When Dracula Invaded England

Famous Monsters of Filmland No. 35 – October, 1965

For over forty years, until the publication of Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi in Britain by Frank Dello Stritto and Andi Brooks (Cult Movies Press), the article When Dracula Invaded England gave us the most in-depth look at Bela Lugosi’s 1951 British revival tour of Dracula. Although containing many inaccuracies and juvenile in tone, it was key to the early research conducted by Frank Dello Stritto and I into the tour. Published in Famous Monsters of Filmland No. 35 in October, 1958, the article drew heavily on interviews conducted with Bela and his wife Lillian by the British press upon their arrival in Southampton aboard the  S.S. Mauretania on April 10th, 1951. Whereas the tour would be written off in a few short lines as a total disaster by most Lugosi researchers over the following four decades, Famous Monsters of Filmland, writing exactly seven years after the tour ended, and only two years after Bela’s death, hailed it as “extremely successful.” The truth lies somewhere in between. The play toured Britain for six months, and would have continued for at least another month had Bela, exhausted by age, poor health and the rigours of life on the road, not requested that it be brought to an end. Although Bela garnered mostly excellent reviews, the play was too dated and the production too under-funded to compete with more modern and sophisticated entertainments of the day. As a result, it was not a great financial success, although, despite the legend, the whole cast were paid in full. It also failed in its primary aim of securing a run in the West End, which Bela had hoped would give him one final triumphant comeback. (Andi Brooks)

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A new expanded edition of Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi in Britain has been published by Cult Movies Press. Please see Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi in Britain” New Expanded Second Edition for details.

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For Eager Victims

On the night of 10 April 1951 the notorious Count from Transylvania invaded Great Britain and, somewhat to his surprise, found the island’s inhabitants perfectly willing to surrender!

The Master Vampire, it is reported was not accessible immediately after his arrival and was not, indeed, on hand for an interview for at least several weeks. But as his bad-will ambassador, Bela Lugosi, was present, accompanied by his 4th wife, Lillian. Unconfirmed sources insist that the latter was secretly the Bride of Dracula but her fondness for daytime appearances sheds doubt upon this statement.

Apparently convinced that Mr. Lugosi & Dracula were one and the same person, crowds of squealing teenage fans and squealing middle-aged newspaper reporters followed him wherever he went. Odd scraps of paper were constantly being pressed into his hand and he would obligingly scrawl his autograph in blood-red ink. His fans were delighted by this symbolic touch.

Female fans, who comprised the majority of the crowds present, regarded Mr. Lugosi with the same sighing idolization normally reserved for Danny Kaye or Frank Sinatra – the most popular American movie stars at the time. These girls would either watch him wide-eyed or greet him with excited giggles as he toured the country, performing mock terror scenes over delighted “victims”.

Blood (Orange)-Sucker

One reporter wasted no time in getting down to the heart, liver and kidneys of the matter. He inquired of Mr. Lugosi: “Is it true that you suck blood oranges?”

“All the time,” he replied. “I often eat 6 at one sitting.” An enigmatic gleam – possibly humor, or perhaps . . .

The reporter continued, “And raw steaks?”

“When I can get them,” Lugosi replied. Now, in addition to the gleam in his eye, there appeared a slight twist of the mouth. He was prepared to go on in this manner indefinitely when finally the reporter’s courage gave way and he made an abrupt exit. Lugosi broke into a broad Slavic smile.

It had happened before.

Bela & Lillian (Photo by Harold Clements Express)

Bela and Lillian, wearing a silver bat broach, upon their arrival at Waterloo Station on April 10, 1951

Looking Dracwards

With other reporters who preferred to avoid the subject of his affinity for the red fluid which coursed thru their veins, Lugosi indulged in a bit of nostalgic reminiscing. Asked if he shared the superstitions of his peers in Lugos, Hungary, he replied:

“I was not such a brave kid in Hungary. I was born in Transylvania where the Dracula legend comes from, and never did I go down into our cellar. It was full of bats.”

In his youth Lugosi was the goalkeeper for the football team in Transylvania – the name of which has not been… unearthed.

Having not known Lugosi as well as we, the reporters were interested in whether he found the role of the vampire prince enjoyable because he shared some of the fiend’s innate wickedness. Lugosi answered, when he recovered from the shock, that the worst thing he ever did was to steal hats!

“I was a hat hunter like the Indians who used to collect ‘headpieces’ of their enemies. In 2 years I got 1500 hats from boys of a rival school. I put them up for sale and made a lot of money.”

The conversation drifted from to the origin of his career.

“Never become an actor,” he warned one young man. “There is only one place in the world where it is worthwhile – Hungary.”

Hamlet & Horror

“Over there you have a 4-year training course, and once you have passed thru that you have nothing to worry about. Even in your old age you still get a pension. In America there is always the fear of unemployment.

“I was, as a young man, an actor in the Hungarian Royal National Theater.  I played the romantic leads. I have played the role of Hamlet on more than one occasion.” Lugosi, at that point, smiled proudly. “I have only played the role in Hungarian, tho.”

If he was so successful, they asked, why did he leave Hungary?

“I left my country in 1920 and have never been back. I do not like to live under a dictatorship of any kind, and I am now an American citizen.

“When I came to Broadway in 1923 I played still romantic parts – the Spanish lover in ‘The Red Puppy’ (sic) and the Valentino-type sheik in ‘Arabesque.’ Then they wanted someone to play Dracula. In America, you know, they have the type system of casting. And there was no male vampire type in existence.

“Someone suggested an actor of the Continental school who could play any type, and mentioned me. It was a complete change from the usual romantic characters I was playing, but it was a success – such a success!”

Programme for the premiere in Brighton

Horrorwood & Frankenstein

“I was branded then as a horror specialist, going to Hollywood in 1931 to recreate the stage role for the film DRACULA. If I had just one percent of the millions that film has made, I wouldn’T have the pleasure of sitting here now.”
Lillian interrupted jokingly: “No, Honey, you’d be stretched out by our lake in California, doing nothing.”
Lugosi chuckled. “You know, DRACULA is the only film to be reissued every year without a miss? Next I went on to play the mad scientist in MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, and following that I was told to make a ‘costume test’ for the part of Frankenstein’s monster.”

We need not elaborate on the outcome of that venture.

Then suddenly Lugosi made an announcement which, for the monster master, was totally unexpected and almost unbelievable.

Dracula Retire?

“Horror is my business – it pays off best,” he intoned. “But I’m tired of gore. I hope that in England I find some broad-minded, intelligent producer who should say, ‘Let’s give Lugosi a comedy!”

Shortly afterward he was given a role in Glen or Glenda? – something which might be called a comedy – and then in Vampires (sic) Over London. The latter was finally released in America as My Son, The Vampire, known in England as Old Mother Riley Meets the Vampire. (1)

But Lugosi did not switch to comedy and abandon the horror field, as the record of his subsequent films proves. He was, however, a natural for less serious roles.

The reporters found him a mild-mannered, inoffensive gentleman with a pronounced Hungarian accent and a personality that would be envied by many. As photographers took publicity stills of the “Dracula” company, he even assisted with the lights and offered friendly advice.

At other tomes he sat quietly at the side of the stage, coming out with occasional wisecrack (sic) or calling a friendly “Hi!” to the theatre folk as they went about their work.

When all was ready for the publicity stills, he grabbed his leading lady for the play. She slumped helplessly in his arms as he exposed her lily-white throat and bared his fangs.

The flashbulbs flared, the cameras clicked and the reporters happily went on their ways.

Bela met his British fans at the Sunday Pictorial Film Garden Party at Morden Hall Park in Surrey on June 16th.

In The Mood For “Food”

The primary purpose of Lugosi’s presence was, of course, the presentation of the stage play Dracula to Britons. The premiere was on 16 June 1951, at the Theatre Royal in Brighton. (2)

Reporters of the time were let in on a few secrets hitherto or quite unknown to monster fans.

“It takes me about half an hour to warm up before the curtain rises, “  Lugosi confessed. “I never  eat before a performance – I like to go on thirsting for blood.”

Lillian explained: “He has to get himself in the mood. I can’t even talk to him for an hour before the show. And I wouldn’t want to! He’s impossible for half an hour before and after each show – he’s still Dracula!”

Normally he has rather small hands, but with a flick of the fingers he was able to twist them into one of the terrifying positions so well known to monster fans. Suddenly his fingers looked immensely long and thin.

His eyes were deep pools in which swam nameless terrors, at least as Count Dracula. Often he would warn a young girl reporter. “Never, never look into my eyes! Always I tell my leading ladies never to look into my eyes – at my forehead or nose, never my eyes. The last lady who looked into them went off – boomp! – into a hypnotic trance. I woke her with cold water.”

And many times that young girl reporter would mistake Lugosi’s usual tongue-in-cheek attitude for a fang-in-throat true account!

Dracula—1951

Concerning the British stage version of Dracula, Lugosi explained, “We are playing it perfectly straight and it has been modernized since I played it on the American stage.”

For horror, he said realistically, is not what it used to be. When the play was first presented on Broadway there were members of all audiences who took it  literally. People screamed and fainted. First-aid staffs were kept busy. Lugosi as Dracula did not then dare to pretend to bite his victim’s neck, for fear of hysterical reaction from the public!

Now the customers, especially the children, know it all. They have seen plenty of horror films with Lugosi taking part, and they are more sophisticated, as they were even in 1951.

The British production of Dracula acted on the presumption that there was still, nevertheless, a strong public demand for the old-fashioned spine-tingling horror play – provided it was properly presented. Capacity audiences endorsed this view when Dracula premiered.

No concessions were made to changing or more sophisticated tastes among the theatregoers, save for a slight modernization of the setting, with the result that demoniacal laughter often rang thru the theatre, the air was seldom free from the distant barking of dogs and wolves and from unidentifiable whistles, clammy mists swirled thru doorways and windows and, in fact, almost every feature of unabashed melodrama was present.

Strangely enough, in the more recent production, there were uniformed first-aid attendants on duty throughout the play, even tho the most horrific bits were inclined to inspire more titters than gasps. There have, however, been actual cases of shock in the audience – but those were all elderly people.

After six months on the road, the curtain came down on Dracula at Portsmouth’s Theatre Royal

Good Guy Or Bat Guy?

“I don’t scare the kids,” Lugosi said. “They know I’m the good guy at heart.”

This increased awareness among audiences, plus his desire to change to comic roles, almost caused Lugosi to react against his will. Often he found himself tempted to play Dracula for laughs – especially in his curtain speech, when he said, “There are such things as vampires,” and vanished in a puff of ghostly mist.

To play Dracula in a humorous “vein” would be one thing to which Lugosi was adverse. He frequently muttered about his role in Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein and told reporters:

“The horror business is certainly not what it used to be. Boris Karloff, a great horror specialist – look what he is driven to do. Comedy stuff in New York!”

Despite the sophistication of the audiences, the 1951 British stage production of Dracula was extremely successful. A newspaper critic of the time gave this account:

This is melodrama in the Henry Irving tradition, magnificent, macabre and gloriously bloodcurdling; not staged, but invoked, and declaimed rather than acted. Hollywood could never provide realism like this. At a lesser theatre it would be capacity twice nightly.

The Only Way To Fly

In the modernized version of Dracula most of the action took place in the asylum of Dr. Seward (Arthur Hoskins) at Hampstead Heath Row. His daughter Lucy was played by Sheila Wynn, and the attendant, furnishing comic relief, by John Saunders.

Dracula calmly filled six packing cases with local soil and took an air-liner to Heath Row, where he mystified the Customs officials by firmly declaring ordinary boxes of earth. He explained to them that he needed them “for horticultural purposes.”

With that he began operations on London’s outskirts, where the Count in black, reeking of brimstone and tombstone, claimed the blood of the living as his due.

At last Dracula was laid to rest by the final driving of a yard-long stake thru his heart.

Bits & Pieces

Bela and Lillian Lugosi each carried a token of the vampire prince to whose greatness their fame and fortune can be attributed. Bela wore the heavy silver Dracula ring – a replica of the ring worn by the actual Count Dracula! And his wife wore a silver bat on her beret. (3)

To Bela may also be given the honor of having told the very first elephant joke! During conversations with reporters and fans, while Lillian kept up a bright and witty conversational stream, the raven-haired Mrs. Lugosi firmly announced:

“Bela could not tell a story to save his soul. He always forgets them halfway thru. There’s just one he can remember, and that takes half an hour to tell.”

“Shall I tell them the one about the elephants?” he asked.

“No!” she shouted. “That’s the one I’m talking about!”

Alas, we shall never be able to hear it.

Bela visiting the home of Famous Monsters of Filmland editor Forrest J. Ackerman and his wife Wendayne

Dracula Without His Cape

Hitherto we have seen the several faces of Bela Lugosi: Bela the Vampire, Bela the Jester, Bela the Actor. But we have yet to see the final face – that of Bela the Man.

We shall see this thru the eyes of Lillian Lugosi:

“He tells me he loves me every single day. I think that’s very nice, don’t you? Men get so neglectful. I know when he’s angry with me – the day he doesn’t tell me he loves me.

“Bela’s good about the house, too. Only one fault – he leaves his stamp collection all over the place.”

Bela interjected, “I love stamp collecting. I love soccer. I love dogs. I used to have seven little dogs, then little Bela Jr. Came along and Lil said we must have room in the backyard to hang up the diapers, so now I have only six dogs.”

What does he read in his spare time?

“Political science, in which I am very interested. I never read novels, but I like to keep up with things in the newspapers and magazines – especially the diplomatic news. Everybody double-crossing everybody else!”

“I love women’s fashions,” he added.

“Yes,” said Lillian, “he goes with me to buy all my clothes. Only yesterday I bought some gloves and a handbag and because he didn’t like them he marched me back to the shop to change them.”

An interviewer queried Lillian: “Does he ever get up in the middle of the night and wander around in the dark?”

“Oh yes! He’s always getting up in the middle of the night. I leave a glass of milk and a pear for him in the icebox. He gets hungry round about 2:00 in the morning. Midnight snack, you know.”

In 1951 Bela Jr. was 13, when the interviewer asked, “Did you ever scare your son?”

“How could I?” interjected Dracula, prince of vampires, lord of the un-dead, master of the nosferatu, famed voivode of ages past. “He sees me in my underwear, and how can any man have any dignity in his underwear?”

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Notes

(1) Although pre-publicity for Bela’s final British film gave the title as Old Mother Riley Meets the Vampire, the film was released as Mother Riley Meets the Vampire.  It was released on August 18, 1952. Glen or Glenda was not released until 1953. The confusion over the order in which the two films were released in the article arises from the fact that Mother Riley Meets the Vampire was not released in America until 1963 as My Son the Vampire. The film had failed to find distribution in America when released in 1952 under its original export title of Vampire Over London.

(2) Dracula premiered at Brighton’s Theatre Royal on April 30th, 1951, not June 16th as stated in the article.

(3) Photos of Bela and Lillian’s arrival in England show Lillian, sans beret, wearing the silver bat broach on the lapel of her overcoat.

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Related pages and articles

1951 British Dracula Tour – Newspaper Articles And Memorabilia

1951 British Dracula Tour – Exclusive Interviews With The Cast & Company

From A To Zee: Eric Lindsay, Bela Lugosi’s Last Renfield

Knee-Deep In Ice Cream, Smoke & Wayward Rubber Bats: An Interview With Richard Butler

An Encounter With Bela Lugosi by Roy Tomlinson

Mother Riley Meets The Vampire

“Mother Riley Meets The Vampire” Robot Fails To Sell At Auction

The Return Of The “Mother Riley Meets The Vampire” Robot

Knee-Deep in Ice Cream, Smoke & Wayward Rubber Bats: An Interview With Richard Butler by Andi Brooks

Richard Butler played the role of Johnathan Harker in the 1951 British revival tour of Dracula. Apart from a two-week break when he had to do military reserve training, he was with the tour for its whole six months, acting opposite Bela Lugosi in 210 performances. I interviewed Richard on July 4, 1996, at the National Theatre in London while researching Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi In Britain.

 Richard as the vicar who conducts the fourth wedding in Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)

Richard began his acting career at the age of 12 in a stage version of Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley in his native Yorkshire. He went on to enjoy a long and varied career on stage, screen and TV. His impressive list of theatre credits include a West End revival and touring production of Charley’s Aunt and A Provincial Life opposite Anthony Hopkins at the Royal Court Theatre. In early 1951, however, he found himself “resting.” It was a tough period for theatrical actors in Britain. Post-war austerity and competition for audiences from TV and the Festival of Britain, a national exhibition to promote the British contribution to science, technology and the arts, left theatres half empty and led to plays which had been expected to succeed to fold. Richard supported himself as best he could while waiting for a call from his agent:

Andi Brooks: How did you get the role of Jonathan Harker in Dracula?

Richard Butler: I was simply called by my agent to go for an audition. I went and I got it. At the time I was doing a stint at Walls’ Ice Cream factory in Acton, a temporary job, to earn some money. I remember going from my night shift to this audition and I got the job. But it wasn’t due to start for another couple of weeks so I stayed on, very nobly stayed on, at the ice cream factory, knee-deep in ice cream for another two weeks and (laughing) I’ve never been back to an ice cream factory.

AB: Was it an exciting prospect to be playing with Bela?

RB: Oh yes, because, let’s face it, I was in the ice cream factory. Although I had done an awful lot before I went there, it was one of those long periods of unemployment that all actors have. I’d done better work, much better work, than Dracula, but I took the job because it paid money. I’d much rather work than not work.

AB: Were you familiar with Bela’s films or the novel?

RB: Yes, the films, I certainly was. I’d seen Ninotchka then, you must have seen it? I think he’s marvellous in that, that’s the true Bela. I don’t think that I was terribly familiar with the novel, but, you know, one sort of knew it.

AB: How long did you have to rehearse before Bela arrived from America?

RB: He came there at once! We probably didn’t rehearse more than…certainly no more than three weeks. We might have rehearsed for as little as two weeks, but I really can’t remember.

(Ed: The company rehearsed for two weeks, beginning on April 16th in London and finishing with a dress rehearsal on April 29th at the Theatre Royal in Brighton)

AB: Do you recall where rehearsals took place?

RB: They took place in London, though I’m not certain of the exact location. It would certainly have been in the West End. I have an idea it was somewhere near the Embankment in Chelsea.

(Ed: Rehearsals took place in a banquet room above an unidentified pub in Pont Street in South Kensington in London from April 16th – 22nd. They then moved to the Duke of York’s Theatre in the West End from April 23rd – 28th. The dress rehearsal took place at the Theatre Royal in Brighton on April 29th, the day before the premiere.)

AB: It has been claimed that Bela was so unhappy with the production that the premiere was held up because he demanded changes.

RB: I don’t think that happened. He was never disloyal to the management. He never said “Oh, this shouldn’t happen to me at my time of life,” nothing like that. He just accepted things, and he really did his very best. I’ve worked with people who haven’t really done their best at every performance because it’s been a matinée or there have been few people in, things like that. But he had the very highest standards. Bela kept his dignity throughout and never criticised or complained. I do, however, remember that, talking to us youngsters during rehearsal break one day, he said—“I’m over here to do this show because I can’t get work in films these days. Some time ago, both Boris Karloff and I realized the skids were under us…so we take what work we can get.” We were visited at the dress rehearsal and first night by Megs Jenkins, a very well-known actress. She gave invaluable help to Sheila Wynn with her hair-do, make-up and costume. We had no wardrobe mistress as far as I can remember, and we had to fend for ourselves. Megs Jenkins, incidentally, was married to George Routledge of Routledge & White, the management company that organized the tour. Some time later, he left her in the lurch, taking all her money.

AB: About the 1951 tour, a recent magazine article about Bela claims that (Andi reads) “the supporting cast smacked of poverty row…the rest of the cast, too inexperienced to do otherwise, had not mastered their lines.” What’s your reaction to his accusations?

RB: Absolute rubbish! Absolute rubbish! You write another article. That is utter rubbish. Bela was the only “name” in a cast of mainly young unknowns, but the whole cast was quite experienced. Arthur Hosking had been an established actor, especially in musicals, for many years. David Dawson had done television and was quite a presentable leading man. Sheila Wynn had done quite a bit of work, as had Joan Harding. I first came across Sheila in 1947 when she and I worked together. John Saunders had certainly done a lot of work. Who else was there? Oh, Eric Lindsay. Well, he had done work of a sort.

Richard as Braithwaite in the hit TV series Budgie (1971)

AB: What was the pay like for appearing in Dracula?

RB: I think I received about £12 per week. In those days £10 per week was considered a good salary in weekly repertoire, and one was always paid a little more for touring. But there was no such payment as a touring allowance then and rehearsals were unpaid for several years to come. At the time, actors were expected to provide every item of contemporary clothing, except for special items such as morning suits and uniforms and as a result, our wardrobes were somewhat depleted. I daresay David had his consultant’s morning clothes supplied, similarly John Saunders’ attendant’s uniform and perhaps Eric was helped with his Renfield clothes.

AB: The article is very critical of the sets.

RB: That’s true, they were very cheaply made. The backdrops and scenery were painted on cloth, very shabby. The special effects, flying bats and magical appearances by Dracula, were very rudimentary to say the least, and very unreliable. The bats were a particular problem. They would be catapulted across the stage, and often they wouldn’t make it and would land in the middle of the stage, where they would have to stay. In the climax of the short prologue to the play—which was a solo spot for Sheila, standing spotlit in front of black tabs, a large model bat on wires descended from the flies in a large cloud of smoke (fired from a smoke gun behind the tabs) and lowered over her head as she screamed. Immediate black-out, followed by the black tabs opening to reveal the brightly lit consulting room. I, as Jonathan Harker, then entered to await the imminent arrival of David Dawson. Invariably, there was a considerable amount of smoke—a cloud, in fact—still hanging over the stalls, which we had learned to live with, but on one dreadful occasion the model bat was also present; its wires having jammed, suspended over David’s desk between his chair and the chair I was about to occupy. I steeled myself for the ordeal to come and resolved to suppress my inner hysteria. I remember wondering how and if David and I should refer to it in any way, but decided that we had best ignore it! David entered, saw the bat, of course, and we both knew instinctively that eye contact between us must be avoided for the scene to continue. When we took our seats the bat was dangling between us at eye level—it was quite a sizeable object! So, we proceeded to ignore it and each other, and spoke our lines directly to the audience. My firm resolve was shattered when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw David gently easing the bat to one side in order to see me, but with a great effort of will we both managed to keep talking. There wasn’t a titter nor any response from the audience to indicate they were aware that anything was amiss, and in some strange way this helped us. We battled on, but when, a short time later, the bat’s wires were sorted out and it suddenly shot up into the flies and out of sight, I’m afraid we were both quite helpless with laughter. Disgraceful behaviour on our part, but I think you’ll agree we were sorely tried.

AB: It’s strange that all the people whom I have spoken who saw the play were particularly impressed with the special effects.

RB: Really? That is strange.

AB: Did Bela ever offer advice as to how the rest of the cast should play their roles?

RB: Only once. After our first night in Brighton, Bela met me in the wings one night after I had played my first scene with Lucy, who in the play has been visited by Count Dracula and somehow indoctrinated into vampirism. This was all unbeknownst to me, her fiancé, who is visiting her, as she recovers from the vampire attack. During the scene I express my worries and fears for her safety, and she gradually gets the urge to sink her teeth into my neck. Horror stations! And a merciful black-out ended the scene. Bela said to me, “I think you could get more out of that scene. Would you mind if I rehearsed it with you both?” This was music to my ears as our director, who was memorable for his fancy socks, had left us immediately after our first performance with a single note, which is not unusual, even today, and there would have been inevitably much in the production which could have been improved. Well, Sheila and I were re-rehearsed by Bela and whatever he did in the way of re-directing us must have helped because after we had played the scene as directed by him, he had watched us from the wings, he put his hands on my shoulders and kissed me on both cheeks in the continental manner. “That was much better,” he said, and referring to the kisses, “and I am not a fairy!!” That’s the only time he did something off his own back, and I was only too grateful.

Bela, Arthur Hosking (Van Helsing), Richard and David Dawson (Dr. Seward)

AB: What did you think of Bela as an actor?

RB: Oh, I thought he was first class. He had height and a stunning presence, no excess weight. He had saturnine looks, and his greatest asset of all, a superb voice. On stage this was produced so effortlessly. He could speak in a seeming menacing whisper at, say, The Hippodrome, Golders Green, and be heard at the back of the gallery. This is before the introduction of microphones on stage—a terrible practice! That’s what surprised everyone, that he was such a wonderful stage actor. You get many people, like Olivier or instance, who give out when they’re on, but don’t give out so much when they’re off, but he (Bela) wasn’t a nonentity off stage.

AB: How did you find him as a person?

RB: Both he and Lillian were charming and very accessible. He was instantly friendly, but he was treated with all due deference because he was a movie star, and he was the reason that we were doing that play. There was an atmosphere of great courtesy on both sides. We called him “Bela”, we asked if he minded, Lillian said, “Sure, sure go ahead.”

AB: What was life like on the road with the Lugosis?

RB: This was in the days when the pecking order in any theatrical company, be it in the West End, number one, two or three tour and some repertory theatres, was always strictly adhered to. In those days on tour when theatre dates were rarely longer than a week in any given place, companies travelled by train. The Lugosis certainly travelled with the company, though they might have a car from time to time. I sometimes travelled with John Saunders by car—as far as I can remember he was the only car owner in the company. Train calls on a Sunday morning meant assembling at the local station where the manager would assign company members to their respective carriages, which were reserved. We never travelled with the general public. There was a strict order of precedence observed, the leading members of the company travelling together, the supporting featured players—according to salary—then the rest of the actors—small parts and understudies—and the staff wardrobe mistress, carpenter, often a married pair—and the stage management in separate compartments—not with the actors. That was the start of the journey, and discrete mingling took place as the train progressed. All the Sunday papers were bought—sharing took place, of course—and, if the journey happened to be a long one, food and drink had to be bought by individuals on Saturday night as trains in those days, especially on Sunday, rarely had buffet or restaurant cars, and intermediate stops at stations en route couldn’t be relied upon to provide a buffet that would be open. Now in Bela’s case, although he and his wife had their own compartment, they had no wish to travel alone and spent many hours entertaining us. Except, that was, on certain occasions, when Lillian would say, “Now Bela has to have his injection.” That was our cue to leave. At that time Lillian had indicated that Bela had a health problem which necessitated medication, and it wasn’t until much later, after they had returned to America and poor Bela’s drug use became known, that we wondered if his “health problem” had been, in fact, his drug addiction.

AB: He committed himself to cure his addiction, apparently he had been suffering from leg pains for many years.

RB: I can remember that foot problem that he had. I can see him now, but I had to be reminded of it. Perhaps that is why he didn’t walk around? You rarely saw him except during the play. We never met him or Lillian around the town where we happened to be. He just didn’t go out. Wherever we happened to be, in England or Scotland, he knew nothing about the particular city or area, nor did he express any interest in local sights or places of interest. A car picked him up from his hotel and a car collected him from the stage door. Perhaps that’s why he didn’t walk around, he was just afraid of something happening. We didn’t even go out with Lillian, but maybe he was jealous? Maybe she wouldn’t have dreamt of saying, “Come on, boys, take me to the cathedral or take me to the pictures.”

AB: I don’t think he would have liked that.

RB: No, he wouldn’t. But he always welcomed us into his dressing room, there was never any suggestion that we weren’t welcome. From the beginning of the tour Bela’s No. 1 dressing room, wherever we played, was open house to us all, and coffee, beautiful American coffee, seemed to be always on tap, thanks to Lillian.

AB: Did the cast ever go back to his hotel after the show?

RB: No, there was no socializing after the show at all. It was before and during, but not after. Bela and Lillian always stayed in hotels during the tour, the rest of us stayed in “theatrical digs,” which in those days were still plentiful. These digs differed from ordinary lodging houses in that, in most cases, all meals were provided and geared to an actor’ working day—late breakfast and late cooked suppers after the show. Stage door keepers almost always had lists of available digs, and one could write to them in advance for recommendations. But almost all actors had their own digs address books and, as a rule, if one didn’t have an address for a future date, one consulted friends or other members of the company. The aim was to book in advance, seasonal actors often had the tour booked before the first train call—and never, if at all possible, to arrive at a new date with no address fixed. Of course, there were bad digs, too, and actors made careful notes of addresses to avoid and warned other actors about them if at all possible.

AB: Do you recall any particular incidents during the tour?

RB: Bela was always charming to us backstage, and his interest in our somewhat second-rate production never flagged. Needless to say, his own performance was always full throttle and the customers were enthralled. Save, that is, at one theatre—the Golders Green Hippodrome—where to our amazement, we got the bird. Any references to crucifixes, and there are many in the play, were greeted with cries of derision, and our crude special effects called forth hoots of laughter. Perhaps, if Count Dracula had spent longer on the stage the unruly audience would have been more amenable. It was the American version of the play, his part was extremely short. His short scenes amounted to no more than 20 minutes of the total two hours running time, but his appearances were so impressive that no one complained of being short-changed. In one theatre, the Lewisham Hippodrome where we were playing twice nightly, we were given a rough ride. But this was entirely a management error. On the first night of our one-week run our Van Helsing (Arthur Hosking), by far the largest part in the play, was indisposed. His part was taken by a dear old character actor, Alfred Beale. “Bealey”, as we called him, was actually our business manager. I thought he was a saint. He had been an actor, but I don’t think he had exercised his craft for many years. The management error was in expecting this man to go on in a leading part without the benefit of a single rehearsal. Mrs. Beale was very concerned about him, and came down to give him help and support. Bela was most concerned for him. I remember the scene on stage before the curtain went up on Van Helsing’s first appearance. There was Bealey with his script in his hands, the poor man had to read the part, and at his side was Bela with benzedrine in tablet form and a large jug of water. This had an immediate effect on Bealey and after the curtain rose he appeared not to have a care in the world as he read from his script. This was much to the audience’s displeasure and, I’m sorry to say, our hard-to-suppress amusement. I had to make an appearance in the scene, and my entrance coincided with Bealey dropping his script, which was not stapled but loose-leafed. Mrs. Beale was in the fireplace, attempting to bring poor old Bealey back onto the script, and as he skipped about the stage picking up the scattered pages, still not panicked by the laughter and shouts from the auditorium, we had to end the scene as best we could, though we were not nearly as mirthful as we had been at the start. Arthur Hosking rejoined us for the next performance. I’ll tell you one funny thing that happened. We thought that we were going to have a riot in Scotland because the playbill announced, “First Time in England.” Even then the Scottish Nationalists were around, and I thought we were going to have a bomb-attack or something. They never changed it. I laughed like a drake when I saw that, “First Time in England.”

Richard and Hugh Grant in Four Weddings and a Funeral

AB: Could the play ever have really succeeded in the West End?

RB: No, it would have flopped definitely. It was such a tatty production.

AB: Could more money have turned it into a success?

RB: Not with that management. They obviously didn’t have the right standards. Out of their hands, who knows what might have happened? But by then it was a bit of a freak show. No, it wouldn’t have lasted more than two minutes.

AB: That was Bela’s whole reason for coming to Britain—he thought that he would be playing in the West End.

RB: Yes, maybe. People have lied before. That was a lying management if ever there was one.

AB: Was there any advance warning that the tour was in trouble?

RB: We got a fortnight’s notice. They had to do that or they would have had to pay us two weeks wages, and they wouldn’t have done that. Yes, we had due warning.

(Ed: The tour ended at Bela’s request. Although further dates near Newcastle and Liverpool had been lined-up by producer John C. Mather, it was clear that the production was unlikely to ever reach the West End as intended. Bela was exhausted by the tour’s punishing schedule. When John told Bela that they had to play the proposed new dates if the tour was to continue, Bela replied, “John, I can’t go on, it’s taking too much out of me.  Please finish it quickly.” The production took a two-week break before fulfilling its final contracted run at the Theatre Royal in Portsmouth from October 8th – 13th.)

AB: So you were all paid?

RB: We were paid, the actors. I don’t know about the others.

AB: It has always been claimed that Bela wasn’t paid, that he and Lillian were stranded in Britain, that’s why he appeared in the Mother Riley film.

RB: It could just be another story, an excuse for him appearing in such a poor film. I imagine it was. He never said anything, and Lillian never said to us, “Oh, they haven’t paid Bela.” I think they just slotted Bela into the film. They were just opportunistic. As you said, it was already set up, it just suited everybody, Bela and Lillian. John Saunders, sadly no longer with us, and I were friends on the tour. He played the least rewarding part in the piece, the asylum attendant. He and I were especially friendly with Lillian. We were all interested in food and cooking—what actor isn’t? As the tour was drawing to its end Lillian said, “You must visit us one evening and I’ll cook you an American corned-beef hash.” At this point Bela had already booked to play in the film, and he and Lillian had rented a house near the studio. She was as good as her word. One day, John drove us out to their house, he was the only car owner in the company, and sure enough, in their kitchen we sat down to a delicious meal while Bela and Lillian regaled us with red-hot gossip from the studios. He spoke with a heavy but perfectly understandable accent, with many Americanisms. I particularly remember tulips pronounced “toolips”.

(Ed: Despite the still persisting legend that Bela’s appearance in Mother Riley Meets the Vampire was hastily arranged to provide money to pay for his passage back to America after he and Lillian were left stranded in England when the tour collapsed after a few disastrous performances, his involvement in the film was first announced in the August 9th issue of Kinematography Weekly – three months before filming began, and two months before the tour ended.)

Richard, Anthony Hopkins, Shivaun O’Casey, and Geoffrey Whitehead rehearsing for A Provincial Life at the Royal Court Theatre in 1966

After Dracula Richard became an in-demand actor for over 40 years. He made his debut television appearance in 1952. In 1959, as Lugosi’s phantom film Lock Up Your Daughters briefly materialized, Richard did a long stint in a play of the same name on the West End. He appeared in many television series and mini-series, such as Coronation Street and Middlemarch, and played the vicar who conducts the fourth wedding in Four Weddings & A Funeral. In October 1982 Richard was guest of honor at the Dracula Society of London’s celebration of the centennial of Bela’s birth and spoke publicly for the first time about working in Dracula. Richard died in early 2004.

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Related pages and articles

1951 British Dracula Tour – Newspaper Articles And Memorabilia

1951 British Dracula Tour – Exclusive Interviews With The Cast & Company

From A To Zee: Eric Lindsay, Bela Lugosi’s Last Renfield

An Encounter With Bela Lugosi by Roy Tomlinson

Mother Riley Meets The Vampire

“Mother Riley Meets The Vampire” Robot Fails To Sell At Auction

The Return Of The “Mother Riley Meets The Vampire” Robot