them subsequently wandering around television, but I had never seen one before. I read the book and I thought it would be quite a big job to try and cut down from 400 pages. So as I said before, you take out the essential story and you try to tell that. There were the same restrictions. I was told I couldn’t have a boat at night, so there was no way I could bring him to England, so I just had him go across the border with Michael Ripper. It was just sort of trimming it down and telling the story.

Berthomé: Yes, there were some significant choices made. Doing away with cobwebs and all that dusty paraphernalia to have a very sparse interior.

Sangster: Yes, it was a very good interior. “Hello I’m Count Dracula, Hello, have a good evening.”

Berthomé: Yes, it was not a pleasant setting but it obviously…

Sangster: … worked.

Berthomé: Yes, it worked. But at the same time, you realise that its absolutely unrealistic, those arches cut out of nothing, and it’s also very decorative and very efficient, and looks as if it’s an illustration. I don’t know if you agree, but I think that Bernard Robinson played a very important role in defining the style.

Jimmy Sangster: He did.

Berthomé: What about Michael Ripper? You were talking about him. Hammer films seemed to have some sort of stable stock of character actors.

Sangster: Yes, Michael Ripper, George Woodbridge and there was one called John Harvey, all friends of Tony Hinds, basically. Very reliable people. And if you wanted a small part of one or two days, it was always good to be able to call somebody who looked right, and who was going to be reliable, efficient, know their lines and not trip over the furniture. George Woodbridge was always the local landlord of the tavern and Michael Ripper, the grave digger.

Berthomé: They became part of the Hammer style. You went to a Hammer film and you knew you would see familiar faces.

Sangster: Yes, absolutely.

Berthomé: Did you have them in mind for the parts; I mean there was probably no need to have them in mind because they would pop up.

Sangster: I didn’t have them in mind because I had nothing to do with the productions. I would do the script and if I were lucky, they would send me a ticket to see it six months later.

Berthomé: You had nothing to do with production?

Sangster: Not once since I started writing Frankenstein. The last picture where I was involved in production was X the Unknown, for which I was production manager. After that I became a writer and didn’t go back to production until I started producing, which was 10 years later.

Berthomé: Speaking about that time when you were a line producer, at Bray I think, what were the commodities for filming at Bray at that time?

Sangster: When we first moved there, we were in this place called Oakley Court, which was a big old house where we shot many pictures. Next door was this place called Down Place. It was a great big rambling house that was falling to pieces and the owners lived in just one little tiny wing.

Berthomé: So it was absolutely unused.

Sangster: Yes, except this one corner where the owners lived. We decided we would move there because we couldn’t build sets in Oakley Court, which was a mostly furnished place, so we went to Down Place where at least we could put sets up in the big rooms and things. We went there for all the Gothics. For two or three movies, we sort of worked in the house, and then we built a stage, and then another stage, and then there were three or four stages there, I believe.

Berthomé: Outside the house.

Sangster: Yes.

Berthomé: Were these soundproof stages?

Jimmy Sangster: Oh yes, they were soundproof.

Berthomé: I suppose that being a few dozen miles from London meant that you had a canteen, commodities, etc. on location. You were a self-contained unit.

Sangster: Yes, we ran the crew down by bus everyday from London. And that was where we made the films until we had a partnership with ABC and had to go to Earl Street to shoot stuff. Much better.

Berthomé: After that, you were much less involved in the production, but did Hammer at Bray Studios have a reserve of sets and costumes to be used?

Jimmy Sangster: Oh no, costumes were always rented.

Berthomé: There was a lot of reuse.

Sangster: Yes, before we went to Earl Street we were in Down Place, where we built stages when we were shooting just in the house. You know, there was a living room set and you would just sort of move or change the furniture from picture to picture, that sort of thing.

Berthomé: When you were doing Blood of the Vampire, which was not a Hammer film, did you feel that different things were expected of you? It was a vampire film, it was a … no, it was not really a vampire film … it was different.

Sangster: Yeah. I don’t know; I can’t even remember what the basis of it was. I liked working with Monty Berman and Bob and they liked working with me. They asked me if I wanted to do a vampire film and said yeah fine but I can’t remember whether it was my idea or theirs.

Berthomé: But you were known as a successful vampire writer.

Sangster: Oh yes, but I was known as a successful writer from their point of view. I wasn’t going to write anything that was too expensive to be made. I did about five movies for them.

Berthomé: Yes, you did Hellfire Club.

Sangster: Yes, The Siege of Sidney Street and The Trollenberg Terror was theirs.

Berthomé: Which one?

Sangster: The Trollenberg Terror or The Crawling Eye. That was the first one I did for them.

Berthomé: You were not involved in The Gilded Cage which was made by John Gilling, and which was quite good for them. So after Dracula, what about The Mummy? It seems strange. It must have been one of the most difficult scripts to write; you had the basic idea about the guy, but what …

Sangster: Why was it difficult to write?

Berthomé: Because the Mummy itself is very spectacular but somewhere you must explain where it comes from, and it becomes a different film.

Sangster: I am not quite sure what you are getting at.

Berthomé: My point is that for the Mummy to be really interesting, you must know where it comes from and why? What I want to know is how you created the part of the film that tells the story of the Mummy’s past.

Sangster: How did I write it?

Berthomé: How did you research it?

Jimmy Sangster: (sighs, pauses) I don’t know. They asked me if I wanted to write the Mummy, and I said yes, I would. I had to write a story about the Mummy so I just wrote the story about the Mummy. It’s like most of these pictures; you’ve got to write a script about Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy that can be told in 90 minutes and doesn’t cost too much money. That’s what I did.

Berthomé: But I was thinking …

Jimmy Sangster: I did no research. I did none at all. Anything that needed research, I wouldn’t do.

Berthomé: Because the American original film of 1932 was very much influenced by the story of Lord Carnavon, the financial backer of the 1922 expedition to the Valley of the Kings who died with several others and gave rise to the alleged curse of Tutankhamun.

Sangster: I must have seen that movie:

Berthomé: In fact, yours was much more of a love story for the mummy. Which again is quite different from the original story and quite an interesting one.

Sangster: Good!

Berthomé: To finish, I want to ask you about that series of films you’ve already mentioned that you did at the beginning of the 1960s, Maniac. They were obvious rip offs in the same vein as Psycho. Did this just happen, or was it a deliberate move to stop making vampire films? Was the idea to do new things and find different subjects?

Sangster: Yes, I wrote five of them. When I saw Les Diaboliques and Psycho the same week I said to myself that I could do that, and it looked like a lot of fun. I was done with the Gothics and I didn’t want to do them anymore so I started doing other things. It was as simple as that. If I had not been successful, I would probably have gone back to the Gothics, but I didn’t have to. I never read another Gothic. And they went downhill after that.

Berthomé: That was the time that the Italians started to make some quite cheap and gory Gothics of their own, which were imported to England, so there must have been some sort of competition.

Sangster: I don’t know. I wasn’t working for Hammer at that time, except on an individual basis. I would take them a script and tell them I wanted to produce it and they would say fine, go and produce it.

Berthomé: So you were not aware of that. But weren’t you thinking of going to the States at that time? You were asked to.

Sangster: No. I was asked to by William Castle because he had made a movie at Hammer, but I can’t remember what it was. It was made at Bray Studios, called The Old Dark House [1963]. I was his assistant director. He just knew me and liked me and I was reasonably reliable, so he asked me to come to America, which I did.

Berthomé: What was he like as a director?

Sangster: He was great; you saw Matinee, the movie Joe Dante made about him? with John Goodman playing his character in the film.

Berthomé: He was quite a showman.

Sangster: He was into exploitation movies.

Berthomé: He was very well known for his gimmicks.

Sangster: And he was a very efficient movie maker and there were a couple of his films that were far more successful than he thought they were going to be. One with Vincent Price. There was ….

Berthomé: … He made The Tingler

Sangster: No, it was another one. He was a successful movie maker for that type of movie. And he was a very nice man. And I enjoyed working for him.

Berthomé: And what about Terence Fisher? You worked with him when you were a line producer.

Sangster: I was assistant director with him on about three movies, and he was a joy to work with. I don’t think I ever worked with him as a producer. He didn’t direct anything that I produced.

Berthomé: What I find with Fisher is that his directing is unusually elegant with those long tracking shots that he loved. That was very unusual because in cheap films you can’t afford long shots because there is the problem of lighting and it takes time.

Sangster: He was a dear man. He was very gentle and good with the actors.

Berthomé: Was he very exacting with the scripts? Did he ask for changes?

Sangster: No, if he wanted a change, he would do it himself. Little changes. They never made major changes.

Berthomé: But if they did, would they consult with you?

Sangster: They might have done. I mean I was always there, but they were perfectly capable of making their own changes, Michael Carreras was there, the director was there and they could make their changes. They didn’t need to get me in.

Berthomé: And were you in a position to object if they did?

Sangster: No. I’ve said this so many times. When you write a script and when you sell a script, this is my advice to young writers. I’ve written a book on the technique of screen writing. Everybody’s going to mess with your script, the director, the producer, the actors. Don’t worry about it because if you do, you’ll get sick worrying about it. They bought it; they own it; its theirs. You’ve got your money and as long as you’ve got your money, forget it, go on to the next thing. It’s theirs and they can do what they like with it.

Now if you’re Tom Stoppard or Harold Pinter then they’ll be frightened to mess with it and they would call and ask, but they wouldn’t do this for an ordinary script. They might change a line difficult to say because the actor couldn’t say it going up the stairs. Then they would change it.

Berthomé: What about the actors? We are talking about Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, who became stars because of Hammer. Were they people to ask for changes in the script or in the lines?

Sangster: No. Or maybe Peter might make a speech and then say that it was a bit difficult to say and ask “can I say it like this?” All actors do that anyway.

Berthomé: You didn’t work with Christopher Lee afterwards, but you did with Peter Cushing.

Sangster: I worked with Peter Cushing and directed him in Fear in the Night. He did exactly what he was told. Delighted to do it.

Berthomé: The fact that he was a sort of minor star didn’t …

Sangster: … No no no.

Berthomé: You get the feeling from the outside that Cushing was a no-nonsense person and quite professional whereas Christopher Lee was much more flamboyant.

Sangster: Well, it was only because the parts were much more flamboyant. I mean they were both professional actors; they knew their lines and they didn’t trip over the furniture.

Berthomé: One last thing, can you explain what you call the Japanese versions?

Sangster: Well, you know that in a lot of pictures and in a lot of the shots, the woman clutches her hands over her bosom and we would shoot say: “Cut and print. Now we’ll do the Japanese versions.” We would do exactly the same shot except we would show the tits. I think there was a French version as well. I think, but I’m not sure, but we used to call it the Japanese version.

Berthomé: But we knew that Horror of Frankenstein

Sangster: (interrupts) … except later, later when Hammer started to go downhill you just had to show tits all the time and you didn’t have Japanese versions, you had just a dirty movie version.

Berthomé: I know that for Horror of Frankenstein the version I saw in London was different from the one I saw in Paris.

Sangster: Was it? Horror of Frankenstein? (amazed) How was it different?

Berthomé: More exposure.

Sangster: In Horror of Frankenstein? What Frankenstein was it? The first one?

Berthomé: No, the one with Ralph Bates. I saw it in London and I went to Elstree to meet the people there and saw Horror of Frankenstein all at the same time. You said it was a matter of exposing bosoms, but wasn’t it also a matter of blood and guts?

Sangster: (pause) Not that I can remember. It was a matter of showing the tits or not showing the tits. I can’t remember anything about the blood. (Pauses.) Maybe, maybe, but you see once again I have to keep on saying that this was 55 years ago.

Berthomé: And it is also quite possible that things happened in the editing room that you were not aware of.

Sangster: Absolutely, yes indeed.


About Jean-Pierre Berthomé

Jean-Pierre Berthomé taught at the cinema department of the University of Rennes, where he was specialised in cinema décor. He has developed several teaching modules that are used at Femis, France’s prestigious national cinema school, and has worked with many of France’s outstanding directors. Among his publications are essays about Jacques Demy, Orson Welles, Alexandre Trauner or Max Ophuls as well as several books about art direction in cinema. He’s also a contributor to the French cinema magazine Positif.

Recommended reading: Nicolas Stanzick’s definitive in-depth study of Hammer Studios, Dans les Griffes de la Hammer, published by Le Bord de l’Eau, 2010. In French.

No part of this interview should be reproduced without permission from Les Films du Spectre. Please contact: Daniel Cohen at daniel.cohen@strasbrougfestival.com or Consuelo DeChoudens-Holtzer at consuelo.holtzer@gmail.com.

[1]. Exclusive Films was a distribution company which released the films produced by both Zampi and Hammer.

[2]. Beginning in 1951 Hammer films settled in Oakley Court, Berkshire, where it went on to create Bray studios, where they filmed until 1966.

[3]. X the Unknown (1956) was to be directed by Joseph Losey, but the American lead actor Dean Jagger refused to work with a blacklisted director, so Losey was abruptly dismissed and replaced by Leslie Norman.

[4]. From 1948 to 1965, Robert S. Baker and Monty Berman produced and sometimes codirected, with Berman acting as cinematographer, some 50 low-budget films, mainly for Tempean Films.

[5]. The Spy Killer (1969) and Foreign Exchange (1970).

[6]. Sangster is most likely alluding to Ralph Bates, who played the lead in Horror of Frankenstein (1969) and Lust For a Vampire (1971).