Barbara Shelley, actress who became the Queen of Hammer Horror – obituary

Barbara Shelley in Quatermass and the Pit (1967) -  TCD/Prod.DB/Alamy
Barbara Shelley in Quatermass and the Pit (1967) - TCD/Prod.DB/Alamy

Barbara Shelley, who has died aged 88, found herself hailed “Queen of the Ghoulies and Ghosties” in the 1960s when she appeared in several popular horror films, notably opposite Christopher Lee in Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966).

She became Hammer Horror’s leading lady with appearances in The Gorgon (1964) in which she was decapitated by Lee, Rasputin, the Mad Monk (also 1966), and Quatermass and the Pit (1967) among her credits. She had also appeared opposite George Sanders in Village of the Damned (1960).

Striking and statuesque, with a mix of sex appeal and vulnerability, Barbara Shelley worked as a model and trained as a dancer before taking small parts in Italian films in the mid-1950s. She made her British debut in the low-budget Cat Girl (1957) before being cast alongside Donald Wolfit starring as a mad doctor running a lunatic asylum in Blood Of The Vampire (1958).

Her most enduring role came eight years later as Helen opposite Christopher Lee, making only his second appearance as Bram Stoker’s aristocratic vampire in Dracula: Prince of Darkness. When the count kills Helen, her piercing scream (actually dubbed by her co-star Suzan Farmer in post-production) prompted one critic to rate it perhaps the quintessential Hammer film.

Filming of the “staking”scene was not trouble-free, however. An article in Hammer Horror magazine relates how during one take Barbara Shelley writhed so violently that she swallowed one of her stuck-on fangs. As there was no spare, the actress valiantly gulped salt water until she regurgitated the offending canine.

Acclaimed “an extremely well-made example of its class of ghoulish horror”, Dracula: Prince of Darkness cemented her reputation as a Gothic glamour queen, and one of the studio’s most consistent leading ladies.

With Christopher Lee in Dracula: Prince of Darkness - Everett/REX Shutterstock
With Christopher Lee in Dracula: Prince of Darkness - Everett/REX Shutterstock

Yet Barbara Shelley wore her “scream queen” mantle reluctantly. In later life she confessed to having been depressed about the turn her acting career had taken, and had even considered switching to writing when she was offered a leading role in the television series Oil Strike North (BBC, 1975). Two years later came a touring season with the Royal Shakespeare Company, playing Lady Capulet in Romeo And Juliet and cast as a courtesan in The Comedy of Errors.

She was seen by a television casting director who offered her the role of Esther Frith in R F Delderfield’s People Like Us (London Weekend, 1978).

She was born Barbara Kowin on February 13 1932 in Harrow. Her father shared his science-fiction magazines with her, and at St Joseph’s School, Wealdstone, and later the Convent of Jesus and Mary at Harlesden, she had ambitions to train as a missionary nun surgeon until a singing teacher cast her as “Giuseppa” in an all-girls production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers. “The moment I heard the applause, that was it,” she recalled. By 15 she knew she would become an actress.

With Martin Stephens in Village of the Damned (1962) -  Mgm/Kobal/Shutterstock
With Martin Stephens in Village of the Damned (1962) - Mgm/Kobal/Shutterstock

As well as taking private drama lessons, she found work as a model with the couture designer Mattli, where she also learned to sew (she made her own clothes for years, using an old-fashioned sewing machine).

Out with friends in Rome in 1953, she was introduced to the Italian comedian Walter Chiari, who invited her to be in his new stage show. Although she knew no Italian, her appearance in his revue led to parts in several films, with her lines dubbed. When the Italians struggled to pronounce her surname Kowin, she chose the stage name Shelley after the poet.

Eventually she learned the roles phonetically, her low, rich, husky speaking voice being judged most attractive to Italian ears, and by the time she left Italy she had a dozen or so films to her credit.

In The Gorgon (1964) - TCD/Prod.DB/Alamy 
In The Gorgon (1964) - TCD/Prod.DB/Alamy

On her return to Britain, Barbara Shelley signed to the British Lion studio, and in Cat Girl played a woman possessed by a family curse who develops psychic links with a leopard (“I was awful”). She made her television debut in Jack Popplewell’s thriller Dead On Nine (Associated-Rediffusion, 1957), but in Solo For Canary (BBC, 1958), a serial set in the London underworld, it seemed she was not destined to go the distance. “I cannot be sure about the future of Barbara Shelley,” murmured the Telegraph’s critic L Marsland Gander, “who seems to have been bumped off in this first instalment.”

Of the 22 films for television she made between 1962 and 1969, more than half were comedies. Her only comedy feature film, Postman’s Knock (1962), starred Spike Milligan.

In Danger Man (1960) -  ITV/Shutterstock
In Danger Man (1960) - ITV/Shutterstock

Her early television appearances included the first Danger Man episode, “View From A Villa” (1960), and The Saint (1962). She went on to become a regular in series like Hadleigh, The Champions and Crown Court, and was still working in the 1980s with roles in Doctor Who (1984), and as Dr Legg’s sister Hester Samuels in EastEnders (1988).

After her film career, Barbara Shelley turned to interior decorating, occasionally turning out at film conventions where she was revered as a significant figure in camp horror history. She made what was billed as her final signing appearance at the London Comic Convention in July 2019.

Barbara Shelley was unmarried.

Barbara Shelley, born February 13 1932, died January 4 2021