Bounder!: The Biography of Terry-Thomas by Graham McCann
|Bounder!: The Biography of Terry-Thomas by Graham McCann|
|Reviewer: John Van der Kiste|
|Summary: A biography of the actor best remembered for his portrayal of 'the archetypal English cad' in British comedy films.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 320||Date: September 2009|
|Publisher: Arum Press Ltd|
When I was in my early teens, it sometimes seemed as if Terry-Thomas was one of the stars of almost every other five-star British comedy film around. He was certainly one of the most recognizable characters of all with his gap-toothed grin, cigarette holder and inimitable 'Hel-lo!', 'Hard cheese!', and best of all, the angry, 'You're an absolute shower!'
It is therefore remarkable to consider, as this biography shows, how hard he worked to develop these upper-crust mannerisms. Born Thomas Terry Hoar Stevens in Finchley of relatively humble origins, he deliberately cultivated them as part of an act when he began appearing in music hall. Determined to live the part to the full, after the Second World War he bought a property in Queen's Gate Mews where he hired several servants and had a wardrobe comprising 80 suits, 22 dinner jackets and 150 fancy waistcoats.
Initially he made his mark in BBC TV comedy, with the pioneering How Do You View, which ran to five series between 1949 and 1953 and was regarded as an early forerunner of Monty Python's Flying Circus. Yet his goal was the big screen, and his portrayal of the well-to-do cad in such landmark pictures as Private's Progress, School for Scoundrels, the immortal satire I'm All Right Jack, and perhaps his finest moment as Sir Percy Ware-Armitage in Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines, have assured his immortality in British cinema. I had many a chuckle at some of the dialogue the author quoted from these films.
It was hardly surprising that the lure of Hollywood soon beckoned, where there was no shortage of well-paid roles for the man who rapidly became the Americans' favourite silly-ass Englishman.
Sometimes, as McCann suggests, the personality of the man himself is hard to track down, because the man in front of the camera was exactly the same as he was in real life. Unlike most other thespians, he eventually became the part he played. As his second cousin, Richard Briers, later said, when the curtain comes down most actors leave their stage voices behind, but T-T never did. The impression one has is of a very funny and very clever man who nearly always managed to get his own way. One of the few occasions he did not was when he was blackballed for membership of the RAC. Being turned down by that organization, he fumed, was worse than being turned down by a tart in Piccadilly.
Just as the book threatens to become a slightly flat chronicle of success, success and yet more success, it all starts to unwind. By the end of the 1960s, T-T had everything – money in the bank, homes in England and the Mediterranean, a happy second marriage and two sons. At the time, he mused that it all seemed too good to last.
Sadly it was, and the last chapter is an increasingly harrowing account of the nineteen years after he was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease. For a while he managed to continue working, although by the 1970s his Hollywood days were over and the British film industry was a shadow of its old self. Before his condition deteriorated too badly he managed to appear in a couple of documentaries on neurological disorders, talking movingly about how his illness was affecting him. But the pictures (in words and two photographs) of him and his wife in a cold flat in Barnes, broke, gaunt, and no longer able to speak, tug at the heartstrings. It was clearly a merciful release when he died in his sleep at the age of 78 in 1990.
McCann has given us a very well-rounded portrait of a genuinely funny actor whose last years were anything but that. Apart from those classic comedies, T-T has left an unusual legacy to the world of showbusiness, in that he inspired the creation of Basil Brush, the immortal fox puppet. Quite apart from the biographical content, it is a good read for its insights into the world of showbiz at the time.
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You can read more book reviews or buy Bounder!: The Biography of Terry-Thomas by Graham McCann at Amazon.com.
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