Denis Meikle

Born: 1947 | Birthplace: Glasgow | Educated: Alleyn's School | Spouse: Jane | Children: Sarah, James | Resident: East Sussex

This 'Features' section is a work in progress. Content is added on a continual basis.


A Memoir of Mike Raven

One face which stood out from the crowd of nondescript players who appeared increasingly to feature in Hammer’s latter-day Gothic horror films was that of Mike Raven.
Raven was a late-night BBC Radio 1 disc jockey whose specialty was blues music. His entrée into the genre had come in July 1970, when he played the role of Count Karnstein in Hammer’s To Love a Vampire (re-titled Lust For a Vampire for its January 1971 release), but he had consolidated his newfound status as rising horror star by acting opposite the terrible twosome of Lee and Cushing in the Amicus production I, Monster - an ill-judged version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde - which was filmed at Shepperton Studios in October of that year and in which he was given third billing behind the leads.
Two years later, and Raven’s career in the public arena - whether as actor, deejay or, latterly, television presenter - was at an end. The signs had not been good from the start: his voice, reassuringly familiar to fans of his radio shows, had ultimately been overdubbed by the producers of Lust For a Vampire, and I, Monster was initially shelved by British Lion before receiving a sporadic release on the bottom half of a double-feature. Nevertheless, two more horror films had followed these first, and few intimations of what would subsequently come to pass were in the air when I first met Mike in March 1971, save for the fact that the genre was undeniably in decline and the British film industry as a whole was in deepening trouble.
      Cushing and Lee’s predictable appearances in every other new horror were becoming tired and tiresome while the erstwhile box-office pull of the equally ubiquitous Vincent Price was being wasted by an American International which was intent on drawing every last drop of blood out of its Poe franchise. In the face of diminishing returns from the traditional product of horror’s ‘Big Four’ - Hammer, AIP, Amicus and Tigon -  Raven appeared to offer something new and potentially trendier. To cap it off, he played the part of sinister screen villain to the hilt: he was the same height as Christopher Lee (at 6’3”), dressed entirely in black at all times (even down to his underwear), professed a personal interest in the occult, and he waxed genuinely enthusiastic about the possibility of becoming one of the ‘titans of terror’. In addition, there were still plenty of new young writers and directors out there, waiting to strut their stuff when opportunity arose - as it seemed ever more likely to do.
      In the flush of that initial flurry of activity, what Raven represented was a refreshing break from tradition. His arrival on the scene held out the potential of a ‘new wave’ in a genre that was populated by old and familiar faces. He was knowledgeable about the subject, charismatic as a person, passionate to pursue a path to horror’s door - ‘I think it’s probably true to say that I’m the only one of the actors at present working in horror films who would be there by choice,’ he told me - and he came across as a real man of the people.
      Despite the ill wind that was gusting with increasing ferocity through the corridors of Dracula’s castle, Raven seized the chance for which he had waited since the 1950s and an earlier foray into acting (he was hired as a stunt double for Christopher Lee in 1951’s Captain Hornblower RN) and abandoned his radio career to concentrate his efforts on film. It was a decision which was to change the course of his life, though not in the way that he intended. If the adage about not giving up one’s day job were to have been applied to a single individual, then it could have been applied to Mike Raven.
      I first came into contact with Mike (whose name was actually Austin Churton Fairman) at one of the monthly meetings of the Gothique Film Society, a club for like-minded souls that operated out of London’s Holborn Library and whose letterhead boasted Bob Monkhouse, Lee and Terence Fisher among its patrons. The reason for my attendance on the night (along with Brian Fitter, a regular companion at such events and press officer for a distribution outfit called New Realm, which specialised in importing exploitation dross of the calibre of Paul Naschy’s Hell’s Creatures) was a screening of Robert Altman’s Brewster McCloud - the reason for Mike’s presence was presumably an invitation to capitalise on the general release, some weeks before, of Lust For a Vampire.
      I had seen the film which its director, Jimmy Sangster, came to describe as a ‘short, rather unhappy experience’; at the time, Mike had not. But I had missed the opening reel in which he had strutted most of his vampire-revivifying stuff as Count Karnstein. Consequently, I recognised his gaunt, goatee-bearded figure only vaguely at first sight.
When the official programme was over, the usual suspects decamped to the nearby pub. Mike elected to join us all and I found myself seated opposite him, each of us at either end of an excited table. The talk turned quickly to Hammer, whose apparent lack of corporate direction in the current climate was a subject on which he clearly held firm but not altogether uncharitable opinions, and we were soon concurring - in the manner of those to whom the righting of wrongs invariably seems to be self-evident when they are not themselves in the driving seat - on what the company could best do to return itself to favour in the eyes of its previously devoted fans. He and I shared a meeting of minds; more than that, we shared a sense of rapport.
      I then proposed a more formal interview for the local ‘free’ newspaper on which I was both production manager and self-appointed film critic. He readily agreed. The following week found me in the black-carpeted lounge of Raven’s Beaufort Street flat in Chelsea, being appraised of his life story and his ambitions in the field of horror films:
      My parents were both on the stage, and I was born in the proverbial trunk.
                                                                                                                            --Mike Raven
      Born in London on November 15, 1924, Raven had been brought up by three maiden aunts after his parents divorced and his mother died when he was only six years old. ‘They didn't want me to go into the theatre, so I had the standard prep school/public school education - got as far as Oxford - and then I ‘dropped out’. The first film I did was On Approval, which was made in 1942 at Pinewood Studios with Clive Brook and Googie Withers.’ His role hit the cutting-room floor, however, and he found himself conscripted into the Royal Ulster Rifles. After the war, he studied dance at the Ballet Rambert. By 1949, he was married to Aurelia Perez and domiciled in Spain, where he wrote a travel guide - ‘Another Spain’ - before a chance meeting with stage director Peter Brook set his sights back on a career in acting. ‘Before I was conscripted, I had been in half-a-dozen films, most of them totally unmemorable. The difficulty was that I looked like Christopher Lee. We were frequently sent for the same part.’ One example was the aforementioned Captain Hornblower, in which Lee was given the role of the Spanish captain who fought a duel with Gregory Peck.
      Now with a wife and four children to support, Raven moved into television and, for nine years, acted as production manager for HM Tennent, which was contracted to provide the drama series for the Independent Television network. The end of those years coincided with the start of ‘pirate radio’ in the UK, when music stations began to broadcast to the mainland from ships moored outside the three-mile territorial limit; Raven revelled in the opportunity to participate in the birth of a new medium and swiftly sailed out to sea: ‘I and a young man named Carl Dodds (Simon Dee) - he on Caroline and me on Atlanta - started the whole ball rolling.’ In his role as a ‘pirate’ deejay, Austin Fairman now became Mike Raven. When Radio Atlanta merged with Caroline, Raven relocated to Radio King, later Radio 390, which operated from a disused fort in the Thames Estuary. After the death of his first wife, he had married Edna May Kilberg with whom he was to have two more children. (The final tally was three sons and three daughters.) The two occupied a breakfast slot for which he had christened her Mandy, and the ‘Mike and Mandy Show’ soon joined ‘Raven Around’ as staples of the station.
      When the pirates were outlawed by The Marine Broadcasting Offences Act in 1967, Raven switched into the newly-formed BBC Radio 1. ‘The Mike Raven Blues Show’ made him a national name, and the original half-hour format was soon extended to a full two hours. ‘When I realised that I’d got a slight “name”, I felt the moment had come when I could get back to what I had wanted to do all along, which was acting. And what I really wanted to do was horror films.
      ‘Since about 1968, I had been making efforts to approach anybody who was making horror pictures to try to get in. Again, the fact that I was so like Lee got in the way. But when Jimmy Sangster came to direct Lust For a Vampire, he wanted to use new people, and it was his recommendation to the producers that put me into that part.’
      ‘That part’ was Count Karnstein, patriarch of the Karnstein clan of female vampires: ‘Lust For a Vampire was a sequel to The Vampire Lovers and there had been the embryo of the character in that (played by John Forbes-Robertson). But he wandered about, story-wise, on the edge of the plot and, indeed, some of my friends wondered what on earth he was, or was doing - it was never made explicit. He was simply called the “Man in Black” in that one and when I got the script, it still said “Man in Black - Count Karnstein”.’
Raven had signed to play the role on June 16, 1970, and he commenced his two-week stint on July 6. ‘I didn't want the character to be actually a vampire; I wanted him to appear as the Devil’s emissary - an agent of evil. I saw him as a puppet-master, with Yutte Stensgaard as the puppet.’ A typically barnstorming Hammer prologue, in which the Count raises the long-dead Carmilla Karnstein from the ashes of the grave, had given him a chance to show audiences what he was capable of: ‘There was no script there at all. All the invocations I did over the body, I brought out of my magical books.’
      (To illustrate this, Raven had pointed me to a set of bookshelves on the rear wall of his lounge. From what I could see at a glance, all were concerned with religion and the occult. He extracted a rare copy of Golden Dawn alumnus and tarot-card designer AE Waite’s ‘Book of Ceremonial Magic’ and opened it up to reveal the basis of the spell that he had cast in the film. ‘I mixed a few of them together,’ he assured me, ‘so that we wouldn’t get any unwanted additions to the cast on the set!’)
      By September, Hammer’s rivals Amicus Films had snapped Raven up for a co-starring role in I, Monster alongside Peter Cushing and... Christopher Lee. ‘I thought to myself, “Is it going to look like the Corsican Brothers?”’
      I, Monster was a retread of Jekyll and Hyde, the difference on this occasion being Amicus producer Milton Subotsky’s declared intention to shoot the tale as Stevenson had written it; it was to have been photographed in 3-D, utilising a process based on the Pulfrich effect and devised by Subotsky himself that required complex camera set-ups to create the illusion. The idea had been abandoned within two weeks of shooting when the desired effect failed to materialise, though the tortuous compositions remained in the completed film (self-conscious tracking shots past prominent foreground objects; a fight filmed through a window-frame). When Hammer announced its own variant of the tale in the raunchier form of Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde, Subotsky changed the names of his protagonist to Marlowe and Blake and the film was credited merely to ‘a story by Robert Louis Stevenson’.
      Subotsky's claim that his would be the most faithful version of Jekyll and Hyde ever mounted rested on only a single sequence taken directly from the novella: in the course of an evening stroll, Enfield (Raven) regales Utterson (Cushing) with the story of how he witnessed Hyde/Blake trampling a child underfoot. The scene is lifted pretty much verbatim from the page, and a later recreation of the event which Enfield describes was the one good thing in an otherwise lacklustre adaptation. ‘In Lust For a Vampire, I was on the side of the Devil - while in I, Monster, I had a much bigger role but I was a “goodie”,’ Raven noted. ‘Fun though it was to be in a film with Peter and Christopher, it was not as much fun as playing Count Karnstein.’
      I, Monster stretched to a mere 75 minutes on screen and, as such, rated only as a second feature. The static design and complete lack of pace bore witness to the fact that all involved had been strapped into a conceptual straight-jacket from the word go. Raven, however, appeared not to have been fazed by the fact that because of the delay in releasing I, Monster, his plan of attack on the world of horror had not gone quite according to plan. Other things were plainly afoot, about which he preferred not to go into detail. He had written a screenplay that had interested Sangster enough to take it to Hammer’s Jimmy Carreras, for one. ‘I tried to write a genuine Gothic without using either of the two standard prototypes, Frankenstein or Dracula. What I tried to do was produce an original which contained the elements that should go into a Gothic, yet would come across as completely fresh and unusual,’ was as much as he would say on the matter.
      On that sun-dappled afternoon in March 1971, Mike Raven had one film in release and another one pending, but something else was very definitely on the cards. As far as he was concerned, the future of horror looked bright.
      For me, that was the end of that. I had found Raven amiable, enthusiastic, generous with his time and his hospitality and refreshingly free of the airs and graces adopted by so many so-called stars of the day (which might have been to do with the fact that he came from the music business, rather than RADA). But with the interview over, we said our good-byes and went our separate ways - or so I assumed at the time.
      In July 1971, Britain was in the middle of a horror ‘boom’. That is not to say that there had been an increase in demand by audiences to watch more horror films or that they suddenly had become more financially viable, only that both main circuit-chains - Rank and ABC - appeared to be screening nothing else.
      It was a downward spiral which had been set in motion in the spring of 1970 by the desperation of circuit-bookers in the face of dwindling returns and the surprise success of the American International-Amicus co-production, Scream and Scream Again, which had deployed the combined talents of all three titans of screen terror: Lee, Cushing and Vincent Price. The eight months prior to the release of Lust for a Vampire had seen the opening of Hammer's Taste the Blood of Dracula, Crescendo, The Vampire Lovers, Scars of Dracula and The Horror of Frankenstein, American International’s The Oblong Box, The Dunwich Horror, Count Yorga-Vampire and Cry of the Banshee, M-G-M’s House of Dark Shadows, and the predictable releases from indie distributors. While The Vampire Lovers continued to play in London’s West End at Cinecenta 4, hot on the heels of Lust For a Vampire had come Countess Dracula (also with Ingrid Pitt) and Amicus’s The House That Dripped Blood (Pitt again).
      There had never been exploitation like it and box-office grosses had begun to tell their own story; in consequence, British Lion had now decided to shelve I, Monster and it was eventually released on the lower half of a double-bill with Peter Collinson’s Fright, which came from the same Fine-Style-Gates production team as the Hammer ‘Karnsteins’. Even then, it played only part of the ABC circuit (‘split’-releases were a commonplace at this juncture.)
      Nevertheless, June had brought The Mephisto Waltz and Trog, and London Screen’s Eyes of Hell (a previously banned, 11-year old Canadian film called The Mask, the [3-D] gimmick value of which had led to holdovers in the Midlands), while Tigon’s Blood on Satan’s Claw (formerly known as Satan’s Skin) and The Beast in the Cellar had opened in July and were scheduled for the Rank circuit in October. Currently in production were AIP’s Murders in the Rue Morgue and at least five more from Hammer: Twins of Evil, Hands of the Ripper, Vampire Circus, Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb and Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde. Another two Draculas were also promised, in addition to Blood Will Have Blood, and another raft of indies were lining up behind, including Commonwealth United’s Evil of Dorian Gray, Count Dracula (El Conde Dracula, with Lee as the Count) and Armitage’s Burke and Hare - Body Snatchers.
      While all this was going on, and quite out of the blue, I took another phone call from Mike Raven. He told me that he was starring in a film called Crucible of Terror (about which he had said nothing during our interview), that he had been impressed with the piece which I had written about him, and wondered if I might like to join him on set to watch some of the filming. Suitably flattered, I arranged to meet up with him on the stages of Shepperton Studios in Middlesex for what was now to be his third venture into horror inside twelve months.
      The most amazing thing about this film is that it’s on the floor at all.
                                                                     --Tom Parkinson (producer, Crucible of Terror)
      Crucible of Terror had moved into Shepperton for the remaining four-and-a-half weeks of a six-week schedule on July 12, after a week of location work in and around some abandoned tin-mines near Perranporth, in North Cornwall, and two days of exteriors in London. It was occupying stages J and K, on the second of which ‘flats’ of an art gallery were currently being dismantled. The film had a budget of £100,000 (half that of current Hammers), a crew of 40, and was being made under the banner of Glendale - a company formed by Executive Producer Peter Newbrook, one-time assistant lighting cameraman on David Lean’s Dr Zhivago. It was scheduled to go into theatrical release in the UK in less than six months, through distributors Scotia-Barber, and then on to drive-ins in the US. (A lesbian scene in the original draft of the script had already been amended to accommodate the stricter censorship requirements of the latter.)
      Starring alongside Raven were Melissa Stribling (best-remembered for her role in Hammer’s Dracula), James Bolam, Ronald Lacey and 22-year-old former dancer Mary Maude, who had been cast as both victim and villain. Crucible of Terror was being directed by ex-television editor Ted Hooker and line-produced by 28-year-old Tom Parkinson. Though by no means indicative of a revival in the studio’s declining fortunes, there were five other productions on the floor at Shepperton that month against the previous year’s one.
      The plot of the film revolved around a murder committed by mad sculptor Victor Clare (Raven) who, in shades of Vernon Sewell’s 1945 Latin Quarter, had encased the body of an ex-lover in bronze. Enlarging on this premise, the script had Clare’s remote cottage invaded by an assortment of interested parties, who are killed off one by one - but by whom? The dead girl is eventually discovered to have been a member of a sinister Japanese cult; by means of an old kimono, her restless spirit has used the innocent Millie (Maude) to commit the deeds. At the finale, she reveals herself to Clare in his forge and both perish in the flames of the titular crucible... It was this climax which was scheduled for that day. 
I sat with Mike in his dressing-room as he readied himself for the business in hand, then we adjourned to Stage J where he took up his position for a series of shots in which he had to employ a long metal bar to fend off an assailant who was wielding an acetylene torch. It was my first sight of the production proper but it proved to be less than encouraging. Raven and director Ted Hooker were engaged in choreographing the action between them:
      Raven was handed the bar, while an assistant was positioned to one side of the camera with the blowtorch - the idea being for only the torch to be in view. ‘We’ll go one, two, three... and down at four,’ he urged, timing his moves for the scene. After the second take, Peter Newbrook queried, ‘Doesn’t it seem just a bit too artificial? - Too much like ballet?’ Raven arched an eyebrow. ‘What do you think I was trained for, acting?’ (a reference to the fact that he began his career at Ballet Rambert.)
      It was a funny remark, inspiring laughter in those around him, although it was to become a good deal less amusing as time and tide moved on.
      During a break in the filming, I chatted with producer Tom Parkinson, who explained to me something of the genesis of Crucible of Terror:
      He and Hooker had worked together previously (a documentary about the Irish racehorse Nijinsky) and the idea for the film had come during a meeting of the technicians’ union at which they had found themselves ‘twiddling their thumbs’. A script had been floated on the promise of funding from the National Film Finance Corporation but, by August of 1970, the NFFC had already backed more than enough horror product for its liking and the deal was rescinded. It was then that Glendale decided to step into the breach.
Parkinson told me that he had spotted Raven in the music documentary Reggae, rather than Lust For a Vampire, and on the success of Crucible of Terror was to depend the fate of two more vehicles provisionally intended for Glendale’s new star. He voiced admiration for the horror-by-suggestion thrillers of RKO house-producer Val Lewton, and said that he and his team had tried to play down the horror to a more psychological level, relying instead on mood and suspense. To that end, he felt that they had a trick up their sleeves, which was to synchronise the ‘pulse’ of the crucible to the beat of a metronome and increase the tempo as the film moved towards its conclusion. A novel concept, I thought, for which I had noticed no evidence earlier in the proceedings.
      When enough sparring with the off-camera holder of the torch was deemed to be in the can, Mary Maude was brought onto the set, attired in the scar-faced mask of the film’s supernatural killer. She now took up the weapon for reverse shots of the hand-to-hand battle - but no sooner had shooting begun than it was halted again, as Maude fainted from claustrophobia due to the constrictions of her Jimmy Evans mask. A tumble down a small flight of steps and a close-up of Raven’s head being forced onto the embers of the forge were all that remained on the slate for that afternoon. Again, it became a matter of plotting things out on the floor, and Ted Hooker appeared to place great faith in his editor’s ability to make something workable out of the array of oddments which I had watched being shot and which were to provide him with the whole of his climax.
I was au fait with the concept of inserts, cutaways and the like; I knew what had been committed to film; what I found disconcerting was the sheer lethargy of the staging. These scenes were all part of an ‘action’ sequence - a fight to the death between Raven and his ghostly nemesis - but I had not seen much action, nor little plan of action, either: no ‘master’ had been taken as cover, or to place things in an overall context. 
      I had visited sets before this one and was familiar with what to expect. The most recent was Fengriffen, coincidentally also shot at Shepperton, whose title was changed to And When the Screaming Starts on release. Not much more had been going on there at the time, either on the sound-stage itself or in the studio as a whole, but the professionalism of the film’s three leads - Cushing, Stephanie Beacham and Ian Ogilvy - could hardly be faulted, and director Roy Ward Baker unarguably had things under control. I had also been on Hammer sets at Elstree: Scars of Dracula may have been a poor film to sit through but it was a model of efficiency in its making, despite the fact that much of it was written as it went along (Baker again). Crucible of Terror looked to be a far cry from either of those and while allowing for its speed of execution and necessary economies of scale, it nevertheless seemed like an amateur affair. Even Mary Maude’s monster-mask gave the impression of having been knocked up out of papier maché in ten minutes.
      My bemusement at the level of improvisation which had seemed to me to be a feature of the production was voiced at the bar of the ‘British Lion’, a pub in the Shepperton grounds, to which cast and crew adjourned at the end of the day’s shooting. Filmmaking is a communal process, I was informed, by way of justification for what I considered to be indecision among those involved. For some reason, art director Arnold Chapkiss was the leading proponent of this theory. ‘It’s a strange business, very hit-and-miss. Whether a film works or not is often a matter of the right chemistry. There’s a saying for when a crew can sense that rapport, and it’s “Let’s make magic”.’ I, on the other hand, had already been converted to the view that he and his colleagues would need all the conjuring skills they could muster. (Previous to this, Chapkiss had served as production designer on Blood On Satan’s Claw, a film notable for its reliance on natural landscape.)
      Raven took it in good part and robustly defended the collective approach; in the end, I conceded defeat and, after a lively hour, we again said our good-byes. But the doubts persisted, and I felt much less confident that Crucible of Terror would be the film to launch Mike Raven on a new career as a horror star as I left than I had when I arrived. I was grateful for the opportunity that he had afforded me, though, and appearances can be deceiving, so final judgment was reserved until the finished film went on promised show at the end of the year.
      Unfortunately, it never did - at least, not within travelling distance of me.
      In the meantime, events gathered pace in a different direction. It was not long before Mike phoned to suggest that we meet for a drink. As I had recently moved offices to Battersea, just south of the river and within walking distance of his Chelsea flat, this was an easier arrangement than might otherwise have been the case. So easy, in fact, that it soon became a regular occurrence - as did meals out with he and Mandy at the ‘Good Friends’ Chinese restaurant in Limehouse, which at the time was run by a family of film extras and often frequented by celebrities, and where Raven had taken Jimmy Sangster to dine one evening during the shooting of Lust For a Vampire. More often than not, he would do the chauffeuring in his regulation-black Saab estate.
      Since our meeting on the set of Crucible of Terror, Mike had become aware of the indignities which had been visited upon his role in Lust for a Vampire by producer Harry Fine. (Having kept to myself the fact that I had missed the first reel and not yet managed to make up the deficiency, the truth of the matter had only slowly dawned on me.) It was now common knowledge that the film had gone into release with his voice overdubbed on the soundtrack by the sonorous tones of Valentine Dyall, Hammer’s original 1950 Man in Black. To add insult to ignominy, Christopher Lee’s bloodshot eyes (lifted from Dracula Has Risen From the Grave) had been spliced into the print in place of his own. Mike was unhappy - Mandy was unhappier still; representations had been made.
      (Years later, a rumour began to circulate in fan circles that the dubbing of Mike’s voice was necessitated by a slight lisp; not true, as anyone who has seen I, Monster or Crucible of Terror can testify, let alone anyone who had listened to his radio shows. It was simply not resonant enough to suit Fine’s idea of what a vampire Count should sound like.)
During the shooting of Lust For a Vampire, Hammer had tipped Raven as a potential successor to Christopher Lee, with whom it was then experiencing no end of contractual difficulties. Mindful of this, Countess Dracula producer Alex Paal (whose association with Hammer went back as far as 1952’s Mantrap) had suggested a film about Vlad Tepes, the Romanian warlord on whom Stoker had partially based the character of Dracula, to be shot on location in Transylvania with Raven in the lead: ‘Paal was trying to get the Carreras stamp to make it a Hammer film,’ Mike had said of the project.
      The idea had originally been mooted to James Carreras, but the resounding box-office failure of Countess Dracula and protestations by Mandy Raven about the dubbing of her husband's voice in Lust had put paid to the plan. In addition, Michael Carreras - Hammer’s new Managing Director as of January 1971 - had put paid to the Raven script which Jimmy Sangster had taken to the company and which provisionally had been pencilled-in to start in September; the junior Carreras had his own ideas about the direction in which Hammer should now go, and more Gothic films than those to which it had already committed did not feature among them.
The bottom was starting to fall out of the mini ‘horror-boom’ of the 1970s, but those engaged in it were still blind to the signs. ‘I’ve heard a rumour that AIP aren’t going to make any more horror films,’ was the closest Mike came to recognising the possibility of impending disaster. (Jason Robards, rather than Vincent Price, had just completed Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue in Madrid, though Price was presently at Elstree on Dr Phibes.)
      As our relationship developed and friendship grew, Mike revealed to me the next project that he and Tom Parkinson had now cut a deal to embark upon. He was sanguine about the fact that in the absence of I, Monster and Crucible of Terror, he had, in his own words, almost ‘disappeared completely’ from public view since starring in Lust For a Vampire. Tomorrow was always another day, but on this particular tomorrow, he seemed to have lined up all his eggs beside a single basket.
      Disciple of Death was the script which had been optioned by Hammer. The plot was crude, even in treatment form: a mysterious ‘stranger’ is inadvertently summoned from the depths of Hell by a young couple dallying in the grounds of an old house; the stranger proceeds to create an army of zombies out of the village girls by occult ritual, with the intention of regaining his ancestral home; ultimately, he is foiled in his Dracula-like task and dispatched from whence he came. Raven had ‘sold’ this to Hammer as a genuine Gothic - a film which would capture the flavour of the Victorian ‘penny-dreadful’, rather than that of the highly-coloured Hammer variant.
      The spur to set the wheels of indie production in motion had come from an unlikely source. The sudden demise of the popular Sunday evening television show ‘Stars on Sunday’ had led to Mike being contracted to host a series called ‘The Ten Commandments’ for ITV, which was to be followed by a second in the same vein called ‘Songs That Matter’, as well as two dozen end-of-programming Epilogues. With the prospect of regular work on the small screen, his optimism about his chances on the film front remained undiminished.
On the strength of this, and despite the omens of ill-fortune which appeared increasingly to occupy the columns of the ‘trades’, Raven resigned from his day job as anchor of the Rhythm and Blues Show in November, 1971, to concentrate his energies on furthering a screen career - the next step on the road to which was to arrange for the production of Disciple of Death.
      The film had to be crewed and cast on the cheap, not even benefiting from the likes of Bolam, Stribling or Fifties’ TV veteran John Arnatt, as had Crucible of Terror - although from the latter, Ronald Lacey and Betty Alberge signed up for the ride. Beyond these, Raven and Parkinson were obliged to take a leaf out of Hammer’s book and use relative unknowns, with salaries to match: Stephen Bradley, who was to play the hero, had appeared in Cool It Carol, and Virginia Wetherell had been a regular bodice-ripper on Hammer and Tigon stages, but Disciple of Death was a first feature for Marguerite Hardiman and RADA graduate Louise Jameson, both of whom were plucked straight from the pages of ‘Spotlight’.
      Half the film’s meagre budget of £50,000 had been sourced from venture capital and the rest was to be put up by Raven and his co-producer Tom Parkinson; with its funding in place at the start of 1972, the unit decamped to the Wellington Hotel in Boscastle, North Cornwall, for three weeks of location work.
      A double whiskey for our friend... You look as if you need it!
                                                                      —Mike Raven (as Richard Enfield in I, Monster)
      This time, Mandy was on the shoot with Mike and she had invited me down to Cornwall, even going so far as to book a room at the hotel. As things turned out, I had to renege on the deal at the last minute due to pressure of work, but I accepted an invitation to look in on them when they returned to a studio.
      Disciple of Death required only a week of interiors and these were destined for Twickenham, rather than Shepperton, to keep the costs down. Twickenham was a television studio and therefore cheaper to hire, and Amicus was about to move its operations there on a permanent basis; in another year, Vincent Price would shoot his last British horror film on its compact stages: Madhouse (‘The Revenge of Dr Death’). I then discovered that the extreme cost-consciousness of the production stretched also to its film-stock: Disciple was being shot on Super 16mm, a semi-professional format which could be blown up to the regulation 35mm for release prints.
      Came the day and I made my way out to the studio, essentially unaware of what I was to see when I arrived there. I was familiar enough with the story by now; I had rummaged through the script, but I had little idea of how this tale of diabolical ‘stranger’, young lovers, Jewish cabalist, demonic dwarf and army of soulless female zombies would actually play in the flesh.  
      The small stage was spare in the extreme, its central feature being an altar in the shape of a pentacle, made out of plywood and painted matte black. To one side was a section of artificial hedge, against which Louise Jameson had stood in close-up as her screen beau had been stabbed to death in her arms (the rest of this episode had been shot in Cornwall). Standing nearby was a framed glass screen on which a jagged gash was painted and through which Raven had been filmed for an effect which was to appear behind the credit titles.
Scenes to be shot that afternoon included some of Raven at the altar, cutting out a girl’s heart, and pick-ups of the climax, with the stranger’s dungeon-lair ablaze. Time was evidently tight and when I arrived, Mike was already on set in his wizard’s regalia, ready for his spot of makeshift surgery. Raven and Tom Parkinson had co-written the script and were also sharing the directing chores; on the day of my visit, only the former was present - so I assumed that he was directing himself.
      The sight of him in chalk-white make-up, squeezing a pig’s heart filled with ‘Kensington Gore’ into a decorative chalice was certainly different, if no more inspiring in truth than the sight of him fencing with a blowtorch. Once again, cheap-and-cheerfulness seemed to be the hallmark of the new production, with much use of black-velvet drape to compensate for the paucity of the sets and a crew whose number was no more than might be expected of a film-school shoot.
      After another scene of the cackling ‘stranger’ overseeing his zombie harem, we all moved off to a different stage - more extensively dressed in the form of a crypt-cum-torture chamber - for the fiery climax.
      Fire scenes are shot on closed sets for safety reasons, so Mike whispered to me that should anyone query my presence, I was to say I was part of the crew. With that, Virginia Wetherell was affixed to a large wooden cross in the centre of the set, petroleum jelly was brushed liberally over everything, the fire crew stood by and the set was ignited for its brief conflagration. Wetherell screamed like a trooper as the flames licked around her - not surprising, it turned out, as she was slightly singed in the pocket inferno. In seconds, it was over, but it had been pretty spectacular while it lasted. Perhaps my previous opinion was a little harsh, I considered, in the wake of a sequence which looked as effective as anything that Hammer might mount in similar vein. At the end of it all, I was happy to give Mike the benefit and we returned to our social scene.
      Up to this point in time, I still had only seen Mike on screen in one film, in which his trademark voice had been overdubbed. And given his history, I had no reason to doubt that he was perfectly capable of acting alongside Cushing or Lee, or of carrying off a horror vehicle on his own. He certainly looked the part, and he had a towering presence in life. I liked him immensely as a man, and we had got along well. I, Monster had not yet surfaced on the circuits and things on the Crucible of Terror front had gone strangely quiet. But he had now finished Disciple of Death, and a second script had been readied to follow this first into production. (In fact, Crucible of Terror had been trade-shown back in April but had failed, as yet, to find a booking.)
      In August of 1972, Mike, Mandy, my wife and myself attended the midnight premiere of The Abominable Dr Phibes at the Carlton, Haymarket. The theatre bustled with a menagerie of characters got up in horror garb, with whom Mike as Man-in-Black blended perfectly. I loved the film - he loathed it, considering the musical in-jokes with which it was littered to be crass and obvious. But the following week was his opportunity to show how things should be done: he had arranged a private screening of Disciple of Death for cast and crew and I was to be party to the great unveiling.     
      We duly assembled at a small preview theatre in Mayfair, where several of those in attendance ended up squatting hippy-style on the floor, as there were too many of us for the available seats. A tangible air of expectation hung in the air as the lights dimmed and the curtains parted. 
What was clear within minutes of it starting to unreel was that Disciple of Death appeared to be the 1970s’ equivalent to Plan 9 From Outer Space - a poorly-shot, poorly-directed, half-baked, hammy horror. And my great drinking buddy of the last eighteen months had been the very man who wrote, co-produced and starred in it! I spent the remaining reels trying desperately to work out what on earth I would say to him when the lights came on again and he asked me the inevitable question: ‘Well? - What did you think?’
Cowardice - or what I preferred to view as sensitivity to the feelings of a friend - prevailed in the end. ‘I liked it,’ I lied, and moved the conversation swiftly on to scenes about which I could utter something positive with some semblance of sincerity. ‘I felt it was quite Hammeresque,’ I babbled, ‘such as that scene where...’ And so it went on. By the time I next saw Mike, I was a good deal better prepared: I had never previously experienced anything quite like that. But the saddest thing was that I had not been embarrassed for me; I had been embarrassed for him.
      Even more astonishing was the fact that Disciple of Death was granted an off-West End opening at the New Victoria cinema, London’s unofficial home of horror, less than two months later, whereas Crucible of Terror had now popped up only intermittently and in what Americans call the ‘boonies’. I was naturally obliged to attend and some of the photographs that accompany this article are a record of that event; Mike arrived cloaked to the gills as usual and with an entourage of negligée-clad females. There were no photographers present other than myself and I had only assumed the role for the evening, having already feared the worst. There was no press of any sort, in fact. Only the presence of Oliver star Jack Wild - who had turned up with a girl on his arm by sheer coincidence - made something more out of the occasion. I did my best to share in the forced conviviality of the proceedings but in the finest tradition of a ‘News of the World’ reporter who is eventually faced with the nitty-gritty of his exposé, I ‘made my excuses and left’ before the screening commenced. 
      The film took a theatre minimum of £2,300 on its one and only play-date, which meant that less than 1000 people saw it before it disappeared for good. I had not been one of them - not then, at any rate. And not since. In the way of these things, it should now be ripe for rediscovery; it is, in both senses of the term, a ‘lost film’. Trade-paper Kine Weekly, whose job it was to review every new release regardless, talked of ‘stagey performances’ and ‘laboured endeavour’, summarising its assessment with ‘The point of the joke - if it is a joke - gets lost’. The national critics had ignored it; in the week that they were given a preview, they were also treated to Tales From the Crypt, the opening bars of which were from Bach’s Tocata Fugue in D. It had brought the house down: Disciple of Death had used that same, familiar copyright-free refrain only a few days before.
The film was eventually sold to Avco-Embassy for US release, and Mike’s proposed follow-up with Parkinson was quickly forgotten. It should be noted that I was kept politely in the dark about these subsequent events until the summer of the following year, when Mike revealed to me that he and Mandy had bought a cottage in Cornwall with the proceeds of his film ventures and were to trade their London lives for retirement in the West Country. Despite it all, I was flabbergasted at the news; I still assumed that more TV would be in the offing. Evidently, that was not the case.
      The cottage, at Lesnewth near Boscastle, was already a fait accompli and in a matter of weeks, we had drunk our final farewells and they had driven off into the sunset. But I was to see them again less than a year later, when they returned to London to greet friends. (They had retained the Beaufort Street flat in the interim, for the use of some of their children). By then, it was not the same; the commonalities we had shared were gone, replaced by tales of lobster-fishing, operetta-writing, solitude and sculpting - in the manner of Victor Clare - in a rural retreat that was devoid of all modern conveniences, such as telephone, radio and a television set. I remember thinking them quite mad; they probably thought the same of me.
      Most of the others involved in either of Mike Raven’s indie films managed to survive with their careers and their reputations intact. Crucible of Terror’s Ted Hooker never directed another feature, but Tom Parkinson continued to work in television as a producer. Mary Maude carried on in minor roles for the remainder of the Seventies before abandoning acting but James Bolam, best-known as one half of TV’s ‘Likely Lads’ before the film, also returned to the small screen to carve out a successful career in drama. Arnold Chapkiss was the production designer on Quatermass in 1979, the last - though by far the least - of Nigel Kneale’s celebrated series. And Crucible was not the last horror from Peter Newbrook’s Glendale - that dubious honour went to The Asphyx the following year. Before then, however, Newbrook had jettisoned any notions of using Raven again and replaced him with Robert Stephens for his company’s swan-song.
      Disciple of Death’s Louise Jameson went on famously to play ‘Leila’ to Tom Baker’s TV Doctor Who, while Virginia Wetherell jut as famously exposed her breasts in A Clockwork Orange before settling for domestic bliss with Hammer star Ralph Bates. Ronald Lacey - who manfully had featured in both of Raven’s  horror opuses - managed miraculously to carve himself out a place in film history five years later, as the arch-villain of Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark.
      Both films, along with Titan’s similarly unreleased Incense For the Damned (which was based on the novel ‘Doctors Wear Scarlet’ by the coincidentally-named Simon Raven), had represented the low-water mark of the Seventies’ so-called horror ‘boom’ in Britain and were typically indicative of the reality of the dire state of the industry at the time. Any commentator who imagines that this period was some kind of Golden Age for British horror and whose view has been rose-tinted by The Wicker Man (which was also drastically re-cut and belatedly released as a second feature on its original outing) needs look only to these examples of the prevailing ineptitude to see that nothing could be further from the truth.
      Within a very few years of Raven’s retreat to the West Country, Hammer, Amicus, Tigon and sundry other minor players in the field were all of them gone, along with the distribution companies which had served them. American International followed soon after. What had begun in 1956 with Hammer’s The Curse of Frankenstein was over by the late Sixties, with Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed; the false dawn of the 1970s was no more than cynical exploitation, instituted in bad faith and undertaken with a level of incompetence which had to be seen to be believed. Mike Raven’s fate was merely the first scene in a final act. The real ‘Golden Age’ was already in the throes of its inevitable end.
The tragedy of this tale is that Mike Raven could have made it big in horror films - but not in the 1970s. His declamatory style and overly theatrical manner on screen were both ill-suited to the low-budget realism which had come to the fore by then. A decade earlier, and things might have been different. And had he not effectively fallen out with Hammer when he did, things might have been more different still. (In October 1973, the part of Dracula in The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires went to John Forbes-Robertson, the first ‘Count Karnstein’, when it could so easily have gone to Raven.)  His performance in I, Monster was a cut above those in the two films which followed it, especially during his long oration to Cushing: he certainly had the presence and, ten years before, could undoubtedly have slotted himself into that unofficial Hammer stock company which included the likes of Michael Ripper, Charles Lloyd Pack and Francis De Wolff.
      All in all, it was a fatal combination of bad luck, bad timing and quite often, downright bad acting which sank Mike Raven without a trace in the summer of 1973. Most unfortunately - and as Harry Fine had foreseen - his voice did not have the timbre for the villainous roles that he coveted. True to his personality in the flesh, he was just too benign, whereas Christopher Lee, for example, was always authentically malevolent.
      Raven looked fine in Lust For a Vampire, but he was not degenerate enough as the demented villain of Crucible of Terror and was simply appalling in Disciple of Death. What also became clear in the end was that he could neither write for nor direct himself. I believed then, and I believe now, that with better directors, in better-chosen roles, Mike Raven could have become a ‘cult’ figure in his own right. But he might have had to travel back in time, or to Hong Kong or Italy, to have achieved it.
      There is in everyone an inborn curiosity about the one great mystery - death. The one thing that none of us are completely sure of is what's going to happen after that point.
                                                                                                                             --Mike Raven
      In 1990, I holidayed with my second wife in South Cornwall. I had started to work on my biography of Hammer by then and finding myself in the vicinity was an ideal opportunity to kill two birds with one stone: reacquaint myself with Mike and Mandy, as well as gather together some long-lost reminiscences on Lust For a Vampire.
The Fairmans, as they were, had moved on ten years before to a hill-farm at Blisland, in the very heart of Bodmin Moor. Notwithstanding that, a letter had tracked them down and we met up at the farm before going off to lunch in the village. Mike had apparently experienced recent bouts of ill-health on two fronts, but he looked well enough and much as I remembered him - save for the fact that black had now been swapped for the woollens and waistcoat of the typical country-dweller. Endless numbers of sheep stood testament to his present means of earning a living.
      That afternoon, over a bottle of wine, he talked to me about his sculpting and brought forth examples. I have to confess I was mildly taken aback, both by the erotic nature of the carvings and their religious theme. In all the time I had known him, we had never talked about religion - and this with a man who had donned the robes of proxy priest for TV. It had simply never come up, and he had certainly never attempted to foist his faith on me. He showed me his workshop, and one carving in particular whose source of inspiration seemed to come straight from the ‘Kama Sutra’. But it was exquisite and of his talent as a sculptor, there could be not a shadow of doubt. At the time, he was preparing to launch an exhibition of his work in the crypt of St George’s Church, Bloomsbury. It did not sound to me like much of a venue but some years down the line, others of his statuettes would find themselves on show in St Paul’s Cathedral.
      The following week, we dined at the famous Jamaica Inn and I drove Mike and Mandy back to their farm. He wished me well with the book, whose preliminary pages were currently in the hands of the first of what would subsequently turn out to be three literary agents over the course of the next few years (it was eventually published without one), and I assured them of a return trip. On our own return home, I sent them a video that they had asked for, of Universal’s The Old Dark House. That was the last I saw or heard from either of them.
      It was some time after the event when I heard that Mike had died. The news was broken in a casual aside and way too late for condolence. I had intended to see him again in the immediate aftermath of that 1990 reunion, but we are not always privy to the direction of the road down which we travel and detours can spring unexpectedly into view - the birth of children, in my case.
      Mike was 72, and he was buried on May-day, 1997, by his family and friends, in what his eldest son describes in elegy to his father as ‘a tranquil spot that he chose himself in the heart of his beloved Bodmin Moor.’ Some of his sculptures are on permanent show at the Penzance Gallery in South Cornwall.
A photo of Mike in Crucible of Terror stares down at me to this day from the wall of my study, appended with the inscription ‘In memory of old times...’ It is emblematic of how I will always remember him: tall, imposing, clad entirely in black, striding down Chelsea’s King’s Road, his cape billowing in his wake, his voice bellowing out above those of the crowd. He was, without question, one of the most distinctive and individual men I ever met.
      I will also remember him for singling out Elton John for stardom, when the diminutive singer-songwriter from Pinner in Middlesex had just started out on the Yellow Brick Road and only a few had encountered him. And I could never forget that screening of Disciple of Death...
      But I will remember, especially, his wondrous carvings in wood and stone; his warmth and compassion; the pleasure of his company - and that he was the author of one the funniest jokes I ever heard, concerning a fellow horror actor, which I have absolutely no intention of repeating here!