Published on August 5th, 2014 | by Swamp Thing0
In Appreciation Of… Michael Ripper
Back in the late 1990s I produced some artwork for the Hammer Horror 50th Anniversary celebrations. As a result, I was lucky enough to be able to attend the Hammer reunion events at Bray Studios near Windsor. These days the sleepy village of Bray is more famous for Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck Restaurant, which he opened in 1995, but from 1951 through to 1966, Down Place (renamed Bray Studios when the site was purchased and enlarged for film production) was the spiritual and physical home of Hammer Film Productions. Nestling on the banks of the Thames, the country house that forms the centrepiece of Down Place was built in 1750, and both the exterior and some of the interior rooms co-starred in many Hammer films made in the sixteen years they were based there. One of the rooms that did make it into the movies was Down Place’s bar, and it was there that I had the privilege of meeting Michael Ripper.
I believe it’s fair to say that when most people think of Hammer films they’ll be thinking about Christopher Lee’s portrayal of Dracula or Peter Cushing’s Baron Frankenstein. They may even fondly remember the titanic struggles between Cushing’s Van Helsing and Lee’s Dracula, because that happened in most of the Hammer Dracula films, didn’t it?
Well actually, no it didn’t. Cushing’s Van Helsing and Lee’s Dracula met only twice, and only once in a ‘Gothic’ Hammer – the second meeting was set in 1972 when Hammer tried to update the franchise for a more demanding modern audience. Between 1957 and 1977 the two actors between them made a total of around 35 films for Hammer, which is an astonishing number given that they were also making films for other studios at the same time. More astonishing still is the fact that between 1948 and 1972, Michael Ripper appeared in 35 Hammer productions, equaling Cushing and Lee’s combined total, as part of film career that began in 1936 and spanned seven decades. But unlike Cushing or Lee, Ripper’s name never became synonymous with any of the characters he played. Michael Ripper was the epitome of the British character actor. He was the policeman. He was the barman. He was the coach driver. He was the gravedigger. He was that bloke who played the poacher in that other thing with whatsisname in it. And he was pretty good in it.
Michael George Ripper was born in Portsmouth On January 27, 1913. His mother Edith was a teacher, his father Harold was a civil servant and speech therapist who taught elocution. From a young age, Michael was encouraged by his father to participate is public speaking competitions, and became involved with his father’s amateur dramatics society. By his own admission, Michael was never that interested in becoming an actor and he was all but forced into his by his father, a strict family disciplinarian in the Victorian sense. It was his school doctor that finally persuaded Michael to try acting full-time, both as a career (the young Michael hated school and his career options were limited) and as a means to escape an unhappy home life. At 16 he won a scholarship to the Central School of Speech Training and Dramatic Arts in London and his professional acting career began.
Primarily a stage actor, Michael also appeared in numerous ‘quota quickie’ films from 1935 onward, including at least 29 uncredited appearances in productions for George Smith Enterprises at Walton Studios. He made his first appearance for Hammer (or their parent company Exclusive Films) in There is No Escape in 1948. A mix of screen and stage performances continued until 1952, when a throat operation for a serious thyroid condition left him unable to project his voice sufficiently for stage work, and from that point on he worked exclusively for film and television.
Michael Ripper and Hammer: A Match made in Hell
Michael Ripper’s dealings with Exclusive Films had strengthened his friendship with Anthony Hinds, who was to produce most of Hammer’s Gothic horror output from the 1950s onward (Hinds was the son of William Hinds, who performed under the name Will Hammer and had founded Hammer Film Productions in 1934). It was Anthony Hinds who saw the benefit of using old country houses as settings for Hammer’s films, and it was he who masterminded Hammer’s acquisition of Down Place and the creation of Bray Studios.
During this astonishingly creative period for Hammer (which saw them winning the Queen’s Award For Industry in 1968) they concentrated on making relatively low budget Gothic horror films that relied more on script and atmosphere than effects, special or otherwise. The high volume of output – films often being made back-to-back, sharing both sets and casts, required an almost resident troupe of quality character actors, and with his repertory theatre background it was a way of working that Michael Ripper was comfortable with .
Though many of his early roles with Hammer were little more than bit parts, Michael Ripper’s consistent ability to deliver a performance above and beyond the quality required led to him getting more screen time and meatier roles, though he would be the first to admit that he was never going to be a leading man, nor did he aspire to be one. Following his performance in Hammer’s first venture into science fiction in the 1956 film X:The Unknown, Michael made often brief but always memorable appearances in (amongst others) The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), The Mummy (1959), Brides of Dracula (1960), The Camp on Blood Island (1958), The Curse of the Werewolf (1961), Captain Clegg (1962), and The Scarlet Blade (1963). Two of his best performances for Hammer came in the back-to-back productions Plague Of The Zombies and The Reptile in 1966.
His no-nonsense acting style and measured delivery was perfect for the often emotionally charged and larger-than-life scenes that are the norm for horror movies. Having a calm emotional centre to anchor a scene immediately made the most unreal situations appear human and believable, and given some of the scripts he had to work with it was a valuable skill. Hammer clearly recognized that.
Away from Hammer, Michael had a recurring role as the lift operator in four St.Trinian’s films made between 1954 and 1966, popped-up in the Laurence Olivier directed Richard III (1954), and made around 50 film appearances and appeared in episodes of over a dozen different TV series between 1950 and 1970 (often appearing more than once in the same series but rarely as the same character). He did have a recurring role in the original 1958 TV version of Quatermass And The Pit, but strangely didn’t appear in Hammer’s 1967 film remake (though he had been in their 1955 film version of Quatermass II).
Michael Ripper on the box
With Hammer’s audience for their Gothic Horror output dwindling, internal disputes on how to re-invent Hammer led Tony Hinds to resign from the company in 1970. Michael Ripper made only one more film for the company after Hinds’ departure, the atypical (and frankly awful) comedy That’s Your Funeral (1972). Film roles were hard to come by for him during the 1970s and 80s. Apart from his one Hammer appearance, he made The Creeping Flesh (1973), No Sex Please: We’re British (1973) and only a handful of others. His final horror performance came in Legend Of The Werewolf (1975). Other than these meagre film roles, his entire output from 1970 onward was for television, a medium that he stated he ‘didn’t much care for’. Television, however, rather liked him, providing him with three of the most recognized roles of his career: Thomas, the wise and long-suffering chauffeur in Carla Lane’s Butterflies (1978-83); Mr Shepherd, Aunt Sally’s owner in Worzel Gummidge (1979-81); and Drones Porter in Fry and Laurie’s Jeeves and Wooster (1990-91). There were also appearances in some of the nations most beloved TV dramas and comedies of the 70s and 80s including The Sweeney, Coronation Street, The Two Ronnies, To The Manor Born, Sykes, Tales Of The Unexpected, Minder, Home to Roost and In Sickness and In Health. Whatever Michael Ripper’s opinion on working in television may have been, and whatever the quality of the material he was being asked to work with, he gave his all on every small screen job in exactly the same way he had on the big screen.
Already in poor health and with a failing memory, Michael’s final appearance before retiring from acting was in the 1992 gory horror-comedy The Revenge of Billy the Kid.
Despite being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in addition to other physical ailments, Michael Ripper was a regular and always popular attendee at reunions and conventions. My meeting with him in 1998 was a brief but memorable chat at the bar about the inclement weather (actually a three way conversation as we were interrupted by Thora Hird, who made a couple of films for Hammer, musing on whether her wheelchair was rust-proof). It had started tipping it down outside and most of the guests had suffered an impromptu soaking. Michael was happy to point out that by remaining at the bar all along he’d remained dry.
In 1999, the magazine Unsung Hero was published as a tribute to Michael Ripper’s career. In that same year, Derek Pykett’s biography Michael Ripper: Unmasked was published by Midnight Marquee Press.
In early 2000, Michael Ripper traveled to America (something he’d chosen not to do during his career) to attend a number of horror conventions with Christopher Lee and Ingrid Pitt. They were to be his farewell appearances and he finally succumbed to ill health on June 28, 2000. It wasn’t headline news, but then the media is a fickle fellow and Michael Ripper hadn’t acted in a decade. I suspect though that he has been missed, even if only subconsciously, in the way you would miss somebody who traveled on the same train as you everyday and they suddenly aren’t there. You may never have known their name or even spoken to them, but you miss the company of that familiar face. I think that’s how it is with Michael Ripper; the most familiar actor whose name you never knew.
I moved house a few months back, and during the clear-out I came across a page from my old autograph book from my days flirting with the great and good of Hammer Film Productions. On it were the signatures of Michael Ripper and Thora Hird. It was tipping it down outside. A wise man had once told me that now would be a good time to stay indoors and have a drink.