Suzan Farmer obituary
Suzan Farmer, who has died aged 75 of cancer, was a vocally precise actor with beguiling eyes who starred in a number of films for Hammer, the British company that specialised in memorable gothic horror.
In particular she was the heroine of Terence Fisher’s Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966), the second of Hammer’s productions with Christopher Lee as the evil count. The target of the vampire’s lust, she bravely resisted him with the help of her screen husband Francis Matthews, before shooting the ice off a frozen moat and plunging Dracula into the freezing water below at the film’s climax. Farmer also provided, in post-production, the screams supposedly uttered by her co-star Barbara Shelley.
Hammer’s skill at mounting terrifying productions was matched only by their ability to do so on a tight budget, and so Farmer, Lee, Matthews and Shelley simultaneously shot another film – Rasputin, the Mad Monk (1966). This time Farmer and Matthews were brother and sister, her beauty the bait to lure Lee’s Rasputin into a fatal encounter.
Her apprenticeship for Hammer had come in more swashbuckling fare – The Crimson Blade (1963), with Lionel Jeffries and Oliver Reed fighting the English civil war, and The Devil-Ship Pirates (1964).
She was born in Maidstone, Kent, to David Farmer, a metals trader, and his wife, Eleanor (nee Best). The family moved to Bray in Berkshire, which by coincidence later became the home of Hammer studios. Both parents were alcoholics, and Farmer’s childhood was difficult: her father’s company went bankrupt and he had died by the time she was seven. She left Elmslie school, Maidenhead, aged 15 in order to make her film debut in The Supreme Secret (1958). She then trained at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London.
Her big screen work was not confined to her Hammer roles, although Monster of Terror (1965, aka Die, Monster, Die!) – in which she played the daughter of a mad scientist (Boris Karloff) – could be considered to be cut from the same bloodstained cloth. In 633 Squadron (1964), the notable war film with a rousing theme, impressive aerial sequences and a grim fate for most of its heroes, she played a newly-wed Waaf sergeant whose husband is blinded on a mission shortly after their wedding.
Her small-screen career was extensive and varied. In the BBC’s 1966 adaptation of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, she played the much loved youngest daughter of General Epanchin (Michael Goodliffe). As the cold, ambitious and treacherous Livilla she conspired with Barrie Ingham’s Sejanus in Granada’s The Caesars (1968): an excellent production that would have been better remembered had the BBC not come along with the seminal I, Claudius in 1976.
She had a good role opposite Bradford Dillman in an episode of Thriller (1975) and also enjoyed a short stint in Coronation Street (1978) as the chiropodist of Albert Tatlock, who unsuccessfully tried to pair her off with the series stalwart Ken Barlow (William Roach). Her other television roles included guest spots in The Marriage Lines (1963), The Sain, (1965), Sherlock Holmes (1965), Mr Rose (1967), Out of the Unknown (1969), The Lotus Eaters (1972) and Blake’s 7 (1978).
On stage she toured with John Fraser (who had formed the London Shakespeare Group, of which she was a founder member), performing excerpts from Shakespeare to more than 60,000 children in Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Cameroon, staying in mud huts and performing in schools and sometimes jungle clearings. She also played Olivia in the LSG’s Twelfth Night (Edward Petherbridge was Feste), which opened in Beijing and was staged at the Donmar Warehouse in 1982.
She had worked with Ian McShane on the film The Wild and the Willing (1962) and they married shortly after appearing together at the Birmingham Repertory theatre in The Easter Man (1964). They divorced in 1968 and Farmer later found it difficult to sustain relationships, enduring battles with alcoholism and depression.
She is survived by her younger brother, Michael, who followed his father into the metals trade and was a successful businessman before being made a Conservative life peer in 2014.
• Suzan Maxine Farmer, actor, born 16 June 1942; died 17 September 2017