I say! What a bounder...The Life, sublime style and sartorial excellence of Terry Thomas the ultimate chap ...personification of the upper class cad ... the rotter’s rotter ...
Man who makes today's rotters look an absolute shower
A tribute to Terry-Thomas, an actor who played the cad to perfection and who would have been 100 this week.
By Max Davidson7:30AM BST 15 Jul 2011 in The Telegraph /http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/8638598/Man-who-makes-todays-rotters-look-an-absolute-shower.html
Terry-Thomas knew how to make an entrance. In 1928, as a 17-year-old straight out of school, he turned up for his first day of work as a clerk at Smithfield market wearing an olive-green pork pie hat, a taupe double-breasted suit decorated with a clove carnation, a multi-coloured tie and yellow gloves. He had a cigarette-holder in one hand and a silver-topped cane in the other. Stall-holders stopped and stared.
Standing out from the crowd, on screen and off, became his stock-in-trade. There have been many finer actors than Terry-Thomas, who would have been 100 this week, but very few who carved such a distinctive niche.
He was 45 by the time he made his breakthrough, playing the memorably fatuous Major Hitchcock in Private’s Progress, but after that he never looked back. He made more than 50 films, many of them comic classics. As a giver of laughter, he was out of the top drawer.
Nobody minded that he played the same character again and again. The actor and the man blended into one, a quintessentially English cocktail of dandyishness and dastardliness, done with the lightest of touches. A Terry-Thomas cameo had the insouciant charm of a P G Wodehouse novel.
To British cinema-goers of the 1950s and 1960s, he was as instantly recognisable as Kenneth Williams or Sid James. That gap-toothed smile. That scruffy moustache, like a slug on the upper lip. Those inimitable catch-phrases. “You’re an absolute shower.” “Jolly good show.” “Hard cheese.” That indefinable air of untrustworthiness…
He looked impressive. How could you not trust a man who was so immaculately turned out, from the gleaming shoes to the carnation in the button-hole? But you counted the spoons when he was gone. He was in the great English tradition of the non-gentleman posing as gentleman and coming within a whisker of pulling it off.
In his heyday, Terry-Thomas cornered the market in cads and bounders – words that are long past their sell-by date but evoke a vanished age of genteel skulduggery, where chaps did the dirty on other chaps because that was how chaps got on in life.
He was born Thomas Terry Hoar Stevens, the son of a small-time company director – several rungs down the social ladder from the upper-class characters with which he became associated. But that was all part of the fun. Sir Cuthbert Ware-Armitage, Sir Harry Washington-Smythe… Casting directors looking for someone to play a disreputable scion of the English aristocracy knew who to ring.
As an actor, he was typecast and, to an extent, paid the consequences. His roles in 1960s classics such as Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines and Monte Carlo or Bust were simply extensions of roles he had first played 10 years earlier, with films such as I’m All Right Jack. But it is a tribute to the skill with which Terry-Thomas honed his craft that he was in demand far beyond his natural stamping ground.
Unlike a lot of British character actors, whose style of comedy did not survive the Atlantic crossing, he was a big hit in Hollywood, playing a British Army officer in Stanley Kramer’s hit comedy It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and Jack Lemmon’s valet in How to Murder Your Wife. He also, improbably, enjoyed a cult following in France, after playing an RAF officer with a particularly luxurious moustache in La Grande Vadrouille.
There was no real malice in the man. The characters Terry-Thomas played could no more have committed murder than flown to the Moon. They were knaves rather than villains. And if you laughed at them, rather than with them, you laughed at them with affection. They were much too colourful to hate.
English fiction is littered with colourful rogues, from Shakespeare’s Falstaff to George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman: chancers and charlatans who tell fib after fib but get away with them because they fib with style. With Terry-Thomas, the style derived partly from his dandyish appearance, but mainly from his distinctive Jekyll-and-Hyde personality: all affability on the surface, his face a rictus of bonhomie, all shiftiness and calculation underneath.
In a golden age for rotters – sharp-elbowed types in dodgy blazers, driving flash cars they could not afford – he was the rotter’s rotter. There were a lot of Terry-Thomases in the 1950s. They had not had good wars but, if they played their cards right, insisted on being calling Major, and wore a regimental tie at the golf club, they could enjoy a certain cachet. They could bluff for Britain. Terry-Thomas caught their affectations and insecurities to a T.
For an actor who gave pleasure to millions, he was cruelly recompensed by fate. In 1971 he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. His last film role came in 1978 and, for a time, he lived in obscurity and penury. A fund-raising gala raised £75,000, which helped him keep his head above water, but his last years were as distressing for his friends and family as they were for the actor himself, who died in 1990.
At least, through his screen performances, he had secured his immortality. Just as the Carry On films are remembered with an affection which is out of all proportion to their quality, so the broad-brush humour at which Terry-Thomas excelled has weathered changing fashions in comedy.
For as long as there are cads who blag their way to the best table in the restaurant, pinch their best pals’ girlfriends, and write cheques that bounce like pogo-sticks, the sight of Terry-Thomas will always raise a knowing smile. Or, as he would have put it himself: “Jolly good show.
I say! What a bounder... All dandy comic legend Terry-Thomas really liked was 'jolly eager girls'
By GRAHAM MCCANN
UPDATED: 22:44 GMT, 5 September 2008 in The Daily Mail / http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-1052851/I-say-What-bounder--All-dandy-comic-legend-Terry-Thomas-really-liked-jolly-eager-girls.html
Terry-Thomas, the gap-toothed comedian who found fame and fortune personifying the archetypal English bounder, was as passionate about clothes as he was about women.
His specially-made suits came from Savile Row, his shirt and ties from Jermyn Street and, at one point, even his underpants were tailor-made.
He was a great believer in the finishing touches - the suede shoes had to be perfect, as did his button-hole carnation, and, despite the fact that he gave up smoking at the end of World War II, he always carried a long cigarette holder as a sort of elegant personal prop.
So when in 1960, at the height of his carefully nurtured fame, he came off stage after giving a midnight charity performance at the Liverpool Odeon to discover that his most expensive holder - a flashy little number decorated with 42 diamonds and a gold spiral band, reputedly worth £2,000 - had disappeared from his dressing room, he was livid.
The Liverpool police soon tracked down two of the diamonds to a local man called Alan Williams.
The other 40, however, were found inside a roll of carpet at the home of a 20-year-old, unemployed comedian called James Joseph Tarbuck.
Jimmy Tarbuck, whose 'Boom-Boom' catch phrase would soon become as famous as Terry-Thomas's 'I say!', pleaded guilty to theft and was placed on probation for two years.
At the trial, it emerged that the desperately ambitious Tarbuck had sought out Thomas before the show, begging for the chance to make an appearance.
The star, however, turned him down, pointing out that 'we have too many artistes already' and that it would be 'madness to put anybody else on'.
Thomas's snub was both typical and atypical of the man. It was typical because he fervently believed that meticulous preparation was the only way to ensure the 'really jolly good' show he always aimed to put on.
Slipping in an additional act at the last minute was definitely not the T-T way. But it was also atypical because T-T was normally the most generous of performers.
Throughout his career - whether on radio shows such as To Town With Terry, television's How Do You View? or films such as I'm All Right, Jack and It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World - if he thought a scene or sketch would be funnier if he did less and other actors did more, he'd happily trade them his best lines.
He knew what his sometimes unwitting costars did not; that what the public would go away remembering was another very funny show with that lovely Terry-Thomas in it.
Had he spent a little more time with Tarbuck, he might have recognised a fellow young comedian struggling to escape his origins, just as he himself had set about doing so enthusiastically some 40 years earlier.
But while Tarbuck made a virtue of his working class origins in Liverpool, Thomas Terry Hoar Stevens did everything possible to forget that he had been born, the fourth of five children, in 1911, in what he considered the criminally dull London suburb of North Finchley and that his father worked at Smithfield meat market, albeit more as a bowler-hatted and modestly well-off provisions merchant than a blood-spattered meat porter.
An out-and-out snob 'even as a nipper', young Thomas Stevens felt he had been the victim of some kind of genetic mix-up that, instead of delivering him to the glorious, glamorous, golden corner of England where he felt he belonged, had dumped him into the mundane, mediocre, lower-middle-class milieu of Finchley.
It did not seem fair; it did not seem right.
From an early age, young Tom did everything he could to ensure he would escape. By the age of ten, he'd replaced his North London accent with the crisply modulated tones of the then well known stage and cinema actor Owen Nares, a matinee idol who sounded like he'd spent most of his adult life ensconced in London's snootiest gentlemen's clubs.
That was exactly the impression that Tom, already beguiled by the comic novels of P.G. Wodehouse, wanted to give.
The transformation of Thomas Stevens into Terry Thomas had begun.
Unlike many comedians, T-T was a naturally funny man who loved to entertain an audience.
And it was as a young teenager that Tom discovered and developed this talent - he danced, sang, did impressions, recited comic monologues and generally played the gap-toothed 'giddy goat'.
It seemed to work. 'My family thought I was the funniest person in the world,' he would recall.
A regular in the audience at the Hippodrome in Golders Green and at his local Odeon, young Tom studied each performer and learnt to mimic whatever they did, wore or said.
He was particularly drawn to fine clothes, admiring the immaculate suiting of Douglas Fairbanks Sr, the Hollywood star known for his love of British tailoring, and longing to wear a monocle, like the Austrian actor and director Erich von Stroheim.
He could afford none of these things, but dreamed of the day when he could.
School was generally not a success, although he exhibited an early talent for memorising both lines and lyrics. Concerned for their son's future, his parents somehow found the money to send him to Ardingly College in West Sussex, a proper public school that had stern-looking, gown-wearing tutors and its fair share of bonafide toffs.
It could have been disastrous and T-T would later acknowledge it came as 'something of a shock' - but he responded with a bold and sustained show of 'chutzpah', entirely in keeping with the phrase that would become his motto in life: 'I shall not be cowed.'
He found artful little ways to embellish his drab uniform, caught the ear with his accent and the eye with his antics, particularly among the school's jazz fraternity who regarded him as 'the funny chap with the gift of the gab'.
'I would do anything to attract attention,' he admitted: 'The satisfaction I got when I made people laugh was indescribably potent.'
The die was well and truly cast.
Leaving Ardingly at 16 and eventually persuaded to join his father at Smithfield, Tom didn't so much embrace the world of work as toy with it.
From his very first day, he refused to blend in, turning up - straight-backed and 6ft tall - sporting an olive-green pork-pie hat, a taupe double-breasted suit with a carnation, a multi-coloured tie and yellow wash-leather gloves, twiddling a long cigarette holder with one hand and twirling a silver-topped Malacca cane with the other.
It was, he would later recall, 'the first, fine, florid rapture' of his adult dandyism.
His unique personal style would stay with him as, at the age of 18, he made his professional debut as a 'cheerer-upper' at a social evening organised by the Electric Railwaymen's Dining Club in South Kensington.
He received few laughs from his boozy audience, but was paid 30 shillings for his efforts.
Success did not arrive overnight, but his life-long love of women and sex certainly did.
Having lost his virginity at the age of 17 to his family's young and willing Cornish housekeeper, he was rarely without a girl at his side.
And when, a few years later, his work as a film extra, professional ballroom dancer and even jazz ukulele player had enabled him to rent a flat in St John's Wood, a succession of 'jolly eager girls' moved in to keep him company.
T-T even tried writing a young man's guide to modern sexual etiquette, before deciding more empirical research - especially on the subject of 'deep-bosomed women' - would be required before completion.
He changed his stage name to Terry Thomas (no hyphen as yet) in 1938, believing he needed something snappier than Thomas Stevens. It seemed to work. He not only made his radio debut on the BBC but married Ida 'Pat' Patlanski, a tall, dark-haired South African ballet dancer and choreographer with whom he had recently established a new flamenco-inspired cabaret double act.
The marriage endured but, alas, fidelity did not. Pat, Terry soon discovered, had been having casual affairs since the earliest days of their marriage, so now he too began to think relatively little of being unfaithful. Tit for tat, he called it.
It took World War II to transform Terry's career, as it did for a whole generation of comedians.
He and Pat were in the first wave of performers to sign up to the new Entertainment National Service Association (ENSA) being set up by the film producer Basil Dean, although it had to be said one of the main attractions to Terry of the first tour of not-yet- occupied northern France was a young singer called Marilyn Miller.
Marilyn, according to Terry, was blessed with 'long legs, deep bosoms, a beautiful classic face and a stunning complexion' and, with Pat conveniently dispatched back to Britain, the couple were often to be found in Terry's room, ' rehearsing new numbers'.
In 1942 he was called up and unexpectedly made quite a success of being a soldier, even being promoted to corporal in the Royal Corps of Signals.
However, when old problems with his stomach and ears resulted in his health being downgraded from A1 to B1 at the beginning of 1943 he seized the opportunity to join the newly formed touring revues known as Stars In Battledress.
He never looked back, taking his own unit (as a newly promoted sergeant) all over Britain and most parts of occupied Europe, even occasionally sneaking off to make an unbilled appearance, quite illegally, on the West End cabaret circuit where more sophisticated material could be attempted and a better quality of brandy imbibed.
Colleagues were impressed and intimidated by his work ethic when it came to conjuring comedy. 'The only time old Terry is really serious,' said one, 'is when he's putting on a show - he's worse than any sergeant major.'
After demobilisation - and initially thanks to the contacts he had made during his Stars In Battledress days - Terry's career took off, and he won his own show on the BBC's Home Service, the variety show To Town With Terry.
But his biggest break - and one that would change the face of television comedy - came in 1949 when a rather raffish-looking man walked up so close to the camera that his face filled the screen. 'How do you view?' he inquired with a gap-toothed grin. 'Are you frightfully well? You are? Oh, good show.'
That man, of course, was Terry-Thomas, the newly inserted hyphen apparently there to tie the two names together. 'They didn't mean much apart,' he argued. 'Together they made a trade name.'
The next 15 years were a glorious time for T-T. When the groundbreaking How Do You View?, which was the first real television comedy series, came to an end after five runs and his television career faltered, his film career took off.
His first Hollywood picture, Bachelor Flat, was not a great success, but all the hard work T-T had put in to creating his extraordinary-public persona soon paid off.
His roguish version of the archetypal Englishman was exactly what Hollywood wanted and his reward was a series of tasty parts in films such as the star-studded It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World and How To Murder Your Wife, for which he was paid £100,000. The equivalent fee today would be about £3 million.
These were glory years, with good parts, huge money and lucrative advertisements all rolling in. In 1962, he even married again, just after he was finally, officially, divorced from Pat.
But he didn't marry Lorrae Desmond, the Australian singer and actress who had been his constant companion for seven years and who T-T once described as the 'sexiest person' he had ever met and the most 'dedicated woman in bed'.
Instead, he overcame a 26-year age gap to marry the girl who had consoled him when his relationship with Lorrae broke down, 21-year-old Belinda Cunningham, a lieutenant-colonel's daughter from Lincolnshire.
Her father was initially appalled, but Belinda would remain with T-T for the rest of his life, bear him two sons - Tiger and Cushan - and help him build an idyllic home on the newly fashionable island of Ibiza, where she would occasionally surprise visitors by emerging from the swimming pool stark naked.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, T-T spoilt his young wife rotten.
'Whatever Belinda and I wanted, we bought. And we wanted the lot. We knew the fat cheques would last for ever.'
But they didn't, of course. In 1971, while touring Australia, a doctor giving him a routine check-up asked T-T if had noticed his left hand was trembling slightly.
Back in London, his GP immediately sent him to see a neurological specialist. The news was not good. At the age of 59, he had Parkinson's Disease.
His cousin, the actor Richard Briers, was there when T-T broke the news to his family at their South Kensington flat. Briers says: 'Terry raised a glass of champagne and smiled, but then said: "I have to tell you that I have £1 million, after tax, in the bank - but I've got bloody Parkinson's." '
It was the beginning of a long, slow and particularly cruel decline that would leave the great raconteur silent and virtually penniless and his poor wife physically and psychologically exhausted.
He continued to work sporadically throughout the Seventies, but the disease took its toll. In 1977, concerned by gossip that he had a drink problem, T-T went public with the real explanation for his slurred speech and constant stumbles.
He even recorded a moving appeal on BBC television for funds for those engaged in Parkinson's research.
Slowly, the public Terry-Thomas - the endearing rogue that British audiences had loved for more than 30 years - slipped from view.
The Eighties were terrible years. Work was impossible, his fortune eaten up by medical fees, and he needed constant care. In 1988, T-T and Belinda crept back to Britain and set up home in a small unfurnished flat in Barnes.
Briers remembers visiting them and being shocked by what he saw. 'He was just sitting there, motionless; a crippled, crushed shadow. It was really bloody awful.'
When news got out of T-T's plight, showbiz friends rallied round to hold one of the biggest benefit nights London had ever seen, raising almost £100,000, half of which was sufficient for T-T to spend his final days in comfort at a nursing home in Surrey, the other half going to the Parkinson's Disease Society.
The end came on the morning of January 8, 1990. Aged 78, Terry-Thomas, the greatest British bounder in showbiz history, was dead.
• Adapted from BOUNDER by Graham McCann, published by Aurum Press on September 18 at £16.99. Graham McCann 2008. To order a copy at £15.30 (p&p free), call 0845 155 0720.
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