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News > OP updates > From Hamlet to Hammer Horror

From Hamlet to Hammer Horror

Actor Michael Ripper OP is celebrated by school archivist John Sadden
9 Dec 2021
Written by John Sadden
OP updates
Ripper and Hammer
Ripper and Hammer

"This is undoubtedly the best thing the Dramatic Society has yet given us...the parts of Bottom, Flute, Quince, Oberon, Titania and Puck were supremely well taken." The enthusiastic Portmuthian critic, writing in 1926, was probably giving the first ever review to a lad who was to go on to appear in more films than Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud or Alec Guinness, but with considerably less impact. “The acting was so good,” continued the reviewer, “it is difficult to single out individuals”. So he didn’t.

In 2007, seven years after his death, the Daily Express included him in the top five “great B-movie actors”, alongside Peter Cushing, Hattie Jacques, Denholm Elliott and Joan Collins. He was recognised, at last, as “the most half-recognised British actor of all time”.

The boy playing Puck in the School’s 1926 production of scenes from A Midsummer Night's Dream would have remained anonymous had not a programme survived, revealing that the “shrewd and knavish sprite” was played by a 13 year old Michael Ripper in a piece of inspired casting by an unknown teacher. Despite obviously relishing his role, Ripper hated his schooling apart from two subjects, acting and history, and it was his enthusiasm for the latter that was to lead to an incident that was to scar him physically, if not mentally, and add to the misery of his childhood.

One day Ripper’s over eagerness to answer his history master’s questions resulted in him being sent out of the classroom, not as a punishment, but to give other pupils an opportunity to answer them. The Headmaster, who was new in post, happened to be passing and invited him to his study. Canon Barton was “a crusader” who was determined to bring “the influence of the public schools” to PGS. Whether this was uppermost in his mind when he beat Ripper so badly that his mother threatened legal action is not known.

Michael’s participation in school plays was encouraged by his father, Harold Ripper, who worked in the Dockyard but in his spare time was an amateur drama producer who ran several local drama groups. He was also an elocutionist, who taught trainee teachers and, following the publication of his book Vital Speech in 1928, became one of the best known speech-therapists in the country. According to Michael, Harold was also a brutal father, given to regularly beating Michael to ensure he would not become “a mother’s boy”. Perhaps Harold’s ambition for his son in the theatrical world brought with it irrational fears.

Michael was coached by his father who entered him for poetry reciting competitions. One was the Oxford Verse Speaking Contest and, as a result, the family became close friends with a man who was to become one of Britain’s greatest character actors, Alastair Sim. The Ripper household was in Alhambra Road, a pebble’s throw away from South Parade Pier, and Sim became a regular visitor, filling the house with talk of poetry, drama and the theatre. In 1928, at the age of 15, and encouraged by his father, Michael successfully auditioned at the Central School of Speech and Drama and, left for London to take up his place. He completed his course a year later, having studied Brecht and Stanislavski and impressed his tutors as a highly gifted and talented student. He got himself an agent and joined his first repertory company at the Grand Theatre in Fulham.

Within twenty years he had appeared in 22 theatrical productions and 34 “quota quickie” films which have been largely, and probably justifiably, forgotten. The highlight of his more serious theatrical career was playing Hamlet, at aged 27, at the Gate Theatre in Dublin and his performance brought good reviews. “It was the best piece of acting I ever did,” he later recalled.

Michael Ripper was now an established actor, having appeared on stages in London, Rochdale, Leeds and Dublin. His film career continued after the war with a small part in David Lean’s OliverTwist starring Alec Guinness as Fagan. In the same year, Ripper took on the more substantial role of Hare, of the graverobbing duo Burke and Hare, in a stage version of The Anatomist and The Times thought his performance better than that of the director and leading actor, Alastair Sim. They were later to reprise their roles for a film version in 1961. In Laurence Olivier’s Richard III (1955), Ripper plays the second murderer, stuffing John Gielgud’s Duke of Clarence into a barrel of malmsey with considerable difficulty.

Michael’s promising career in the theatre was brought to an end when, in 1952, he underwent an operation for a thyroid condition which left him unable to project his voice, and so he devoted himself to film and television work.

The following year, The Portmuthian drew attention to his career: “he has just completed a role as a jockey in a new British film The Rainbow Jacket” (which starred Robert Morley, Bill Owen, Wilfred Hyde-White and Sid James), “and a few weeks ago was given his first big radio role in the new boxing serial Knock-out on the Light Programme”. The extent of his radio work appears to be undocumented, but television was to bring many more opportunities for roles, minor and substantial.

On the silver screen, he was cast once again as a grave-robber, ill-advisedly digging up Baron Frankenstein in the Hammer film The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), with predictable consequences. Resurrected as a coachman in Brides of Dracula (1960), he soon became a stalwart of the studio’s output, appearing in more of their films (34) that any other actor, including Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. With his distinctive, lugubrious face and bemused look he played a host of minor roles, including an old soak, poacher, startled village policeman, sewerman and general victim. From playing Puck, “that merry wanderer of the night”, Ripper was now a victim of it. Mummies, vampires, Frankenstein incarnations, zombies, Oliver Reed, monsters, and werewolves all did for him.

Ripper rolled his “pop-eyed peepers at the sweatered young lovelies”, but was soon reduced to a state of pained harassment, in Launder and Gilliat’s St Trinian’s films, when he was usually seen crushed beneath a pile of lacrosse rackets and netballs, while a dragged up Alastair Sim played the blissfully unaware headmistress Miss Fritton.

Ripper appeared regularly on the nation’s television screens in many successful series, including Quatermass and the Pit, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Danger Man, Maigret, Adam Adamant Lives!, The Saint, Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), New Scotland Yard, The Sweeney, Crown Court, Cribb, and Tales of the Unexpected. He was also a regular cast member on Butterflies, Worzel Gummidge and Jeeves and Wooster.

Michael Ripper died in 2000. He appeared in over 200 films and television series, many of which still crop up on television schedules across the world. Christopher Lee paid tribute: “Michael represented all that is best in our profession in his many varied and memorable performances. Dedication, total involvement and complete professionalism, qualities not all that much evident today. He was equally adept in major or lesser roles and always created fully formed characters, which never failed to make an impression.”

But perhaps the most telling tribute was that made by Sir John Gielgud when, at the age of 94, he was asked for his memories of working with Michael Ripper, he replied, “It was a long time ago and the studio always very full of people”.

Michael Ripper, by all accounts a very modest man, could take pride in that because he was one of those people who played his part, however anonymously

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