Monday, 24 November 2014

Terry-Thomas: Magnificent in a Flying Machine

Perennially appearing on our TV’s every Christmas, one of my favourite movies of the mid-sixties with its full title “Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines; Or, How I Flew from London to Paris in 25 Hours 11 Minutes” is always guaranteed to fill up 2 hours of the festive period, assisting the recovery from the many over indulgences previously incurred.

Starring such an eminent cast as Stuart Whitman, Sarah Miles, Robert Morley, Terry-Thomas and James Fox, and directed by Ken Annakin, it was the fictional account of an air race between London and Paris, with a prize of £10,000 on offer, in order to prove that Britain was “Number one in the air”.

On 8th January 2015, it will be 25 years since the death of British comedy film actor and “Magnificent Man” Terry-Thomas.

With his cultured accent, striking dress sense and trademark gap between his front two teeth, Terry-Thomas is fondly remembered for often playing disreputable members of the upper classes.

Born in 1911 as Thomas, Terry Stevens in Finchley, London, his father was a butcher at London’s famous Smithfield Market, who also trod the boards as an amateur actor in his spare time.

Although the young Tom (as he was known at the time) spent a generally happy childhood, he started fooling around by entertaining at home with jokes and musical routines, all in an attempt to bring his parents together as their marriage was failing. However they separated and had divorced by the early 1920s.

He started cultivating his infamous, distinctive, well spoken voice as early as 1921 with the belief that it would suggest of an excellent education and that people would lookup to him. In hindsight it became one of his most endearing trademarks and arguably a more iconic “cad” or “bad egg” character actor has not been seen in British cinema before or since.

After expulsion from Ardingly College in England’s West Sussex for continual ad libbing and acting the fool during lessons, he returned to London to work at Smithfield Market and similarly to his father, also enjoyed a spell in amateur dramatics in his spare time.

In the 1930s he progressed to making his first professional appearance on stage and by 1933 had procured a small movie part in “The Private Life of Henry VIII” starring Charles Laughton.

In “Those Magnificent Men….” Terry-Thomas played the part of Baronet Sir Percy Ware-Armitage who, along with his bullied man-servant, they sabotage two of the competing aircraft, drug one of the other pilots and attempt to cheat by shipping their aircraft across the channel at night.

Anyone unfamiliar with the movie may see similarities to the later 60s Hanna Barbera cartoon series “Dasdardly and Muttley in their Flying Machines” (also remembered by many as “Stop the Pigeon”). There were many similarities between Dick Dastardly and Terry-Thomas and it is quite clear where the cartoon character persona stemmed from.

Suffering from Parkinsons’ Disease and depression in later life, Terry-Thomas died in a nursing home at Godalming in Surrey at the age of 78.

His persona has been used as an inspiration for many performances over the years. Dustin Hoffman admits to basing his interpretation of Captain Hook in “Hook” on him while Rupert Everett styled his voicing of Prince Charming in “Shrek 2” on the English cad. The British legendary puppet Basil Brush was also based on Terry-Thomas as were Ronnie Corbett’s iconic monologue series in the BBC’s “Two Ronnies” TV show.

with Doris Day
Terry-Thomas's friend Jack Lemmon called him "a consummate professional ... he was a gentleman, a delight to be with personally, let alone professionally, and above all as an actor he had one of the qualities that I admire so much—he made it look simple"

Terry-Thomas was truly a magnificent man of stage and screen.

His full filmography is available by clicking HERE

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