How The BBC
Far from Hammer being the populariser of material from the stolid BBC, it was the adaptation of existing popular BBC shows that allowed Hammer to succeed, as Derek Johnston explains....
This article looks at the early links between two British institutions: the BBC and Hammer studios. Each can be thought of as representing different aspects of “Britishness”. The BBC’s public service remit to “inform, educate and entertain” aids its image as “Auntie”: well-meaning, earnest, rather middle-class, “tasteful” and well-liked, if out-of-touch. Hammer’s image, on the other hand, is probably that of the brash, commercial company that challenged the rather staid, middle-class values and tastes of British society. The idea of the BBC as establishment and Hammer as the rebel suggests that they would make strange bedfellows, but in this article, I set out how Hammer drew on the BBC to achieve their initial success, and that the story of their connections is much more complex and interesting than is often recognised.
Most people reading this site are probably aware that the success of Hammer’s colour Gothics from Dracula (UK, Terence Fisher, 1958) onwards was itself building on the international success of The Quatermass Xperiment (UK, Val Guest, 1955) and its sequel Quatermass II (UK, Val Guest, 1957). As those films were adaptations of BBC serials, there is a simple connection there that suggests that the BBC were, in a way, responsible for Hammer’s success, as they provided the original material that allowed the studio to break through. However, this rather ignores Hammer’s previous successes, and it is possible to take this link further, and in doing so to look at a less well-explored area in Hammer’s history.
As Catherine Johnson has noted, the relationship between the two companies can actually be traced back to the pre-War television service.[i] Exclusive, the distribution company partner to Hammer’s production company, provided both shorts and features for the service. But the main link that I want to focus on is not between Hammer / Exclusive and television, but between Hammer and BBC radio.
It is important here to remember that radio was the domestic medium of the early-to-middle twentieth century, from the 1920s really into the 1960s. Unlike television before 1955, radio in the UK was a multi-channel affair from fairly early on, offering a choice of national or regional programming. While it could still be seen as patrician, it was also genuinely popular, and its popularity only grew through the Second World War, as it learned the lessons of how to reach a wider range of tastes through different channels and programmes, while still working to unite the nation. One of the ways that this was done was through the provision of popular radio series and serials. This is where Hammer come back into the picture in the late 1940s.
Since 1927 the government had attempted to promote British film over Hollywood product by insisting that a certain quota of cinema screen-time be taken up by “British” films. This led to the production of what became known as the “quota quickies”: short, cheap films to support main pictures, although there were also the more expensive “supporting features” made, which is how we should think of the films discussed here. One of the companies that did well in producing quota and supporting pictures was Hammer.
While the idea was to support the UK film industry, it was also clearly linked to concerns over “British” culture. This would become particularly important after the Second World War, where a financially exhausted UK would be faced with the prospect of the collapse of the empire that had sustained it through the War, and the rising pre-eminence of the United States: militarily, financially, and culturally. No matter what the political and cultural grandees of the time may have thought, they could not deny the popular appeal of American product. What they could do was try to promote popular British product that had similarities to the American but retained its own culture. What we are seeing here should not just be thought of in terms of industrial and economic development, but also in terms of culture and identity.
In 1948, Hammer adapted “BBC radio’s first daily serial”, Dick Barton, Special Agent, keeping the show’s title for their film, as directed by Alfred Goulding. Howard Maxford records that the series “regularly attracted an audience of fifteen million” with its pulpy, popular detective action stories. [ii] This clearly suggested a built-in audience that could be attracted to the cinema in order to actually see the characters that they heard on the wireless. Indeed, an association with a BBC radio programme could be enough to raise a film from supporting to main feature in independent cinemas because of the recognised draw that it would have for audiences.[iii] For the BBC, these films could act as publicity, raising the public awareness of the characters. They would also gain the rights to show the films on television, providing much-needed content for the early service.
The adaptations were also an additional source of income to supplement the licence fee in order to allow them to fulfil their obligations in developing new media (such as television) and serving everyone in the nations, regardless of the effort and expense of providing transmitters to reach remote locations. It is worth noting that, at this point, the BBC’s financial gains from these adaptations and spinoffs were not great, as the properties mostly belonged to their writers and creators. It is only with the creation of the BBC’s in-house script unit, starting with Nigel Kneale and George Kerr, that the BBC would really start to own properties, something which would cause much of the tension between Kneale and the BBC in regards to the Hammer Quatermass adaptations. But that is another story.
Making a success of these adaptations is where the business nous of Exclusive / Hammer’s executives comes in. Dick Barton, Special Agent was a success in its own right but was already in profit before the box office takings. It had been produced for £20,000 (according to Maxford; Chibnall and McFarlane place the cost at £12,000[iv]) at a time when the standard purchase of a feature such as this for the second-run market was £25,000.[v] The fit of the adaptation with Hammer’s commercial needs was such that they released two more Dick Barton films in the next two years: Dick Barton Strikes Back (UK, Godfrey Grayson, 1949) and Dick Barton at Bay (UK, Godfrey Grayson, 1950).
There were some issues with the Dick Barton adaptations and the BBC, though. Dick Barton Strikes Back was originally scheduled as a Christmas Eve film for 1949, but because it was still being shown in the cinemas at the time (a year after its initial release) it had to be withdrawn from the television screening.[vi] The BBC were also not particularly impressed by the adaptations, although acknowledged that they had been successful.
But these were not the only BBC adaptations that Hammer filmed at the time. Indeed, in the seven years between 1948 and The Quatermass Xperiment in 1955, Hammer produced seventeen such adaptations, as listed below:
Dick Barton, Special Agent (UK, Alfred Goulding, 1948)
Dr. Morelle – The Case of the Missing Heiress (UK, Godfrey Grayson, 1949)
Celia (UK, Francis Searle, 1949)
Dick Barton Strikes Back (UK, Godfrey Grayson, 1949)
The Adventures of PC49 (UK, Godfrey Grayson, 1949)
The Man in Black (UK, Francis Searle, 1949)
Meet Simon Cherry (UK, Godfrey Grayson, 1949)
Dick Barton at Bay (UK, Godfrey Grayson, 1950)
Room to Let (UK, Godfrey Grayson, 1950)
The Lady Craved Excitement (UK, Francis Searle, 1950)
The Black Widow (UK, Vernon Sewell, 1951)
A Case for PC49 (UK, Francis Searle, 1951)
Lady in the Fog (UK, Sam Newfield, 1952)
Spaceways (UK, Terence Fisher, 1953)
Life With the Lyons (UK, Val Guest, 1954)
The Lyons in Paris (UK, Val Guest, 1955)
The Quatermass Xperiment (UK, Val Guest, 1955)
While Hammer continued to produce radio and TV adaptations after 1955, it would take another twenty years for them to produce the next fourteen adaptations, showing how important these early adaptations were to establishing the company. Of the twelve Hammer features made in the 1940s (starting in 1947), eight were adaptations of BBC properties.
These BBC adaptations are also important because of their genres. With the exception of Life With the Lyons and The Lyons in Paris, all of the films before The Quatermass Xperiment are crime adaptations. Some are comedic, such as the PC49 films, and Spaceways is a murder mystery set around a British rocket project based on a 1952 radio play by Charles Eric Maine. Looking forward to Hammer’s success with horror, The Man in Black was based on the radio series Appointment With Fear and included Valentine Dyall repeating his role as the title character from the radio series, who provides a framing narration for this more macabre take on the crime story. Dyall had previously appeared in the title role in Dr. Morelle, where he investigates a woman’s disappearance at a gloomy mansion. He also appeared in Room to Let, a period drama based on a radio play scripted by Margery Allingham, perhaps most famous for the Lord Peter Wimsey detective stories. Dyall played mysterious lodger Doctor Fell, who may be an escapee from an asylum, who may actually be Jack the Ripper. The inclusion of these “creepy” films alongside more comedic approaches to crime drama could be considered as more “British” approaches to the genre to run alongside the more hardboiled, “noirish” crime thrillers that Hammer and other studios were also making.
This genre mix does fit with Hammer’s output of the time, which concentrated on crime thrillers with occasional comedies. It is also a reminder that, despite the common focus on Hammer horror, the studio always produced work in a mix of genres.
In 1953 they made their first foray into science fiction with the novel adaptation Four Sided Triangle (UK, Terence Fisher, 1953). This was followed in the same year with the adaptation of the BBC radio play Spaceways, itself based on a novel and again directed by Fisher. This suggests that part of the reason that Hammer picked up on The Quatermass Experiment may have been that they were looking to expand their production of science fiction films, recognising their growing popularity in the UK and US. Spaceways was itself a UK-US co-production, part of a four-year deal signed with Lippert Pictures in 1951 under which each company would distribute the other’s product in their respective territories. The Lippert deal, and others like it, provided a way for an American producer to be involved with films that counted as British for the quota, but which would include an American star and be in genres associated with American product. As such, they would have appeal in the UK but also in the US, where they would receive distribution as part of the deal. Everyone benefited, it seemed.
I mentioned that there were two films on the list that were not crime dramas in some way: Life With the Lyons and The Lyons in Paris. These were spin-offs from a popular comedy series, also called Life With the Lyons (1950-1961 on radio and 1955-1960 on television), which starred married American performers Ben Lyon and Bebe Daniels and their actual children Barbara and Richard as fictionalised versions of themselves. Considering the importance of sitcom adaptations to the later years of Hammer in the 1970s, it is interesting to see that they also produced an adaptation of what has been called the first British sitcom. It is also interesting that the second of the films did what so many sitcom to film adaptations would do and sent the characters on holiday!
The Lyons themselves were not only recognisable from their film work before World War II, but Ben Lyon had been a studio executive with Warner Bros in the mid-1940s following appearing in a run of British films made in the early 1940s (including 1943’s The Dark Tower directed by Terence Fisher). Both had also been popular radio performers in the BBC series Hi, Gang! (conceived by Ben Lyon, 1940-1949) which had itself been adapted to film by Gainsborough Pictures in 1941.
This last fact demonstrates is that it was not just Hammer who were producing adaptations of BBC material. Indeed, when it came to the potential adaptation of the television serial The Quatermass Experiment, there were a number of studios that showed interest, no doubt due to the high level of success that the serial had enjoyed. However, when it came to the practicalities of the adaptation, the more prestigious studios found the television material too strong for the cinema screen.
It must be remembered that British television was not (and still is not) formally pre-censored in the same way that film is. Also, the interest in adapting The Quatermass Experiment started coming in within the first two or three weeks, so the full body horror elements of the story had not yet been revealed. As they were, it became clear that adapting the serial directly would result in an “X” certificate, something that the more prestigious studios were not interested in because it would restrict the potential audience just to adults. Only Hammer remained interested, seeing the potential “X” as an exploitable marketing opportunity, as made clear by their eventual capitalising on the certificate in their spelling of the film’s title.
While the BBC certainly benefited from the additional publicity for their shows and characters, they were rather averse to this approach of exploiting shock. Despite the importance of horror to BBC radio and television, there was also a major concern about being tasteful. This can be thought of in terms of showing respect to the audience. After all, the broadcaster had been invited into the audience’s homes, and as a guest, it would not be done to shock your host.
It wasn’t just narratives and characters that Hammer took from the BBC in these formative years. Peter Cushing was known at the time of 1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein primarily as a television actor. In relation to his performance in the television play The Creature (BBC, Rudolph Cartier, 1955), which Hammer would adapt as The Abominable Snowman (UK, Val Guest, 1957), Peter Cushing was referred to by The Times as ‘that good television actor Mr Peter Cushing’.[vii] Cushing had also won the Daily Mail National TV Award for 1953 and 1954, together with the Guild of Television Producers and Directors Award in 1955, for his part in the notorious BBC television production of Nineteen Eighty-Four (BBC, Rudolph Cartier, 1954). That Nigel Kneale-scripted production had also featured Andre Morell, who was also more of a television (and theatre) performer than film actor at this point, despite some pre-War film roles.
James Bernard, who composed the music for The Quatermass Xperiment, The Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula and many other Hammer films, was also found through the BBC, where he had composed scores for a number of radio plays.[viii] As Wayne Kinsey would have it, ‘James Bernard would soon define the very sound of Hammer horror.’[ix] While probably not as recognisable to the general public as someone like Cushing, or a character like Dick Barton or PC49 or Quatermass, Bernard’s hiring still illustrates that Hammer were more than willing to look to the BBC for proven talent. Working in a television and radio system that was still mostly dependent on live performance, these performers could also be expected to be reliable, to know their lines and so to keep the costs of extra takes down. These are also key skills for theatre performers, which many of the actors also were, but the television and radio actors had the advantage of being familiar voices, and faces, broadcast into the homes of millions of people on a regular basis.
What this tells us is that both the BBC and Hammer were operating within a wider entertainment industry. Both had their commercial needs: in order to fulfil their government-mandated obligations, the BBC needed more money than they could bring in through the licence fee. By the early 1950s, the BBC was also aware that competition in television was extremely likely, and so there was the additional pressure of ensuring that they could demonstrate that they were popular enough to continue to receive licence fee funding. The desire from Hammer and other film companies to produce adaptations of BBC programmes helped to demonstrate this popularity.
But it is also time to walk back somewhat on the claim that the BBC in some way “created” Hammer. It may be better to say that they provided properties that Hammer could successfully exploit in order to create themselves through their own successes. Without the BBC, Hammer would simply have found other properties to develop, no doubt including ones that had already proved successful in other media. With the BBC, though, they could draw on properties, performers and creatives that had already proved successful with millions of people, and were already household names. While the companies may initially seem to have different drives, what they instead contribute to is understanding some of the complexity of how British popular culture developed in the post-War period. In particular, these examples can help us to understand how that popular culture is shaped by finding that particularly British approach to the tensions between public service and the commercial.
We can also think about what the change in Hammer’s direction shows. As I pointed out earlier, their adaptations from BBC properties were mostly concerned in some way with crime, or comedy, or a mixture of both. These genres were highly popular, and adapting the BBC productions could be seen as taking a British approach to genres that could be seen as “too American”. This tension will be seen again in Hammer’s film versions of the first two Quatermass serials, and the bullishness of Brian Donlevy’s Quatermass potentially suggesting American aggressiveness. So it is interesting that, having established itself in part through the success of these somewhat-Americanised versions of British programming in “American” genres, Hammer should turn away from the BBC and towards the more British Gothic tradition for its move into colour. It is only with the 1970s that Hammer returned to television adaptations in any number, achieving some of its greatest box office successes with its sitcom spinoffs, but also showing further changes in not only the industry but in ideas of Britishness. That, though, is definitely another story.
[i] Johnson, Catherine, ‘Trading Auntie: the exploitation and protection of intellectual property rights during the BBC’s monopoly years’, New Review of Film and Television Studies, Volume 7, Issue 4 December 2009, pages 441 – 458, p.445.
[ii] Maxford, Howard, Hammer, House of Horror: Behind the Screams (London: B.T.Batsford Ltd., 1996) p.15
[iii] Chibnall, Steve and Brian McFarlane, The British “B” Film (London: BFI Publishing, 2009) pp.40-41
[iv] Chibnall, Steve and Brian McFarlane, The British “B” Film (London: BFI Publishing, 2009) p.74
[v] Maxford, Hammer, House of Horror, p.15
[vi] Conway, Harold. “Dick Barton TV Film is Banned”, Evening Standard. 20 December 1949. The article is quite clear that the film was not banned, just that it could not be shown on television while it was still showing on cinemas because of contractual obligations. Clearly “Banned” was more appealing to the headline writers.
[vii] Anon., “Quest Play on Television”, The Times, 31 January 1955, p.10
[viii] Kinsey, Wayne. Hammer Films: The Bray Studio Years (London: Reynolds and Hearn Ltd, 2002) pp.37-38
[ix] Kinsey, Hammer Films: The Bray Studio Years, p.38
More To Explore
Syringes, Crucifixes and (Un)Therapeutic Whirlpools: The Social and Medical Horror of Saint Maud (2019)
Joe Howsin explores the ‘social horror’ of Rose Glass’ excellent British horror debut film, 2019’s Saint Maud…
In the latest entry for his Horror in the Britcom series, writer A.J. Black explores the transition from beloved television comedy to the big screen with 2005’s The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse…