Carlson was born in the ancient town of York, in the north of England. During her youth, her father’s Air Force career frequently prompted the family to “move around a lot.” And acting was not her first love. “I went to art school.” Carlson recalled with a crisp British accent. “I majored in fabric design. This was in London. But when I graduated, I saw an ad in the paper for a small role in a film that was being made at Pinewood Studios. The ad mentioned that you had to know judo or karate. I happened to have such knowledge, so I thought I’d try out for the role.
“I wore trousers to the studio, and when I got there, I found that about 200 other women were there, all scantily clad in swimming costumes. So I stood back against the wall and pretended I wasn’t there. When the director asked me if I knew judo, I took this girl next to me by the straps of her costume and threw her over my head! I got the role. The film was called The Magnificent Two (1967), a comedy with Morecambe and Wise. That was my very first film.”
Veronica also had a small role in The Best House in London (1969) a bedroom farce with David Hemmings. Her big break, though, came after posing for a series of photographs in which she was frolicking on a beach in a bikini. One of the pictures ended up in a London tabloid, which was brought to the attention of then head of Hammer films, Sir James Carreras. Always on the lookout for beautiful actresses to be terrorized by Frankenstein or Dracula, Carreras contacted Carlson’s agent and gave her a screen test.
How did you go from modeling to acting?
Veronica Carlson: I had a photograph of me coming out of the waves in a white bikini on the front page of a tabloid newspaper. Jimmy Carreras (a Hammer executive) saw that photograph and said he wanted me in his next Hammer movie. So, I went for an audition and I ended up with Dracula Has Risen from the Grave.
Had you seen any Hammer films before that movie?
Veronica Carlson: I was a great fan of Hammer. When I went to college–which I did at 16–and before I went to college, I loved Hammer movies. My friends in college loved them, too. There was one occasion when we knew there was a new Hammer film coming out and two or three of us just decided to skip class that day and go see it. We couldn’t wait for the evening show, because we also had evening classes. We decided the better class to skip was the afternoon one, so we did. In those days, there were two films and, prior to the second one coming up, we looked around the theater and half the class was there and unfortunately, so was the professor. He stood up and said: “I shall expect all of you back in class later when you’ve watched the film. But don’t forget, that I’ve already passed my exams. You’ve still got yours to go.” He let us off with a rather stern warning. But that’s how popular Hammer films were and how much we enjoyed them.
Who came up with the idea for the marvelous rooftop sequences in Dracula Has Risen from the Grave?
Veronica Carlson: I think it was in the script and the sets were absolutely extraordinary. Of course, the only way my character could get from her house to see her boyfriend was to go across the rooftops, so people wouldn’t see her as they walked through the street. The sets didn’t look very high. As you’re on the ground looking up, you think: “Oh, that’s not bad. ” But then when you were up there, looking down, it seemed an awful lot higher–but I enjoyed doing those scenes.
Were there any particular challenges for the actors?
Veronica Carlson: The only setting I was really nervous about was when I was being carried up to the castle on that mountain. It was in the studio. Christopher’s (Lee) stunt double, Eddie Powell, carried me and my head was hanging over the precipice. I was very well aware of this and I was trying not to stiffen up in Eddie’s arms to make it difficult. That one did make me nervous. Another thing that made me nervous was careening through the woods at the top of that carriage trying not to fall off. I gripped the bar on the coach tightly with my hands. None of it was perilous, of course. They didn’t put us in any danger.
You co-starred with Hammer’s two biggest stars: Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. What was it like working with them?
Veronica Carlson: It was a joy. You make assumptions about people and I found how wrong I was. I expected Christopher to be a very aristocratic, rather aloof, dignified man. I was a bit afraid to approach him, but I found him to be the exact opposite. He was very approachable. He was not aloof. He is very dignified. He’s got such an aristocratic air and look about him, but he was so kind and so thoughtful in everything that we did together. He discussed things with me. He asked if I liked the thought of doing something a certain way. I must have thought he was very nice, because I asked him if he would sit for a portrait and he agreed to do so. In thirty-five minutes, I did a sketch of him. He has a lovely, dignified face. That shows you how relaxed I was around him. He gave me an eye line, too, during the filming of Dracula Has Risen from the Grave and I’ll never forget that. I was supposed to be looking up, having been thrown to the ground and kidnapped by the lady in the pub. I was to look up and see Dracula and (director) Freddie Francis held up his hand behind the camera and said: “This is your eye line.” And then this beautiful voice said: “No, Freddie, I will be her eye line.” And Christopher stood right there and he acted off camera as if he was on camera. He gave me all the impetus and input into my reaction. I’ve never forgotten that. I have always been so very grateful. That moment, I felt true fear. You can’t act to a hand. That shows the kind, thoughtful man that Christopher Lee really is.
*That was a great thrill,” said Carlson. I had always been a fan of Hammer horror films. My friends and I used to skip school to see them. And here I was, landing a starring role in Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968), opposite Christopher Lee I had a great relationship with Freddie Francis, the director of that film, and with Aida Young, the producer. Freddie was very kind, very patient and very gentle. I was so young, naive and inexperienced at the time.” Carlson has vivid memories of Christopher Lee. “He’s majestic. Imposing. He is aloof. remote,” she nodded. “But that only helped him in the part of Dracula. He wasn’t really given a lot to say. But what he did, he did perfectly because he is a perfectionist.”
The Dracula film was another enormous hit for Hammer and its distributor Warner Bros, assuring Carlson’s future with the company. She segued into Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969) supporting Peter Cushing and a very young Simon Ward, This entry in the series was helmed by Hammer’s premier director, Terence Fisher. “Terry had a great sense of film,” Carlson smiled. “He had been an editor before he had become a director, and he knew exactly what he was doing. He was very helpful, very supportive; he’d remind me why I was there, what my character had done before, and he would ask me how I would like to react, what my reaction would be to the given situation. He would let you know when you did something he didn’t like. He was very tactful. Working with Peter Cushing was wonderful. He was so approachable, so easy going. His reputation preceded him. Everyone likes Peter Cushing.”
As the production was nearing completion, Carreras arrived on the set and announced that a rape scene-with Cushing assaulting Carlson-should be added to the film, insisting “there isn’t enough sex in this picture!” According to rumor, the financers (Warner Bros) was, of course, of great distress to me,” said an embittered Carlson, “as it was to Terry. And it happened so arbitrarily. We’d not much shooting left to do. It seemed uncharacteristic for Frankenstein. Terry protested at great length, but he was overruled. In the end, we shot the scene as best we could. And the minute it was done, Terry said, ‘Cut! I can’t stand it!’ And he turned his back and left. I always remembered that. That was the only time I’d ever seen him walk off the set.
What about Peter Cushing? I know you’re a big fan of his.
Veronica Carlson: Everybody is. Every convention I go to, I’m asked about Peter. People wish they could have met him or they were lucky to have once met him. Peter was a sweet, lovely man to work with. I even introduced him to my parents. It’s impossible not to love Peter. He was one of the kindest, most sensitive people I have ever met in my life. He got me through that awful rape scene that was thrown into Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed. We worked on that together and he resolved the problems as best he possibly could. Anyway, that’s another story.
One of the best sequences in any Hammer film is in Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, when the water pipe bursts in the garden and exposes a corpse. How did you prepare for this scene?
Veronica Carlson: I didn’t really. I knew what was going to happen. The fire department was there. I had to run in completely dressed and dry and just go through it. And, of course, when the force of that water hits you, it takes your breath away and you just take it from there. But George Pravda (Dr. Brandt) had to be put on a board with ropes to help me pull him. I didn’t have the strength to pull him out of that mud. I had gotten so cold that I had to go to Roger Moore’s dressing room. His dressing room had the deepest bath in it. He was away filming so I was allowed to soak in the bath to get my my body temperature back up because I was so very cold. I thought my teeth were going to break, they were shattering so hard. When I had to do the scene where I was screaming at my poor neighbor, they had to water me down with a watering can. I said: “Well, I hope you’ve made it warm water.” “No, that’s not a good idea,” they said. “It has to be cold, because otherwise you’d just get even colder.” I thought they were lying…that is so not true. Anyway, the water was just as cold the second time. You just have to laugh at these things.
You starred in films directed by Hammer’s two best-known directors: Terence Fisher and Freddie Francis. How would you compare the two of them?
Veronica Carlson: I had each director at the right time. My first real role was in Dracula Has Risen from the Grave and Freddie Francis was endlessly kind and patient. He was a gentle director with no bossing and no shouting. He would give me my morning hug. He would talk about the scene that we were going to do and made me feel totally relaxed and comfortable. He did do a reshoot of a scene with me if he didn’t like the result in the rushes the next day, like when I had to walk and see my boyfriend drinking that beer on the stem in the cafe. He didn’t want me to go to the rushes because he said I was too critical of myself. So, I didn’t go to the daily rushes. I was lucky then because I gained confidence. When I went into my next film, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, Terry Fisher was a sterner director with me. He expected me to know more than perhaps I actually did. He was the right guy at the right time. I think if I’d had Terry first, I would have been very, very nervous. He got on so well with Peter (Cushing). They just chatted about. I remember the first day’s shooting, I was sitting down on some steps and Peter was alongside me. Terry was there, with his foot on one step, leaning and saying: “How do you want to kill her, Peter?” And Peter was saying: “I’ve given that a lot of thought, Terry.” And then he proceeded to tell Terry how he wanted to kill me. I kept trying to interject with: “Wouldn’t this be a good…” They’d say: “No, that wouldn’t be a good idea.” It was like I wasn’t there. It was like listening to a bedtime story of how they were going to kill me. That’s how it was decided best to do it. I even asked Terry if I could die with my eyes open and he said: “Certainly not, darling, that would never get past the censors.” So, I had to die with my eyes closed.
The Horror of Frankenstein (1970) was Carlson’s next film for Hammer, a black comedy spoof of the company’s first international hit, The Curse of Frankenstein (1957). Directed by Jimmy Sangster, who wrote the original film, the comic version cast 30-year old Ralph Bates in the role of Baron Frankenstein. “Jimmy was tremendous fun,” laughed Carlson. “Just as deep, just as professional as the other directors I’d worked with, but with a wonderful sense of humor. He and Ralph had this wickedness about them, like a couple of nauges. But we’d get all this out of our sy during rehearsals so that when we got in front of the camera, we’d be very serious and professional.”
Before dropping out of the business, Carlson appeared in Vampira (1974); (released in the US as OLD DRACULA). David Niven played Dracula, with a supporting cast that included Hammer starlet Linda Hayden (TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA). “The first time I met David Niven was on the set,” Carlson remembered. “As it happened, I had to wear this batwing headdress. The scene was very crowded and he was standing very close to me. And he trod on my big toe, which hurt! My reaction was immediate, and I’m afraid, uncontrolled. I bent forward in pain and poked him in the eye with my batwing headdress. He recoiled with his hand over his eye! We both just laughed. I don’t recall him even saying, “Hello.’ I just remember this wild laughter. Two people who just recoiled from each other!”
Veronica returned to Pinewood Studios for the Tyburn Production of THE GHOUL. Once again, she was directed by Freddie Francis. The cast included fledgling star John Hurt and Peter Cushing as a tortured soul who is saddled with a cannibalistic son.
Carlson’s departure from films was influenced by a variety of reasons. “My husband was very ill,” she explained. “and I got distracted by that. It took him a long time to recover from the illness that he had. I sort of sailed away from the business. It wasn’t just my husband, but at that time there was more sex coming into the movies, more nudity, and I just didn’t want to be part of it. In art school, nude models were everywhere. But I’m not a voyeur. I admire beauty and good looks in a dispassionate way. If I wanted to sunbathe nude, though, I’d do it where no one could see me, except maybe a passing helicopter-and then I’d run for cover. My favorite time was working at Hammer. And the last thing I did, The Ghoul (1975) was the closest thing I could find. I just wanted a stable life. Sol got involved with my paintings. I have a lot of commissioned work now. Two years after I got married, I had my first child.”
How would you describe the working atmosphere on a Hammer movie set?
Veronica Carlson: Happy, very happy. It was a very convivial, lighthearted atmosphere, though very serious when we were working. The crew was so obliging. It was just a happy family. There was no dissent. There were no problems. There was no grumbling.
Do you think Horror of Frankenstein would have fared better if it had been marketed as the dark comedy it was?
Veronica Carlson: I was so upset about that situation because I took Hammer seriously. I felt that very keenly. Jimmy (Sangster) knew that. It was a sort of “laughing at Hammer” reaction. I didn’t want that to be that way. You always get people that sneer at horror films anyway. But this was sort of sitting up and begging for it. Jimmy was a lighthearted, serious man–an adorable man–but he just had to have this nudge-nudge, wink-wink humor in the film. I thought it was so degrading to Hammer and he knew I felt this way. He was a fine director, but he just got the message wrong as far as I was concerned. He and Ralph (Bates) got on like a house on fire. They were like two kids together when they got together, super senses of humor really. I’d sit there at lunch time sometimes and just have to walk away. Either the jokes were a bit bawdy or my stomach was hurting from laughing so much because they were so funny. As soon as Jimmy hit the set, he was a serious director. I just thought the film’s innuendos mocked Hammer rather than celebrated it.
Many of your American fans are unfamiliar with your 1972 TV series Spyder’s Web. What can you tell us about it?
Veronica Carlson: I don’t know really. Patricia Cutts, who played the lead, had some weight issues and the directors would get cross with her. It became an unhappy situation in so many ways. I was not particularly happy on that one. What I did like was rehearsing for two weeks and then we’d do the shoot on Saturday. That was fun. I worked with some wonderful actors and actresses in that series, so that was educational and I learned a lot. I think Patricia died not long after that. I don’t know why. She did a play in Coventry once and because I lived in Coventry at the time, I went to see her. She came back to our home and we entertained her. She was a very sad lady. She’d had a huge tragedy happen in her life, which I won’t discuss. It took her will to live away eventually. That’s how it seemed to me.
Is it true that you were almost cast in a James Bond film?
Veronica Carlson: Yes, but I was then under contract to Hammer for the final film I agreed to do. I was not unhappy about that. I walked into Saltzman and Broccoli (the Bond producers) to be interviewed and they said: “Oh, we’ve got our blonde girl.” But that all fell through because I wasn’t going to walk away from my happy family, not at all. I don’t remember which Bond film it was. I was very torn at the time and I didn’t want to think about it. It was whichever Bond film was being made when the Horror of Frankenstein was being made. I don’t dwell on things I can’t change.
How did you become interested in painting?
Veronica Carlson: I always have been, since I was a very little girl. My first school report was: “Veronica loves to draw.” I’ve always wanted to paint. I went to art school when I was 16, then to college and got a bachelor’s degree. I do portraits. I’ve got a portrait I’ve just completed of Peter and Vincent (Price) together and had it made into prints. I’ve done many portraits throughout the time I’ve been with Hammer. I did several of the ladies that have worked for Hammer that were commissioned by a gentleman from Switzerland. I donated a portrait of Peter Cushing to Whitsable, to his secretary so she could auction it. They wanted to put a window in the church to remember Peter by. There was one portrait, sold at Bray Studios, of Ralph Bates after he passed away. His widow, Virginia Wetherell, was there. I donated that portrait and it went for a very nice sum to raise money for pancreatic cancer research. I’ve found I can do good things with this gift I have. I just love to work at my easel when life permits me to.
Smashing Time (1967)
Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968)
The Best House in London (1969)
Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969)
The Horror of Frankenstein (1970)
Pussycat, Pussycat, I Love You (1970)
The Ghoul (1975)
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