Obituary: Mervyn Johns

Mervyn David Johns, actor, born Pembroke 18 February 1899, married Alice Steel-Payne (died 1970), 1976 Diana Churchill, died Northwood Middlesex 6 September 1992.

Mervyn Johns was one of the soundest and most sincere of character actors. His gallery of mostly mild-mannered, lugubrious, amusing, sometimes moving 'little men' stretched back through scores of films and plays and television series - victims usually, quiet always, and never less than authentic: petty crooks, modest bank clerks, henpecked husbands, diffident clerics - almost all Welsh and as obliging and as true as can be.

This was Johns's great and sometimes touching quality. He seemed never to be acting. He was himself short of build, but the secret of his acting was not so much a matter of height as of depth - of being able to get under the skin of a character. He could also muster, when required, an other-worldly air of almost celestial feyness, or dreamy intuition. But his acting did not always fall into such gentle categories.

Half a century ago it was quite different. If few remember him in 1936 at The Embassy, Swiss Cottage (now the Central School), as Sir John Brute in the Restoration comedy The Provok'd Wife, he provoked the best judge of acting of the day - James Agate - to hail him as 'blazingly good'. Trying not to declare that this new young actor whom the critic was seeing for the first time was another David Garrick, Agate had nothing but superlatives - 'a magnificent performance which would have warmed the heart's cockles of the old playgoers . . . In this actor's hands, Sir John is a brute indeed, not a pewling mooncalf, but a roaring bull. Mr Johns lets us see the pleasure he is taking in the fellow's brutish gusto. There are actors who could make the man as unbearable to an audience as he was to his own circle. Mr Johns, by lifting a corner of the brute's mind to show us his own, is right with Garrick.'

Johns had been on the stage for 13 years before that production, soundly trained for eight of them in rep at Bristol after an eventful youth, first as a medical student, then with the Royal Flying Corps in the First World War ('I don't think there was a single second when I was not scared to death') and finally RADA, where he gained a gold medal.

He had a natural gift for playing frightened men, but before typecasting overtook him - so that it became hard to imagine what Agate meant with that comparison with Garrick, especially the talk about gusto - Johns not only showed a relish for Restoration comedy, but was also rated a 'quintessential' Priestley and Shavian actor in such shows as Time and the Conways (1937), The Doctor's Dilemma (1939), Heartbreak House (1943), in which he replaced Robert Donat as Captain Shotover, and as Dolittle in Pygmalion (1947); though even before the Second World War he provoked another critic to dub his performance a masterpiece as a 'brave little miner, irascible but warm' in Jack Jones's violent and very Welsh play Rhondda Roundabout.

And indeed Johns brought a masterly touch to scores of other roles, especially, for example, his architect whose dreaded dreams came true in Dead of Night (1945), opposite Michael Redgrave, whom he had followed in that strange play, The Duke of Darkness, a few years earlier; or as Lester in the melodrama Tobacco Road (1949), or the infinitely pious parent in Gwyn Thomas's fountain of Welshness The Keep (Royal Court, 1961). He was unforgettable as a slow-dying sailor in the film San Demetrio, London.

But what if the Second World War had not turned the London theatre topsy-turvy? Might we not have seen more of the roaring bull and the brutish gusto? Might he have escaped typecasting?

His daughter Glynis Johns was already a star when his own stardom - if one dares to call it that for an actor who played so many supporting roles in the last half of his career - was on the wane; but he rarely gave a bad performance, however bad his material, which is more than can be said of many stars.

His Friar Laurence, for example, in Renato Castellani's supposedly all-star Anglo-Italian Romeo and Juliet (1954) was just about the best thing in it; and television viewers will always be grateful for his work in Kilvert's Diary and The New Avengers.

Nor should one forget that amid the modesty of his demeanour and reticence of temperament, his talent for looking so eloquently and so silently into outer space. This gaze was singularly penetrative, eerie and sometimes haunting; it needed no script, and could both chill and cheer. It was one of the most cheering aspects of his later life that in 1976, while in retirement at Denville Hall, at Northwood, in Middlesex, he married the widowed actress Diana Churchill, also in retirement.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR and Payroll Manager

£35000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This dynamic outsourced contact...

Recruitment Genius: Production & Quality Control Assistant

£19000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity for a ...

Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor - Kettering - £32,000

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor with an established...

Guru Careers: HR Manager / HR Generalist

£40 - 50k (DOE) + Bonus: Guru Careers: We are seeking a HR Manager / HR Genera...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

War with Isis

Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

A spring in your step?

Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
10 best compact cameras

A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

Paul Scholes column

Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?