A look back at television appearances made over the years by the Oscar-winning actor Sir John Mills, capturing the milestones of his life and career.
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Brave, loyal, honest, the embodiment of the best of British.
These were the qualities cinema audiences saw in Sir John Mills,
and made him one of our most successful and durable actors.
Over a 70-year career, he starred in over 100 movies.
He was honoured for his services to the film industry with a knighthood
and a CBE, won an Oscar and helped his daughters,
Hayley and Juliet, become successful actors themselves.
Performing was something Johnny always wanted to do,
as he explains here in an interview
at the National Film Theatre in 1973.
If we can start more or less at the beginning with your career
because I know your father was a mathmatics teacher.
How did you first make up your mind that you had to be an actor,
that this was the only life for you?
I never want to be anything else, and it's rather strange,
because my sister, Annette, was a marvellous actor.
This is the lovely Muffin the Mule lady, isn't it?
Yes and she was a fabulous dancer before that.
She brought the Charleston and the Black Bottom
over to England from New York.
She was a super character and she is dead, unfortunately.
I always thought she was the greatest and I suppose,
looking at her from afar, I thought, that is marvellous, that life.
I never remember wanting to do anything else but act,
which is rather strange because my father was a school master,
and a terrible ham.
He read the lessons in the church on Sunday and it was really Irving.
It was a terrific performance.
The only other link I had with the theatre - my mother for some time,
we were always very hard up, was manager of the Haymarket Theatre
in the box office but that's it and I can't trace anything back,
to my family at all,
and I never remember wanting to do anything but act.
I suppose the first important starring part you had
would have been Brown On Resolution.
Yes, it was. I went for an interview.
Do stop me if I'm running on, will you?
It started your naval career, didn't it?
I went for an interview Walter Forde who was directing it
and Tony Asquith who was doing the second unit.
I turned up at the studio and had an interview with Walter Forde.
He said, you're a nice-looking young chap, but you don't look like a sailor.
And that's the absolute truth.
So I went to Monty Berman, a great friend of mine,
he was just starting his father's costume business and I said to him,
I haven't got any money, so will you lend me a sailor suit?
He said, certainly.
So he fitted me out with at tiddly and I went back to the studio,
and said, it's me, John Mills.
He said, ah, yes, yes, you do look a bit like a sailor. Do a test.
I did a test and I got the part.
For the next ten or 15 years, you played a lot of service heroes
in service films in either comedies or serious wartime films.
In fact, I think, like several other actors at the time,
you tended to be type cast in that kind of role.
How difficult was it to break away out of the mould?
It was difficult.
Partly, I suppose, because these films were so popular at the time?
Yes, and at that time, they were needed
and everybody wanted to see them.
I enjoyed making them very much.
I had been in the service and worked with the boys and I like to think
I was doing something to put them up on the screen, more or less as they were.
But it was difficult.
The first time you played opposite your own family,
did this distract you at all?
Yes, it distracted me insane.
I found that it was a devastating experience,
with Miss Hayley Mills, for instance.
In Tiger Bay, she was persuaded, she wasn't persuaded,
she said finally that she wanted to do it.
We started shooting on one morning
and Lee Thomson was directing the picture.
I don't know whether you saw the film but there is one scene in it
when she's sitting on a rocking chair and she's eating caramels.
A very difficult thing to do, it would have fazed a lot of very professional actors,
all the business with the caramels
and lines coming out and pauses and rocking and the whole bit.
We used to tell Hayley the scene,
explain what was happening to her and then let her go with it.
Well, she started on this fantastic exhibition
and I dried up three times in the middle,
I couldn't believe what was happening!
You could put the camera there and she was never fazed by it,
it was just extraordinary, it was like a natural thing happening.
Lee, he wouldn't mind me telling this story,
had been on the wagon for about two years,
because he loved the grape very dearly like I do.
At about 12:30 that morning, he suddenly said, cut,
everybody go to lunch.
I knew we didn't break until 1pm so I said, is something wrong?
He said, just break, that's orders.
He said, Hayley, go and have lunch with the guardian and Johnny,
come to The Bull at Beckinsfield with me.
So we sat in dead silence in the car, walked to the bar,
he said to the barman, I want a bottle of Dom Perignon, please.
I thought, that's strange, he hasn't had a drink for two years.
He said, open it up, two glasses.
He poured two glasses and he raised his glass
and said, this has been the most exciting morning of my entire career.
I am going to drink the whole of this bottle
and not have another drink until the picture is finished, and he did!
Did you see anybody come out of number four, the Polish lady's flat?
Who was it? A man?
What did he look like?
Can you describe him to us?
Now, come on, speak up and don't go telling the superintendent
none of your stories or you'll find yourself in real trouble.
A proper little liar she is.
I'll thank you Mr Williams not to call the child names.
Now then, Gillie, you were going to try and tell us
what the man looked like.
He just looked ordinary.
Was he dark or fair?
Fat? Well, fattish.
Was he tall or short?
How was he dressed?
Just in ordinary sort of clothes, a bit like yours.
Did he have a hat?
-How do you know he was fair?
He had it in his hand, in the house you see.
-Do you think you'd recognise him if you saw him again?
-Yes, I think so.
Gracious, look at the time, she should be in the church by now.
Let's see now, he was fattish, fairish, tallish, ordinary-ish.
Thank you very much, Gillie, you've been a great help.
Was she conscious of you as father?
She was not conscious of anything, she was a complete nitwit at the time!
She hummed all the time.
Lee would be saying, Hayley dear, what's going to happen here,
And she would go, hmmmmmmmm.
I was saying, Hayley! Lee said, let her keep humming, dear, it's great.
When making films with members of your family,
do you prefer to act or direct?
Well, I enjoyed directing Hayley, I think,
less than I enjoyed acting with her because then I became
very conscious of the fact that I had an enormous responsibility to her.
Whereas when I was on the same level as an actor,
I wasn't too concerned with it but I would have sleepless nights,
wondering whether the emotional side, because she was my daughter,
I was being tough enough or strict enough with her.
I didn't get the same enjoyment with her.
I enjoyed the whole film more than anything I've ever done.
It's a great disappointment to me
that I didn't pull it off commercially.
It was a tremendous flop, really one of the big ones,
you could have fired a shotgun in any Odeon and not hit an usher!
It was a pity because I think it was quite well done,
it was quite well written by Mary Hayley Bell,
with an advanced case of nepotism because Hayley was in it
and I directed it.
-Don't go away, not yet.
-Don't you go home, not yet.
I'll get used to it, won't I?
It's a hard life.
People are heckling you to be on your way.
George doesn't like us, he never did.
But we don't know him no harm, only a bit of poaching.
If you wanted, I'd even try to be a house dweller.
I just don't want you to leave me. That's all I know.
But I think this business is largely to do with timing
and we really mistimed this one.
We thought the moment had come to present the world with a sweet love story
and they were waiting for bums and breasts!
We really hit the wrong moment. It was just not the right moment.
I think that probably was why it didn't succeed.
I had the privilege of working with Johnny in three films.
One was Ice Cold In Alex, directed by Lee Thompson, in which
we had a slightly naughty scene, where three buttons on my shirt
came undone, and the subsequent photos became very famous.
I had this tremendous romance, big scene, didn't I, with Sylvia Syms.
Think how things have changed.
I mean, were rolling about in the sand and I think it was Lee Thompson
said, you know, well, it's a good scene, quite passionate scene,
he said to Sylvia Syms, "Why don't you undo two buttons on your shirt?"
So she said OK, so she undid them, and I think that didn't get through.
I think it was too much that two buttons were undone.
-And only about down to here. So it's changed SLIGHTLY, hasn't it?
-A little bit.
Actually, looking at stills,
it's a little more than two buttons, as well.
-But nevertheless the point is taken.
Maybe they sneaked the stills through.
I think you don't understand women.
She'll know what she wants.
If it's Poel, nothing you do will make the slightest difference.
If it's you, I think you should know by now.
-And I thought we rolled around rather well.
-This was Ice Cold In...
This was Ice Cold In Alex. And it was too daring and it was cut out.
And that was the only really sort of violently exciting love scene
I've ever had.
If John had missed out on romantic roles,
it made no difference to his astonishing success.
Here he is on Parkinson in 1976,
just after he received a knighthood from the Queen.
Have you got used to people addressing you as Sir John?
No, not really. I forget from time to time. Erm...
I must say that I'm terribly thrilled about it.
I've always been very, very keen on prizes.
Erm, I remember a great moment when I won a toast rack,
for the 100 yards under-14 at Norwich High School.
And I thought that was terrific. I think this is better.
You could be right.
-How young were you, John, because you've been in the business an awful long time...
How young were you when you were first fired with the urge to go on stage?
Well, I think it's about five or six. I was about five or six years old.
And...I suppose one of the greatest pieces of luck that I've had
-is that I never really wanted to do anything else.
I've always wanted to be an actor.
But in fact you did something else, didn't you? I mean, you had jobs before you...
Yes, yes, I did.
I was in a corn merchant's office in Ipswich for three years,
licking a few stamps.
And then I dashed off to London with a fiver
-and I got a job as a commercial traveller for the Sanitas company.
Sanitas, yes. And I sold door to door.
What did you sell door to door?
Well, I sold...various things. LAUGHTER
Disinfectant and soap,
and of course the big number was the toilet paper.
And that I found rather difficult.
I found the demonstrations were rather... LAUGHTER
..rather awkward, and it was their very big thing, and they needed...
they wanted to sell a lot of this stuff.
And I'd been on the road for about three months or so
and was doing very badly, because in the afternoon I cheated.
I took dancing lessons and I worked very hard
and I didn't work very hard at the selling.
And after about three months the managing director called me up
and said, "Look, this is not any good. You've got to do better.
"Choose your best territory, where you think you can do your best work,
"and take a day and come back with some sales."
So I went to Guildford, where I'd had a little success, but not much,
and there was a pub there.
Now, I dumped the case, because it's no good going in with a bag,
and I had a bowler hat and an umbrella and a case full of stuff.
So I left that in the GH I'd paid £5.10 for
and went into the pub. And the boss was there and I said, "Good morning."
He said, "Good morning, sir, what would you like?"
And I said, "What would YOU like?" And he said, "A half of bitter."
And I said, "Thank God." I had about two shillings in my pocket.
So we had half a bitter and we chatted up and he said,
"What do you do?"
So I took a deep breath and I said, "Well, as a matter of fact,
"I'm a commercial traveller."
He said, "Where's your bag?" I said, "Well, it's outside in the car."
"Well, go and get it." He said, "Bring it in."
I said, "Good!" I rushed in with the bag and he said, "Well, what is it?"
And I told him.
And I demonstrated the sprays and I demonstrated the soap
and I told him what he could tack up in the little room
and all that sort of thing, and then came the great moment with the paper.
And I did my best. SOME LAUGHTER
I mean, I really worked awfully hard at it,
and explained as well as I could, you know.
And he was fascinated by this.
And I must have taken about 30 minutes of his time.
And I said, "Now, sir, what do you think?" And I produced the pad
and the pencil. And he said, "Well, young man,"
he said, er, "I've had a lovely time," he said,
"I've had a fascinating half hour."
He said, "I must disappoint you, though." I said, "Why?"
"Well," he said, "there are 36 pages in't Daily Mail."
And of course I could see the little squares cut up, with the...
Er, yes, I know what you mean!
I once went into a toilet in a pub,
and there was one piece of paper, and it had my name on it.
-It was a column from the Sunday Times!
Absolutely true! One left!
My God, it's a terrifying thing to ask any man to do, that!
John - how do you become in fact the song-and-dance man,
because that's how you started?
Not a lot of people would know that, I imagine?
Well, er, I started off because it was my ambition
to be a song-and-dance man, and my great hero was Fred Astaire
and Bobby Howes.
So, I was determined to get into that, that area.
And, erm, after I'd got the sack from the Sandhurst company,
erm, I went to a dancing academy
opposite the stage door of The Hippodrome and learnt tap dancing,
and, erm...with the idea of getting into the chorus.
And at this, at the academy was, er, a very, erm,
-voluptuous young blonde called Frances Day...
..who was quite a character. And we heard there was an audition
for a show called The Five O'Clock Girl at The Hippodrome.
And I was going to give an audition, so was she, and I said, "Well,
"we'll just line up." She said, "Oh, no, that's no good.
"We've got to impress Mr Gillespie," who owned the theatre. She said,
"I won't do an audition like that, I must go into a bill,
"a proper bill. And there's a bill on at the New Cross Empire,
"and he owns that, and we will do a double act together on the bill."
So she managed this. How she did it I don't know -
I couldn't have done it - but eventually we turned up
to the New Cross Empire with this little act we'd worked out,
singing a very nice boy and girl number.
And, er, we were waiting in the wings.
I'd borrowed some tails, and had five and nine pink make-up on,
and Frances was on the other side of the stage, and then
the Nesbitt Brothers were on - now that was a really rough house,
the New Cross Empire. I'm talking about 19...
-The Nesbitt Brothers were doing an act with ukuleles,
and suddenly all hell broke loose,
and they got the most horrific rasping -
I mean, really loud bird going on, and the audience went up in flames!
And as Max passed me waiting in the wings, he said,
"They want blood tonight!"
Now, that was the start. Now, Frances had had an idea
that her bulldog should come on
and sit at our feet while we were singing this number.
I was very ante that, because although I was very new at it,
I knew that animals were dangerous. So, she persuaded me.
So, we started this number, and the audience
were in a sort of stunned silence, they couldn't...
We were not on the bill, we weren't in the programme and we were there,
singing this extraordinary young duet together...and the bulldog padded on
and sat at Frances's feet. Then a titter started.
And the titter grew and grew and grew and grew.
And I looked down... This enormous laugh...
and the bulldog was piddling on the...
VOICE DROWNED OUT BY LAUGHTER
Well, to end that story up, I mean,
Frances didn't get in, but I got a job in the chorus,
-and that's how it started.
-Really? What about the bulldog -
-did that get a job?!
-I don't know what happened to it!
It must have been a fairly rough, hard old life, I would imagine?
-Well, yes, it was. I loved every minute of it...
We got £4 a week,
and I paid 10% to my agent,
10% to the dancing academy, to teach me to dance.
I had £3 and 4 left,
and I lived quite well, in Lambeth,
at 7 and 6 a week bed and breakfast.
And I did toss up whether to go and see Spencer Tracy or eat -
and Tracy won, as a rule.
-But I...I managed.
Which in fact do you prefer doing? You're going back on stage now,
but you've done an awful lot of work in movies - the majority
of your career. Do you prefer stage work or movie work?
Well, you can't really compare the enjoyment. Erm,
the theatre has a magic which the studios don't.
Erm, I mean, I get an enormous thrill
every time I walk through a stage door.
But I don't get a kick walking through stage five at Pinewood,
-It's a different sort of thing altogether.
I think that, erm, this marvellous character,
erm, Sir Ralph Richardson,
who tears up the M1 on a motorbike you know, with a helmet,
he was asked that question - which do you prefer and how do you explain it?
And he said, "Well..." I can't do him, because all the young actors
do him so well. But this is what he said. He said, "Well,
"when I'm at the studios and they say, 'You're finished,'
"I dash to my dressing room, I'm taking my jacket off on the way,
"I tear my tie off, I'm undoing my trousers, I kick my shoes off..."
He says, "I'm on my motorbike in about 42 seconds flat."
He said, "But when the curtain comes down at the Haymarket or somewhere,
"I leave the stage, I wander to my dressing room,
"I put my dressing gown on, I have a drink with some friends,
"I think, 'Shall I take my make-up off?' and I do that.
"Let me have another chat. And then I light my pipe.
"And then I walk down to the stage, and there's a pilot light,
"and everybody's gone. I look round the theatre and think,
"'That's rather nice,' and then I wander out through the stage door.
-"It takes me about an hour." And I think that's the difference.
-I think that really says it. It is the magic of the theatre.
Despite that love of theatre,
the movie acting never stopped, not even on his 70th birthday.
Well, most septuagenarians would spend their 70th birthday
quietly at home, but for Sir John Mills, it was a normal working day -
here, shooting a scene at Cadogan Pier, Chelsea,
with Timothy West, for the film The 39 Steps, by John Buchan.
Mills plays a British agent desperate to alert the Government
to the dastardly plot he has uncovered.
Timothy West is an unbelieving Cabinet minister.
It does nothing to strengthen your hand, you know?
Sir, you're all prepared to ignore the obvious warnings.
-I'll do what I can for you.
-For my case.
-Oh, don't be so touchy.
I'm not in this for my pride...
A break for lunch, and when the smoke cleared,
I made contact with Sir John.
Sir John - first of all, happy birthday!
-Thank you very much, Bob.
-Yes, it's ridiculous, isn't it?
-Well, you don't look it -
-presumably you don't feel it?
-Well, I really don't, no, I really don't.
-It's a very nice hat, too!
-They trimmed it.
-I'd got no face, you see,
and it was out to there, and they took an inch off,
-so it looks a bit better.
Sir John, we looked you up - you've made something over 100 films...
-I think it is, yes, I think it is.
It's a very difficult question - er, any favourite film amongst those?
Well, I'm thinking quickly, erm...
Ryan's Daughter, I think was one, because I had no lines to learn.
-That was extraordinary, because you got an Oscar, didn't you?
-And you played a deaf mute.
Extraordinary, after a long acting career, where you're really
-pushing it out...
-It's ironical, really, isn't it?
But it was great fun to do, and, er, it was working with David Lean again,
and I hadn't worked with David for about, well, many, many years,
and I'd made five with him, I think.
In Which We Serve and Hobson's Choice and Expectations and...
-all those early ones.
-So it was...
-nice to get back with David again.
-Any other? I mean,
there's so many that come to mind, but Tunes Of Glory is one...
Well, that was one that I did enjoy making,
because Alec Guinness is a great chum,
and it was one of those nice things that came off,
and it worked, and we enjoyed doing it, and...
-I'm glad you liked that one.
You once advised against children ever going on the stage,
although yours have done so -
would you still give that same advice today, don't do it?
-Do you still hold to that view?
-Oh, yes, absolutely, yes.
I mean, if anybody says, "Shall I put my daughter on the stage,
"Mrs Worthington?" I say no. Because it's the jungle.
And I always advise people to keep them out.
It's very overcrowded anyway, and it's a tricky profession
to belong to, but it's absolutely marvellous
and I'm glad that I belong to it.
But I wouldn't advise anybody to get into it.
I told my children to stay out
but of course they joined the ranks, took no notice of me at all.
What's the secret? Because, unbelievably, your first appearance
was in 1929.
And you've survived very, very successfully indeed.
What's the secret? Choose very carefully what you do?
I think there's a great deal of luck in it.
And one has one's ups and downs, but I do think there's a great deal
of luck, and a great deal of hard work.
And there's a certain amount of choice. You do sometimes,
if you're lucky, have a choice
and if you back the right horse, it's nice.
Well, on your 70th birthday... In fact, I think you wanted the day off
to celebrate, but it didn't work out that way,
-that's the film industry.
-Still, I'm working, which is nice.
-Will you go on and on working?
-Well, I have to if I want to live here.
And I do want to live here, I don't want to move out.
And there's no way of stopping.
-There have been various versions of The 39 Steps.
Do I take it, Sir John, this is going to be the best version?
Well, I do think it's a wonderful script.
I think they've gone back to book,
and it is one of the best books of its type ever written.
I remember vaguely the Bob Donat version, and he was a wonderful man.
I knew him very well. Made a picture with him.
The second one I didn't see.
But I thought this script, when I read it, was really perfect.
We've kept you standing in the cold, you've been in the cold all morning.
-You're off to have a birthday drink, are you?
-Well, I think they're open.
-Look, very happy birthday.
-Thank you very much.
Ten years later and John had long achieved national treasure status.
And the interest in his career, and how it got started, was still there.
Here he is being interviewed by Richard Baker
for the programme My Favourite Things.
Well, then, your way back into the profession again came through
-Noel Coward, didn't it?
He wrote a marvellous part called Shorty Blake
in a picture called In Which We Serve,
which was David Lean's first job, co-directed it with Noel.
I think one of my favourite things is the navy,
and also a marvellous man called Lord Louis Mountbatten,
who was one of the greats, as you know.
And I was privileged to know him quite well.
Started off with In Which We Serve,
then I made three or four pictures more with the navy at that time
and he said to me one night, at dinner, "You know, Johnny,
"you were a brown jar, weren't you? You were in the army?"
And I said, "Yes, I was."
He said, "Well, I think, really, you should join the navy."
And I said, "How do you mean, sir?" He said, "I think you should join the Kelly."
So, you know The Kelly was the destroyer,
his lovely, lovely ship which In Which We Served was about,
so he made me a member of the ship's company, he gave me the ship's tie,
which I'm now wearing. I always wear it on these occasions.
And I went to the reunion dinner every year,
and he gave me a plaque with the Kelly crest on it,
which I have on the door of the loo, because the motto is, "Keep on."
So I thought that was quite appropriate.
And so that was a marvellous experience for me.
-But after the war, you did go back.
-Yes, I did.
Because Mary, my wife, wrote a marvellous play for me
called Men In Shadow, which got me back into the theatre.
And then she wrote another one, which was an enormous hit,
which another very famous man actually played my part
and I found this out this morning. His name is Richard Baker.
-It was a long time ago, in a rep in Wales,
-and of no very great consequence!
-Good part, though, wasn't it?
Oh, a jolly good part.
So that was nice, and we did have a very, very big success with it,
which was marvellous for Mary.
So big that some of your friends couldn't even get in to see it.
Well, yes. Yes, indeed.
We were still fairly hard-up and we splashed out without knowing
whether we had a hit or not, and took a suite at The Savoy.
And we stayed there and the notices came out that night
and we read them, and they were absolutely wonderful, rave.
So we were there in the morning, having breakfast in bed
and looking out over the river. The sun was shining.
And everything was terrific.
I was starring in her play and had co-directed it,
and it was just marvellous, and the phone rang about 11:30
and it was Larry Olivier.
And he said, "Well, congratulations, smashing, you done it.
"It's Mary's play and you've acted in it,
"and I'm not working this afternoon.
"I'd like to come and see the matinee." I said, "Wonderful."
So I rang the box office and I said,
"It's John Mills, can I have two tickets for the matinee this afternoon?"
And they said, "No."
I said, "What do you mean, 'No'? I'm in the play, John Mills.
"Two tickets for Mister, he was then Mister, Olivier."
And he said, "I'm terribly sorry, if it was God, you couldn't get in."
I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "We're sold out."
And we were sold out the matinee after we opened,
and I remember saying to Mary, "Here we are, in The Savoy, in a suite.
"There's the sun, it's shining over there.
"You've written a play, I'm in it, and Mr Olivier can't get in.
-What more could you want, really?
That would have to be one of my favourite things.
He was true to his word about that navy tie.
He's wearing it in both these next two pieces, which again focus
heavily on the making of Noel Coward's film In Which We Serve.
But to go back to In Which We Serve, that was a marvellous break for me
because it gave me a chance to get back, after the army, into movies.
And he wrote Shorty Blake, the part, for me.
This is my wife, Mrs Blake.
-How do you do?
-Pleased to meet you, I'm sure.
One particular time, I think very early days of shooting,
they built a wonderful model of the Kelly, a section of it,
the very, very last section, which would rock 50 degrees each way.
It had a very big rock on it.
And the first day shooting they had engaged 100 extras
to do the scenes on deck, and at 11 o'clock they were all sick.
On Stage 5 in Denham. It's absolutely true.
And so Noel said, "Well, this won't do." So he rang up Lord Louis.
By three o'clock in the afternoon we had the real chaps down there,
the real sailors.
So we shot the scene again with the real chaps who weren't sick.
And now the same subject, with Alan Titchmarsh, in 1994.
The scenes I remember, that stick in my mind, are of you all
swimming around in this hideous tank of what looks almost like black oil.
-That can't have been fun.
-It was a ghastly tank.
It was an enormous tank at Denham Studios,
and we'd been filming in it for about three weeks.
And they threw everything in, diesel oil, soot, mud, muck, tar.
It was really horrific.
And we'd been filming in this thing for about three weeks.
We were all standing, shivering, looking at it one morning
and Noel said, "What are you waiting for, chaps? Get in," and he dived in,
came up covered in diesel, and said,
"Dysentery in every ripple!"
Keep your heads down, get as low as you can!
Blimey... I spoke too soon!
How did they get the gunshots, because there you were,
obviously in a studio,
how did they get the machine gun fire on top of the water?
Being shot, well, that was a bit tricky and of course
it's a long time ago and special effects weren't what they are today.
And they didn't know what to do.
Noel said, "Well, we can't use live ammunition.
"He's only halfway through the film."
And this is a true story, he went out into Denham.
He went to the chemist's and he bought grosses of what we used to call,
in those days, rather delicately, French letters.
Brought them back to the studio, and the special effects got
a long, steel pipe, put it under the water about that far from the top.
Fitted these things on, one after another like that,
blew in compressed air. "Brrr!" Then they got the shot.
And it really worked, so I'll go down as the only actor
to be shot in the arm by a contraceptive.
Very good story.
But you did have a reputation in those days for not playing
cardboard cut-out servicemen.
Goodness me, you were in the Army, the RAF, the Navy, all on film.
But you played them with a certain kind of naturalism.
Did you feel a responsibility to servicemen rather than just
playing them as sort of stiff upper lip type?
Yes, I did, and I had been in the service.
And there was a lot of talk about stiff upper lip at that time,
and I thought, well, when I came out of the army, the least
I can do is to try and put them up there as best I could.
And the stiff upper lip thing was a sort of old hat,
rather tired thing that was used at the time.
They were anything but stiff upper lip.
An awful lot was going on inside them. And they were a marvellous lot.
I worked with the submariners, all of them, tank boys,
paratroopers, the lot.
And that sort of acting was not easy to do. It was quite difficult.
What about playing Michael in Ryan's Daughter, the part
that brought you an Oscar, the part where you were barely recognisable.
Now, that was the most amazing role to watch
but I guess not the easiest role to get into?
Well, no, I'm not a method actor, I never have been.
But that's the one part that I couldn't get straight in front of the camera and start acting.
It needed a bit of thought before because he was a very slow thinker.
One had to sort of start thinking slowly.
I was very lucky, I had a wonderful make-up man called Charlie Parker.
And he put this terrific make-up on,
it only took 16 minutes in the morning, it was just brilliant.
The piece de resistance was the teeth.
And he made these fantastic teeth which I clipped in.
The teeth won the Oscars, no doubt about that.
When you're playing a part like that, though,
had you studied people with disability?
Yes, I had a great friend called Bernard Miles.
Lord Myles, who knew a lot of doctors who had film of patients
with brain damage on the left side, and I looked at a lot of this
and then I made up a composite picture of Michael,
a composite picture, and so at least what I was doing was true.
I wasn't just sort of pulling faces.
Did you think when you went into this part, "This is a real corker"?
I mean, did your eye ever go faintly in the direction of an Oscar
when you were doing it? Did you think, "This is pretty good stuff"?
Well, it didn't, really.
I enjoyed it thoroughly because I had no dialogue, so I was always drinking
Guinness in the pubs at night when the boys were learning their lines.
It wasn't until about three quarters of the way through
and David Lean suddenly said to me, "Nobby..."
He called me Nobby, I don't know why, "..have you ever had an Oscar?"
And I said, "No."
And of course, nine months later, I was lucky enough to get it.
Two decades after that Oscar came, Britain's highest acting honour,
a BAFTA Fellowship recognising John as a uniquely dominant figure
in the history of British cinema.
When he died three years later, aged 97,
the tributes called him a great actor,
a true gentleman and someone who made us proud to be British.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
A retrospective look at television appearances made over the years by the Oscar-winning actor Sir John Mills, capturing the milestones and highlights of his life and career. Narrated by Sylvia Syms.