The faithful secretary is waiting at Longfield railway station, snug in the heart of Green Albion, to take a visitor to her boss. "I've been with him 27 years. He's more like family," says Joyce Broughton as she drives past fields of silky barley billowing on the green rises. Suddenly, she hastens to make a preface. "There's one thing I should tell you," she says. "I've christened him 'Sir.' "
A minute later, Broughton's comfortable country house comes into view, where "Sir" is staying while en route to London. A ring of the doorbell and there he stands, thin as a bullrush, in bedroom slippers. You are flush to flush with the familiar mandarin cheekbones of Prof. Van Helsing, Dr. Who, Sherlock Holmes, Baron von Frankenstein and a dozen other classic horror film characters.
"Do come in, dear boy," says Peter Cushing, his voice apparently rubbed gentle with a pumice stone for years. Although the face is stretched tight over the skull, it is softened by an almost constant smile and a set of blue eyes that are glistening lakes of amiability. Later this afternoon, sadness will surface in those eyes when Cushing talks about his late wife. But now it's time for tea and biscuits (served, of course, by Broughton) with the most hospitable gentleman in Kent.
"Do you smoke, dear boy?" he asks with silky politesse and an inviting pack of Player's Navy Cut filterless.
The rare balminess of an English midday in summer, the perfect green lawn at the back, the playful terrier on the rug, the tea and biscuits -- this could be a rural rendezvous Sherlock Holmes has arranged with Dr. Watson, to tell his sidekick about the Case of the Mysterious Inkpot from India or some other such thing. Actually, Cushing confesses, he has been thinking like Holmes lately, because he is gearing up to play the celebrated sleuth this fall, for the 18th time.
"I'm hoping to have one more stab at Holmes," says the 73-year-old actor. The words part the steam of his teacup. "Now he's very old and tottering around with his bees. But it's a good script. If I can only stagger through Holmes -- he never stops talking and moves with such speed. I thought, 'Oh, crikey. Roller skates please, props.' "
The upcoming film will be called "The Abbott's Cry," and features a veteran line of Brits: Rex Harrison, Nanette Newman, Patrick McGoohan, Trevor Howard. "None of us are in the first flush of youth."
Although he has turned out so many Holmes capers, and has done considerable stage work with confreres such as Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, Cushing is best known for his roles in the Hammer horror films. He cannot shrug off a curriculum vitae of such titles as "The House That Dripped Blood" or "I, Monster."
Which is not to disparage Hammer Films. The British production company, which started in the late 1950s, immediately became a cinematic byword for the seemingly impossible combination of low budget and high quality. The secret, says Cushing, was a teaming of imaginative collaborators, under the directorial hand of Terence Fisher. "There were absolute key men in every department, and wonderful effects." A frequently heard slogan among Hammer crew members, he says, was: "The impossible will take a few minutes. Miracles a little longer."
The Hammer era began with "The Curse of Frankenstein" in 1957, a remake of the Boris Karloff classic. Cushing played Baron von Frankenstein, and Christopher Lee the guy with the neck bolts. The film, shot in under three weeks, was a worldwide success, and led to 10 years of vampires, wolf men and other tales from the crypt, many of them pairing Cushing and Lee.
"I never played Dracula," Cushing says, for the record. "I was always the good guy."
When "Frankenstein" came out, he says, "No one had any idea it would be successful. It took the world by storm. The whole thing only cost 65,000 pounds. You wouldn't be able to get a lead actor for that today."
It was a case of take the quids and run for Cushing. At the time he was "getting along in years, and hadn't earned any money . . . I never looked on trying to be a success, just trying to find work."
When Hammer ploughed the profits into a second venture titled "Dracula," Cushing "accepted . . . with alacrity to get pennies for my old age. My wife said, 'If you go on making this type of film you'll be typecast.' She was absolutely right . . . "
He was usually the one scratching around for a wooden stake, or a cross, or a shaft of sunlight. He played Baron von Frankenstein five times, and Professor Van Helsing in as many Dracula films.
Yet the typecasting has never bothered him, he says. "I've always tried to bear in mind the most important people are the audience. I once thought, 'Would they like to see me as Hamlet or Baron Frankenstein?' and it turned out to be Frankenstein."
There have been valiant attempts to modernize the old horror legends. "We had Dracula among the kung fu in Hong Kong. It was called 'The Something of the Seven Golden Dragons' "Dracula and the Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires" . But I still had to drive a stake through Dracula's heart . . .
"Once you've done Frankenstein, who creates the impossible, and Dracula, a man who drinks blood . . . you've got to keep it on. It's awfully difficult to bring the changes up to date. They tried to keep it up to date with Steven Spielberg's "Young Sherlock Holmes" , but it missed the atmosphere of the period."
Cushing visited Hollywood for a brief spell in the late 1930s, with extra roles in "The Man in the Iron Mask," Laurel and Hardy's "A Chump at Oxford" and other films. He also played a motor mechanic opposite Carole Lombard in "Vigil in the Night." Returning to England when war broke out, he found he was physically unfit for service. While working as a wartime entertainer, he met and married Russian actress Helen Beck. They took up house and he worked as a stage, television and film actor. She supported him, "took care of the nest," and followed him to all his locations. The little British lad whose mother used to dress him up like Shirley Temple because she wanted a girl, the boy who ran down English hills firing imaginary guns a la Tom Mix, "the little Red Indian chief from the Dulwich Village reservation of 1917 had grown up and met his squaw," he writes in his autobiography, "Peter Cushing," published in England this year.
The book, a breeze-through of his life, is the tale of events now well-dimmed with time. The Hammer era is, for all intents and fans of darkness, history. Although the company technically still exists, founder Sir James Carreras long ago sold it to new leadership. Even horror, as Cushing defines it, is over, he says. The Hammer films, "although you were scared by them, you were never repelled. Today's so-called horror films only repel. And they're all about special effects, and not the characters involved."
He has not communicated with buddy Christopher Lee for more than a decade. "But you know, actors are a race apart . . . Although I haven't seen Christopher in almost 12 years, the bridge will be completely crossed when I see him."
There is another bridge Cushing is waiting to cross: to his late wife, Helen. His autobiography, most of it written with a light, anecdotal touch, ends with a painful recounting of her premature death in 1971. Nothing after that date, 15 years of his life, is mentioned. Cushing feels it is unnecessary.
He points to a framed silk scarf that he has used as a canvas, painting in water colors over it, a scarf that Helen saved on her flight from Russia when the Bolsheviks took over. Cushing does not wish to discuss her. "I feel I've said it all in the book," he says. But the love hangs too heavy in the air not to comment.
"The poor dear had emphysema," he says with respectful quietness. "It was gradually wearing her away . . . Whatever success I've achieved, it's due to her. She told me, 'You've got everything going against you to be an actor. You're shy, self-conscious, you've got nerves like a highly strung racehorse and you don't like flying abroad.' And she told me I'd better do something about it . . .
"I believe I'll meet her again," he says, and now the eyes moisten.
After Helen died, Cushing contacted a nursery to have a rose named after her, with the help of the BBC program "Jim'll Fix It," which fulfils requests of its listeners. The nursery owner invited Cushing up north, and told him to walk down a country path and select an appropriate rose.
"I walked along a road trying to choose one, when I came upon one, the only one of its kind. The owner said, 'I'll have to graft it and get some babies.' It was white with dyes of pink around the edges and a delicate perfume, and was a good old what I call 'cabbage rose.' "
It became the Rose Helen Cushing.
"I'd always wanted a rose named after her."
Cushing seems to be coming somewhat out of mourning. With Joyce Broughton's support, he has taken up painting again, something he had given up when his wife died. "I didn't think there was much point, until five months ago. Now I'd like to paint 25 hours a day, but I haven't got the strength . . .
"I find standing better for painting. But I'm beginning to totter when I stand."
Cushing lives with his memories in his Kent home, not far from where Joyce Broughton lives with her husband. She refers to Cushing as "Sir" even in the third person ("Whenever Sir was performing, I'd go up and watch . . . "), and attends to him with the devotion of a platonic geisha.
"Joyce has been a particular strength of mine since 1971," he says. "She says I'm good at everything. I'm quite dreadful, really."
Cushing stalks into the kitchen to get another "cuppa." A shriek from Broughton follows. He has given her a fright. "When you're an actor, you're taught to walk quietly about on stage," says Cushing, returning with a laugh. "I've got to remember to always hum or bang into furniture."
The talk returns to Holmes, clearly a favorite of Cushing's. "I have a real affection for Holmes," he says. "Superb characters -- all such interesting characters. Such as Moriarty . . . pea-soup fogs and hansom cabs rattling on."
"One thing the kids like" about Sherlock Holmes and Dracula, he says, "is that good always defeats evil in the end. To me that shows the greatest hope for the future."
Cushing, who recently completed a cameo in a British film about pulp-fiction fighter pilot Captain Biggles, says he will continue to make films as long as he can perform to his satisfaction. "If I feel I can't put out 100 percent, it's not really fair to anyone who's come to watch for me to go on creaking around. You need such energy. I love it, mind you. But you've got to be like athlete Zola Budd to work, which I'm not."
Among the daisies, horse chestnuts, ferns, bramble bushes, hops and grasses of Kent, Cushing is in his element, waiting patiently for comfortable film projects, for time to paint, and for a future spiritual meeting. He also has time to mull over the vagaries of nature, he says. Such as winter, "when nature apparently dies. It's God's way of saying, 'That's also for you, chum. Just do your best here, because you've got to do a lot better where I'm taking you.' "