Thirty years after the death of Terry-Thomas, RICHARD LUCK pays tribute to the man who represented a much-loved archetype.
Way back in the infancy of mobile phones, one2one – now T-Mobile – ran a series of adverts in which celebrities explained which famous name they’d most want to have a one-to-one with. Kate Moss plumped for Elvis Presley, Chris Evans selected John Lennon and Ian Wright went with Martin Luther King.
Vic Reeves also participated in the campaign. And who did Britain’s top light entertainer wish to connect with? Why, Terry-Thomas, movie star, stage actor, cabaret performer, musician and a man with the sort of accent and aristocratic bearing one doesn’t typically associate with the North London district of Finchley.
That’s where the Terry-Thomas story began, though – at 53 Lichfield Grove on July 14, 1911. The future star of School For Scoundrels and It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was born Thomas Terry Hoar Stevens. His father Ernest held down a decent job at Smithfield Market so allowing young Tom to attend Ardingly College in West Sussex.
Surrounded by chinless wonders and people so posh that they appeared to be speaking a language other than English, Master Hoare Stevens began to fashion the act that would later become his fortune. For while he wouldn’t have dared leave the house without a carnation and his cigarette holder, Terry-Thomas wasn’t truly a toff – rather he affected the manner of an aristo better than any actor before or since.
Such was his gift for performance and his love of the cinema, it was no great surprise that his post-school Smithfield job didn’t work out. He took his first steps towards celebrity on the stage, making his professional debut aged 19 in 1930. Since he could sing and play both percussion and the ukulele, he was soon in demand on the cabaret circuit.
There was also an abundance of movie extra work going around, so should you find yourself watching such classics of the 1930s as The Private Life Of Henry VIII or Things To Come, see if you can spot Terry swanning around in the background.
With the Second World War having put his ascent on hold, Terry Thomas as he then was – the hyphen wouldn’t arrive until 1948 – headed back to the stage, becoming a big wheel in the West End, courtesy of the Piccadilly Hayride revue.
Besides bagging a radio show on the back of his theatrical success, Terry became the first comedian to have his own television show. How Do You View? aired to huge audiences between 1949 and 1953. By the time it came off air, Finchely’s favourite son also had his first major movie credits to his name, none more eye-catching than the leading role in 1949’s Melody Club.
Any survey of 1950s British comedy films would be incomplete without mention of Peter Sellers, Ian Carmichael and Terry-Thomas. Sometimes the reprobates would appear in pairs – see Terry and Ian in 1956’s Private’s Progress and 1957’s Lucky Jim, and Peter and Terry in The Naked Truth (1957) and 1959’s Carlton-Browne of the F.O.
On other occasions, all three would be on hand as in the Boulting Brothers’ acclaimed I’m All Right Jack (also 1959). Between them, Sellers, Carmichael and Thomas represented three compelling British archetypes – the lovable loser (Ian), the eccentric (Peter) and the absolute rotter (guess who?).
Though he was also – quite rightly – lauded for his performances opposite Alastair Sim in The Green Man (1956) and Blue Murder at St Trinian’s (1957), it was in Carmichael’s company that Terry cultivated cinema’s ultimate cad. In 1960’s School For Scoundrels, Thomas all but becomes Raymond Delauney, lover of fine wines and finer women and a fully paid-up graduate of Yeovil’s School Of Lifemanship, an educational institute run by Alistair Sim’s Dr Potter which is dedicated to the fine art of getting one over on a rival without truly cheating.
While Carmichael’s good egg Henry Palfrey is hampered by sincerity and self-esteem issues, Delauney always has a withering word to hand (“Hard cheese, old boy!”) not to mention a good line for Henry’s intended, Janette Scott’s April Smith (“What a romantic name. ‘Oh to be in England now that April’s here’!”).
If Terry-Thomas seems very at home as the sports car and haute cuisine-obsessed Delauney, it’s because he was no stranger to the finer things in life. As he based his distinctive speaking voice on the stage actor Owen Nares – the only man able to say ‘creature’ in as smarmy a manner as our hero – the actor affected the airs and graces of bona fide movie star Douglas Fairbanks Jr.
As such, he developed a preference for bespoke suits and very specific foodstuffs (Ian Carmichael remembers his friend being insistent that strawberries ought always to be bathed in Marsala – ‘bathed’ that is, not ‘soaked’). Such excess might have caused the odd eyebrow to be raised but it all adds to Delauney’s wonderful richness. By the way, there was a 2006 American remake of School For Scoundrels in which Billy Bob Thornton played a hybrid of the Sim and Thomas roles. Naturally, it was appalling.
Even before School For Scoundrels was in the can, Terry-Thomas had enjoyed his first taste of trans-Atlantic fame courtesy of a role in George Pal’s Tom Thumb (1958). When Pal cast him again in 1962’s The Wonderful Adventures of the Brothers Grimm, Terry was sufficiently well known in the States that Stanley Kramer had him cameo in his all-star madcap extravaganza It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.
As Gustav Temple, editor of The Chap, remarked in a recent profile of the actor, Terry’s work on the film did wonders for his international reputation, not so much because he was so good on screen but because he was so cooperative off it.
Sure, he could play the toff but Terry-Thomas was the furthest thing from a diva. Affable and ego-less, Terry was forever being offered roles in Hollywood productions and would end up sharing the screen with legends the likes of Jerry Lewis (1968’s Don’t Raise the Bridge, Lower the River) and Doris Day (Where Were You When the Lights Went Out?, also 1968). For the most part, however, he preferred to stay at home.
Home for Terry and his second wife Belinda meant a villa on Ibiza. Though regularly seen on screen wielding an umbrella, Thomas loved the sun and the pace of Mediterranean life. And while he enjoyed the company of other exiles like Orson Welles and Clifford Irving, he was very taken with the locals, as they were of him. They weren’t the only Europeans to take a shine to the gap-toothed wonder, mind you.
Quite what it was about Terry that appealed to our continental cousins is hard to say. Perhaps it was complete and utter Englishness. Certainly this would explain why he was cast in Euro productions such as La Grande Vadrouille (1966) where he plays a downed RAF pilot, Dorellik (1967) in which he essays the commander of Scotland Yard and Jess Franco’s Danger: Diabolik (1968), the cult favourite which enabled Terry to turn his cad act up to 11 as the conniving minister of the interior.
In demand in Britain, America and on the continent, life was exceptionally good for Terry-Thomas in the late 1960s and early 1970s. His credits from this era include Monte Carlo or Bust! (1969’s sort-of sequel to Those Magnificent Man in their Flying Machines which was green-lit purely because of Terry’s performance in the earlier film), the Vincent Price Dr Phibes pictures and Disney’s Robin Hood where he excels as that most slippery of customers, Sir Hiss. Life really couldn’t have been much better, which as those familiar with existence will be aware, is where things started to go wrong.
In the case of Terry-Thomas, misfortune took the form of Parkinson’s disease. As an actor famed for his range of expressions, it must have been particularly gruelling for Terry when he began to lose the elasticity in his facial muscles. Check out the Amicus portmanteau movie The Vault Of Horror (1973) and you’ll notice how Thomas’s face has the become somewhat mask-like. By the time he appeared in Pete and Dud’s The Hound Of The Baskervilles (1977) and Marty Feldman’s The Last Remake Of Beau Geste (1978), the condition was in danger of compromising his performances.
All but unable to work come the arrival of the 1980s, Terry-Thomas was obliged to sell his beloved villa to pay for his medical bills. His previous extravagance combined with the expense of combating the disease meant Terry and Belinda were reduced to living in an poorly-heated bedsit in south west London. It’s hard to imagine an abode further removed from their Mediterranean idyll.
In 1988, Terry’s reduced circumstances were the subject of a particularly distressing Thames News report. Uncomfortable viewing even today, at least the press coverage encouraged his fellow actors to rally round him. Indeed, the likes of Lionel Jeffries, Jack Douglas, Michael Caine, Ronnie Corbett and Terry’s cousin Richard Briers would arrange a benefit concert that raised over £70,000, enough money to ensure that, when the end came on January 8, 1990, Terry-Thomas was in a well-appointed Surrey care home rather than that ghastly, freezing flat.
There can be no compensation for the hardships Terry and Belinda Thomas endured in the wake of his Parkinson’s diagnosis. However, there’s no denying the admiration-filled afterlife that has been afforded the actor.
Besides Vic Reeves’ enthusiasm for the bounder’s bounder, you’ll detect more than a whiff of Thomas magic about any number of Johnny Depp performances (he even has Terry-esque teeth in 2015’s Mortdecai). And then there’s The Chap, the gentlemen’s periodical whose 100th issue featured Terry on the cover and saw editor Gustav Temple champion our man as “the greatest chap of all time”.
And just how great a chap was he? Well, rather than hiding away from the world and his illness, Terry-Thomas appeared in a BBC documentary about the human brain in the hope that his participation might aid the research and treatment of Parkinson’s disease. And the music that played as the coffin arrived at his funeral? Why, the theme from Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines, of course!
Terry-Thomas – he said the hyphen represented the gap in his teeth and he delighted in calling us “an absolute shower”! Would that his kind of toff was holding the reins today.