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Icon of British horror movies Barbara Shelley dies at 88

Ben Arnold
·Contributor
·4-min read
Christopher Lee and Barbara Shelley in Rasputin, The Mad Monk (Credit: 20th Century Fox/Hammer)
Christopher Lee and Barbara Shelley in Rasputin, The Mad Monk (Credit: 20th Century Fox/Hammer)

Barbara Shelley, the actress dubbed the 'first leading lady of British horror' and star of movies like Dracula: Prince of Darkness and Village of the Damned, has died at the age of 88.

According to reports, she had contracted COVID-19 while in hospital, but it was not the cause of death.

"She really was Hammer’s number one leading lady and the technicolour queen of Hammer,” her agent Thomas Bowington said in a statement.

"On screen she could be quietly evil. She goes from statuesque beauty to just animalistic wildness. She was a regular favourite of Hammer events and autograph shows but also performed on stage with the RSC.

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“She adored Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. And loved working with them, that was very dear to her."

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Born Barbara Kowin in London in 1932, she worked as a model before her first credited screen role, under her birth name in the thriller Man Trap, helmed by Terence Fisher, a director she would go on to work with several times through her career.

Barbara Shelley and George Sanders in movie art for the film 'Village Of The Damned', 1960. (Photo by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Images)
Barbara Shelley and George Sanders in movie art for the film 'Village Of The Damned', 1960. (Photo by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Images)

Many of her early credits found her working in the Italian movie business through the 1950s, for cult directors including Luigi Capuano and Camillo Mastrocinque.

However, it was on her return to the UK and her work for the hugely influential Hammer studio in the late 50s which made her an icon among horror fans, firstly in the 1958 WWII movie The Camp On Blood Island.

She later became a regular fixture in the Hammer movies, starring in Murder At Site 3, The Shadow Of The Cat, and notably The Gorgon in 1964, opposite Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, in which she played the seductive supernatural creature of the title.

MOVIE OF THE WEEK - "The Spy Killer" - Airdate November 11, 1969. (Photo by Walt Disney Television via Getty Images Photo Archives/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images) BARBARA SHELLEY
Barbara Shelley (Credit: Walt Disney Television via Getty Images Photo Archives)

Shelley would go on to appear with Lee in several of Hammer's classic movies, including Dracula: Prince of Darkness in 1966 and playing Sonia in Rasputin, The Mad Monk, lady-in-waiting to the tsarina who is beguiled by Lee's maniacal holy man.

Her last movie for Hammer was the sci-fi classic Quatermass And The Pit in 1967, after which she concentrated her career on theatre and television, having already appeared in the likes of The Saint, Z-Cars, The Man from UNCLE and The Avengers.

She starred in the 1981 BBC series The Borgias, along with Blake's 7 and Doctor Who, in the episode Planet of Fire in 1984, opposite Peter Davison's Doctor. Nicola Bryant, who played Peri in Doctor Who, paid tribute to Shelley calling her a “wise and wonderful lady”.

Shelley also appeared in the likes of Bergerac, Maigret and the 1980 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.

Then in 1988, she made her way to Albert Square, playing the role of Hester Samuels in EastEnders, sister of Doctor Legg.

In 2007, she suffered a stroke which she said left her 'unabled rather than disabled'.

Of her career in horror movies, she said in an interview in 2011: “When I first started doing Hammer, all the so-called classic actors looked down on the horror film. There is a great thrill for me in having done Hammer and being known.

“All the other things I did, nobody remembers those. But the horror films, I'm very grateful to them because they built me a fan base, and I'm very touched that people will come and ask for my autograph.”