It’s an understatement to say that comic actor Terry-Thomas specialised in playing cads, bounders and rotters – nouns referring to a particular type of devious upper-class Englishman that have virtually disappeared from the language’s modern usage. Actually, for a quarter-century, for the many cinema-goers who delighted in his performances (even when the films themselves weren’t particularly good), he was the arch-cad, arch-bounder and arch-rotter. He played schemers with pompous and slightly-unbelievable names like Sir Percy Ware-Armitage, Raymond Delauney and Major Albert Rayne, who spoke in posh, insidious tones, who wore bowties, monocles and fancy jackets with carnations in their buttonholes, and who smoked cigarettes through the tubes of precariously-long cigarette-holders. All these characters were stamped with Thomas’s signature physical trait – a chasm-like gap between their top front teeth.
The real Terry-Thomas didn’t begin life in quite the aristocratic surroundings that his celluloid characters enjoyed. Christened Thomas Terry Hoar Stevens, he was son of the boss of a butcher’s company at London’s Smithfield Market. As he grew up, he became aware that both his parents had drink problems, which put increasing strain on their marriage, and the future actor’s first comic performances were given in his family home as he tried – with jokes, songs and slapstick – to keep his parents in good humour and keep them from quarrelling. It didn’t work, however, and eventually the couple divorced. Meanwhile, aware that in Britain at the time sounding posh did nothing to harm your prospects, the young Thomas started to refine his way of speaking.
Although he took on a clerical job at his father’s old stomping ground, Smithfield Market, after he left school in the late 1920s, Thomas was never far away from the world of entertainment. He served as a performer in various amateur dramatic and operatic productions, as a ballroom dancer, as a ukulele player in a jazz band called the Rhythm Maniacs and, from 1933, as a film extra. By 1938 he’d formed a cabaret act with the South African dancer Ida Florence Patlanski, whom he married in February of that year, and he’d also adopted the stage name of Terry Thomas. The hyphen linking the two names didn’t appear until after World War II.
Thomas began the war as a member of the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA), performing for British troops. In 1942 he was drafted into the Royal Corps of Signals although, addicted to the world of spotlights and greasepaint, he continued to appear in cabaret shows and he graduated to an entertainment troupe called Stars in Battledress, whose members, as its name suggests, were well-known performers currently serving in the military. When Thomas left the Signals Corps, in 1946, his profile was high enough for him to be offered the role of compere in a show called Piccadilly Hayride, running in London’s West End. Thomas considered his two-year stint with the popular show to be the thing that gave his career its biggest boost. In 1948, he was given his own show on British radio and a year later he was writing and appearing in How do you View? – the first-ever comedy series broadcast on British television.
Meanwhile, on the larger screen – the cinema one – Thomas’s days as a lowly film extra were well behind him. In 1956, he got fourth billing after Ian Carmichael, Richard Attenborough and Dennis Price in the World War II comedy Private’s Progress, directed by John and Roy Boulting. Thomas wasn’t happy about the gulf between how he’d wanted to play his character in the film, Major Hitchcock, and how the Boulting brothers actually made him play him, but the directing duo were sufficiently impressed with Thomas to sign him for another five movies: Lucky Jim, Brothers in Law, Happy is the Bride, Carlton-Browne of the FO and I’m All Right Jack. In the last of those films, the Boultings’ celebrated piss-take of British labour relations, Thomas reprised his Major Hitchcock role.
(c) Charter Film Productions
In Lucky Jim, the Boulting’s 1957 adaptation of Kingsley Amis’s famous campus novel, Thomas plays the arrogant, devious and up-his-own-arse painter Bertrand Welch, who is both the son of hero Jim Dixon’s faculty boss and Jim’s rival in love. In Lucky Jim-the-novel, Welch comes across as a sort of proto-Beatnik, speaking his own trendy patois – though at the same time he’s happy to use the privilege of his parentage to bully people. Thomas, however, portrays Welsh as a conventionally posh and effete git, albeit one with an unfortunate set of whiskers. The ever-curmudgeonly Kingsley Amis regarded him as being completely miscast in the role, although just by playing his usual screen self Thomas steals many of the scenes he’s in.
1958’s Carlton-Browne of the FO was the only film Thomas made for the Boulting brothers where he got top billing. He plays the titular character, an upper-class incompetent who got his senior diplomatic position – head of the British Foreign Office’s Department of Miscellaneous Territories – simply because of who his father was. A satire on Britain’s status as an imperial power, then fast-unravelling, it has Thomas trying to deal with a remote British territory called Gaillardia, whose existence nobody in the Foreign Office is aware of until a ship crashes into it. The film was intended to be Britain’s entry for the Moscow International Film Festival in 1959, until pressure from the British Foreign Office, who feared the Russians might take it too literally, forced it to be withdrawn.
The Boultings’ satirical take on Britain – as a land where the sort of upper-class scoundrels and idiots essayed by Thomas flourished solely because of their pedigree – might have seemed pertinent to British audiences in the 1950s. By the 1960s, however, things were supposedly changing. A string of gentrified Prime Ministers – Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan, Alec Douglas-Home – had given way to Harold Wilson, the son of a Yorkshire chemist; and the most famous Britons on the planet were suddenly four non-RP-speaking lads from the working-class city of Liverpool. Although his persona was thus a bit out-of-date in his home country, Thomas spent the 1960s enjoying fame and fortune in the USA, whose citizens still saw Britain as a country populated by tradition-bound aristocrats. In addition to making guest appearances in American TV shows like The Bing Crosby Show, Burke’s Law, What’s my Line, The Man from UNCLE and The Red Skelton Hour, he starred in a few American films – most notably, in 1963, Stanley J. Kramer’s epic comedy It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.
It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is a fascinating film. It’s long, loud, expensive, frequently explosive and destructive, and is populated by famous American funny-men from top to bottom: from headlining turns by Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Dick Shawn, Phil Silvers and Jonathan Winters down to cameos by Carl Reiner, Don Knotts, Buster Keaton, Jimmy Durante, Jack Benny, Jerry Lewis and the Three Stooges. It isn’t, however, particularly funny. What laughs there are come mainly from Thomas’s character, the harassed and uptight J. Algernon Hawthorne, an Englishman travelling through America. He considers the country he’s visiting to be “the most unspeakable matriarchy in the history of civilisation”, one with a “positively infantile preoccupation with bosoms.”
(c) United Artists
Thomas made It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World the same year that he married Belinda Cunningham, a young woman whom he’d met on holiday in 1961. He and Ida Patlanski had divorced in 1962, although they’d been separated since the mid-1950s. Belinda would still be with Thomas at the end of his life, when things had become grim indeed.
Thomas also made the 1965 American movie How to Murder your Wife, in which he plays the valet of Jack Lemmon’s committed bachelor Stanley Ford, who in a drunken moment of stupidity gets married to a bikini-clad non-English-speaking woman who appears out of a birthday cake at a party. Thomas and Lemmon became good friends in real life and it’s interesting that the same year Lemmon played the villain, Professor Fate, in Blake Edwards’ opulent comedy The Great Race. Despite having a twirly moustache that marks him out as a Grade-A bounder, Lemmon’s Professor Fate is too manic a character to bear much resemblance to the smooth, aristocratic shits that Thomas specialised in. Ironically, when the American TV animation studio Hannah-Barbera cashed in on The Great Race’s success by making their famous cartoon show Whacky Races, the main inspiration for the show’s villain Dick Dastardly (voiced by Paul Winchell) probably was Terry-Thomas.
And 1965 saw Terry-Thomas play the villain in another opulent comedy about a race, an aerial one, Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines. Like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Those Magnificent Men… isn’t particularly funny and again what amusement there is comes from Thomas, who this time plays an upper-crust rogue called Sir Percy Ware-Armitage – although Eric Sykes, who plays Ware-Armitage’s downtrodden henchman, is good value too. Unlike Stanley J. Kramer’s epic, however, Those Magnificent Men… is as boring as it is unfunny. Thomas and Sykes get frustratingly little to do and the plot bogs down with a turgid love-triangle between the movie’s three stars, Stuart Whitman, Sarah Miles and James Fox. At least it was popular enough to spawn a sequel, 1969’s Monte Carlo or Bust, a film that, while pretty juvenile, is more enjoyable – mainly because Thomas and Sykes are given bigger roles. (Monte Carlo… also benefits from having the great Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in its cast.)
At the start of the 1970s, Thomas was diagnosed as suffering from Parkinson’s disease – something that would become more obvious in his speech, movements and posture as time progressed. It meant that, gradually, he became less able to take on major roles and his name slipped down the cast-lists of the films he appeared in.
In the 1970s, when the careers of once-powerful British actors began to slide, the makers of low-budget British horror movies inevitably came knocking. Terry-Thomas was no exception. He appeared in 1971’s baroque comedy-horror movie The Abominable Dr Phibes, wherein the insane and disfigured genius Anton Phibes, played by Vincent Price, murderously avenges himself on the team of surgeons he believes are responsible for his wife’s death. For inspiration for his murders, he turns to the Ten Plagues inflicted upon the Ancient Egyptians in the Old Testament. Thomas’s character suffers a death based on the Plague of Blood, whereby Price siphons all the red stuff out of his veins, into several bottles that he leaves on Thomas’s mantelpiece. It’s just unfortunate that Thomas gets bumped off early on in the film, as his performance is so good. At least the director, Robert Fuest, persuaded him to make a cameo appearance in the following year’s sequel, Dr Phibes Rises Again, in which he plays a shipping agent incensed at being dragged to Scotland Yard on his weekend off to help Peter Jeffrey’s Inspector Trout with his inquiries. “We’re looking for a madman,” says Trout. Thomas retorts, “Well, you’ve bloody well found one!”
(c) American International Pictures
Thomas was also recruited by Amicus, a studio that specialised in making horror anthology movies. Sticking four or five short, scary stories into a single film’s running time meant Amicus could stuff its films, and film posters, with big-name actors whilst only employing them for a day or two’s filming (and paying them cash in hand). Thomas turned up in 1973’s The Vault of Horror, which is probably the worst of the Amicus anthologies. It’s noticeably cheap and tatty-looking and directed by somebody, the usually reliable Roy Ward Baker, who on this occasion just wasn’t interested. At least Thomas appeared in its best story, playing an irritating pedant whose obsession with tidiness drives his messy wife over the edge – she chops him into pieces and then, in honour of his neatness, stores the body-parts in carefully-labelled jars that are themselves meticulously arranged on the basement shelves. (One jar is seen to contain Thomas’s famously gapped teeth.) It was evidently an influence on modern-day actors / writers Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, who copied the story wholesale for a 2010 episode of their macabre BBC comedy series Psychoville.
In 1977, by which time I’d seen dozens of Terry-Thomas films on TV and the actor had become one of my favourites, my family moved to a new house near a new town and my mother was keen to visit our new local cinema. So one evening I accompanied her to the cinema to see one of those double-bills that were common in British picture-houses at the time. Occupying the bottom half of the bill, we discovered, was a British musical-comedy movie about feuding nightclub owners called Side by Side and one of the owners was played by Terry-Thomas. Even at the age of eleven I realised immediately how cheap and terrible the film was. Its tunes were provided by several bands from the scrapheap of British 1970s pop-musical naffness, such as Mud, Kenny and The Rubettes, and it was distressing to see how ill, and ill-at-ease, Thomas looked. (The film occupying the other half of the bill was an Italian weepie about a boy dying from leukaemia, The Last Snows of Spring, so, fittingly, in my memory Side by Side is connected in two ways with terminal diseases.) You’d have needed to be in possession of the second sight to predict that the director of Side by Side would one day make a movie that’d win the Oscar for best film, but he did – the director was Australian Bruce Beresford and in 1989 he helmed Driving Miss Daisy.
That was almost the end of Terry-Thomas’s movie career. He appeared in a couple more comedies like 1977’s The Last Remake of Beau Geste and 1978’s The Hound of the Baskervilles – neither was particularly good, but at least he was surrounded by distinguished performers (Marty Feldman, Michael York, Peter Ustinov, Ann-Margaret, James Earl Jones, Trevor Howard, Roy Kinnear and Spike Milligan in the former, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Denholm Elliot, Kenneth Williams, Max Wall, Penelope Keith, Prunella Scales, Kinnear and Milligan again in the latter). Thereafter he gave up acting and it became an increasing struggle for him and his wife Belinda to deal with the physical and financial effects of his illness.
In 1989, a decade after Terry-Thomas seemed to have disappeared off the public’s radar, the writer and broadcaster Richard Hope-Hawkins and his godfather, the TV and film actor Thorley Walters, went to visit Thomas at his home in London. They were shocked to find him being cared for by Belinda in a tiny and impoverished charity flat. He was mute and immobile, and “wracked in pain, with two weeks of facial hair covering his drawn face.” Hope-Hawkins got together with the comic actor Jack Douglas, who’d been a regular in the later Carry On movies, and organised a celebrity-studded benefit concert that raised enough money to allow Thomas to be moved to a nursing home in Surrey. He died there in January 1990, although by then the treatment he’d received had at least enabled him to talk again. When he was laid to rest, his funeral procession was headed by one of his nephews, carrying a silk cushion that bore several of the famous tools of his trade: a monocle, red carnation and cigarette-holder.
On youtube you can find footage of a 1989 TV news report about Terry-Thomas, showing the actor when he was confined to that charity flat and at his lowest ebb. The images of him then are deeply upsetting to anybody who remembers him from his glory days, strutting across British TV and cinema screens with delightful roguishness and relish. They are also a sobering reminder of how sickness and bad luck can reduce the mightiest of people to hopeless destitution.
But forget those sad, final days. Remember Terry-Thomas this way.