Hammer’s greatest star: Michael Ripper
|FEATURES - MOVIES|
The reluctant actor who became the most familiar face of British horror... whether you knew the name or not.
Forget Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee! There was one actor who truly epitomised classic Hammer horror, and that was the irreplaceable Michael Ripper. With a whopping 23 films to his name, he was to Hammer what Desmond Llewellyn was to James Bond.
Michael Ripper was born in Portsmouth on 27 January 1913. His father Harold was a civil servant who ran a local amateur dramatic company and taught elocution and speech therapy, his mother Edith worked as a teacher. Ripper had a very unhappy Victorian childhood; his dominant father was very much a stern disciplinarian.
A pupil of Portsmouth Grammar School, which he hated, Ripper was more or less pushed into acting by his father, who entered him in various poetry competitions. A close family friend and regular visitor to their Southsea home was the brilliant comic actor Alastair Sim.
Though he initially Ripper never wanted to be an actor, Ripper was eventually persuaded by his school doctor to take it up both as a long-term career and a means of escaping his unhappy home life. He was 16 when he won a scholarship at the Central School of Speech Training and Dramatic Arts based at the Royal Albert Hall in London.
After his very happy spell at drama school, Ripper worked in various repertory theatres but struggled for a while despite his extensive classical training. In 1934 he married dance teacher Jean Bramley.
In 1935 Ripper joined the Cambridge Festival Theatre. A chance meeting with Alastair Sim on his return to London led to an introduction to the George Smith Enterprises at Walton Studios – and his film debut in Twice Branded (1935). Ripper made 29 films for the company, usually playing a small-time crook or policeman. For financial reasons he also worked as production manager and assistant director; his first love always remained the stage.
Ripper regularly performed at the Festival Theatre. A principal member of the Seagull Players in Leeds, he starred in several major productions including the lead in Macbeth. The Players disbanded following the death of King George V when all theatres closed in remembrance.
Returning to George Smith Enterprises in 1936 for film work, Ripper was stage manager for the Arts Theatre production of Rich Man Poor Man. He was forced to turn down an offer from the Old Vic because the salary wasn’t enough to support his wife and baby daughter. Now an assistant director for George Smith, Ripper received offers from RKO, Columbia and 20th Century Fox to direct some of their British-based films but, not being interested in going behind the cameras, he turned them all down. Ripper was due to take up the permanent position of unit manager for George Smith when Equity informed him that he had to choose between acting or technical work. When British film production slumped in 1938, he returned to the theatre.
A chance meeting with old friends Jean Anderson and Peter Powell led to an offer from Lord Longford to work at Dublin’s prestigious Gate Theatre. Ripper’s time in Ireland was beneficial. He played a variety of Shakespearian roles and quickly graduated to star status as Hamlet.
With Britain declaring War on Germany, Ripper approached the British Embassy in Dublin to enquire whether he should return to England and enlist. The Embassy told him to remain at the Gate until further notice.
Ripper spent eight wonderful years at the Gate but with his 13-year marriage coming to an end, he returned to England. Within a few months he met his future partner, Irish actress Catherine Finn. From 1947 he was a regular fixture in British films that included his Hammer debut The Dark Road (1947). He continued his theatre work and began making early TV appearances.
Ripper’s first involvement with the horror genre was on stage in the 1948 Westminster Theatre production of The Anatomist, an adaptation of the famous Burke and Hare story with Alistair Sim as Dr Knox and Ripper as Willie Hare; they repeated their roles in the 1949 TV version. Both the play and Sim’s performance were met with negative reviews although Ripper was singled out for most of the praise. Upset by the critical reaction, Sim never hired Ripper again.
Ripper finally got a leading role opposite Robert Montgomery in Your Witness (1950), a major British-made Hollywood film. Both actors became firm friends and Montgomery was so impressed by his co-star’s performance, he wanted to use him in future films. Sadly Your Witness was a box office flop. Needless to say Montgomery was still keen to use Ripper and invited him over to Hollywood where he could star in several major films. Not wanting to leave the UK, Ripper turned down the offer, and the possible movie stardom that came with it.
In 1952 Ripper was rushed to hospital for a serious thyroid and throat operation. This left him with vocal problems that more or less finished his stage career. From then on he worked exclusively in film and television.
When Hammer revived the gothic horror film in the late 1950s, Ripper’s friendship with producer Anthony Hinds began his long and happy association with the company. After a good supporting role in Quatermass II (1957), he became Hammer’s most familiar face, playing poachers, gravediggers, drunks, innkeepers and policemen. His appearances were often tiny but they always left a lasting impression; his comic poacher in The Mummy (1959) and old town drunk in Curse of the Werewolf (1961) are unforgettably well-etched characterisations.
With Hammer in full swing, more rewarding roles followed. When given a part with some substance, he easily carried the film. One of his finest performances was Mipps the undertaker in Captain Clegg (1962). The part called for a great deal of dapper sarcasm which Ripper delivers brilliantly; he even does the impossible by acting Peter Cushing off the screen!
Ripper was Hammer’s comic relief; his bulging, expressive eyes and round, jovial face were ideally suited to humorous roles. When called upon to show a more serious side, his features could be quite deadly, a factor prominent in his excellent performance as the vicious pirate Mac in The Pirates of Blood River (1962). Other brilliant Hammer performances included Tom Bailey the suspicious innkeeper in the 1966 outing The Reptile (which was filmed back-to-back with Hammer's Plague Of The Zombies, where Ripper played the town constable in a zombie-strewn Cornish village) and his own personal favourite, Longbarrow the downtrodden toady in The Mummy’s Shroud (1967).
Away from Hammer, Ripper remained a familiar face in British films. He had a recurring role as Eric the lift operator in the St Trinians films and donned several disguises as ‘The Common Man’ in the Michael Carreras comedy What a Crazy World (1962). He gave his most enjoyable non-horror performance as John Leyton’s dad in the comedy musical Every Day’s a Holiday (1963), where he performed an outstanding song and dance routine with Ron Moody.
Ripper’s association with Hammer ended following Anthony Hinds’ resignation in 1970; he returned for one more film, the abysmal That’s Your Funeral (1973) and quietly ended his horror career with all-too-brief cameos in The Creeping Flesh (1972) and Legend of the Werewolf (1975).
With film work drying up in the late seventies, Ripper worked mainly in television, a medium he never cared for other than the financial rewards. His old friend Christopher Lee tried to persuade him to go to Hollywood for better film roles. Once again he opted to stay in England where he married Catherine Finn, his partner of 23 years, in 1972. They divorced six years later.
Ripper won a small measure of TV fame in the late seventies as Thomas the chauffer in the comedy series Butterflies. In the 1980s he was best known as the bad-tempered Mr Shepherd in the popular children’s show Wurzel Gummidge and Drones' Porter in the comedy series Jeeves and Wooster.
Ripper returned to genre with a guest appearance in The Revenge of Billy the Kid (1991), a gory, low-key British horror spoof that barely got released. Ripper’s ‘special billing’ on the film poster illustrates his importance within the genre and the affection he holds for many fans. Revenge of Billy the Kid was Ripper’s last notable role. He did not work for the next four years (although he found time to marry Cecelia Doidge in 1995) and what came his way were little more than bit-parts. Failing memory finally forced him to retire.
Despite suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, Ripper remained a popular face at many horror conventions. In 1999 he attended a special gala dedicated to Hammer at the Barbican Cinema in London; a speech delivered by Christopher Lee to his old friend was met with a standing ovation. The following year he went to America for the first time with Lee and Ingrid Pitt to attend several major horror conventions.
In 1999 the tribute magazine Unsung Hero was published. Although a valuable record of Ripper’s career, it’s not nearly as informative as it should be. The definitive record of the actor’s life can be found in Derek Pykett’s 1999 biography Michael Ripper: Unmasked.
Michael Ripper died on 28 June 2000 after years of poor health. His death marks the end of an era, but his work with Hammer, no matter how small the role, is remembered with warmth and affection by fans all over the world.
IF YOU ENJOYED THIS ARTICLE, PLEASE HELP SUPPORT OUR SITE, AT NO COST WITH ONE CLICK ON THE FACEBOOK 'LIKE' BUTTON BELOW:
If you're interested in writing for Shadowlocked (disc and screening reviews, etc, or just getting some extra coverage for your extraordinary writing talent, get in touch with us.