Tell us a bit about your new version of Hands of the Ripper. How similar is it to the Hammer film of the same name?
GA: The beats are the same but there are massive changes.
Hammer Books were interested in setting a number of their novelisations in the present day and they asked how I’d feel about attempting that with Hands of the Ripper. I said, “Fine, though you do realise that means we’ll lose Jack the Ripper… does that matter?”
I’ll admit I was joking, my knee-jerk response was that the story was so caught up in its Edwardian period that it wouldn’t work. Then I thought about it a little and realised that actually, that was rubbish. As with the recent BBC series Sherlock, getting rid of the fog and gaslight let you access the real nuts and bolts of the story and make it much more affecting. I wanted it to be a book about haunted people, in the widest sense of that word, as all great ghost stories are.
I wanted the central relationship to be a little more complex than came across in the film. A man moves a disturbed girl into his dead wife’s bedroom and dresses her in her old clothes? There’s something at work there that is only hinted at in the movie but I dwell on a bit more.
Changing the period simplified a lot of things and brought interesting new ideas into the mix. The movie has its central character take Anna under his wing as he wants to understand the nature of psychology, a fresh concept of the time. In mine, he does so because he’s nice and he needs somebody… there’s a hole in him his wife tore out when she died.
It also has a fair bit to say about false mediums and the artistry of talking to the dead in front of a paying audience, a subject that interests me a great deal. It’s a world I know quite well, I’ve had a fair bit of experience in it, and I wanted to explore that on the page.
It may sound as if I’ve jettisoned a great deal of the movie but I really haven’t, I think the mood, the shape and the essential story are the same. Fans of the film will read it and be surprised by how faithful it is. They will also have a different experience and I think that’s important. The film will always be there, why compete with it? Instead try to do something interesting with it, something that complements rather than copies.
How many times have you seen the Hammer film and did it get a rewatch before you started work?
GA: I must have seen it five or six times. I’m a huge Hammer obsessive and have been for years.
Despite that, I did watch it again because I wanted to get the shape of the story clear and also the mood of the piece, how the movie makes you feel.
It’s a surprisingly ‘straight’ Hammer, very few of the usual theatrics. It simply marches forward, cold and grotesque. I think that’s partly down to Eric Porter, watching that man act is like watching menacing granite in a suit, he’s so solid and authoritative. My protagonist is actually much gentler.
The original Hands of the Ripper book was written by Edward Spencer Shew, possibly before the screenplay – that all seems to be a bit of a grey area that I suspect will never be cleared up. It was published by good old Sphere books as one of four Hammer novelisations they brought out in the early 1970s. Have you ever had a chance to read it and what did you think of it?
GA: In his introduction to Hands of the Ripper, Jonathan Rigby (the fine actor and author of some of my very favourite books on horror cinema) addresses the complexities of Shew’s book. As you say it was published as a novelisation but seems so radically different that – coupled with an onscreen credit that states the movie was from “an original idea by Edward Spencer Shew” – there is a solid argument for it having been an unpublished novel that Hammer worked up into a movie script.
I haven’t read it though. Somehow all the Hammer novelisations passed me by, despite my prodigious collection of the movies (in far too many formats), books on the movies; mugs adorned by posters from the movies; a signed photograph of Christopher Lee as Count Dracula that hisses down at me as I type… I didn’t actually know that so many of the movies had been novelised before. It was only when I started working with Hammer Books that I became aware of them. Which of course means I now want to collect them all and eradicate my ignorance. Having said that, I wouldn’t have read the books before writing my own anyway, it could have been too obstructive. The films are the thing and while I allowed Kronos to contain elements that had been in Brian Clemens’ early drafts I didn’t want to be influenced by the books too.
What did you think about being asked to novelise and update possibly the only early 1970s Hammer film that doesn’t contain copious amounts of gratuitous nudity?
GA: Countess Dracula will more than make up for it!
I would have been happy with whatever film I was offered, they all present their own challenges and opportunities. This was particularly refreshing because of the blank slate I was given. Other than the request to set it in the modern day I was left to my own devices. Hammer Films pay close attention to what we’re doing and they’re determined that what we write should remain true to the spirit of the original, they also know that writers respond well to a degree of freedom. Power to them for encouraging us to stretch our legs with these books.
If your new version of Hands of the Ripper were to be filmed who would be your ideal casting choices?
GA: David Troughton would be superb as John, he has that ability to walk the line between gentility and strength. You would need that, someone that can seem frail, damaged and yet has a reserve of power to draw on.
Anna? In true Hammer-style she’d have to be an unknown. Preferably these days, selected for a better reason than her cup size.
Is the character of Lord Llewellyn Probert in Hands of the Ripper meant to be anyone we know?
GA: No ‘Helly’, he’s not. Neither is his American wife, Kathleen or his ill-fated lover Thana supposed to refer to someone you’re soon to marry.
It definitely wasn’t done as an engagement present because Hands of the Ripper is Kate’s favourite Hammer movie. No. Not at all. And my lawyers will maintain that stance however many incendiary letters you send them.
Shaun Hutson has just done X The Unknown and Mark Morris is doing Vampire Circus. Are there any other Hammer films you think would work well from the updating treatment?
GA: Absolutely. Most of them! Having discovered how faithful you can be on one hand while innovative on the other I’m heartily of the opinion that changing the period of the stories is a great way of looking at them through fresh eyes. It doesn’t even have to always be the present day, Countess Dracula will still be an historical novel after all, but it’s a quick and interesting way to divorce yourself from the trappings of the original and focus once more on the story.
Let’s shake these stories up and find new sharp edges with which to threaten the reader. Let’s be brave.
That said, I’m not sure how many more novelisations we’re going to do, the rights are complex and there’s a strong argument that Hammer Books should build itself as a home for original work.
You say you love Hammer movies, what is it that appeals about them?
GA: I love cinema in general, it’s the great populist art form, even when it’s on its worst behaviour (and yes, this might be an advert for The Killer B’s where you [John Llewellyn Probert] and I watch and discuss a dodgy movie every week).
Still, my favourite films hail from that period of British horror that started in the fifties and drew to a close in the late seventies. Not just Hammer – though they’re the major player, naturally – but Amicus, Tigon, the short-lived Tyburn… movies from people like Michael Reeves and Pete Walker… there’s just something about the work of those twenty or so years that I never tire of.
It began with the cerebral, Nigel Kneale-led sci-fi chillers and ended with Sheila Keith brandishing a power-drill. In-between there was everything from Gothic melodrama to grim, kitchen-sink realism. The movies can be comic, perverse, genteel, sexy and charming yet despite the vast range, from The Innocents to Witchfinder General, there is always an atmosphere, an indefinable spice that they share.
These were movies made for less than ideal budgets by people who had to increase their creativity to compensate. We had a great repertory company of actors, a hard-working, unpretentious bunch of writers and for a while we terrified the world.
What do you think about the ‘new’ Hammer Films?
GA: I think they stand a chance to develop into something just as wonderful.
It’s almost as if The Woman in Black is now counted as the first ‘new’ Hammer movie, ignoring Wake Wood, The Resident, Let Me In etc. but that’s OK, it’s all promotion and if there was one thing the Hammer of old understood it was the art of building your own legend and entertaining the masses. There seem to be some interesting projects lined up.
It’s a strange legacy, there are so few production companies that are talked of as if they are utterly synonymous with their output. You would never hear someone say “God, I love Fox Searchlight, I’ve seen every movie they’ve made”. Yet that’s what the Hammer name means, people approach them as they would a favourite writer, director or actor. It’s amazing really.
Ealing Studios is another I suppose (while we’re on the subject, The Ladykillers and Kind Hearts and Coronets are two of the finest movies ever made and every horror fan should have seen them).
Finally, it says in your biography that you used to be an actor. Is there any character in the books you have written that you would love to portray, either on stage or screen?
GA: Well, there’s some of me in a number of the characters I’ve written, so they would be easy. Miles in the World House books would be an obvious example. Max Jackson in the Deadbeat series another, he was almost a cipher for me when I first wrote them. He’s a much younger version though and I recognise him less and less.
Perhaps it would be more interesting to play someone different, after all I’ve been playing me for a lifetime (some would say not well).
Henry Jones – the blind shootist from the Heaven’s Gate series, he has a beautiful, bearded wife and a loyal troupe of Freak Show performers. He’s as evil as hell and I always did like playing villains. He’ll do!
WORDS: JOHN LLEWELLYN PROBERT
PHOTOGRAPHY: DEBRA WILKINSON
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