The Hell Fire Club, Errol, Patrick and Rex

31 Jan

The original Hell Fire Club (Errol was a member of a watered down Hollywood homage, which he doubtless regretted, as he would have vastly preferred the original) has been the subject of books and films. Its first meeting took place in 1747, under the auspices of Sir Francis Dashwood, rake and dilettante, in the cellar of the George & Vulture Inn in London. The George & Vulture, which in the City, is still open as a restaurant. Shakespeare is said to have stayed there, and Dickens wrote parts of the Pickwick Papers while in situ.

The George & Vulture


The best screen ‘portrayal’ of the Hell Fire Club – which revives its 18th Century ethos – is in The Avengers episode, ‘A Touch of Brimstone’ (1966), starring Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg as Steed and Mrs Peel.

The episode caused outrage when it was shown on television, including protests in Parliament, and was banned in America. It concerns a degenerate aristocrat, The Hon. John Cleverly Cartney, who revives the club, its period dress, its orgies and its anarchic spirit. He takes the anarchy a bit far however, when he tries to blow up three visiting heads of state.

Cartney is played by one of the most interesting actors of the period, who also appeared in ‘The Innocents’ (1961), with Deborah Kerr. His name was Peter Wyngarde and despite his on screen roles as a homme fatale, he was gay.

Peter Wyngarde as John Cartney

What made the episode so infamous, however, was the orgy scene, in which Diana Rigg is dressed in a leather S&M outfit, with boots and a dog collar, pictured below.

It is not all orgies. Patrick Macnee does some very fine fencing in order to foil, as it were, the dastardly plotters.

The incomparable Patrick, who would have made the second best James Bond after Errol, was a sort of cousin of mine, his maternal grandmother Frances being the granddaughter of the 12th Earl of Huntingdon. So back we go to Robin Hood!

Patrick worked with Christopher Lee, who was also a friend, and Lee, of course worked with Errol. Patrick never met Errol, but they had certain similarities, apart from being dashing, charming, erudite, gentlemanly and able to carry off period costumes.

They both had very difficult relationships with their mothers. Patrick’s mother, Dorothea, decided to become a lesbian, which, not surprisingly, led to the breakup of her marriage. Patrick was raised by Dorothea and her ‘partner,’ Evelyn, whom he called ‘Uncle Evelyn.’

He was then sent to Eton, but expelled for selling pornographic photographs and acting as a bookie for his classmates.

Macnee appeared in a minor role in Olivier’s film of ‘Hamlet’. His big film break came with a rather mediocre musical comedy called ‘Les Girls’ (1957), in which he played a barrister. The highlights were Macnee and the wonderful Kay Kendall, who was married to Rex Harrison and already ill with the leukemia that was to kill her at the age of only 32.

Kay Kendall in Les Girls

Interestingly, two years before, Kendall had co-starred with Robert Taylor in ‘The Adventures of Quentin Durward’, which was supposed to have been a vehicle for Errol.

Kay made two films with Harrison, the British comedy ‘The Constant Husband,’ and ‘The Reluctant Debutante,’ which also featured American teen queen, Sandra Dee.

Harrison remains a contentious figure. Yes, he could be astoundingly rude and unpleasant, but he could also be heroic in private. Kay Kendall had been his mistress, and though he was in love with her, he remained very attached to his then wife, Lili Palmer.

When Kay’s doctor told Harrison she was dying, he and Lili had a discussion. It was agreed they would divorce so he could marry Kay and look after her during the time she had left. He did this devotedly and never told Kay she was ill, which must have been a great strain on him. When she died, he was genuinely devastated.

Of course he spoiled it slightly by telling people what a marvellous and selfless thing he had done, but he did it just the same. Rex went on to marry a friend of my father, Elizabeth Harris, the former wife of roistering actor Richard Harris. The marriage was not an unqualified success, with Rex reverting to hype. One day Elizabeth came down to breakfast and Rex said: ‘That’s a fine cavalry moustache you have this morning.’

Notwithstanding his lack of tact, Harrison was a joy as an actor, with his astringent rasp of a voice and sheer panache. (He even made cardigans look sexy, though not as sexy as Errol did.) He would have been a major Hollywood star in the 1940s, had it not been for the Carole Landis scandal.

Carole Landis

Yet was his behaviour towards Landis as deplorable as all that? Rex was married to Lili when he met the blonde actress, and Carole was no blushing innocent, having been thrice-married herself and rather generous with her favours, as well as being mentally unstable. Or, as we say over here, a complete basket case.

When she started her affair with Rex, she must have known he was not going to leave Palmer. Almost a year later, in 1948, she took an overdose. Rex found her while she was still alive, but there was a delay in calling an ambulance. Apparently, he had been searching through her address books hoping to find the telephone number of her private doctor in order to avert a scandal.

Shocking as this was, there have been other cases of famous men doing the same – even when the women who had overdosed were their wives! Greek tycoon Stravros Niarchos acted in precisely the same manner when his wife Eugenie overdosed and then died, and John Paul Getty Jr likewise, after spouse Talitha Pol ingested too much heroin.

Rex had signed a contract with Fox, which was dropped ‘by mutual consent.’ Perhaps this made him bitter and thus increasingly choleric. I wonder if he ever met Errol? He certainly knew Errol’s chum David Niven, who was very dyspeptic about Rex in his memoirs, but kept inviting him to dinner, just the same.

— PW


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  1. Gentleman Tim

    February 1, 2017 at 12:40 pm

    So much fabulous 411 here, PW! Where to begin? Okay, I’ll focus on that Avenging angel, or is it devil, in A Touch of Brimstone. Is that not Bond’s, James Bond’s, wife, Tracy? The one Blofeld and his sick sidekick killed off (so Bond could go back to being single)?

    Are we back to Bond (James Bond)?

    Here she is looking quite remarkably beautiful, both at her wedding, and after riggamortis set in.

    • PW

      February 1, 2017 at 4:02 pm

      You are simply brill! Yes, she left ‘The Avengers’ (silly girl – who in their right mind would leave Patrick Macnee? Almost as insane as leaving Errol) to star in ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’. Bad call in every respect as the new Bond, George Lazenby, rose and sank without trace. Diana hated him and the lack of chemistry spoils what could have been a superior Bond film, as it was pretty faithful to the book and actually portrays James Bond as a real human being. PS. I adore The Prisoner. But I think the most significant and innovative TV series that you Americans produced in the 60s was Rod Serling’s ‘The Twilight Zone.’ Shame Errol wasn’t around. I know that he did some TV appearances in the late 50s and about that time, Serling wrote the teleplay ‘Patterns’ (for Kraft Television Theatre), which made his name, and then did some fine work for Playhouse 90. The episode, ‘Requiem for A Heavyweight,’ was very Errol in its focus on boxing.

  2. Philip

    February 1, 2017 at 1:58 pm

    Excellent post. Peter Wyngarde would become famous a couple years later in lead roles with TV series Department S and the even more outrageous Jason King (in which he was a flamboyant novelist who solved crimes). Alas they probably weren’t picked up in the US, but had a lot of airplay in the Commonwealth countries.
    Re the ‘rock star’ who relocated to Tassie … that’d be the bass player from The Violent Femmes, Brian Ritchie, who with his wife (an entomologist) relocated from Milwaukee to Hobart in 2009. He’s had a big impact on the alternative scene there (and in Australia generally) ever since, particularly with the Hobart’s radical and amazing Museum of Old and New Art (MONA). The Flynn fan thing I didn’t know about … is that for real?

    • Gentleman Tim

      February 1, 2017 at 3:01 pm

      Hi Philip. I don’t recall Department S or Jason King playing over here in the States . Maybe others will, but not me. The Avengers and The Saint were big. Secret Agent too. Others from The Sixties were The Baron, The Prisoner, The Thunderbirds, Man in a Suitcase, and Journey to the Unknown. The Beatles cartoons were huge, of course, but they may have been more LA LA Land than Londontown.

      Regarding the Brian Ritchie/Errol Flynn connection, it’s twue, it’s twue. It has to be twue, it’s on the internet.

      Here’s one piece of the puzzle, from the former Femme himself:

      “I had a job at the Milwaukee Public Library sorting books. Several books by and about Errol Flynn crossed my desk. I became fascinated with the actor and resolved to visit his birthplace of Tasmania someday.”

      Various other interviews and reports collectively confirm that Ritchie came to Tasmania because he is a self-described “huge fan of Errol Flynn”.

      Perhaps one of us should invite Brian to read/join the EFB.


      • Philip

        February 5, 2017 at 2:33 am

        Tim – I may be able to contact Brain, and will extend an invitation for him to join the EFB. Re 60s Brit TV series … The Prisoner was bizarre and fabulous, brilliant for its day. Man In A Suitcase had a good rap. I was a bit young for all this but my favourite as a kid was The Persuaders with Tony Curtis and Roger Moore (’71/72) … it got canned all too soon as Moore got the nod to take the role of James Bond … it was perhaps the last of the 60s style intrigue and entertaining Europe based TV shows before police, spy and private investigator shows started taking themselves all too seriously.

        • Gentleman Tim

          February 5, 2017 at 6:54 pm

          Thanks, Philip! That would be Down Right Underful to have Brian in the EFB Band!!

          Great info on the British Telly Invasion, too. Masterpice Theater on Public Television was big over here, too … for the more sophisticated sector of society over here … a rather small audience that only occasionally included me and the likes of me. Our main exposure to British Classics were via The Beatles, and/or Billy Shakespeare.


  3. shangheinz

    February 1, 2017 at 3:47 pm


    That is one helluva blog entry, Early Ella. It`s got all the unright ingredients that makes for a marbelous read: secret- societies, secret agents & secret lovers. Rex Harrison and Lili Palmer resided in a Vila in Portofino overloking the Mediterranean Sea and hosted the likes of Lawrence Olivier, David Niven and the Burtons. I went there and asked the local chef at Italian haute cuisine restaurant PUNY`s if Errol ever went there and he denied. Unless he wore a scarf like Barbara Streisand does when dining there incognito he has never been there. Flynntima Maureen O`Hara was highly critical of the perennial Prof. Higgins. As far as Peter Wyngarde and his gaily antics goes his series became the blueprint for the Austin Powers franchise.

    • PW

      February 1, 2017 at 4:49 pm

      You are too, too kind! Marvellous photograph of Harrison and Portofino. Errol spent time in Rome, but did he ever go to Capri or the Amalfi Coast? If he didn’t, he certainly lucked out. Ari Onassis said this about Capri: ‘If a man can’t seduce a woman on Capri, then he isn’t a man!’ Both keen sailors and seducers.

      • PW

        February 1, 2017 at 5:11 pm

        I know Errol stayed in Palermo, Sicily while filming ‘The Master of Ballantrae.’ He may even have gone to the opera house as he was very keen on Italian opera. I go to Sicily quite often to write travel pieces and would be very interested to know which hotel Errol stayed in. However, I usually go to the other side, as Syracuse, the home town of Archimedes, and Taormina with its Greek theatre, are so beautiful and vivid that it’s stereophonic sound for the eyes.

      • Gentleman Tim

        February 3, 2017 at 11:03 pm

        Well, here’s where Errol stayed when in Naples, PW.



        • PW

          February 5, 2017 at 7:20 pm

          Do you know the name of this hotel, because I am going to book a room pronto! Looks as if it is near Ischia. At present I am staying at Langar Hall near Nottingham. The owner is very eccentric. I have a ghost in my room, who she says is her grandfather Edward. He gets into bed with people. I told her that as this is the heart of Robin Hood land it may be Errol’s spirit instead. I certainly hope so, having seen the portrait of her grandfather in the hall! He must have weighed about 20 stone!

          • PW

            February 5, 2017 at 7:31 pm

            The bar has a cocktail list that Errol would have adored.One of the house specials is called a “Screaming Orgasm.” It is made from Vodka, Kahlua, Amaretto, Baileys and Milk. And the quote below it reads “the best things in life either make you fat, drunk or pregnant.” I wonder who said that, but Errol was an expert on two of those, not always to his unalloyed delight.

          • Gentleman Tim

            February 5, 2017 at 9:37 pm

            Mio cattivo, Petronella. it was my intent to identify this as the Grand Hotel Vesuvio. I inadvertantly left that out. Errol stayed there and, evidently forgetting he brought the Mrs., shook the place up.

            Word is it was an affair to remember, or forget, depending on one’s pov, pw.