theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…
One of the cinema’s finest actors, John Mills has been known for much of his career as ‘Mr. England’. As British as Big Ben and fish and chips he has made over 100 films including some of the finest mainstream features of the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Unprepossessing and slight of stature he was often cast as the stiff upper lipped wartime hero in such classics as In Which We Serve, We Dive at Dawn and The Way To The Stars.
Dependable and reliable, he has been at the heart of British cinema and theatre for over eight decades. An intimate friend of Noel Coward and Laurence Olivier, he was the biggest film star of his day.
Born Lewis Ernest Watts Mills on February 22, 1908 in Felixstowe, Mills’ father was the headmaster of the local school. His mother worked as a theatrical box office manager and it was into this world that the young Mills was attracted.
‘One of the luckiest things that ever happened to me was to be born with a desperate desire to be an actor,’ he said. ‘I never remember at any age wanting to be anything else.’
Educated at Norwich High School for Boys, he excelled at rowing and cricket but was backward in other subjects. ‘Out of a possible 300 marks for algebra and arithmetic — I scored 8.’ After leaving school his father was unable to pay for any further education and it became necessary for Mills to contribute to the family budget.
He worked briefly as a clerk in a corn merchant’s office in Felixstowe and in the evenings was a keen member of two local amateur dramatic societies. Eventually he moved to London where he enrolled in a dancing school.
His first professional job came in 1929 when he was in the chorus of a revue at the London Hippodrome. His sister suggested that he change his name from Lewis to John saying that in her opinion it would look good in lights. Later he joined the Quaint’s company touring the Far East where he was spotted by Noel Coward who was later to cast him in the film In Which We Serve.
In the early Thirties he was in a number of revues on the West End stage where he got a chance to display his singing and tap dancing skills, and in 1932 he made his screen debut opposite a young Jessie Matthews in The Midshipman. Several B pictures followed but in 1935, cast as the patriotic seaman, Albert Brown, in Forever England, he began to establish a recognisable screen image and his performance received rave notices.
This led to Mills becoming an established star with his name above the title on every film he made. With the outbreak of World War Two he enlisted in the Army and, in 1941, he married the love of his life, the playwright Mary Hayley Bell.
‘I was on 48 hour leave. I had the date of my marriage engraved on my Reverso watch, 16.1.41, which was quite unnecessary. I have never needed reminding of the most marvellous day of my life.’
A medical discharge forced him out of the War but he contributed to morale by fighting war on screen. Films such as This Happy Breed (1944), Waterloo Road (1945) and The Way to The Stars (1945) continued to establish his star status but it was his intelligent and masterly playing of Pip in David Lean’s classic Great Expectations (1946) that showed what a skilled actor he had become.
As his career progressed, so his parts became more complex, his heroes more fundamentally flawed, and he was able to play across class barriers far more than his acting contemporaries in such as The October Man (1947), Scott of the Antarctic (1948), Hobson’s Choice (1954), Ice Cold in Alex (1958) and Tunes of Glory (1960).
For twelve years Mills was under contract to the Rank Organisation to act, produce and direct. ‘It was an enjoyable way to work,’ he has recalled. ‘Often I’d be two weeks into a film before I’d signed the deal. You’d say you liked it, shake hands and start shooting. It was a very happy time to make movies then.’ Two of the films he produced — The History of Mr. Polly (1949) and The Rocking Horse Winner (1950) were unsuccessful in their day but are now regarded as minor classics.
The Sixties saw Mills evolve from leading man to character actor with ease in films such as The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (1960), The Swiss Family Robinson (1961), King Rat (1966) and Oh! What a Lovely War (1969). As a director he worked with his daughter Hayley (then an internationally famous child star) in Sky West and Crooked (1966) and another family collaboration was the charming Whistle Down The Wind (1961) written by his wife Mary.
Although Mills personally regards Tunes of Glory as the film in which he gave his best performance, it was as Michael, the mute village idiot in David Lean’s masterly drama Ryan’s Daughter (1971) that he received an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
Despite his numerous films, John Mills always claimed that the stage was his first love. ‘I have gone back to the stage as often as I could because I missed the atmosphere,’ he said. ‘It’s like having 500 friends out there.’ In 1961 he made his New York theatre debut in Terence Rattigan’s Ross playing T E Lawrence and in 1974 he stopped the show with his sprightly tap dancing in the musical version of The Good Companions (Her Majesty’s Theatre). In 1987 he was back on stage in Brian Clark’s The Petition.
Much of his latter career has been spent on screen in guest roles although in 1990 he developed macular degeneration of the retina and he lost most of his sight. Close friends have helped him to learn scripts and he appeared in several distinguished television series in the 1990s including Harnessing Peacocks(1992) and Martin Chuzzlewit (1994).
In 1998 he starred as Gus, the theatre cat, in the video release of the musical Cats. ‘The make-up man asked me to go and get myself “aged-up a bit”,’ he said. ‘I thought that was rather funny since I was 90 years old.’
Two years later he and his wife Mary, then 89, and suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, renewed their wedding vows at their local church, sixty years after they first wed. Any intimation of retirement has always been vehemently dismissed by Mills and in 2000 he published his archives of photographs, Still Memories, which is practically a pictorial history of the British theatre and cinema in the 20th century. He wrote an autobiography, Up In The Clouds, Gentlemen, Please in 1980.
He was made a CBE in 1960 and knighted in 1976. He is President of the Mountview Theatre School and in 1983 a theatre in Ipswich was named after him. He and his wife have three children, the actresses Juliet and Hayley and son Jonathan.
A unique talent, John Mills is much more than just a film star. A highly skilled stage and screen actor and a man of great integrity, he is the quintessential Englishman. We are lucky to have him.
Patrick Newley © 2003
Originally published on R&V 18-06-03
Sir John Mills died aged 97 on 23 April 2005 in Denham, Buckinghamshire, following a chest infection. Lady Mills died on 1 December 2005. Sir John and Lady Mills are buried in Denham Churchyard. Wikipedia:
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