BBC Radio 4, 6 March 2010
In 1967 Vincent Price (Nickolas Grace) came to Britain to make The
Witchfinder General in a low-budget (£100,000) production co-financed by Tigon Film Productions and American International
Pictures. The director was Michael Reeves (Blake Ritson), an English wunderkind whose previous film The Sorcerer
(1967) had become an unexpected cult hit. Reeves saw the film - based on a script written by himself and Tom Baker
- as a meditation on the excesses of religion; however his producer Tony Tenser (Kenneth Cranham) had a more down-to-earth
view. In a cinematic culture where censorship laws had only recently been relaxed, the combination of Vincent Price, semi-nude
girls and lashings of sadism could prove a box-office winner.
Matthew Broughton's play focused on the clash of ideologies between the American
star and the tyro British director. In Grace's performance Price seemed an old ham; a classically-trained actor whose
technique had atrophied as a result of years in low-budget horror films (mostly for American International). Although still
a considerable star - due in no small part to his television work - Price had not had a decent hit for some years;
and as a result his performances tended to be too mannered, full of empty gestures and rhetorical flourishes. Reeves
was far more down-to-earth; he wanted Price to be realistic in his approach to characterization, and was prepared to make
repeated takes until he got what he wanted. Price described the director at one point as an "anti-social limey screwball."
Moreover Reeves refused to be taken in by Price's public persona (of being a great actor, loved by everyone); he made
every effort to avoid him off the set. Yet Reeves himself was also a tortured soul - he had spent many months revising the
script (to accommodate the censor's requirements), and found the experience of working with Price extremely nerve-wracking. Tenser
suggested that this was one of the reasons why the director died in 1969, aged only 25, from a drug overdose.
However the experience of conflict between director and star proved beneficial: Price
gave one of his best performances in the title role of Matthew Hopkins, and wrote a letter to Reeves admitting that he finally
understood what the director had wanted. Reeves responded with the phrase: "I knew you would think so." The Witchfinder
General reinvigorated Price's flagging career and made Tenser a rich man.
Based partly on written sources (such as Bill Kelley's "Filming Reeves' Masterpiece"
(1981)), Vincent Price and the Horror ... reminded us of how essential it is that directors and stars should at least
find some common ground, if the project they are working on is going to prove successful. The director was Sam Hoyle.