Sunday, 14 June 2015

Terry-Thomas: Unmistakable



Unmistakably  Terry-Thomas















Hard Cheese!
I loved Terry-Thomas when young. I had come to know him from television, films shown  in the late 60’s and early 70’s. “Monte Carlo or Bust,” “Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines”, it seemed a film featured Terry-Thomas  almost weekly in those days, but my first recognition of him as a unique voice was at the age of 12 taking my younger brother to the cinema in the Market Square to see the Disney film; Robin Hood. Terry-Thomas’s unmistakable voice, sizzled and curled in the voice of Sir Hiss, King John’s sly councillor companion. I giggled every time he spoke just because I knew the voice so well, never mind the jokes and those hypnotic eyes. The animators even gave the snake Thomas's gap toothed grin, “One more hiss out of you Hiss. And you are walking to Nottingham.” Hiss: (to himself)"Snakes don't walk, they slither. Hmph. So, there.” at the age of 12 that was so funny, and I remember my tummy hurting from the hand trapped giggles.

I seek him out on television to this day, and many of my mental floss films feature him, those gentle charming films that make you warm inside and make your belly smile.
'I'm Alright Jack', 'Blue Murder at St Trinian's', 'Lucky Jim', The Green Man, those wonderful Boulting brothers films with Ian Carmichael playing  someone named Windrush and where Thomas’s stiff upper lipped type, acted as the perfect foil for the lugubrious and louche man (and sometime woman) mountain that was the inimitable Alistair Sim.

'Charles' How to Murder Your Wife 
As a sixteen year old, I had escaped my family home and found myself living in North London, alone above a shop on the High St in East Finchley. After working in the frozen food store under my flat for a few months, I settled in one evening to find a favourite Terry Thomas film on telly, it was 'How to Murder Your Wife' with Jack Lemmon, portraying a cartoonist and confirmed bachelor, hugely successful and happily unmarried enjoying the comforts of a well-to-do existence which included the services of a loyal and attentive valet, Charles (Terry-Thomas) and, featuring the visually arresting Italian actress Virna Lisi whom Lemmon's character mistakenly marries after getting drunk at a party.The next day I was talking to a colleague about how funny the film was and how big a fan of Terry-Thomas’s I was, when she said, “Oh yeah he’s really well known around here, he used to live in Lichfield Grove and went to school  wiv’ me friends granddad”, I was blown away by this news; I knew someone, who knew someone,who knew someone, who knew Terry-Thomas!

A few days later, on my next day off, I set out on  pilgrimage to Lichfield Grove which was all of 20 minutes’ away from my flat. I found it relatively easily, not sure what I expected to see but it was a nice street full of attractive semi’s and terraces with small front gardens, gable’s and bay windows . To my dismay there was no sign of the great man nor any indication of which house was his. I can't recall whether blue plaques were a thing at that time but if they were none of the houses had one or any other sign that said a legend had lived there. When recalling this, as I was writing I thought I’d look it up again and sadly still no blue plaque on what I now understand was number 52*, a criminal oversight and dreadful shame in my view.

It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World’ a rollercoaster of a comedy chase film to find a buried treasure with a dozen American stars, to this day can make me laugh out loud and Terry-Thomas  more than holds his own in a cast that includes Hollywood luminaries, Spencer Tracy, Phil Silvers, Sid Caesar, Peter Falk and Ethel Merman. The film that gave him the catch phrase “You’re an absolute shower!”was Privates Progress” another Boulting brothers films with Ian Carmichael as Windrush (again!)and William Hartnell (the future first Dr Who no less!) as the soon to retire Sergeant battling to win a bet that he can win the platoon prize, finally, is often shown on telly and I will never miss it if I find it in the listings.

My absolute favourite is the deliciously 'twee'd' comic masterpiece, “School for Scoundrels” an absolute 'tour de force' for all  concerned, a glowing gem, not only a wondrous vehicle for the man who says ‘You're an absolute shower!’ through a gap toothed grin wide enough to park a “Swiftmobile” but: bringing it back to 'showers'; The prize for our our protagonists was called April (get it? I know, I know, pretty poor) – April Smith, played by he gorgeous Janette Scott.
“Oh, I say, Aren't you going to introduce me?”
For me, Terry-Thomas is one of our most underappreciated stars, and the story of his final years is dreadfully sad, wasting away to that cruelest of illnesses, Parkinson’s disease, of which so much less was known in the 80’s. He consequently fell into terrible depressions, attributed by him, to the helplessness he felt fighting his illness. He and his wife descended into near poverty eventually living in a three-room, unfurnished charity flat, with financial assistance from the Actors' Benevolent Fund.
In 1989 some of his old friends learned of his situation and a huge benefit concert was organised to raise money to help, it came just nine months before he passed away in January 1990 so his last few days were spent in a nursing home near Godalming in Surrey.

Terry-Thomas makes me and I know many others smile when thinking about his films. There is a blue plaque at Terry-Thomas's one time home in Queens Gate Mews, Kensington, but he was a North London boy born and schooled so the fact that there is no blue plaque at Lichfield Grove, Finchley, is a sad oversight for a man that entertained us so much and for so long.

Finchley Council if you don't sort this out all I can say is – “You're an absolute shower!”

*I learned the house number from Graham McCann's brilliant book - Bounder! The Biography of Terry-Thomas(ISBN 978-1-84513-441-9) Graham McCann is also the writer of , in my view, the best Marilyn Monroe biography ever written, called simply Marilyn Monroe (ISBN: 978-0745603797). I unhesitatingly recommend both.