Sir John Mills

Versatile star of British cinema

John Mills was the most durable and probably the best-loved star of the British cinema. It sometimes seemed as if he contrived to appear in every other movie ever made in Britain. He made his screen début in 1933 - one year after Cary Grant made his and one year before James Stewart made his - and only two years ago made a cameo appearance in Bright Young Things (2003), Stephen Fry's adaptation of Waugh's Vile Bodies.

John Lewis Ernest Watts Mills, actor: born North Elmham, Norfolk 22 February 1908; CBE 1960; Kt 1976; married 1931 Aileen Raymond (marriage dissolved 1940), 1941 Mary Hayley Bell (one son, two daughters); died Denham, Buckinghamshire 23 April 2005.

John Mills was the most durable and probably the best-loved star of the British cinema. It sometimes seemed as if he contrived to appear in every other movie ever made in Britain. He made his screen début in 1933 - one year after Cary Grant made his and one year before James Stewart made his - and only two years ago made a cameo appearance in Bright Young Things (2003), Stephen Fry's adaptation of Waugh's Vile Bodies.

Mills's forehead might have been stamped "Made in Great Britain" and he was only rarely available for export. Not for him the Hollywood contract, as was the fate and rarely the fortune of so many British actors, such as James Mason and Stewart Granger. One of the keys to his success was his resolute middle-classlessness - Mills was in the saloon bar when Noël Coward was in the Ritz and George Formby was in the boozer. Audiences took Mills to their hearts because they sensed an actor who had not been classically trained and whose work was intended to entertain them, not educate them or intimidate them in the way that Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud or Ralph Richardson might have done.

In fact, Mills began as a song-and-dance man whose hero was Fred Astaire. His family were not showbiz but ordinary folk - his father was a mathematics master. His sister, Annette, became a dancer and the principal childhood influence on young Johnnie (she later achieved national fame with Muffin the Mule on children's television). She urged him into the theatre and he dutifully made his stage début in 1929 as a chorus boy. He then joined a travelling theatre troupe called the Quaints. Noel Coward saw them in Singapore and called their repertoire "shockingly varied". For his part, Mills called Coward "The Master" and subsequently became the first man to perform "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" in public.

Coward took Mills under his wing, casting him in Cavalcade and other popular shows. His film career was also beginning to take shape, albeit at a slow pace. There was something rather too nice about Mills to make him a star at once. He could be easily overshadowed and lacked the voice and the physical presence to command heroic roles. As Michael Powell wrote in Million-dollar Movie (1992), his posthumously published volume of autobiography,

Johnnie Mills, one of the best actors we have ever had in England, but who is so small that, when they couldn't find a pissoir in a Paris bar and all had to pee in the wash basin, somebody had to lift Johnnie up so that he could do it too. But I digress . . .

It was the outbreak of the Second World War that made Mills a major star. Responsibility was handed to him by the script-load and he never shirked it, turning his back on comedy, which might have been his true forte. At first he enlisted in the Royal Engineers and served in the ranks until he was invalided out with an ulcer in 1941. He left the services determined to "put the lads up on the screen in the right way".

Coward had written In Which We Serve (1942) as a tribute to his friend Lord Louis Mountbatten whose ship had gone down in the Eastern Mediterranean. The character of Shorty Blake, the working-class lad who becomes a hero ("Oh look, boys," he says, "shot through the arm - always did hate the sight of blood"), was written specifically for Mills and with this role came the general stiffening of his upper lip.

For the next two decades he was constantly escaping, depth-charging, up-periscoping, flying bomb runs over Germany, giving orders or saying, gritting his teeth as his insides spill out, "Well, somebody had to do it, sir." Mills changed services and ranks with bewildering speed - an army sergeant here, a naval captain there - but audiences detected an honest actor, a man quite without pretension, who embodied the sort of everyday heroism forced upon everyday people. In the Fifties he would be joined on the bridge by Richard Todd, Kenneth More and Jack Hawkins and in the bilges he was generally joined by Richard Attenborough, who made his début in In Which We Serve. When Johnnie and Dickie were together in a war movie, you knew one of them would eventually buy it.

The list of medal-worthy action is seemingly endless - The Way to the Stars (1945), Morning Departure (1950), The Colditz Story (1954), Above Us the Waves (1955), I Was Monty's Double and Dunkirk (1958) and so on. He got to play the ultimate British hero in Scott of the Antarctic (1948), in a timely piece of post-war flag-waving, although Mills's research into the character - he discovered, for instance, that Scott was short-tempered - could not be accommodated into the film's snow-white scheme. Attenborough once spoke of Mills's essence: "He gave dignity to the film actor which in large measure didn't exist in British films. Dignity resided in the theatre."

As Mills's popularity increased, so too did his clout in the British film industry, widening his range and even taking in the odd Hollywood epic such as Around the World in 80 Days (1956), as a London cabby, and War and Peace (1956), as a Wapping-accented Russian peasant.

Unlike many movie stars, he would never abandon the theatre and would play the Old Vic and the Royal Court in due course, appearing at the latter in 1972 in Charles Wood's Veterans with John Gielgud, as well as essaying T.E. Lawrence in 1961 in the Broadway run of Rattigan's Ross, a performance that one wishes was preserved on tape for it coincided with Mills's first screen portrayals of military men off their trolleys.

In the late Fifties, caught up in the post-Suez mood, Mills finally made a break with stiff-upper-lipped military characters and introduced a compelling streak of neurosis. In Ice Cold in Alex (1958) he played a drunken, crazed army captain desperate to reach Alexandria for a cold beer. Mills liked to say that the beer was real and that after downing seven glassfuls in seven takes he was drunk as a lord. The movie - since immortalised in a beer commercial - also gave Mills a torrid love scene with Sylvia Syms, whose sexual inhibition in the shifting sand dunes of Libya caused as much excitement as Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr cavorting in the Hawaiian surf in From Here to Eternity.

Mills carried this neurosis into Tunes of Glory (1959) in which he and Alec Guinness were both cast against type, Mills playing the by-the-book army general who cracks up when he takes over a Scottish regiment. This is perhaps Mills's finest screen performance and won him the Best Actor prize at the Venice Film Festival.

It is probably John Mills's fate to be remembered in uniform rather than for his two major performances for David Lean. Lean had made his directorial début with In Which We Serve and next made Noël Coward's This Happy Breed (1943), now a desperately dated reworking of the old Cavalcade formula, in which Mills and everyone else seem patronised by the material.

But Great Expectations, Lean's first film away from Coward, gave Mills as Pip his best opportunity so far. Lean regarded the role as a "coat hanger" on which Dickens draped a lot of colourful characters. But Mills, as the blacksmith's son who rises in society, gave one of his most accomplished performances, a sort of lifebuoy in a sea of eccentricity for the audience and a character very much like Mills himself. And in Lean's Hobson's Choice (1954), Mills's portrayal of Will Mossop, with a pudding-basin haircut and by-gum enthusiasm, somehow managed not to be upstaged by the monstrously hammy Charles Laughton. It is a film - and a performance - that grows in stature for its feminism and for its Hogarthian portrait of Britain in the midst of the Industrial Revolution.

Inevitably, Mills's natural ageing and the emergence in the late Fifties and early Sixties of the "working-class hero" of Richard Burton, Albert Finney, Richard Harris and others meant that Mills was left to scavenge for what work was going. Whilst Olivier, with The Entertainer, found a new niche for himself, Mills began to look a bit anachronistic, though he might have made something of Archie Rice himself. Instead, he had to settle for mediocre roles in mediocre movies, drawing comfort from acting with old chums and in diverting locations, such as Tahiti, the West Indies and East Africa.

He was also busy with his family. In 1941, after divorce from his first wife Aileen Raymond, he had married Mary Hayley Bell, an actress who promptly gave up acting for writing. Mills appeared in his wife's plays Men in Shadows and Duet for Two Hands. Their two daughters, Hayley and Juliet, became actresses, and their son Jonathan a producer.

Hayley's acting career began when the director J. Lee Thompson went to the Mills family home at Denham in Buckinghamshire to discuss the thriller Tiger Bay (1959) in which John Mills was playing the detective. On the spur of the moment Hayley was cast as the kidnap victim and within a year she was offered a contract with Disney. John Mills steered her early career, turning down an offer from Stanley Kubrick for Hayley to play the title role in Lolita.

As the good parts were declining, Mills briefly attempted to forge a career as a producer and director. Sky West and Crooked (1965), a bizarre slice of Gothic bucolic written by his wife, with Hayley as a mentally retarded teenager falling for gypsy boy Ian McShane, was a reworking of Jeux interdits that attempted to let rip all manner of dark emotions, but under John Mills's direction it remained obstinately buttoned-up. He was also planning to direct the film version of Oh! What A Lovely War, after having bought the screen rights, but a hefty tax bill and an offer of a picture in Hollywood made him give the project to Attenborough (thus beginning Attenborough's own directorial career). Mills returned just in time to play Field Marshal Haig, another in his portraits of military discipline gone haywire.

He won an Oscar for Ryan's Daughter (1970), David Lean's gargantuan romance that started life as an adaptation of Madame Bovary and became four hours' worth of Irish weather. It is a startling film, by far the most audacious that Lean ever made, and a critical disaster that impelled the director to retire from film-making for several years. The movie deals exclusively in symbols - the permanent, majestic landscape and bits of human wreckage; the most extreme of which was Mills's village mute-idiot, Michael (the movie was once called "Michael's Day"). Mills's make-up took a mere 15 minutes to put on - a shock hair-do, a limp, a grimace and a set of teeth that wouldn't flatter a warthog. His performance consisted mainly of dribbling and wallowing around in peat bogs. Actors have won Oscars for doing stranger things.

The Oscar did little for Mills's career, although Attenborough wanted him as Kitchener in Young Winston (1972) and Robert Bolt needed him for Lady Caroline Lamb (1972). Mills also rolled out for Gandhi (1982). In 1987 he co-starred with Madonna in the dreadful Who's That Girl?, a movie, he said, that impressed his grandchildren, if no one else.

Of his later work, a mulch of television movies and tired remakes in which he was entirely blameless, there is little that lingers in the memory with any pleasure, except his voice-over with Peggy Ashcroft for the animated version of When the Wind Blows (1986), a rare commitment to an overtly political project.

Adrian Turner

John Mills was described by Lord Attenborough yesterday as "almost unequalled as a world British movie star", and few actors could claim not only the longevity, but the versatility, of Mills, writes Tom Vallance. He had a constant ability to both delight and surprise. Sometimes in danger of being taken for granted, he would then produce a stunning and unexpected tour de force, such as his superb performance in Tunes of Glory.

Never one to settle for the safe way on either stage or screen, at the height of his popularity he produced two off-beat movies, The History of Mr Polly and The Rocking Horse Winner. He also returned regularly to the theatre where, in 1930, he had given a performance as Raleigh in Journey's End which Noel Coward later stated was "the finest performance I have ever seen given to that part". In 1974 he stopped the show nightly with his singing and relaxed tapping to André Previn and Johnny Mercer's "Ta Luv" in The Good Companions at Her Majesty's Theatre. His Broadway appearances included an acclaimed performance as Doolittle in a revival of Pygmalion (1987) with Peter O'Toole.

Mills was a major star for over forty years, and at the height of his popularity, in the mid-Forties, he and Margaret Lockwood were voted Britain's favourite actors. During the war Mills had been the personification of the rating as everyman, then starred in two of the most popular films of the era, The Way to the Stars and Great Expectations. The Way to the Stars was such a box-office hit that it was given a repeat circuit release, and Mills's personal popularity at the time also prompted a nationwide release of his earlier film Cottage to Let.

In 2000, Mills's son Jonathan put together a film from footage found in the family attic - fascinating stuff that included behind-the-scenes colour shots from black-and-white films such as Morning Departure, Ice Cold in Alex and Dunkirk. Released as Sir John Mills' Moving Memories, it also captured candid shots of such personalities as Walt Disney, Vivien Leigh, Jean Simmons, Tyrone Power and Laurence Olivier plus, of course, the Mills family. Although very deaf and partially blind, Mills publicised the collection on television and radio, displaying as much enthusiasm and wit as ever.

Mills and his wife Mary Hayley Bell had been married hastily at a Marylebone register office when the actor was on leave during the war, and in January 2001 the couple realised an ambition to have the full ceremony they had missed, renewing their vows at their local church in Denham, Buckinghamshire. Over 100 people attended the moving occasion for Mills and his wife, who was suffering from Alzheimer's. The actor joked, "The first 60 years are the worst, so we're hoping to push on from there."

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