Obituary: Sir John Mills
Sir John Mills, who died on Saturday aged 97, was one of Britain's leading screen actors, especially in the years following the Second World War; versatile and accomplished, he specialised in playing "decent blokes", the epitome of the most admirable kind of Englishman - restrained, determined, honourable, good-humoured and capable of suffering on a heroic scale under fire.
Yet Mills had begun as a song and dance man, with no ambition to enter the cinema. A talented rather than a mesmerising performer, with pleasant rather than overwhelming looks, he succeeded through a combination of hard work, brass nerve and good fortune. And once established, he proved so genuinely modest, likeable, patriotic and self-deprecating that he never lost his place in the nation's heart.
His talent for demonstrating the qualities of English decency was first displayed when he was cast in the film version of CS Forester's Brown on Resolution (1935, retitled Forever England). As able seaman Brown, Mills held a German warship at bay with a rifle during the First World War. "The acting of John Mills lifts him at a stride into the ranks of the stars," wrote Campbell Dixon in The Telegraph.
The Second World War threw up more opportunities to confirm his potential in this kind of role. In Noël Coward's In Which We Serve (1942), based on the fate of Mountbatten's destroyer Kelly, he played the honest trier, Shorty Blake. The film was a milestone in the lives of many involved with it, notably David Lean, who co-directed with Coward, and the young Richard Attenborough. At one stage during shooting, Mountbatten himself had to arrange for a hundred sailors to be brought in to replace extras made "seasick" by the hydraulic pumps used to simulate the pitch and roll of the ocean. "There's dysentry in every ripple," observed Coward.
After We Dive at Dawn (1943), about a British submarine disabled in the Baltic, Waterloo Road (1944), in which Mills represented every Tommy whose wife has been unfaithful, and The Way to the Stars (1945), Anthony Asquith's film about the RAF in the war, written by Terence Rattigan, the cinema-goers of the time came to view Mills's appearance in civilian roles as a kind of absence without leave from the Forces.
Though he was exceptional as the would-be gentleman Pip in David Lean's version of Great Expectations (1945), his post-war films in general afforded scant opportunity to exploit his range as an actor; well into the 1950s the Mills upper lip remained unconscionably stiff.
By the time of Scott of the Antarctic (1947), Mills was beginning to be frustrated by the limitations imposed upon him. Though he studied the explorer's character at length, he was not allowed to complicate matters by hinting at Scott's notoriously short temper. He was therefore particularly glad to play the lead in The History of Mr Polly (1949). The film was well received by the critics, but the public were not happy to see their hero playing a hen-pecked, irritable little man - the antithesis of the modest stalwarts of the war films.
He was back in uniform with a vengeance in Morning Departure (1950) as the skipper of a submarine resigned to staying down with his ship after it has been hit by a mine. The film was given a grim topicality by the fact that, just before its release, the submarine Truculent suffered an identical fate in the Thames estuary, with the loss of 64 lives.
After some routine thrillers, Mills at last had a chance to show his potential as a comedian when he replaced Robert Donat (who had succumbed to asthma) as the guileless Lancashire bootmaker Willy Mossop in David Lean's screen version of Hobson's Choice (1953), with Charles Laughton.
The Colditz Story the next year returned him once more to wartime heroics. He was back in submarines in Above Us the Waves (1955); played a Cockney private detective in the film version of Graham Greene's The End of the Affair (1956); and philosophised unconvincingly as the cheerful Russian peasant Platon in War and Peace (1956).
Mills's next big success was in Ice Cold in Alex (1957), as the alcoholic Captain Anson, given the task of shepherding a Nazi with a heart of gold (Anthony Quayle) across the North African desert. The censor considered his roll in the Libyan sand with Sylvia Sims rather too risqué; Mills, though, had more difficulty with the scene at the end in which Anson is required to down a pint of lager at a draught. After six morning takes, filming had to be postponed.
He continued his military roles as a lance-corporal in Dunkirk (1958) and a major in I Was Monty's Double (1958). At this stage, though, he became part of a family act. His elder daughter Juliet had appeared on the screen at the age of 11 weeks as Shorty Blake's baby in In Which We Serve. Now the younger daughter, Hayley, aged 12, made a striking debut with her father in Tiger Bay (1958), playing a child kidnapped by a Polish seaman who has murdered his wife; her father played the detective investigating the case.
Walt Disney then signed Hayley Mills for Pollyanna (1960), and John Mills for The Swiss Family Robinson (1960). In 1965 Mills directed his younger daughter in Sky West and Crooked, a story by his wife about a mentally retarded girl who falls in love with a gypsy. Father and daughter also acted together in The Chalk Garden (1964) and The Family Way (1967).
In 1960 Mills gave a brilliant performance in Tunes of Glory as the strait-laced English officer Colonel Barrow, struggling to maintain control of a Scottish regiment in the face of Jock Sinclair, the hard-drinking Scots major (Alec Guinness). Both actors were playing against type, and their military rivalry was in stark contrast to the charm of their scenes 15 years before in Great Expectations, when Guinness had played Herbert Pocket.
By the time of Oh! What a Lovely War (1968), Mills was 60 and a long way from the bright-eyed private of the Forties films. Even so, the memory of his performances in such roles gave added poignancy to his blimpish representation of Field Marshal Haig.
Doubts about Mills's versatility still persisted, and MGM objected strenuously when David Lean cast him as Michael, the village idiot in Ryan's Daughter (1969). But Lean stuck to his guns, and Mills prepared for the role by studying hours of film of brain-damaged patients. He was triumphantly vindicated when he carried off an Oscar for best supporting performance.
John Lewis Ernest Watts Mills was born on February 22 1908 at North Eltham, Suffolk and spent his early years at Belton, near Great Yarmouth, where his father was headmaster of the village school.
His sister Mabel, 18 years older, encouraged a love of show business. (After the Second World War, as Annette Mills, she would have success on children's television, with Muffin the Mule). Young Jack, as John Mills was then known, first trod the boards when he played Puck in a performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream at Sir John Leman School, Beccles.
He went on to Norwich High School for boys, where he survived initial bullying and developed into a useful games player. But the straitened family circumstances compelled him to leave early to join a corn merchants in Ipswich. All that was left of his theatrical dreams were occasional appearances with the Felixstowe Players and the vicar's amateur dramatic society.
When his father left his mother and disappeared to London, Jack Mills wrote threatening to horsewhip him. Six months later he fired off another letter asking if he could come too. On his arrival in the capital he found a job as a salesman with the Sanitas Company, based in Limehouse.
In his spare time he took dancing lessons, and teamed up with a fellow pupil called Frances Day, who arranged their debut in a show at the New Cross Empire. This led to a place in the chorus of The Five O'Clock Girl at the London Hippodrome. Mills then formed a singing duo with a pianist named George Posford - "Posford and Mills - Rhythmic Duettists" - which was hissed off stage at their second performance.
His first great breakthrough, and first piece of good fortune, came when he auditioned for a part in RC Sherriff's Journey's End, for RB Salisbury's Far Eastern tour. He wanted to play Lt Raleigh, the keen young public schoolboy (having by this time lost his Suffolk accent), but was required instead to read the part of Hibbert, the coward. He did not impress.
By chance, though, Sherriff himself happened to have been passing the theatre, and decided on a whim to go in and listen to the auditions. He suggested that Mills might make a good Raleigh, so in 1929 Mills joined the Quaints, as they were known, for tour; among the company was an actress called Aileen Raymond, who would become his first wife. In 1930, at Tentsin in China, he met Mary Hayley Bell, destined to be his second wife.
But it was in Singapore that Mills had the second lucky break which would determine his career. Noël Coward - laid up there in March 1930 while his companion Geoffrey Amherst recovered from dysentery - happened to see that the Quaints were playing at the Victoria theatre that day, and bought a ticket. Hamlet was the play advertised outside the theatre; but after Horatio was found to be drunk following a party at the High Commissioner's earlier that day, Mr Cinders was the entertainment which the Quaints presented.
The company, and Mills in particular, made a favourable impression on the Master (a nickname which Mills claimed to have given Coward). Their friendship was cemented when Coward took over the part of Stanhope in Journey's End for three nights. Back in London, Mills was Lord Fancourt Babberley in Charley's Aunt at the New Theatre, appeared in Cochran's The 1931 Show, a disastrous flop, and then played Birkenshaw, a young, grubby, dirty-minded cockney office boy, in London Wall.
His connection with Coward then landed Mills the part of Joey Marryot in Cavalcade (Drury Lane, 1932). Though offered the chance to play the role again in the Hollywood film version at £500 a week, he refused and instead appeared in Coward's Words and Music. It was in this revue that he introduced Mad Dogs and Englishmen to the world, only to have the number taken away from him after a few performances on Coward's orders. The song, the composer explained, required more authority, age and sophistication than Mills could bring to it.
Soon afterwards John Mills made his screen debut, still as a song and dance man, in The Midshipmaid (1932). But neither that film, nor the next six titles in which he appeared - Britannia of Billingsgate, Bill MP, The Ghost at Camera, The Magistrate, The Lash, and Those Were the Days - made much impresson.
After Brown on Resolution Mills was offered a two-year contract by British Gaumont, for whom he appeared in a series of forgettable films. In the theatre, though, he had enjoyed a success in Jill Darling, a musical which opened in December 1934. He also did well as a cockney in Red Night, a play staged in 1936 by Robert Donat's company. But for the next few years his career seemed to be running into the sands.
He had a small part in Goodbye Mr Chips (1939), in which he played Colley, the old boy who comes back from the First World War to visit the old master, and that year appeared in Tyrone Guthrie's season at the Old Vic, as Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream and as Young Marlow in She Stoops to Conquer. He then enjoyed one of his greatest successes, as George in Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men.
At the outbreak of the Second World War Mills joined 346 Company of the Royal Engineers, a searchlight battery based at Royston in Hertfordshire. Commissioned in the autumn of 1940, he was posted to 1st Rifle Battalion, Monmouthshire Regiment, whose headquarters were at Trowbridge, in Wiltshire.
But at the end of 1940 a duodenal ulcer (subsequently cured by adherence to the diet recommended by William Howard Hay in Healthy via Food) resulted in his being classified as unfit for active service. Thus he was free to appear in In Which We Serve.
Notwithstanding his triumphs in the cinema, Mills never lost his love of the theatre. During the war and after he appeared in two plays written by his wife: Men in Shadow about the underground movement in France, at the Vaudeville theatre in 1942, and Duet for Two Hands, in which a surgeon grafts the hands of a murderer on to the victim of an accident, at the Lyric in 1945.
Two other plays by his wife were less successful; Angel, based on the trial of Constance Kent and directed by Mills, ran for only a few performances at the Strand Theatre in 1947. Five years later The Uninvited Guest, about a young man wrongly committed to a mental home, was pilloried when it appeared at the St James's Theatre. "John Mills wanders about the stage in a red wig looking like a bewildered carrot," said one critic.
In 1951 he appeared in Figure of Fun, adapted from the French comedy by André Roussin; the curtain came up to reveal John Mills standing on his head.
Three years later he repeated his earlier success as Lord Fancourt Babberley in Charley's Aunt, this time at the New Theatre; and in the winter of 1961-62, he was critically acclaimed for his performance as Lawrence of Arabia in the Broadway production of Terence Rattigan's Ross, a part which had been played in London by Sir Alec Guinness.
Yet Mills's reputation for gallantry was still such that his appearance with John Gielgud in Charles Wood's Veterans, about the goings-on off set during the shooting of a film on foreign location, caused a near-riot when the play opened at Brighton; there were shouts of "Disgusting!" and "How dare you?". By contrast, the audience at the Royal Court rocked with laughter.
In 1973 Mills appeared in The End of the Day, a comedy by William Douglas Home at the Savoy. The next year he returned to musicals as Jess Oakroyd in The Good Companions, bringing the house down with a complicated tap routine. He was then perfect as the bogus major in the second play of Terence Rattigan's Separate Tables (Apollo, 1977). In 1982 he played the lead in the musical version of Goodbye Mr Chips at Chichester, and then made an amusing ass of himself as a paragon of solid British worth in Little Lies (1983), adapted from Pinero's The Magistrate.
His last performance in London, in 1986, was in the National Theatre's production of Brian Clark's The Petition, about the stresses of a 50-year-old marriage. Four years later he made a radio version of the play with Dame Peggy Ashcroft.
Despite the gradual failure of his sight, Mills remained indefatigable. In 1993, when he was 85, he took a one-man show to Australia, while his career had been flourishing on cinema and television. In the late 1970s he played small parts in several films, including a Scotland Yard detective in the remake of The Big Sleep (1978), and a colonel who soon disappears from The Thirty-Nine Steps (1978). He was Lord Chelmsford, the Viceroy of India, in Gandhi (1982), and the English tutor of a young sheik in the lamentable Sahara (1983).
He recorded the voice of Jim Bloggs in the animated film When the Wind Blows (1987); Peggy Ashcroft was his wife Hilda. He also had a cameo role in Madonna's film Who's That Girl? (1987).
On television he played Professor Quatermass in 1979, and appeared with Megs Jenkins (who had been with him in The History of Mr Polly) as the gormless pensioner in the comedy series Young at Heart (1980).
In the mid-1980s Mills found profitable work on American television in a series with Deborah Kerr, and as Bette Davis's husband in an Agatha Christie mystery, Murder with Mirrors. He also played Dr Watson to Peter Cushing's Sherlock Holmes in The Masks of Death (1984). On English television he was in Ending Up (1990), from Kingsley Amis's novel, and played an old roué in Mary Welsey's Harnessing Peacocks (1993). Two years ago he made his last screen appearance as a cocaine-snorting socialite in Stephen Fry's film Bright Young Things.
Mills, who had been appointed CBE in 1960, was knighted in Harold Wilson's resignation list in 1976. His autobiography, Up in the Clouds Gentlemen Please, was published in 1980.
Well into his nineties he would swim regularly and continued to dress dapperly, usually sporting a waistcoat and cravat. But he took his greatest pleasure from his family, and was devoted to his wife, Mary, whom in recent years he had nursed through Alzheimer's disease. In 2001 they reaffirmed their marriage vows at the village church near their house at Denham, Bucks. "I am madly in love with her, you see," he explained.
His first marriage, in 1932, to Aileen Raymond, was dissolved in 1940. He married Mary Hayley Bell in 1941. She survives him with their son and two daughters.