After Tweet of the Day, which is mainly about birds tweeting, comes Sounds Natural (26 May, 11am), which is mainly about natural sounds. BBC Radio 4 Extra pulled out an interview from 1972 with the Hammer Film actor Peter Cushing, who died in 1994 but would have turned 100 this May, in which he requests his favourite things from the BBC’s natural history archive – a kind of Desert Island Animal Noises.
Instead of “Having considered this very seriously, first I’d like Peter Pears doing a drag parody of Dame Joan Sutherland in the mad scene of Lucia di Lammermoor,” it was: “The curlew, please. How marvellous.” Cushing and his wife, Helen, were devoted to each other and the birds on and around the beach at Whitstable. He spoke about each creature very dreamily (“Ah, there’s the turtle dove in the background”) and told the story of once chasing a little turnstone for more than a mile and a half to help remove a painful fishing hook from its tongue. This from the actor who had recently completed The Blood Beast Terror, Torture Garden, The House That Dripped Blood and Incense for the Damned.
Just 59 at the time of the interview, Cushing sounded well over the edge of depressed. His wife had died the year before and yet he almost always spoke about her in the present tense and himself in the past. His was a life reduced to work, the lamplight and a book. I can’t remember hearing a well-known actor ever speaking so openly or sadly. “I get so homesick for her when I work. It becomes an absolute idée fixe– to get home. I just haveto get home.”
His keenness to let the clips do most of the talking was so touching. Never one to hog the screen or stomp about, the slim-backed Cushing – so minutely courteous on camera and yet always crucially fermenting something – asked George Lucas if he might be permitted to wear slippers when filming Star Wars. Grand Moff Tarkin’s jackboots pinched something dreadful. Slippers it was. They just filmed from the waist up. (But boy, in your head isn’t he wearing one hell of a pair of polished Wehrmacht knee-highs?)
“Oh, I do love the redshank,” says Cushing – again that tender, almost amorous voice. “He has such a beautiful song when he’s talking to himself and here he comes and I won’t interrupt, because he’s too beautiful. Oh, and here’s the call of the little tern . . . Oh.”