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12 December 2013

Rerun of the living dead: Christopher Lee’s Fireside Tales

Five nights of Lee's grim tales is not nearly enough.

By Antonia Quirke

Christopher Lee’s Fireside Tales
BBC Radio 4 Extra

Five nights of Christopher Lee’s Fireside Tales (repeated throughout late December, various times) will not be nearly enough. Let’s have 50. Let’s have 365! The actor reads classic 15-minute chillers such as W W Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw” and Jerome K Jerome’s “Man of Science”, but is never better, never more Lee, than when delivering Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Black Cat”.

It’s a story hideous in its cruelty – about a sadist who gouges the eye from his adoring pet cat Pluto – and Lee speaks with his usual, irrevocable seriousness and speed, making no more a meal of sentences like “mad I am not and tomorrow I die” than someone reading from a train timetable.

Because of the whole Hammer Horror studio aesthetic – the Wagnerian soundtracks, the theatre-of-the-absurd dripping of bright blood on plump, moon-pale necks – Lee has a lingering reputation for ham that is completely unfounded. In fact, for Hammer Lee gave one of the greatest performances in British film. His Dracula glides up and down the stairs of his castle in a full-length cape that – miraculously – no more impedes his progress than if it were a bespoke suit from Savile Row worn by a star surgeon moving irritatedly from ward to ward followed by gasping nurses.

As the count, he is entirely grave and uncynical. Now 91 and about to appear in his 205th movie (as Saruman in part 2 of The Hobbit) these too-brief and also entirely unwinking readings could not be delivered so well by another actor on the planet. Nobody else could say “violence to life” and “goaded into a rage more than demoniacal” with such appalling sincerity and calm.

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I thought of him at a Radio 3 recording of a service for Advent from St John’s College in Cambridge on Sunday. Before the recording began, a verger reminded the congregation that this was being broadcast and therefore please to ignore the rather bizarre fizzing and smoking of flies and moths as they flew into the bright lights of the sound desk.

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“Do not cry fire if you see the smoke!” warned the man. And then added with a small smile; “although you are permitted, of course, to mourn the passing of the insect privately.” Ah, how much better would Lee have been at delivering that final line. No smile, no wink. No mercy.