Sir John Mills remembered: From Felixstowe to Hollywood
PUBLISHED: 07:18 15 December 2018
Sir John Mills - Suffolk's acting knight - was one of the greatest actors of his generation and a great east Anglian. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke reviews Sir John's career and revisits two interviews he did with the star during the last ten years of his life.
Veteran actor Sir John Mills was born on the Norfolk-Suffolk border and despite being the son of a headmaster knew that his life, like that of his sister Annette, would be played out on stage. The Oscar-winning knight, who leant his name to the home of Eastern Angles theatre company, died in 2005 at the age of 97 after a short illness but he left an indelible mark on the nation’s theatrical landscape.
The much-loved star whose career spanned more than 100 films was renowned for playing plucky soldiers and sailors in such classic war films as In Which We Serve and Ice Cold In Alex. Johnny Mills, as he was affectionately known, was a very versatile actor.
Many of his best roles were away from the front lines - he won his Oscar in 1971 for playing the village idiot in David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter and was nominated for a BAFTA for his role as the downtrodden Willie Mossop in Hobson’s Choice opposite Charles Laughton.
Although born in Belton, just outside Great Yarmouth, he and his family moved to Felixstowe when he was just in his teens. It was at this time that he changed his name from Lewis Ernest Watts Mills to Jack. “It really was a mouthful and I started introducing myself as Jack and it stuck. When I started acting Jack became John and I’ve been Johnnie to my friends ever since.”
In the early 1920s the Mills family settled into 9, Gainsborough Road, Felixstowe, just off Hamilton Road, the main street, and only five minutes from the sea.
“I loved living in Felixstowe and have very happy memories of being near the sea. That’s where I started acting. I played a gardener in The Paper Chase with the Vicar’s Amateur Dramatic Society. I also understudied the leading man. I was so keen and gave it my all.
“I joined them because the Felixstowe Players turned me down. I don’t suppose I gave a very good audition,” he laughed.
“My sister Annette was already a professional dancer. She had gone to New York with her partner Robert Sielle and had discovered a new dance called The Charleston and they were responsible for introducing it into this country. All this time I was working for RW Paul, the corn merchants in Ipswich. I used to commute every day from Felixstowe to Ipswich by train and used to get off at Derby Road and walk into town in order to save sixpence. I knew I wanted to be an actor and I just had to find out how to go about it.”
He said that he was grateful for always knowing what he wanted to do with his life and was never ashamed to say he started his acting career on the amateur stage in Felixstowe.
He said that he made the decision to take the plunge and become a professional actor in 1929. “It was a tremendous gamble, but I was determined that I was going to succeed. I had saved £12 as emergency funds and my father found my digs in Lambeth. My father was very concerned. He thought I was doomed from the start. I think my mother was secretly delighted.”
In late 1929 he joined a troupe called The Quaints and set off on a tour of the Far East where he met his future wife Mary Hayley Bell who went onto write Whistle Down The Wind.
He said that although the early days were tough he quickly made a name for himself on the London stage landing a role in the chorus of the musical Five O’Clock Girl at the London Hippodrome. “It was a marvellous break and I love comedy. I enjoy it more than anything really.”
His success in The Five O’Clock Girl led to him becoming part of a short-lived double act with his friend George Posford. “We opened the Mitre nightclub in Regent Street. Unfortunately after ten minutes a fight broke out and the club closed for good. So I opened and closed a club in one night.”
Even though he made a name for himself very quickly, he was always happy to see friends from his home town. By 1938 he was already a popular film actor and took a pay cut to play Puck in Tyron Guthrie’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the West End.
After one performance John found that the stripes were running on his skin-tight costume. “I sat in a chair with my legs spread wide apart with Robert Helpmann, who was playing Oberon, painting stripes on my crotch with a make-up stick. Suddenly the call-boy came in and announced that a Mr and Mrs Rawlings from Ipswich were here to see me. They came in and looked absolutely shocked. No-one knew what to say for a moment so I piped up with a: “Hello, did you enjoy the show?”
Sir John went on to star in a number of classic films including We Dive At Dawn, This Happy Breed, Great Expectations, Scott of the Antarctic, Ice Cold In Alex, The Colditz Story, I Was Monty’s Double, Dunkirk, Tunes of Glory, Oh What A Lovely War and Gandhi.
He was knighted in 1976 for services to the British acting profession. Despite his success on the big screen, Sir John retained his love for the stage. He appeared for limited runs in The Good Companions at Her Majesty’s Theatre in 1974, Separate Tables at the Apollo Theatre in 1977, Goodbye Mr Chips at the Chichester Festival in 1982 and Little Lies at Wyndham’s in 1983.
It was a love of getting a response from an audience that led him touring his one man show in the 1990s.
In early 2000 Sir John, a keen photographer, published a book which captured his friends at play. Among the famous names caught by Sir John’s camera were Sir Laurence Olivier, David Niven, Errol Flynn and Rex Harrison.
“I suppose we had a very privileged life-style but we didn’t really think about it at the time. We were just enjoying life with our family and friends.”
He also kept himself fit. He said in an interview with me in 2000: “I suppose I have lived so long because I have led a very active life. I have always enjoyed swimming and ski-ing. That keeps me physically fit and learning lines keeps you mentally fit - which is just as important.”
He swam every day until the end of his life.
His last professional engagement was as a cocaine sniffing party-goer in Stephen Fry’s Bright Young Things (2003) - a movie about the shallowness of London’s champagne lifestyle during the 1920s.
At this time he and Mary also renewed their marriage vows in the village church at Denham - only 30 yards from their home. The ceremony was the realisation of a long-held dream for the pair who were denied a church ceremony when they married in 1940. Sir John was in the army at the time and could only get leave for a quick wedding at Marylebone Register Office.
Sir John Mills died peacefully at his home in Buckinghamshire, aged 97, after a short illness. He was without doubt one of the leading acting icons that this country has ever produced. Along with his friend Lord “Dickie” Attenborough, he was one of a group of actors who captured the spirit of Britain in those post-war years.
Sir John Mills was a modest man, a gentle man as well as a gentleman - and he didn’t show off his acting skills and as a result perhaps he has been slightly overlooked by those who compile those short-lists for the acting hall of fame.
Compare his roles in Tunes of Glory, Ice Cold In Alex, Hobson’s Choice and Ryan’s Daughter and you are confronted with performances worthy of great method stars like Dustin Hoffman and Daniel Day Lewis.