Autobiographies. These things can sell like hotcakes or languish on the shelves of your local Poundland, gathering dust. Surely there are two determining factors when it comes to sales figures for these books: the popularity of the subject and crucially, whether they have anything to say for themselves. Sir Christopher Frank Carandini Lee CBE CStJ meets both criteria effortlessly; and at 6’4” with dark features and a deep, strong voice, Lee was tailormade for villainous roles; a mantle he has worn with great success over his lengthy film career: Scaramanga, Count Dooku, Frankenstein’s Monster, Saruman, Fu Manchu, Lord Summerisle and of course, Count Dracula.
It is only appropriate that today, his 90th birthday no less, Lord of Misrule: the autobiography of Christopher Lee is the subject of this review.
The book offers the following synopsis:
“From Bond baddie Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun to Count Dracula, and the wizard Saruman in Lord of the Rings, Christopher Lee’s remarkable career spanning 56 years has delighted and terrified fans young and old alike. But his life has proved just as strange as his films.
Lee’s family was descended from papal nobility, and an unusual home life was counterbalanced by his conventionally English education, as public school was followed by the RAF and dramatic wartime experiences. After the war Lee entered the bizarre world of British films, and his success in Hammer’s The Curse of Frankenstein proved to be the start of decades of cinematic triumphs ranging from Sherlock Holmes to The Wicker Man and Sleepy Hollow.
Written with unforgettable, self-deprecating wit, Lord of Misrule reveals the astonishing experiences of the man the Guardian describes simply as ‘the coolest actor on the planet’.”
Although seemingly extensive, the synopsis above cannot quite do justice to the content of Lee’s autobiography. The life story of Lee is “colourful” to say the least. His childhood has him unknowingly meeting two of the assassins of Rasputin (a character he would go on to play in later life), exploring Europe and witnessing the last public execution by guillotine in France before evacuating back to Britain due to the impending German invasion, to choose but a few events from before his eighteenth birthday.
Lee’s stories throughout are peppered with: members of the aristocracy, royalty from around the world; and a veritable who’s who of actors, celebrities and sports stars from the King of Sweden to Burt Lancaster and Hugh Hefner to Muhammad Ali.
Throughout the book, the tone is warm, charming and conversational. It is in no way a chore to read and the impression it left me with was one of sitting down and being told stories by a grandfather of his past. Although Lee has some genuinely harrowing episodes in his life such as his wartime exploits in North Africa, his sense of humour is always evident and there were times when I had to sit the book down due to laughing so much!
Lee’s autobiography offers the reader a unique insight into the film industry and he offers much honest and frank remarks about the industry in general, directors, other actors, his career regrets and a candid critique of many of his own performances; including what he considers to be his best role, that of Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man; and the role he considers to be his most important and that of which he is most proud: playing Muhammad Ali Jinnah in Jinnah, a biopic about the founder of Pakistan.
Lord of Misrule takes the reader inside not just Lee’s work but also his private life, marriage, hobbies and interests; and offers some particularly touching and personal comments on his friendships with legends of the horror genre: Boris Karloff, Vincent Price and Peter Cushing.
On a critical note, those looking for a tome on Lee’s horror roles may be left disappointed. The reader of Lord of Misrule will find themselves more than a quarter of the way through the book before embarking on Lee’s film career, more than a decade of which he laboured in minor roles due to being “too tall… too foreign-looking” before starring in roles for Hammer Horror of which he is now synonymous with. That is not to say that Lee skirts over his contribution to the genre and what horror films have done for his career; it is simply that Lee’s life and career now spans ten decades which by any stretch of the imagination, is an awful lot to fit in one book. In fact, Lord of Misrule was originally published in 1977, then again with additions in 1997; and a further addendum in 2003 with an introduction by director Peter Jackson (Brain Dead, King Kong, The Frighteners), who worked with Lee on the Lord of the Rings films.
Whether you be a fan of Lee’s work in general, hooked on horror or looking for a wonderfully rich autobiography to immerse yourself in, I thoroughly recommend Lord of Misrule.