The Dark Road to Success

The Story of Michael Ripper

27th January 1913 - 28th June 2000

Hammer’s most prolific actor was already a veteran of some 30 films before his first appearance for Hammer (Exclusive) in The Dark Road (1947). Michael Ripper went on to become one of Hammers favourite character actors, making thirty four films with the company, culminating with his performance as Arthur the railway porter in That’s Your Funeral (1971).

Michael Ripper in “The Dark Road” (1948)

Born in Portsmouth, England on 27th January 1913 (five months before Peter Cushing), Michael was sixteen when he won a scholarship to a school for dramatic art. The theatre was in his blood (his father ran an amateur dramatics company) and six years later, having spent some time treading the boards he moved into films, getting his first credit in Twice Branded (1935), playing a young fellow in a theatre gallery. He later made countless films working as an actor, and assistant director, for a production company called George Smith Enterprises, who were based at Walton Studios.

During the war he worked at “The Gate” in Dublin playing roles such as Hamlet. He has been quoted as saying that “just before D-Day we got a letter saying that our country needed us. One of us wrote back asking if they really did need us, and they replied that they didn’t!”

The Gate Theatre Dublin

After the war, he stayed in Ireland to make a film, returning to England on it’s completion. It was during this period that he first became involved with the St Trinian’s films, appearing in four.

In 1952 Michael had a throat operation which affected he speech – “I didn’t really sound like a human being, so all I could do was horror”. As a consequence, and having already appeared in four Hammer productions (The Dark Road – 1947, PC 49 and the Case of the Guardian Angel – 1949, A Case for PC 49 – 1951 and Blood Orange – 1953), Anthony Hinds gave him a starring role in A Man on the Beach 1955.

Of all the characters he played, Michael’s favourite was Longbarrow – the long-suffering assistant to Andre Morell’s Sir Basil Walden in “The Mummy’s Shroud – 1966.

Michael as Longbarrow in The Mummy’s Shroud

After Hammer, Michael went on to appear as Mr Shepherd in Southern Television’s popular childrens series Worzel Gummidge and as Tom  – Leonard’s  Chauffeur in the BBC TV hit sitcom Butterflies.

Michael died on June 28th 2000 – he will be sadly missed by all true Hammer fans.

The Unsung Face of Horror

Credit – David Ryan, Highbrury & Islington Express, July 16th 1999

You may not know the name but the face should be familiar, David Ryan meets Michael Ripper who has appeared in more Hammer Horror films than Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing put together.

At the age of 86, Michael Ripper has just acquired a new passport so that he can fly to the United States for the launch of his biography next month. The chances are you won’t have heard of him, unless you’re an ardent fan, like those he’ll meet in Virginia, but his features should be recognisable to anyone with a soft spot for fake blood, crucifixes and horse-drawn carriages rattling though 1960s’ English woodland.

A familiar face, if hardly a household name, the veteran actor now remembers little of a prolific 45-year film career that saw him hob-nob with Olivier before slipping into the niche for which he is best loved today – that of Hammer Films’ resident bit-part player, appearing in more of their horror flicks than Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee put together.

For, as Hammer filmographer Mark A Miller points out, Ripper excelled in his portrayals of “memorable sword-brandishing patriots, sadistic, amoral nasties and wimpy, pitiable servants… If ever an actor proves the old adage that there are no small parts, only small actors, it is Michael Ripper.”

Portsmouth-born Ripper’s first starring roles after drama school were at the Gate Theatre, Dublin where a leading Irish actor of the day said his Hamlet had “the voice of the gods, dear boy”. Yet cruely, this promising stage career was to be cut short in 1952 when Ripper was struck down by a throat condition and was sent to see a specialist.

His wife Cecilia, a television costume designer who brought him to live in Islington in 1976, takes up the story: “He walked in, and the man said: `I know exactly what’s the matter with you. I read an article about it in The Lancet last week.’ He was put on a drug that made the thyroid gland stiff, but that touched the vocal cords and he lost his stage voice.”

Forced to utilise the microphone instead, Ripper’s next break was to work on a short film with one of Hammer’s leading lights, producer Tony Hinds. But before taking up the reins of bread-and-butter horror acting as coachmen, innkeepers, poachers and the like – he was cast by Laurence Olivier in the 1955 adaptation of Richard III.

“That’s his Favourite film part.” says Ripper’s biographer, Derek Pykett, in reference to his role as one of the Duke of Clarence’s murderers. “They had great difficulty trying to stuff John Gielgud’s stand-in into a vat of wine, so they had several days of retakes.”

But surprisingly, Ripper’s favourites from the Hammer series are not its better known chillers – such as The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958) and Scars of Dracula (1970) – but obscure pot-boilers The Mummy’s Shroud (1966) and The Pirates of Blood River (1962). He nurses a particular affection for the last of these because it co-starred his old friend Christopher Lee, who encouraged a standing ovation for Ripper at the Barbican’s Hammer retrospective last year. In one scene, Lee helped carry Ripper across the river because he was too short to walk across the bottom.

Michael and Christopher Lee in Pirates of Blood River

At their home near the Angel, the Rippers receive a steady trickle of mail from fans asking for autographs. “The funny thing is,” says Mrs Ripper, “there’s a home help in his early 20s who comes here and the first thing he said was; ‘I’ve been a big fan of yours for years. My whole family are.’”

Pykett, an actor based in Yorkshire, has shown a similar devotion in preparing the 224page biography Michael Ripper Unmasked, whose initial print run of 1,500 copies is aimed at the American market. “My personal view is that he is one of England’s finest character actors,” he opines.

Michael Ripper’s Biography by Derek Pykett

“A lot of actors just play themselves all the time, whereas Michael could change his appearance for almost every film, just with his expressions. He’s very well loved, too. He played the lift man in three St Trinian’s films, mainly because the director Frank Launder liked him so much.”

Ripper himself rarely stays up to watch his 30-odd Hammer movies on TV, preferring to keep them on video. “They were very popular, both with the people who were in them and the audiences who came to see them,” he remembers. “Mind you, nowadays they’re old hat.”

Michael Ripper’s Full Filmography
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