John Mills Talking Pictures


John Mills

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.

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These were the qualities cinema audiences saw in Sir John Mills,

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and made him one of our most successful and durable actors.

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Over a 70-year career, he starred in over 100 movies.

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He was honoured for his services to the film industry with a knighthood

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and a CBE, won an Oscar and helped his daughters,

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Hayley and Juliet, become successful actors themselves.

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Performing was something Johnny always wanted to do,

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as he explains here in an interview

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at the National Film Theatre in 1973.

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If we can start more or less at the beginning with your career

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because I know your father was a mathmatics teacher.

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How did you first make up your mind that you had to be an actor,

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that this was the only life for you?

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I never want to be anything else, and it's rather strange,

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because my sister, Annette, was a marvellous actor.

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This is the lovely Muffin the Mule lady, isn't it?

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Yes and she was a fabulous dancer before that.

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She brought the Charleston and the Black Bottom

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over to England from New York.

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She was a super character and she is dead, unfortunately.

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I always thought she was the greatest and I suppose,

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looking at her from afar, I thought, that is marvellous, that life.

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I never remember wanting to do anything else but act,

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which is rather strange because my father was a school master,

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and a terrible ham.

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He read the lessons in the church on Sunday and it was really Irving.

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It was a terrific performance.

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The only other link I had with the theatre - my mother for some time,

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we were always very hard up, was manager of the Haymarket Theatre

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in the box office but that's it and I can't trace anything back,

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to my family at all,

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and I never remember wanting to do anything but act.

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I suppose the first important starring part you had

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would have been Brown On Resolution.

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Yes, it was. I went for an interview.

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Do stop me if I'm running on, will you?

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It started your naval career, didn't it?

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I went for an interview Walter Forde who was directing it

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and Tony Asquith who was doing the second unit.

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I turned up at the studio and had an interview with Walter Forde.

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He said, you're a nice-looking young chap, but you don't look like a sailor.

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And that's the absolute truth.

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So I went to Monty Berman, a great friend of mine,

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he was just starting his father's costume business and I said to him,

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I haven't got any money, so will you lend me a sailor suit?

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He said, certainly.

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So he fitted me out with at tiddly and I went back to the studio,

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and said, it's me, John Mills.

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He said, ah, yes, yes, you do look a bit like a sailor. Do a test.

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I did a test and I got the part.

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For the next ten or 15 years, you played a lot of service heroes

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in service films in either comedies or serious wartime films.

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In fact, I think, like several other actors at the time,

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you tended to be type cast in that kind of role.

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How difficult was it to break away out of the mould?

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It was difficult.

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Partly, I suppose, because these films were so popular at the time?

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Yes, and at that time, they were needed

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and everybody wanted to see them.

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I enjoyed making them very much.

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I had been in the service and worked with the boys and I like to think

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I was doing something to put them up on the screen, more or less as they were.

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But it was difficult.

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The first time you played opposite your own family,

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did this distract you at all?

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Yes, it distracted me insane.

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I found that it was a devastating experience,

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with Miss Hayley Mills, for instance.

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In Tiger Bay, she was persuaded, she wasn't persuaded,

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she said finally that she wanted to do it.

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We started shooting on one morning

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and Lee Thomson was directing the picture.

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I don't know whether you saw the film but there is one scene in it

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when she's sitting on a rocking chair and she's eating caramels.

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A very difficult thing to do, it would have fazed a lot of very professional actors,

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all the business with the caramels

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and lines coming out and pauses and rocking and the whole bit.

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We used to tell Hayley the scene,

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explain what was happening to her and then let her go with it.

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Well, she started on this fantastic exhibition

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and I dried up three times in the middle,

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I couldn't believe what was happening!

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You could put the camera there and she was never fazed by it,

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it was just extraordinary, it was like a natural thing happening.

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Lee, he wouldn't mind me telling this story,

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had been on the wagon for about two years,

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because he loved the grape very dearly like I do.

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At about 12:30 that morning, he suddenly said, cut,

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everybody go to lunch.

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I knew we didn't break until 1pm so I said, is something wrong?

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He said, just break, that's orders.

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He said, Hayley, go and have lunch with the guardian and Johnny,

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come to The Bull at Beckinsfield with me.

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So we sat in dead silence in the car, walked to the bar,

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he said to the barman, I want a bottle of Dom Perignon, please.

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I thought, that's strange, he hasn't had a drink for two years.

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He said, open it up, two glasses.

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He poured two glasses and he raised his glass

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and said, this has been the most exciting morning of my entire career.

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I am going to drink the whole of this bottle

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and not have another drink until the picture is finished, and he did!

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Did you see anybody come out of number four, the Polish lady's flat?

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Who was it? A man?

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What did he look like?

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Can you describe him to us?

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Now, come on, speak up and don't go telling the superintendent

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none of your stories or you'll find yourself in real trouble.

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A proper little liar she is.

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I'll thank you Mr Williams not to call the child names.

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Now then, Gillie, you were going to try and tell us

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what the man looked like.

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He just looked ordinary.

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Was he dark or fair?

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Fairish.

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Fat?

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Fat? Well, fattish.

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Was he tall or short?

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Tallish.

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How was he dressed?

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Just in ordinary sort of clothes, a bit like yours.

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Did he have a hat?

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-Mm.

-How do you know he was fair?

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He had it in his hand, in the house you see.

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-Do you think you'd recognise him if you saw him again?

-Yes, I think so.

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Gracious, look at the time, she should be in the church by now.

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Let's see now, he was fattish, fairish, tallish, ordinary-ish.

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Thank you very much, Gillie, you've been a great help.

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Was she conscious of you as father?

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She was not conscious of anything, she was a complete nitwit at the time!

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She hummed all the time.

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Lee would be saying, Hayley dear, what's going to happen here,

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the detective...

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And she would go, hmmmmmmmm.

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I was saying, Hayley! Lee said, let her keep humming, dear, it's great.

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When making films with members of your family,

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do you prefer to act or direct?

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Well, I enjoyed directing Hayley, I think,

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less than I enjoyed acting with her because then I became

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very conscious of the fact that I had an enormous responsibility to her.

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Whereas when I was on the same level as an actor,

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I wasn't too concerned with it but I would have sleepless nights,

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wondering whether the emotional side, because she was my daughter,

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I was being tough enough or strict enough with her.

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I didn't get the same enjoyment with her.

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I enjoyed the whole film more than anything I've ever done.

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It's a great disappointment to me

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that I didn't pull it off commercially.

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It was a tremendous flop, really one of the big ones,

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you could have fired a shotgun in any Odeon and not hit an usher!

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It was a pity because I think it was quite well done,

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it was quite well written by Mary Hayley Bell,

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with an advanced case of nepotism because Hayley was in it

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and I directed it.

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-Don't go away, not yet.

-Don't you go home, not yet.

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I'll get used to it, won't I?

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It's a hard life.

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People are heckling you to be on your way.

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George doesn't like us, he never did.

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But we don't know him no harm, only a bit of poaching.

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If you wanted, I'd even try to be a house dweller.

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I just don't want you to leave me. That's all I know.

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But I think this business is largely to do with timing

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and we really mistimed this one.

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We thought the moment had come to present the world with a sweet love story

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and they were waiting for bums and breasts!

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We really hit the wrong moment. It was just not the right moment.

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I think that probably was why it didn't succeed.

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I had the privilege of working with Johnny in three films.

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One was Ice Cold In Alex, directed by Lee Thompson, in which

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we had a slightly naughty scene, where three buttons on my shirt

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came undone, and the subsequent photos became very famous.

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I had this tremendous romance, big scene, didn't I, with Sylvia Syms.

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Think how things have changed.

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I mean, were rolling about in the sand and I think it was Lee Thompson

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said, you know, well, it's a good scene, quite passionate scene,

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he said to Sylvia Syms, "Why don't you undo two buttons on your shirt?"

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So she said OK, so she undid them, and I think that didn't get through.

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I think it was too much that two buttons were undone.

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-And only about down to here. So it's changed SLIGHTLY, hasn't it?

-A little bit.

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Actually, looking at stills,

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it's a little more than two buttons, as well.

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-Is it?

-But nevertheless the point is taken.

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Maybe they sneaked the stills through.

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I think you don't understand women.

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I don't.

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She'll know what she wants.

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If it's Poel, nothing you do will make the slightest difference.

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If it's you, I think you should know by now.

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-And I thought we rolled around rather well.

-This was Ice Cold In...

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This was Ice Cold In Alex. And it was too daring and it was cut out.

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And that was the only really sort of violently exciting love scene

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I've ever had.

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If John had missed out on romantic roles,

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it made no difference to his astonishing success.

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Here he is on Parkinson in 1976,

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just after he received a knighthood from the Queen.

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Have you got used to people addressing you as Sir John?

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No, not really. I forget from time to time. Erm...

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I must say that I'm terribly thrilled about it.

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I've always been very, very keen on prizes.

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Erm, I remember a great moment when I won a toast rack,

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for the 100 yards under-14 at Norwich High School.

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And I thought that was terrific. I think this is better.

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You could be right.

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-How young were you, John, because you've been in the business an awful long time...

-Yes.

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How young were you when you were first fired with the urge to go on stage?

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Well, I think it's about five or six. I was about five or six years old.

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And...I suppose one of the greatest pieces of luck that I've had

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-is that I never really wanted to do anything else.

-No.

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I've always wanted to be an actor.

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But in fact you did something else, didn't you? I mean, you had jobs before you...

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Yes, yes, I did.

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I was in a corn merchant's office in Ipswich for three years,

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licking a few stamps.

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And then I dashed off to London with a fiver

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-and I got a job as a commercial traveller for the Sanitas company.

-Sanitas?

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Sanitas, yes. And I sold door to door.

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What did you sell door to door?

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Well, I sold...various things. LAUGHTER

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Disinfectant and soap,

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and of course the big number was the toilet paper.

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And that I found rather difficult.

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I found the demonstrations were rather... LAUGHTER

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..rather awkward, and it was their very big thing, and they needed...

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they wanted to sell a lot of this stuff.

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And I'd been on the road for about three months or so

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and was doing very badly, because in the afternoon I cheated.

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I took dancing lessons and I worked very hard

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and I didn't work very hard at the selling.

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And after about three months the managing director called me up

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and said, "Look, this is not any good. You've got to do better.

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"Choose your best territory, where you think you can do your best work,

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"and take a day and come back with some sales."

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So I went to Guildford, where I'd had a little success, but not much,

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and there was a pub there.

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Now, I dumped the case, because it's no good going in with a bag,

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and I had a bowler hat and an umbrella and a case full of stuff.

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So I left that in the GH I'd paid £5.10 for

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and went into the pub. And the boss was there and I said, "Good morning."

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He said, "Good morning, sir, what would you like?"

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And I said, "What would YOU like?" And he said, "A half of bitter."

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And I said, "Thank God." I had about two shillings in my pocket.

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So we had half a bitter and we chatted up and he said,

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"What do you do?"

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So I took a deep breath and I said, "Well, as a matter of fact,

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"I'm a commercial traveller."

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He said, "Where's your bag?" I said, "Well, it's outside in the car."

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"Well, go and get it." He said, "Bring it in."

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I said, "Good!" I rushed in with the bag and he said, "Well, what is it?"

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And I told him.

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And I demonstrated the sprays and I demonstrated the soap

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and I told him what he could tack up in the little room

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and all that sort of thing, and then came the great moment with the paper.

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And I did my best. SOME LAUGHTER

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I mean, I really worked awfully hard at it,

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and explained as well as I could, you know.

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And he was fascinated by this.

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And I must have taken about 30 minutes of his time.

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And I said, "Now, sir, what do you think?" And I produced the pad

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and the pencil. And he said, "Well, young man,"

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he said, er, "I've had a lovely time," he said,

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"I've had a fascinating half hour."

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He said, "I must disappoint you, though." I said, "Why?"

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"Well," he said, "there are 36 pages in't Daily Mail."

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LAUGHTER

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And of course I could see the little squares cut up, with the...

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LAUGHTER

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Er, yes, I know what you mean!

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I once went into a toilet in a pub,

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and there was one piece of paper, and it had my name on it.

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-It was a column from the Sunday Times!

-Right!

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Imagine that!

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Absolutely true! One left!

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My God, it's a terrifying thing to ask any man to do, that!

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John - how do you become in fact the song-and-dance man,

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because that's how you started?

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Not a lot of people would know that, I imagine?

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Well, er, I started off because it was my ambition

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to be a song-and-dance man, and my great hero was Fred Astaire

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and Bobby Howes.

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So, I was determined to get into that, that area.

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And, erm, after I'd got the sack from the Sandhurst company,

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erm, I went to a dancing academy

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opposite the stage door of The Hippodrome and learnt tap dancing,

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and, erm...with the idea of getting into the chorus.

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And at this, at the academy was, er, a very, erm,

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-voluptuous young blonde called Frances Day...

-Mmm.

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..who was quite a character. And we heard there was an audition

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for a show called The Five O'Clock Girl at The Hippodrome.

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And I was going to give an audition, so was she, and I said, "Well,

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"we'll just line up." She said, "Oh, no, that's no good.

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"We've got to impress Mr Gillespie," who owned the theatre. She said,

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"I won't do an audition like that, I must go into a bill,

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"a proper bill. And there's a bill on at the New Cross Empire,

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"and he owns that, and we will do a double act together on the bill."

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So she managed this. How she did it I don't know -

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I couldn't have done it - but eventually we turned up

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to the New Cross Empire with this little act we'd worked out,

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singing a very nice boy and girl number.

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And, er, we were waiting in the wings.

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I'd borrowed some tails, and had five and nine pink make-up on,

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and Frances was on the other side of the stage, and then

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the Nesbitt Brothers were on - now that was a really rough house,

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the New Cross Empire. I'm talking about 19...

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-29.

-Mm-hmm.

-The Nesbitt Brothers were doing an act with ukuleles,

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and suddenly all hell broke loose,

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and they got the most horrific rasping -

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I mean, really loud bird going on, and the audience went up in flames!

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And as Max passed me waiting in the wings, he said,

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"They want blood tonight!"

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Now, that was the start. Now, Frances had had an idea

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that her bulldog should come on

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and sit at our feet while we were singing this number.

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I was very ante that, because although I was very new at it,

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I knew that animals were dangerous. So, she persuaded me.

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So, we started this number, and the audience

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were in a sort of stunned silence, they couldn't...

0:17:520:17:54

We were not on the bill, we weren't in the programme and we were there,

0:17:540:17:57

singing this extraordinary young duet together...and the bulldog padded on

0:17:570:18:01

and sat at Frances's feet. Then a titter started.

0:18:010:18:04

And the titter grew and grew and grew and grew.

0:18:040:18:06

And I looked down... This enormous laugh...

0:18:060:18:10

and the bulldog was piddling on the...

0:18:100:18:12

VOICE DROWNED OUT BY LAUGHTER

0:18:120:18:14

Well, to end that story up, I mean,

0:18:140:18:16

Frances didn't get in, but I got a job in the chorus,

0:18:160:18:18

-and that's how it started.

-Really? What about the bulldog -

0:18:180:18:21

-did that get a job?!

-I don't know what happened to it!

0:18:210:18:23

It must have been a fairly rough, hard old life, I would imagine?

0:18:230:18:26

-Well, yes, it was. I loved every minute of it...

-Mmm.

0:18:260:18:30

We got £4 a week,

0:18:300:18:32

and I paid 10% to my agent,

0:18:320:18:35

10% to the dancing academy, to teach me to dance.

0:18:350:18:38

I had £3 and 4 left,

0:18:380:18:40

and I lived quite well, in Lambeth,

0:18:400:18:43

at 7 and 6 a week bed and breakfast.

0:18:430:18:45

And I did toss up whether to go and see Spencer Tracy or eat -

0:18:450:18:49

and Tracy won, as a rule.

0:18:490:18:51

-But I...I managed.

-Yes!

0:18:510:18:53

Which in fact do you prefer doing? You're going back on stage now,

0:18:530:18:56

but you've done an awful lot of work in movies - the majority

0:18:560:18:59

of your career. Do you prefer stage work or movie work?

0:18:590:19:02

Well, you can't really compare the enjoyment. Erm,

0:19:030:19:07

the theatre has a magic which the studios don't.

0:19:070:19:10

Erm, I mean, I get an enormous thrill

0:19:100:19:14

every time I walk through a stage door.

0:19:140:19:17

But I don't get a kick walking through stage five at Pinewood,

0:19:170:19:20

-you know?

-Yeah.

-It's a different sort of thing altogether.

-Yes.

0:19:200:19:23

I think that, erm, this marvellous character,

0:19:230:19:26

erm, Sir Ralph Richardson,

0:19:260:19:29

who tears up the M1 on a motorbike you know, with a helmet,

0:19:290:19:32

he was asked that question - which do you prefer and how do you explain it?

0:19:320:19:36

And he said, "Well..." I can't do him, because all the young actors

0:19:360:19:39

do him so well. But this is what he said. He said, "Well,

0:19:390:19:42

"when I'm at the studios and they say, 'You're finished,'

0:19:420:19:45

"I dash to my dressing room, I'm taking my jacket off on the way,

0:19:450:19:49

"I tear my tie off, I'm undoing my trousers, I kick my shoes off..."

0:19:490:19:53

He says, "I'm on my motorbike in about 42 seconds flat."

0:19:530:19:56

He said, "But when the curtain comes down at the Haymarket or somewhere,

0:19:570:20:00

"I leave the stage, I wander to my dressing room,

0:20:000:20:03

"I put my dressing gown on, I have a drink with some friends,

0:20:030:20:07

"I think, 'Shall I take my make-up off?' and I do that.

0:20:070:20:10

"Let me have another chat. And then I light my pipe.

0:20:100:20:12

"And then I walk down to the stage, and there's a pilot light,

0:20:120:20:16

"and everybody's gone. I look round the theatre and think,

0:20:160:20:18

"'That's rather nice,' and then I wander out through the stage door.

0:20:180:20:21

-"It takes me about an hour." And I think that's the difference.

-Yes.

0:20:210:20:24

-I think that really says it. It is the magic of the theatre.

-Yes.

0:20:240:20:27

Despite that love of theatre,

0:20:280:20:30

the movie acting never stopped, not even on his 70th birthday.

0:20:300:20:35

Well, most septuagenarians would spend their 70th birthday

0:20:350:20:39

quietly at home, but for Sir John Mills, it was a normal working day -

0:20:390:20:43

here, shooting a scene at Cadogan Pier, Chelsea,

0:20:430:20:46

with Timothy West, for the film The 39 Steps, by John Buchan.

0:20:460:20:50

Mills plays a British agent desperate to alert the Government

0:20:500:20:54

to the dastardly plot he has uncovered.

0:20:540:20:57

Timothy West is an unbelieving Cabinet minister.

0:20:570:21:01

Action!

0:21:030:21:04

It does nothing to strengthen your hand, you know?

0:21:040:21:07

Sir, you're all prepared to ignore the obvious warnings.

0:21:070:21:11

-I'll do what I can for you.

-For my case.

-Oh, don't be so touchy.

0:21:120:21:16

I'm not in this for my pride...

0:21:160:21:19

A break for lunch, and when the smoke cleared,

0:21:190:21:21

I made contact with Sir John.

0:21:210:21:23

Sir John - first of all, happy birthday!

0:21:230:21:26

-Thank you very much, Bob.

-70...!

0:21:260:21:28

-Yes, it's ridiculous, isn't it?

-Well, you don't look it -

0:21:280:21:31

-presumably you don't feel it?

-Well, I really don't, no, I really don't.

0:21:310:21:34

-It's a very nice hat, too!

-Ha-ha!

0:21:340:21:36

-They trimmed it.

-Did they?!

-I'd got no face, you see,

0:21:360:21:39

and it was out to there, and they took an inch off,

0:21:390:21:41

-so it looks a bit better.

-Ha!

0:21:410:21:43

Sir John, we looked you up - you've made something over 100 films...

0:21:430:21:46

-I think it is, yes, I think it is.

-Yeah!

0:21:460:21:49

It's a very difficult question - er, any favourite film amongst those?

0:21:490:21:52

Well, I'm thinking quickly, erm...

0:21:520:21:55

Ryan's Daughter, I think was one, because I had no lines to learn.

0:21:550:22:00

-That was extraordinary, because you got an Oscar, didn't you?

-Yes.

0:22:000:22:03

-And you played a deaf mute.

-Yes, yes.

0:22:030:22:05

Extraordinary, after a long acting career, where you're really

0:22:050:22:09

-pushing it out...

-It's ironical, really, isn't it?

-Yes.

0:22:090:22:12

But it was great fun to do, and, er, it was working with David Lean again,

0:22:120:22:16

and I hadn't worked with David for about, well, many, many years,

0:22:160:22:20

and I'd made five with him, I think.

0:22:200:22:22

In Which We Serve and Hobson's Choice and Expectations and...

0:22:220:22:25

-all those early ones.

-Yes.

-So it was...

0:22:250:22:28

-nice to get back with David again.

-Any other? I mean,

0:22:280:22:31

there's so many that come to mind, but Tunes Of Glory is one...

0:22:310:22:34

Well, that was one that I did enjoy making,

0:22:340:22:36

because Alec Guinness is a great chum,

0:22:360:22:39

and it was one of those nice things that came off,

0:22:390:22:42

and it worked, and we enjoyed doing it, and...

0:22:420:22:45

-I'm glad you liked that one.

-Very much.

0:22:450:22:47

You once advised against children ever going on the stage,

0:22:470:22:50

although yours have done so -

0:22:500:22:52

would you still give that same advice today, don't do it?

0:22:520:22:55

-Yes.

-Do you still hold to that view?

-Oh, yes, absolutely, yes.

0:22:550:22:58

I mean, if anybody says, "Shall I put my daughter on the stage,

0:22:580:23:02

"Mrs Worthington?" I say no. Because it's the jungle.

0:23:020:23:06

And I always advise people to keep them out.

0:23:060:23:09

It's very overcrowded anyway, and it's a tricky profession

0:23:110:23:15

to belong to, but it's absolutely marvellous

0:23:150:23:18

and I'm glad that I belong to it.

0:23:180:23:20

But I wouldn't advise anybody to get into it.

0:23:200:23:22

I told my children to stay out

0:23:220:23:24

but of course they joined the ranks, took no notice of me at all.

0:23:240:23:27

What's the secret? Because, unbelievably, your first appearance

0:23:270:23:31

was in 1929.

0:23:310:23:33

-Yes.

-Yeah?

0:23:330:23:35

And you've survived very, very successfully indeed.

0:23:350:23:38

What's the secret? Choose very carefully what you do?

0:23:400:23:42

I think there's a great deal of luck in it.

0:23:420:23:45

And one has one's ups and downs, but I do think there's a great deal

0:23:450:23:49

of luck, and a great deal of hard work.

0:23:490:23:52

And there's a certain amount of choice. You do sometimes,

0:23:520:23:55

if you're lucky, have a choice

0:23:550:23:57

and if you back the right horse, it's nice.

0:23:570:23:59

Well, on your 70th birthday... In fact, I think you wanted the day off

0:23:590:24:03

to celebrate, but it didn't work out that way,

0:24:030:24:05

-that's the film industry.

-Still, I'm working, which is nice.

-Lovely.

0:24:050:24:08

-Will you go on and on working?

-Well, I have to if I want to live here.

0:24:080:24:12

And I do want to live here, I don't want to move out.

0:24:120:24:15

And there's no way of stopping.

0:24:150:24:17

-There have been various versions of The 39 Steps.

-Yes.

-Marvellous story.

0:24:170:24:22

Do I take it, Sir John, this is going to be the best version?

0:24:220:24:25

Well, I do think it's a wonderful script.

0:24:250:24:28

I think they've gone back to book,

0:24:280:24:30

and it is one of the best books of its type ever written.

0:24:300:24:34

I remember vaguely the Bob Donat version, and he was a wonderful man.

0:24:340:24:39

I knew him very well. Made a picture with him.

0:24:390:24:41

The second one I didn't see.

0:24:410:24:44

But I thought this script, when I read it, was really perfect.

0:24:440:24:48

We've kept you standing in the cold, you've been in the cold all morning.

0:24:480:24:51

-You're off to have a birthday drink, are you?

-Well, I think they're open.

0:24:510:24:55

-Look, very happy birthday.

-Thank you very much.

0:24:550:24:58

Ten years later and John had long achieved national treasure status.

0:25:000:25:05

And the interest in his career, and how it got started, was still there.

0:25:050:25:10

Here he is being interviewed by Richard Baker

0:25:100:25:12

for the programme My Favourite Things.

0:25:120:25:15

Well, then, your way back into the profession again came through

0:25:150:25:19

-Noel Coward, didn't it?

-Yes, yes.

0:25:190:25:21

He wrote a marvellous part called Shorty Blake

0:25:210:25:24

in a picture called In Which We Serve,

0:25:240:25:28

which was David Lean's first job, co-directed it with Noel.

0:25:280:25:32

And...

0:25:320:25:33

I think one of my favourite things is the navy,

0:25:330:25:36

and also a marvellous man called Lord Louis Mountbatten,

0:25:360:25:41

who was one of the greats, as you know.

0:25:410:25:44

And I was privileged to know him quite well.

0:25:440:25:48

Started off with In Which We Serve,

0:25:480:25:50

then I made three or four pictures more with the navy at that time

0:25:500:25:54

and he said to me one night, at dinner, "You know, Johnny,

0:25:540:25:59

"you were a brown jar, weren't you? You were in the army?"

0:25:590:26:02

And I said, "Yes, I was."

0:26:020:26:04

He said, "Well, I think, really, you should join the navy."

0:26:040:26:08

And I said, "How do you mean, sir?" He said, "I think you should join the Kelly."

0:26:080:26:11

So, you know The Kelly was the destroyer,

0:26:110:26:14

his lovely, lovely ship which In Which We Served was about,

0:26:140:26:18

so he made me a member of the ship's company, he gave me the ship's tie,

0:26:180:26:23

which I'm now wearing. I always wear it on these occasions.

0:26:230:26:26

And I went to the reunion dinner every year,

0:26:260:26:29

and he gave me a plaque with the Kelly crest on it,

0:26:290:26:33

which I have on the door of the loo, because the motto is, "Keep on."

0:26:330:26:38

So I thought that was quite appropriate.

0:26:380:26:41

And so that was a marvellous experience for me.

0:26:410:26:44

-But after the war, you did go back.

-Yes, I did.

0:26:440:26:47

Because Mary, my wife, wrote a marvellous play for me

0:26:470:26:51

called Men In Shadow, which got me back into the theatre.

0:26:510:26:54

And then she wrote another one, which was an enormous hit,

0:26:540:26:57

which another very famous man actually played my part

0:26:570:27:00

and I found this out this morning. His name is Richard Baker.

0:27:000:27:04

-RICHARD LAUGHS

-It was a long time ago, in a rep in Wales,

0:27:040:27:07

-and of no very great consequence!

-Good part, though, wasn't it?

0:27:070:27:10

Oh, a jolly good part.

0:27:100:27:11

So that was nice, and we did have a very, very big success with it,

0:27:110:27:15

which was marvellous for Mary.

0:27:150:27:18

So big that some of your friends couldn't even get in to see it.

0:27:180:27:20

Well, yes. Yes, indeed.

0:27:200:27:22

We were still fairly hard-up and we splashed out without knowing

0:27:220:27:27

whether we had a hit or not, and took a suite at The Savoy.

0:27:270:27:30

And we stayed there and the notices came out that night

0:27:300:27:33

and we read them, and they were absolutely wonderful, rave.

0:27:330:27:35

So we were there in the morning, having breakfast in bed

0:27:350:27:38

and looking out over the river. The sun was shining.

0:27:380:27:41

And everything was terrific.

0:27:410:27:43

I was starring in her play and had co-directed it,

0:27:430:27:45

and it was just marvellous, and the phone rang about 11:30

0:27:450:27:49

and it was Larry Olivier.

0:27:490:27:51

And he said, "Well, congratulations, smashing, you done it.

0:27:510:27:54

"It's Mary's play and you've acted in it,

0:27:540:27:56

"and I'm not working this afternoon.

0:27:560:27:58

"I'd like to come and see the matinee." I said, "Wonderful."

0:27:580:28:01

So I rang the box office and I said,

0:28:010:28:02

"It's John Mills, can I have two tickets for the matinee this afternoon?"

0:28:020:28:07

And they said, "No."

0:28:070:28:08

I said, "What do you mean, 'No'? I'm in the play, John Mills.

0:28:080:28:13

"Two tickets for Mister, he was then Mister, Olivier."

0:28:130:28:16

And he said, "I'm terribly sorry, if it was God, you couldn't get in."

0:28:160:28:19

I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "We're sold out."

0:28:190:28:22

And we were sold out the matinee after we opened,

0:28:220:28:24

and I remember saying to Mary, "Here we are, in The Savoy, in a suite.

0:28:240:28:31

"There's the sun, it's shining over there.

0:28:310:28:33

"You've written a play, I'm in it, and Mr Olivier can't get in.

0:28:330:28:37

-RICHARD LAUGHS

-What more could you want, really?

0:28:370:28:39

That would have to be one of my favourite things.

0:28:390:28:42

He was true to his word about that navy tie.

0:28:420:28:45

He's wearing it in both these next two pieces, which again focus

0:28:450:28:50

heavily on the making of Noel Coward's film In Which We Serve.

0:28:500:28:54

But to go back to In Which We Serve, that was a marvellous break for me

0:28:540:28:58

because it gave me a chance to get back, after the army, into movies.

0:28:580:29:03

And he wrote Shorty Blake, the part, for me.

0:29:030:29:06

This is my wife, Mrs Blake.

0:29:060:29:09

-How do you do?

-Pleased to meet you, I'm sure.

0:29:090:29:12

One particular time, I think very early days of shooting,

0:29:120:29:15

they built a wonderful model of the Kelly, a section of it,

0:29:150:29:19

the very, very last section, which would rock 50 degrees each way.

0:29:190:29:23

It had a very big rock on it.

0:29:230:29:24

And the first day shooting they had engaged 100 extras

0:29:240:29:29

to do the scenes on deck, and at 11 o'clock they were all sick.

0:29:290:29:34

On Stage 5 in Denham. It's absolutely true.

0:29:340:29:38

And so Noel said, "Well, this won't do." So he rang up Lord Louis.

0:29:380:29:43

By three o'clock in the afternoon we had the real chaps down there,

0:29:430:29:46

the real sailors.

0:29:460:29:47

So we shot the scene again with the real chaps who weren't sick.

0:29:470:29:51

And now the same subject, with Alan Titchmarsh, in 1994.

0:29:510:29:56

The scenes I remember, that stick in my mind, are of you all

0:29:560:29:59

swimming around in this hideous tank of what looks almost like black oil.

0:29:590:30:05

-That can't have been fun.

-It was a ghastly tank.

0:30:050:30:07

It was an enormous tank at Denham Studios,

0:30:070:30:09

and we'd been filming in it for about three weeks.

0:30:090:30:11

And they threw everything in, diesel oil, soot, mud, muck, tar.

0:30:110:30:16

It was really horrific.

0:30:160:30:18

And we'd been filming in this thing for about three weeks.

0:30:180:30:20

We were all standing, shivering, looking at it one morning

0:30:200:30:23

and Noel said, "What are you waiting for, chaps? Get in," and he dived in,

0:30:230:30:26

came up covered in diesel, and said,

0:30:260:30:28

"Dysentery in every ripple!"

0:30:280:30:30

Keep your heads down, get as low as you can!

0:30:300:30:32

Missed, butterfingers!

0:30:340:30:36

GUNFIRE

0:30:390:30:42

Blimey... I spoke too soon!

0:30:450:30:47

How did they get the gunshots, because there you were,

0:30:470:30:50

obviously in a studio,

0:30:500:30:51

how did they get the machine gun fire on top of the water?

0:30:510:30:54

Being shot, well, that was a bit tricky and of course

0:30:540:30:56

it's a long time ago and special effects weren't what they are today.

0:30:560:31:00

And they didn't know what to do.

0:31:000:31:02

Noel said, "Well, we can't use live ammunition.

0:31:020:31:04

"He's only halfway through the film."

0:31:040:31:07

And this is a true story, he went out into Denham.

0:31:070:31:11

He went to the chemist's and he bought grosses of what we used to call,

0:31:110:31:15

in those days, rather delicately, French letters.

0:31:150:31:18

Brought them back to the studio, and the special effects got

0:31:180:31:21

a long, steel pipe, put it under the water about that far from the top.

0:31:210:31:25

Fitted these things on, one after another like that,

0:31:250:31:27

blew in compressed air. "Brrr!" Then they got the shot.

0:31:270:31:31

And it really worked, so I'll go down as the only actor

0:31:310:31:34

to be shot in the arm by a contraceptive.

0:31:340:31:36

Very good story.

0:31:380:31:40

But you did have a reputation in those days for not playing

0:31:400:31:45

cardboard cut-out servicemen.

0:31:450:31:46

Goodness me, you were in the Army, the RAF, the Navy, all on film.

0:31:460:31:50

But you played them with a certain kind of naturalism.

0:31:500:31:53

Did you feel a responsibility to servicemen rather than just

0:31:530:31:56

playing them as sort of stiff upper lip type?

0:31:560:31:58

Yes, I did, and I had been in the service.

0:31:580:32:00

And there was a lot of talk about stiff upper lip at that time,

0:32:000:32:04

and I thought, well, when I came out of the army, the least

0:32:040:32:06

I can do is to try and put them up there as best I could.

0:32:060:32:10

And the stiff upper lip thing was a sort of old hat,

0:32:100:32:13

rather tired thing that was used at the time.

0:32:130:32:16

They were anything but stiff upper lip.

0:32:160:32:17

An awful lot was going on inside them. And they were a marvellous lot.

0:32:170:32:21

I worked with the submariners, all of them, tank boys,

0:32:210:32:23

paratroopers, the lot.

0:32:230:32:25

And that sort of acting was not easy to do. It was quite difficult.

0:32:250:32:29

What about playing Michael in Ryan's Daughter, the part

0:32:290:32:33

that brought you an Oscar, the part where you were barely recognisable.

0:32:330:32:37

Now, that was the most amazing role to watch

0:32:370:32:40

but I guess not the easiest role to get into?

0:32:400:32:44

Well, no, I'm not a method actor, I never have been.

0:32:440:32:47

But that's the one part that I couldn't get straight in front of the camera and start acting.

0:32:470:32:52

It needed a bit of thought before because he was a very slow thinker.

0:32:520:32:56

One had to sort of start thinking slowly.

0:32:560:32:59

I was very lucky, I had a wonderful make-up man called Charlie Parker.

0:32:590:33:02

And he put this terrific make-up on,

0:33:020:33:04

it only took 16 minutes in the morning, it was just brilliant.

0:33:040:33:08

The piece de resistance was the teeth.

0:33:080:33:11

And he made these fantastic teeth which I clipped in.

0:33:110:33:14

The teeth won the Oscars, no doubt about that.

0:33:140:33:18

When you're playing a part like that, though,

0:33:180:33:21

had you studied people with disability?

0:33:210:33:23

Yes, I had a great friend called Bernard Miles.

0:33:230:33:25

Lord Myles, who knew a lot of doctors who had film of patients

0:33:250:33:30

with brain damage on the left side, and I looked at a lot of this

0:33:300:33:33

and then I made up a composite picture of Michael,

0:33:330:33:36

a composite picture, and so at least what I was doing was true.

0:33:360:33:40

I wasn't just sort of pulling faces.

0:33:400:33:42

Did you think when you went into this part, "This is a real corker"?

0:33:420:33:47

I mean, did your eye ever go faintly in the direction of an Oscar

0:33:470:33:51

when you were doing it? Did you think, "This is pretty good stuff"?

0:33:510:33:54

Well, it didn't, really.

0:33:540:33:56

I enjoyed it thoroughly because I had no dialogue, so I was always drinking

0:33:560:34:00

Guinness in the pubs at night when the boys were learning their lines.

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It wasn't until about three quarters of the way through

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and David Lean suddenly said to me, "Nobby..."

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He called me Nobby, I don't know why, "..have you ever had an Oscar?"

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And I said, "No."

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And of course, nine months later, I was lucky enough to get it.

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Two decades after that Oscar came, Britain's highest acting honour,

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a BAFTA Fellowship recognising John as a uniquely dominant figure

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in the history of British cinema.

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When he died three years later, aged 97,

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the tributes called him a great actor,

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a true gentleman and someone who made us proud to be British.

0:34:400:34:44

Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

0:34:550:34:58

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.


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