Barbara Shelley: ‘Queen of Hammer’ during the golden age of Gothic horror films

In TV series ‘Danger Man’ in 1960 (Rex Features)
In TV series ‘Danger Man’ in 1960 (Rex Features)

Barbara Shelley, who has died aged 88 after contracting coronavirus in hospital, was hailed the “Queen of Hammer”, who put the “vamp” into vampire during the golden age of the film studio famous for its Gothic horror productions.

Her most memorable outing in the small-budget, big-chills movies that caught the imaginations of British cinema audiences was in Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966), when Christopher Lee plunged his famous fangs into her neck.

The “vampirising” was followed by a scene where her “undead” character, Helen, puts up resistance as monks lie her on a table and hammer a stake through her heart.

So convincingly violent was Shelley’s struggling that she swallowed one of her stuck-on fangs. With no spares available and a tight shooting schedule, she kept drinking salt water until regurgitating it.

This was the third in Hammer’s catalogue of Dracula films, where Lee’s dynamic performances and the sheer animal magnetism he brought to his seductions of the alluring female leads helped to revive the studio after audiences tired of its 1950s crime thrillers.

Shelley followed her screen debut in one such movie, Mantrap (1953), by appearing in seven more of the studio’s productions, establishing herself as one of the first Hammer heroines.

From playing a female prisoner of the Japanese in The Camp on Blood Island (1958), she was seen in The Shadow of the Cat (1961) defending a pet that was witness to the murder of her wealthy aunt.

Then, Shelley teamed up with Terence Fisher, the director most associated with Hammer, and, for the first time, with Lee for The Gorgon (1964) to play the assistant to Peter Cushing’s doctor.

Because her character turns into the female monster, who transforms humans into stone, Shelley suggested that she play both roles, with live grass snakes used in her headdress.

Neither suggestion was taken up, but her judgement might have been right. The creature, played by a ballet dancer with a wig of rubber snakes, proved to be underwhelming and the film was not one of Hammer’s best.

She swiftly moved on to play a secret agent whose plane is shot down near a wartime Japanese prison camp in The Secret of Blood Island (1965), a prequel to The Camp on Blood Island.

Shortly afterwards, in Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966), Shelley acted the Tsar’s wife’s lady-in-waiting falling under the spell of Lee’s licentious Russian peasant-mystic.

She then brought authority to her final Hammer role, in Quatermass and the Pit (1967), as an anthropologist helping the professor of the title to prove his theory when an alien spacecraft is discovered in London during excavation work.

It was the third of the company’s Quatermass films, which followed writer Nigel Kneale’s ground-breaking television serials, and one of its few successful forays into sci-fi.

Shelley left Hammer before the studio started losing its way, having established herself with many fans as its No 1 leading lady of the 1960s, and spent the rest of her career almost exclusively on television.

She was born Barbara Kowin in London in 1932 to May (nee Hayes) and Robert Kowin.

While attending a Harlesden convent, she sang in Gilbert and Sullivan productions and acted in school plays, as well as local Catholic youth drama festivals.

As her older sister, Jo, headed off to Canada to become a successful writer and producer with the CBC television network, Barbara took up modelling. This led her to be cast as a fashion show commentator in Mantrap before taking a holiday in Italy.

When she visited Rome, Italian comedy actor Walter Chiari spotted her talent for performing and suggested she change her surname to that of his favourite poet, Shelley.

As a result, she appeared in stage revues, then had leading roles in almost a dozen films made in Italy, starting with Luna Nova (New Moon, 1955) and ending with Suprema Confessione (Supreme Confession, 1956).

When Hollywood arrived there to film The Barefoot Contessa (1954), Shelley appeared as an extra in a party scene. Later, its star, Ava Gardner – who became Chiari’s lover – returned to Italy to make the comedy film The Little Hut (1957) and Shelley doubled her feet.

Back in Britain, she signed a contract with British Lion and walked straight into the starring role in Cat Girl, a 1957 horror film, as a young woman obsessed by the idea that she will turn into a man-eating leopard.

Appearing opposite legendary actor-manager Donald Wolfit in Blood of the Vampire (1958) cemented her reputation in the genre, but the best of her early films was Village of the Damned (1960), in which she played George Sanders’s wife, one of the women giving birth to children who share telepathic powers and a lack of empathy for all around them.

In  ‘Dracula: Prince Of Darkness’ with Christopher LeeRex
In ‘Dracula: Prince Of Darkness’ with Christopher LeeRex

When her Hammer horror days were over, Shelley settled down to life as a prolific television actor.

Alongside guest roles in popular series, she acted Lady Caroline in John Halifax, Gentleman (1974); Elaine Smythe in Oil Strike North (1975); Esther Frith in People Like Us (1978); Lady Isabella Hertford in Prince Regent (1979); and Vannozza Canale in The Borgias (1981).

She was also seen as Sorasta, one of the evacuees from Sarn, in the 1984 Doctor Who adventure “Planet of Fire”.

On stage, she made her West End debut in From the French, a light comedy, at the Strand Theatre in 1959 and acted with the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon (1976) and at the Aldwych Theatre, London (1977), with roles such as Lady Capulet in Romeo and Juliet and Cassandra in Troilus and Cressida.

After playing Cousin Monica alongside Peter O’Toole in the 1989 three-part TV Gothic thriller The Dark Angel, Shelley retired from acting.

She spent her later years attending Hammer Films fan conventions and supporting homeless and children’s charities.

Shelley’s two sisters predeceased her. She is survived by her nephew, John Davis.

Barbara Shelley, actor, born 13 February 1932, died 3 January 2021

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