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Jimmy Gardner: War hero and actor whose roles ranged from gravedigger in the RSC's 'Hamlet' to a bus driver in 'Harry Potter'

Thursday 06 May 2010 00:00 BST

He had a wonderful seat. His father, the jockey Teddy Gardner, wanted him to be a jockey too. He ran away from home. He was going to be a film star. The year was 1930. Jimmy Gardner was 16. Early last Monday morning, the day after May Day, in his 86th year, Jimmy let go his last breath.

The survivor of two shipwrecks and innumerable escapades on land – such as the time he and a friend were "saving" a beautiful Victorian fireplace from a demolition site and both stood back to fetch a chisel when a huge roof beam plunged down through the building on to the hearth where they had been kneeling – his life was the stuff of legend. Jimbo was the most fortunate man I will ever know. You met him on the backgammon board, at cards, at pool, cowboy billiards, knock, in the midst of any game, with utter delight and extreme peril to your purse. But for all his luck on earth and mixed fortune at sea, nowhere was the love of Fortuna more apparent than in the air.

I quote from his RAF Commanding Officer. "Sgt. Gardner was posted to 10 Squadron in November 1943, and has completed 30 sorties comprising 163 operational hours as a rear gunner of a Halifax aircraft." Let me fill in some details. Due to the exceptional danger of guarding the rear of a Halifax, the life expectancy for this 19-year-old Sgt. was two or three sorties. Thirty was a miracle. It might have only been 15, the required commitment, had Jimbo not found despatch riding so perilous.

On one occasion, unable to stop his motorbike, he simply hurled the papers in the general direction of the waiting colonel and rode on by. He requested a return to his seat at the back of the Halifax and completed 15 more sorties. On leave, his beloved sister Joan recalls, his mother remarked that the shirt she was cleaning had a different name in the collar. "Oh yes, I had an arrangement that if I died first he would get my shirts, and if he died first I would get his." Jim told me he never thought he would die. The war was formative. Just after joining he was standing with some men and the airman on one side of him told another that such and such had just died. "Oh shit," remarked the other in some distress. "He had the tickets for the dance on Saturday."

The "Dance on Saturday" was of great interest to Jimbo throughout his life. It was freezing to sit at the back of a Halifax for eight hours and wakefulness was imperative so the airforce handed out what Jimmy called "speed" to keep all awake during sorties. These handy pills were saved by Jimbo for Saturday-night sorties to London's dance halls. Once confronted by a cop in Apalachicola, Florida, 40 years after the war, about why he smoked marijuana, Jimmy replied, "I picked it up in the airforce during the Second World War. The Americans brought it over." The cop then pointed to one of the badges on Jimmy's black Triumph motorcycle jacket that read "N S". "What does that stand for?" "No shit."

Though Jimmy always mocked his sober ability as a gunner the recommendation reads differently, "During a sortie on Leipzig on 19 February 1944, the aircraft was attacked by an Me 109, an Me 110 and three Ju88s. Sgt. Gardner co-operated magnificently with the mid-upper gunner in passing accurate evasive information to his captain and simultaneously got in accurate bursts of fire on the enemy aircraft... His skilful directions and accurate fire played a good part in frustrating the attacks and enabled his captain to return safely to Base." The recommendation is full of such details and ends, "...a first class gunner and a stalwart member of a gallant crew. I strongly recommend Sgt. Gardner's determination, fine fighting spirit and strong sense of duty be recognised by the award of the Distinguished Flying Medal." Words that could commend Jimbo's whole life.

Jim's RAF gratuity paid for his professional training as an actor at The Central School and his career in television, film and stage lasted from the Forties to the Noughties, ending in perhaps his most notorious film role as Ernie the be-spectacled bus driver of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

I met him first in an RSC rehearsal room in 1982. Lantern in hand, he walked in a straight line across the empty rehearsal floor. After six or seven steps he turned right, took a few more steps and then turned left, right, left, always concentrating ahead of himself as if in darkness and seemingly counting his steps, until another character called out, "Ferryman". For that was his role, the ferryman finding his way in a fog across the raised dykes of the marshy land outside Faversham. His acting was always pure and expressive. He absolutely adored the company life of the theatre and enjoyed 10 happy years with the RSC, appearing in 23 productions, particularly loved for his hilarious Lion in The Dream, his officious Verges in Much Ado about Nothing, and for me, his definitive First Gravedigger to my Hamlet.

His love for the theatre was deep and wide: a clapper boy at the Gainsborough Studios, a chauffeur to John Osborne. He once spent a few months picking out the wrappers and cigarette butts in the great bins of returned Walls choc ices in order to earn enough money to go and work in Italy with Edward Gordon Craig, the revolutionary English theatre designer.

He was a spear carrier in Lord Olivier's historic production of Richard III, but one night, misjudging his entrance cue, he rushed on prematurely, panicking the other soldiers who were meant to follow. No one followed him and Olivier's raging tyrant had to be surrounded and subdued by a single, fierce 5ft 3in of Jim with spear. "Don't ever do that again."

On the last night of the RSC's residence at the Aldwych Theatre, a huge hydraulic wall that rose at the back of the stage got stuck. The performance had to stop. Embarrassed apologies were made to the audience. The actors stood around on stage while technicians rushed about trying to figure out what could possibly move this steel wall weighing a few tons. After a few minutes, Jimmy nonchalantly leans against the wall and it lowers itself, having only slightly tipped over the point of balance. For better or worse there was always something magic about Jimbo.

The Sixties were definitely his era and he had a profound affect on some of his deepest friends during those heady days. Dena Hammerstein, Barry Evans, Judy Geeson, Andy Bradford, Keith Field, Douglas Lambert, Michael Culver, Esther Anderson, all testify to his ability to provide a safe refuge and philosophic outlook in the midst of any storm. He was, according to Esther, the only white man with whom Bob Marley was happily associated.

He was the archetypal friend and pattern of friendship. Once, arriving at Heathrow airport after visiting his dear friends Dena Hammerstein and family, he received the message that during his flight from New York Dena's husband Jamie had died. Jimbo simply got on the next flight back and stayed for months.

I am not alone in calling him my dearest friend. Someone who changed my life forever. Someone who always saw the bright side of any situation. Whom I never heard tell a joke, but through his honest reaction to the world around him made us all laugh more than any other. Someone who adored the spring season in everything, but especially in young people, and introduced all of us to the beauty and joy possible in this world. He was a Dionysian. Someone who truly considered love between people as the be-all and end-all of life on earth.

Jimmy is survived by his sister and brother, Joan and Vic, nephews, nieces, grand-nephews and grand-nieces and many, many, dear friends.

Mark Rylance

Edward Charles James Gardner, RAF gunner, actor, rum baba vendor, chauffeur: born Newmarket 24 August 1924; died 3 May 2010.

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