|Jimmy Sangster began
his film career as third assistant director at Hammer after he left the
RAF in the 1940s. In 1955 he wrote his first script X
The Unknown (1956), which has just been released on DVD. This led
to him writing a string of ‘classic’ gothic horror films that helped define
the concept of Hammer Horror. Besides scripting for Hammer, he has worked
as assistant director, production manager, producer and director on many
films, and in the 1970s he moved to the USA where he scripted for most
of the ’classic’ TV series of the period.
On 26 June 2003 I had the opportunity to have a half-hour phone conversation with Jimmy. Since our conversation flowed backwards and forwards over a range of topics for clarity I have grouped his replies under different headings rather than in chronological order. Although he has probably had to answer all sorts of stupid questions about his scripts and the Hammer Horror for more years than he cares to remember Jimmy Sangster talked candidly about his career.
Talking to him you get the overall impression that he regarded himself (since he is now semi-retired) as a ‘pen for hire’ who had no great pretensions about his writing. He wrote quickly and efficiently to the requirements of the particular production in hand. He does not think there is any great magic or art to scriptwriting, indeed he says that if he had not written for horror films he could easily have been a comedy scriptwriter. He makes scriptwriting sound simple but it is an elusive skill and it is a testament to Jimmy Sangster’s writing that his works are still viewed and respected decades after he penned them.
Scriptwriting; Techniques for Success
This is the title of a book that he has written for Reynolds and Hearn and is currently promoting. He admits it is very difficult to become a scriptwriter today because there is so much competition. He saw in a recent edition of the trade magazine Variety that about 50,000 scripts a year are registered with the Writer’s Guild and of them two or three will be lucky enough to be produced. When you go to Los Angeles everyone wants to be a scriptwriter or an actor. In reality only a relatively small pool of established writers are used and in Britain, because we make far less films, the situation is even worse. Some writers like Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral) do keep in regular employment.
In his book he offers creative tips and techniques for scriptwriting success but considering the hardships of getting your work accepted he did want to subtitle it ‘Don’t Give Up Your Day Job’. Understandably the publishers were not keen on this idea.
Jimmy Sangster’s attitude is “write it and deliver it because everyone is going to mess with it.“ A script can go through 17 different departments, other writers, and be changed by the actors and/or the director. Given these factors his philosophy was and is to never get frustrated, and make sure you get paid.
Today many of his films are now available on video and DVD but he does not receive any royalties for them since he usually got a one-off payment for most of his scripts. For the Hammer Horror films he would get a payment of about 400 UK pounds. Surprisingly he did not sound too put-out by this state of affairs; perhaps he’s come to terms with the situation and is just happy that his work can still be viewed and enjoyed.
X The Unknown
This project came about when JS was working as a production manager for Hammer. They had just scored a transatlantic hit with the science fiction/horror film The Quatermass Xperiment and they wanted to produce a sequel straight away. The film was based on Nigel Kneale’s hugely popular Quatermass BBC TV series but he was not impressed by Hammer’s adaptation and he refused permission to adapt the next Quatermass TV series until he was free to work on it himself.
To fill the vacuum Jimmy Sangster put forward a story idea to producer Anthony Hinds who asked him to write a script. This became X The Unknown. Like The Quatermass Xperiment this features a monstrous blob but instead of coming from outer space it came from the centre of the earth. In-line with contemporary concerns it was radioactive and lethal to humanity. Jimmy Sangster said he viewed it recently and he thought that it would be really good if it was re-made today with modern-day special effects.
Joseph Losey was the original director for X The Unknown, earlier he had directed A Man on the Beach (1955) and he was credited with the script along with Jimmy Sangster and Victor Canning. This time he had an ‘illness’ during production. In reality he was blacklisted by McCarthy and it was thought that this would impede the commercial success of the film in the USA. Furthermore, the US star they had drafted in for the film, Dean Jagger, was an anti-communist who would no doubt have clashed with Losey. It was easier to ditch the director. In Losey’s place came Leslie Norman (the father of film reviewer Barry Norman).
As production manager of X The Unknown he was on set as it was being made, and I asked him if he had any input into how his script was interpreted. The brutal fact was that Leslie Norman kept full control of the film and was not the sort of person to listen to a production manager, whether he had written the script or not.
After complaining about the lack of characters to empathise with or root for Harold Gervais on the DVD Verdict website writes:
As for Sangster's screenplay, it should be given its due. Within the confines of having to use the first Quatermass film as a sort of template, Sangster attempts to try something a little different. The movie manages to tap into many of the cultural/social fears of the day and exploit them within a science fiction setting. If you listen to the actual words being spoken, there is a compelling movie waiting to be told. All of his hard work is, unfortunately, left behind because of unusually lackluster work from most of the cast.Hammer Horrors
At the time of X The Unknown Hammer was not known as the studio for Gothic Horror films, which became it’s trademark. Jimmy Sangster’s first attempt as this genre was The Curse of Frankenstein (1957). Directed by Terence Fisher and starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee as the creature it was a box office hit in the USA, although the critics were not so keen on it. The reception of Hammer films in the USA is discussed by Sarah Street and our own Darren Slade in Curse of the Middlebrows: Hammer Films, Critics and Audiences notes why British critics were so dismissive of Hammer.
Quickly realising the potential of this market Jimmy penned the Horror of Dracula (1958) which was again directed by Terence Fisher and starred Christopher Lee as a modern-day predatory Dracula. These films established the Hammer Horror format and into the 1960s Jimmy Sangster continued to script a string of hits for them.
In the 1960s many of his scripts turned to psychological horrors. For example, he scripted two Bette Davis films; The Nanny (1965) and The Anniversary (1968). She was hard work as she was so demanding, but it was always for the sake of the film. Jimmy Sangster said that he preferred writing more psychological horror or thriller stories, which were inspired by the success of Hitchcock's Psycho (1960).
Ironically Veronica Carlson, a star of many Hammer films, agrees with The Encyclopedia of Horror Movies that Jimmy Sangster who directed and co-wrote The Horror of Frankenstein (1970) finished off Hammer’s golden age of horror films. I mentioned this to Jimmy but he pointed out that the Hammer Horrors had had a long run and that he used a more comic approach in The Horror of Frankenstein to inject something new into them.
Work In The USA
When Jimmy Sangster moved to the USA in the 1970s he started writing for the hour-long action/adventure shows that were so popular then. His list of credits includes most of the major series of the period: The Six Million Dollar Man, Wonder Woman, Canon, Ironside, Kolchak; The Nightstalker, McCloud to name just some of them.
He said he was part of a pool of about 30 or 40 scriptwriters and script editors who wrote for these series. What would happen is that if you were the script editor of a series you would commission other writers who would become script editors for other series who would then commission you to write for their series. He was the script editor of a couple of series, including Moving On for which he wrote 18 of the 22 episodes. As a script editor it was more lucrative because you got a weekly salary plus payment for any scripts you wrote.
To write for these shows you had to keep to very rigid formulas and you couldn’t spring any surprises. This was a very busy period of his life and he made a lot of money but he eventually returned back to Britain.
At the moment he does have a couple of scripts that have been optioned but he says he’s too old to write any spec. scripts now. I asked him who he would like to direct one of his scripts if he had the choice, and his instant answer was David Lynch because he would make it his own.
He observed that in the past there were great directors like John Houston, Willie Wyler and John Ford but there are few directors of their calibre today. Steven Spielberg is incredible because everything he does he brushes with gold and Martin Scorsese is incredible, but generally there is no guaranteed success in this business.
Information about the latest Hammer DVD and video releases can be
reception of The Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula
the USA is discussed in:
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