Ralph Bates: A Biography

Mention the name Ralph Bates to a Hammer Films enthusiast and you are most likely assured of a positive response. His work for the legendary production company was well received by fans and critics alike throughout the years. Beginning with Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970) through Fear in the Night (1972), Bates created a nice resume working for Hammer Film Productions. Although this talented actor made a lasting mark with Hammer, other aspects of his remarkable career have often gone unnoticed among genre fans. Author Christopher Gullo has expertly remedied this in his new book, Ralph Bates: A Biography (Midnight Marquee Press, 2018).

The story is very familiar when Hammer aficionados discuss Ralph Bates. The actor was groomed as one of Hammer’s star replacements in lieu of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee as the company confronted changing times in the early ‘70s.  While Gullo delivers the goods on Hammer…there is much to cover with Ralph Bates’ early years. Born in 1940, his parents were both physicians. Bates, however, caught the acting bug and traveled a different path. The author includes extensive recollections of fellow students during Bates’ college years. It becomes obvious for readers that Ralph Bates was universally liked and admired by friends and acquaintances alike. This theme carries throughout the book well into his later years and reveals a man of good character and kindness.

Ralph Bates’ first wife, actress Joanna Van Gyseghem, whom he met while attending Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, contributes memories. The two had the opportunity to perform together on stage early on, and Van Gyseghem reflects on that period.  Later, following divorce, Bates married actress Virginia Wetherell. Bates and Wetherell first met on the set of Hammer’s Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde in 1971. Virginia Wetherell recalls in the biography how Bates would drive her back to the station after a day’s work on that film. Their time together eventually blossomed into romance and marriage, which thrived and endured. Interestingly, Wetherell’s character of Betsy in Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde is Jekyll’s (Ralph Bates) first victim. There are also reminiscences from Martine Beswick who portrayed Sister Hyde in the film. Beswick conveys fond recollections and wishes she had gotten to know Bates for a longer amount of time. The book calls upon a fascinating interview Bates conducted with Sam Irvin at that time in which Bates reveals, “At first I wanted to play both parts, doing the female part in drag. I am glad that they did get Martine Beswick because she is much prettier than me; I thought Martine was smashing.”

Ralph Bates also struck up a life-long friendship with Hammer director and screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, beginning with their work on Horror of Frankenstein (1970). Co-star Veronica Carlson contributes her thoughts, “While working on this film, Ralph and Jimmy Sangster became as brothers. Their sense of fun was boundless, their lust for life insatiable. Their combined company was intoxicating.”

Ralph Bates: A Biography delves far into Bates’ subsequent work following his Hammer performances. Genre fans may learn quite a bit here about his other horror film appearances, including Persecution (1974) and I Don’t Want to Be Born (1975). Also noteworthy was his regular cast role in the 1973 British science fiction television series, Moonbase 3, in which he portrayed a Frenchman, Dr. Michel Lebrun. Interestingly, being of French heritage on his mother’s side, Bates had a number of opportunities to portray French characters and employ his mastery of the language in various roles during his career.

While the cinema of the fantastic may have been Ralph Bates’ claim to fame worldwide…his prolific stage and television appearances in the United Kingdom made him a familiar face back home. His stage work was vast and impressive, including a leading role opposite Mia Farrow in the 1972 revival of J.M. Barrie’s ghost-themed play, Mary Rose. Television wise, Ralph Bates had a popular run on the BBC’S Poldark series in the ‘70s, as well as his romantic comedy series in the ‘80s, Dear John. This latter series dealt with the ups and downs of a newly divorced man facing single life again and was quite popular during its two year run.

Commentaries by various peers in the book claim Ralph Bates often suffered a case of nerves before performances. Audiences could never have guessed, as his onstage and screen appearances were spot on. Ralph Bates’ daughter, Daisy Bates, has followed as a successful actress, and his son, Will Bates, is presently a talented composer.  With contributions from his immediate family, the biography presents itself as much as a loving tribute as an informative retrospective. Ralph Bates, according to numerous testimonies within, was certainly that rare sort of honorable gentleman, loved and respected by all.

Readers will encounter an excellent selection of photographs, including rare images of Ralph Bates attending the first Hammer Films convention. Additionally, images of correspondences between Peter Cushing and Ralph Bates are included. It appears Cushing took a keen interest in Bates’ career, beginning with Bates’ interpretation of Victor Frankenstein in Horror of Frankenstein. Ralph Bates certainly had huge shoes to fill when tackling a role in which Peter Cushing made his own. Also of interest for fans is an appreciation written by Richard Klemensen, editor of the long running Little Shoppe of Horrors fanzine. Klemensen shares his personal memories of meeting Ralph Bates at the initial Hammer Con in London.

Ralph Bates passed away of pancreatic cancer in 1991 after a tragic and unexpected diagnosis. Everyone can agree he left us too soon at age 51, and one can only speculate what he may have accomplished if his illness had not struck. Virginia Wetherell Bates, who authorized this biography of her late husband, provides the foreword. She went on to create the Ralph Bates Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund after his death, explaining, “My whole goal with the research was to find a way to diagnosis the disease earlier and initiate more effective treatments.”

Ralph Bates: A Biography also includes a 1991 poem in memory of Bates, Death of an Actor, by an alumni at Trinity College, poet and author Ian Blake. In his preface, Christopher Gullo shares that he has enjoyed the journey writing this book and hopes it honors the memory of Ralph Bates. Gullo also states he will donate all of his personal profits from sales to the Ralph Bates Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund. Christopher Gullo has provided a biography of a man loved equally by fans, friends and family. Ralph Bates: A Biography will surely find a home on the bookshelves of many Hammer Films enthusiasts, and in the process they will learn a lot more about this talented actor and true gentleman.