|Marcus Hearn pays a personal tribute to the late Val Guest, one of Hammer's most prolific and influential directors....|
Val Guest, who died on 10 May 2006 aged 94, was a director, producer and writer whose work for Hammer Film Productions was of unparalleled importance to the company’s commercial and critical credibility.
Whenever I asked Val how many films he had made he always replied, ‘Too many!’ with a twinkle. There were certainly movies on his lengthy CV that he preferred to forget, but there are many, such as Oh, Mr Porter! and The Day the Earth Caught Fire, that have long been acknowledged as classics.
Hammer fans will remember Val Guest as the man who took the company into colour with The Men of Sherwood Forest, was brave enough to direct their first X certificate film with The Quatermass Xperiment, gave them their finest war film with Yesterday’s Enemy and arguably their greatest prehistoric movie in When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth. For evidence of his skill as a remarkably efficient writer and director look no further than Quatermass 2, a taut conspiracy thriller that remains one of the company’s most disturbing films.
Despite effectively launching Hammer horror, Val was adamant that he had never actually directed a horror film for the company. The groundbreaking Quatermass pictures were, he was fond of explaining, not even science fiction. He preferred to describe their prescient style as ‘science fact.’
After more than 50 years in showbusiness – and a career that encompassed everything from Will Hay to Cliff Richard and James Bond – Val bowed out of directing in the mid-1980s. His final assignments were the three superior instalments of the television series Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense. In 2004, while working on the DVDs of the series, he privately admitted to me that the episode ‘In Possession’ was probably the closest he ever came to directing a true ‘Hammer horror’.
Even into his nineties, Val cut a dapper figure. The pencil moustache familiar from his 1950s and 60s heyday had been replaced by a grey goatee, but he was never without a rakish silk scarf and a smart blazer. I will miss that mid-Atlantic voice at the end of the line, cheerfully asking when the next DVD assignment was coming his way, or offering another idea to promote his autobiography, which my company had published. Numerous conversations would start with, ‘I’ve had a great idea for your publicity boys…’
The budget wouldn’t always stretch to ‘publicity boys’, but I always did my best to oblige Val, never forgetting what a pleasure and a privilege it was to work with him. Just weeks before he died we were in talks to reprint his autobiography for a second time.
Of all my collaborations with Val I think I was most pleased with the audio commentary we recorded for the Quatermass Xperiment DVD. Val needed relatively little prompting from me: his memories of this historic film were detailed, insightful, and often tinged with his mischievous wit. During the recording I asked him if, in 1954, he had any idea that The Quatermass Xperiment would prove so influential to Hammer. ‘Oh no,’ he said, laughing. ‘If I’d known that, I’d have asked for a royalty!’