THAT’S ME!

My provenance for writing a story in a book dedicated to Vampires of various persuasions goes back to a murky night Autumnal in the middle of the 20th. Century. The mist was spilling out over the banks of the River Spey and isolating the occasional street lamp in a furry ball of light. The dim light did nothing to enhance the heaps of rubble on either side of the road or bring a sheltering cloak of the bombed, smoke blackened buildings on either side. But for me the light could not have been brighter nor the setting more glamorous if I has been bowling down Manhattan’s Big White Way in a limousine. Tonight was my night. The night my year of brown nosing the director Elena Vigle and being the skivvy for a clutch of actors whose skill was doubtful and their egos overbearing. Earlier in the day I had heard that I was to get the big break that was to result the following morning in the ceremony of hanging a star on the dressing room door.  I’d heard the song and knew how it worked. The actress playing the Mute Kattrin in Mutter Courage had gone down with flu, she said, taking her understudy with her and it was left to the tea girl, in true Hollywood tradition to save the day and the play.

070

It hadn’t been a good year. I had reluctantly taken on the roll of tea girl after other, less astute directors, had failed to recognise my, as yet, untested thespian talents. Going to one of the most prestigious theatres in the world, The Berliner Ensemble, had been a last desperate gamble before creepy away and becoming a secretary. Elena hadn’t been impressed with my acting ability but had been short of a tea lady and general cleaner upper. So I took the job. At least I could tell family and friends that I had a job in the theatre and bend the truth a little as to the exact nature of my duties.

To hide my inexperience I had run off at the mouth a bit about the regime that put political expedience before art and had already been taken to Stasi headquarters for a warning. Elena had managed to get me out of that by convincing them that I was an empty headed big mouth who didn’t know what was good for her. The close call was enough to keep me quiet for a while but lately I had been revisiting some well honed themes. But I was thinking of none of this as I walked in through the little stage door and its firefly bulb just bright enough tosch pick out the letters ‘..AGE DO..’ I fancied the dumpy doorman nodded to me with a trace more respect as I took the crumbling concrete steps up to the communal dressing room. I was the first member of the cast to arrive and was already in my Kattrin rags when the wardrobe mistress appeared. She was a bit sniffy about having her function up-staged and pretended to make important adjustment to the costume in a futile effort to intimidate me.By the time ‘starters’ was called I had began to deflate a little. More interesting was the speculation about the contents of my stomach. Would they stay put or revisit at an inconvenient juncture.

ip camera

I was standing in the wings waiting for my cue when the lighting man came across. I smile regally and waited for him to wish me luck. Instant he put his head close to mine and told me that the Stasi were in the front box office and wanted to see me. I nearly fainted. I had instant recollection of all the clever things I had mouthed off about to anyone who wanted to listen and knew I was in deep schtuck. I was terrified. If they hadn’t always wanted the big effect and had come around to the stage door instead of marching in through the front my goose would have been well and truly barbecued. I didn’t  think. Just hitched up my skirts and ran out the stage door. I had these gruesome pictures in my head of my bloodied and broken body being thrown onto the flagstones of a dank prison cell. I didn’t have much Idea of where I was going – just wanted distance. I didn’t realise it but I was running along beside the River Spey. Without warning the headlights of a parked car blazed out and a harsh voice shouted at me to stop. I didn’t wait to find out who it was, just dived headlong into the bushes on my right. Behind the bushes the ground just fell away. Before I could scream I slithered down the steep slope and splashed into the river. The voluminous skirts of my costume kept me afloat initially and as I scrabbled to find a hand hold. I was being swept rapidly down stream. I could hear the policemen shouting instructions to me and warning me of dire consequences if I defied them and didn’t come out of the water. As I was swirled out into mid-stream the heavy skirts got water-logged and started to drag me down. At first I was afraid to lose them. What would Elena Vigel say if I lost one of her hard won costumed. It soon become academic what she would say. I was being pulled under. Luckily the tops of the skirts were elasticated rather than taped and it was relatively easy to get rid of them.  I was an excellent swimmer but the cold and the water I had taken on board as I struggled with my skirts was getting to me. And I could see figures on the bank that had suddenly loomed above me. They were shouting advice but I was too far gone to understand what they were trying to convey. My mental picture of the cell had undergone a transformation. Now it was a warm dry boudoir and I was in a feather bed being served hot chocolate by my mother. The current was holding me against the bank, trying to suck me under. Something fell across my face. I tried to push it aside. A hand gripped my wrist and I felt myself being pulled from the water. I had been rescued at the last  moment by an American Army patrol on the West Bank. They didn’t seem to know what to do with me and I finished up spending the night in a whore house. Next morning my mother came to get me. The American Lieutenant had called her and filled her in with the facts. Even I agreed when she said that I should take an office job.

I soon recovered from the ordeal and was back to my old self, a couple of nights later when there was a knock on the door and my American saviour stood on the doorstep with a bunch of flowers and a box of chocolates in his hand. He was a lovely man and before long we were talking of marriage. It was a bit dodgy for American GI Officers to marry local girls at the time but as I was, strictly speaking, Polish, he managed to get a licence and we were married. Shortly after his tour of duty was over, he was made a Captain and we were shipped back to the States.  And I found I was pregnant. My father had died some time earlier so I shipped over my mother because it seemed only right that she should be there at the birth of her grandchild. The baby was born and I was ecstatic. We called her Steffanie and I played Mum to the hilt. My mother wasn’t feeling so well and wanted to go home. I was happy with the baby so I let her. At first it was wonderful. Then I got bored with the life on the camp and started to look around for some excitement.  There were always Stock Theatre Companies coming to play on the camp and I got talking to the manager of one of them. I guess I rather overstated my position with the prestigious Berliner Ensemble. He suggested that I should come and do something for him. I gave him the benefit of thinking that the something he wanted me to do for him was theatrical and talked it over with my husband. He was just lining up for a tour of duty in Vietnam that would make him up to Major. He wasn’t too keen on what I proposed but couldn’t really stop me. When he left for war I packed up my belongings and my baby, stuffed them all in the back of my Oldsmobile and headed out.

I got a job with the Pasadena Playhouse. At that stage it wasn’t exactly on the level with the Berliner Ensemble but there weren’t any undercover cops monitoring my every move and I was playing a proper role. It didn’t last long. The company was under funded and the back pay was mounting. I had bills to pay which I couldn’t so I took the only way out I could see, once more packed belongings and baby into the Oldsmobile and headed north. I had decided to go back to Europe.

I just made it to Kennedy Airport – broke. I managed to sell my trusty car and purchase a ticket on the first flight out. I hadn’t any reserves to use to wait for a flight to a preferred destination. I ended up in Madrid with about $25. I had no idea how I was going to survive but I had met a photographer on the way over and he was very helpful. He told me there was a large group of ex-pats in Madrid, most of them working in one capacity or another in film. Almeria was at that time THE location for every outdoor movie being made. He was sure that with my qualifications, ( I had been spreading it on a bit thick) I would have no problem getting a job. He even got me sorted out in a small apartment in the Calle Alexander Fleming where actors like Richard Harris and Sean Connery and a lot of the crews were living. I was still no nearer getting a job when my photographer friend asked me to a bullfight he was covering for a newspaper. He got me a good seat up front. Too good! A bull was killed right in front of me and I was horrified. Next morning my picture was all over the front pages of newspapers. In the afternoon the photographer came to tell me that Ana Marishal, a top Spanish director had been in touch with the newspaper and wanted to meet me. She had a job for me on one of her films.  She wanted me to play a foreign tourist who hangs around with bull-fighters. It was all too easy.  I was a quick learner and before long had nailed down enough Spanish to push my rather exaggerated CV around. Before I had finished that film I was given a small part in a Western that was being shot in Almaria. That led to all sorts of well paid extra work on American productions and I even found myself doing stunt work because I was incapable of saying ‘no’ to anything that would put food on the table.

lunch w curlers

The first film I had a lead part in was El Sonido Prehistorico made in 1964. It predated Jurassic Park by a quarter of a century and had a little gizmo that Dickie Attenborough didn’t think of – invisible dinosaurs. I was young, skinny, platinum blonde and screamed a lot. It went down very well in Spain. While I was on location I had told everyone who would listen about my part in the Ensemble’s Mother Courage. I forgot to mention that I hadn’t actually taken the part on stage in anger. Lola Gaos, who was also in the film, told a friend who happened to be a director at the National Theatre. I was offered the chance to reprise the Kattrin role. My Spanish was coming on exponentially and I was soon up for speaking parts. The theatre was lovely but the pay wasn’t. To put some butter on my crust I was still putting myself up for whatever was going. As an extra for a couple of weeks on Dr. Zhivago I earned as much as I could make in six months in the theatre. I was also becoming a regular on TV and was being considered for the role of presenter in a show called Equi Espana!  Before I could say yes to that I found myself working on the Orson Welles film, Chimes at Midnight. Orson and I, how can I say this, had differing ideas about my function on the set. Before long I had a nostril flaring row with his in front of the entire crew and was banned from the set. Luckily news or our disagreement was kept and I found myself of the set of Los Duendes de Andulucia opposite Manuel Escobar.

There was a bit of a hiatus after this. My contract with the National Theatre had run its course and the only earner I had was Equi Espana. Great publicity but a not so great payer. Just when I was considering using my latent secretarial skills I got a phone call from a photographer, Mike Stern,  in Los Angeles, telling me that he had lined me up with a film. All I had to do was turn up at the Beverly Wiltshire, have bright dialogue with a producer and I was in. It was desperation stakes as far as I was concerns and I wasn’t prepared to look at the dentures of what looked like a gift horse. Bad move. Mike Stern wasn’t in evidence when I arrived and the playtime apparel of the producer was – in my wardrobe. We had a brisk misunderstanding, he gave me a handful of dollars and I flounced out. What to do? I spent a couple of days having my morale atomised then took a job in a restaurant. My speciality was plum cake. My luck was that film producer, Willy Wilder, loved plum cake. He used to drop in and chat. One day, out of the blue, he told me he was shooting a horror film in Manila. It was called The Omegans and would I like to play the lead? Predictably I burst into tears. Willy offered to pay my fare back to Madrid where I had left Steffanie in the care of my maid, and would see me in the Phillipines in a months’ time. No Strings attached! I couldn’t believe it but he was as good as his word and four weeks later I was on a plane to Manila. The film was about this platinum blonde, skinny, American with a super rich husband and a super sexy but broke big game hunter. They plan to get rid of husband and abscond with the loot. Only Hubby didn’t get to sit on his money bags by being stupid and he out fumbles them. There is this monster type situation. For budgetary convenience it is represented as a luminous glow in the water but it is an aqua-vampire. Wifey and BGH, encourage by the non-intervention of hubby, get up to prolonged bouts of no-good in the water and are gradually reduced to nothing more than skin and calcifying bone.

Now I had an American production padding out my c.v I decided to return to the States and show them what was what. It worked for a while. I made guest appearances in a lot of TV shows. Ironside, The Adventurer, Dundee and The Calhane, Ironside etc but I was spending up to the limit of my income and still keeping the flat in Madrid. I was drearily considering my options and nursing a stinking cold when I had a call from my co-star on Dundee and the Calhane, Ralph Meeker. He wanted me to go to a party with him. I felt like death but he painted such an engaging picture that I decided to go. Perhaps this would lead to a break. The though of every aspiring actor on his or her uppers.

funny ting

This time the fantasy came through. The party was in the conservatory of legendary stuntman, Yakima Canutt’s house. But it was a card party. The up-side was that John Wayne was one of the players. And I wanted in. I had played poker for matches and sunflower seeds and considered I had the right stuff. Half an hour the last of my cash was in the pot. Yakima saw what was happening and saved my bacon but it was obvious that they weren’t p;laying anymore poker while I was around. So Yakima called a taxi and saw me to the door. As I left he told me about Where Eagles Dare. There was a part in that just made for me. He told me to ring the director, Brian Hutton and mention his name. I auditioned with 299 other aspiring Heidis and landed the job. It was a highly successful film which is still shown nightly on some channel in the world. This put me on the celebrity circuit in England and led me to a head on with Hammer Honcho, Jimmy Carreras.

Jimmy offered me a job, well three jobs really, unfortunately all in the same film, Vampire Lovers. I wasn’t sure about returning to horror. Not after I had done an American blockbuster but as the alternative appeared to be permanent membership of the Premier Queen sorority I condescended to take the part on. And I loved it. Hammer were a great company for looking after their own. The take home wasn’t exactly mega but the perceived wisdom was that once you were a part of the Hammer Repertory Company you had work for life. Except that Hammer had begun to falter. A new, more visceral type of horror had appeared in the form of a dumpy little teenager who had a revolting propensity for vomiting green pea soup, breaking out in monster zits and revolving her head through 360 degrees. Hammer tried to meet the challenge but didn’t make it. They switched to television and had three very successful horror series before the plug was pulled and they were confined to the wilderness. Roy Skeggs, the new owner of Hammer, asked me to write an episode for myself. I had been doing the odd bit of scribbling here and there so I readily agreed. I did a script about a woman suffering from schizophrenia. It was how I felt at the time. Roy accepted it and it was scheduled for the next series. The series got scrapped and with it Osmosis. But I had got the writing bug now and decided that it was more controllable than the variety that inhabited the film world.

I still wanted to be part of that world but on my terms. My first real book was a thriller called Cuckoo Run. An espionage story about mistaken identity. That went well so I followed it up with a faction set in Buenos Aires, a town I had lived in for a couple of years in the early seventies. It romanticised the rise and fall of Juan Peron and the marvellous Evita. It was snapped up by ITV but scuppered by the strikes of the early 80’s. Several other companies have taken options but have been warned off the material by the potential knee-breakers they have run into. Since then I have been writing steadily. Lately I have returned to the vampire/horror seen with The Bedside Companion for Vampire Lovers, Ghosthunters and Murder, Torture and Depravity as well as taking on the ultimate horror for anyone, my autobiography, Life’s a Scream.

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