David Niven

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Last Update : 25/07/19

David Niven appeared on “Parkinson” in 1981 to renew a professional relationship with the popular journalist and interviewer that had commenced nine years earlier with his first appearance on the top rated BBC Tv chat show. When he returned to his hotel after taping the interview, he was greeted by more than twenty messages from friends aghast at his seemingly inebriated state, a perfectly logical presumption in view of his slurred speech. Yet the actor never drank before a show, so concerned was he about suffering a stroke on prime time television.

A year later and diagnosed with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), more commonly referred to as motor neurone disease, Niven would have given anything to attribute his condition that night in 1981 to “the sauce;” a more debilitating illness for such a wonderful raconteur seemingly unimaginable. As ever, he dealt with this blow the way he had dealt with previous setbacks in life. When asked why he seemed so incredibly cheerful all the time he was wont to say: “Well, old bean, life is really so bloody awful that I feel it’s my absolute duty to be chirpy and try and make everybody else happy too.”

For more than forty years, he portrayed onscreen the impeccable values of a lost breed of English gentlemen, handsome, elegantly dressed, well-mannered, and utterly charming. He was also patriotic to the core, returning from Hollywood to serve in the armed forces as soon as war against Germany was declared.

Both before and after the war, he maintained an unerring knack of forging loyal, lifelong friendships with men, Fred Astaire, Jack Hawkins, John Mills, Noel Coward, Humphrey Bogart, Frank Sinatra, Roger Moore and Gregory Peck to name a few. Cary Grant fondly remembered, “He was a funny man and a brave man, a good man, and there were never too many of those around here [Hollywood].” If he was possessed of an oleaginous charm, it seemed predominantly reserved for the women in his life; the transient pleasure of his incessant philandering counterbalanced by the tragic death of his first wife, the only woman he truly loved, and the emotional ructions of his second union to a swedish model.

These upheavals were merely a continuation of a troubled childhood. His father died when he was five, his mother was emotionally neglectful and his stepfather loathed him. There seems little doubt that beneath those twinkling eyes lay an often deeply unhappy man.

From these ominously dysfunctional beginnings, events took on an even darker hue once his mother and ‘Uncle Tommy’ sent him away to a boarding school on England’s south coast. “It was one of the worst experiences of my life,” recalled Niven, who spoke of being whipped with wet towels by the older boys and similarly abused by a schoolmaster who hung him by his heels out of a window.

After a year of this regime he moved to a second, even less enlightened place of learning, run by a former Naval officer who, Niven claimed, punished boys by locking them in a dark cellar full of rats.

All of this background information sits uncomfortably with me, for I well remember being terrorized by a male teacher for two years at primary school when I was around eight years of age. As your name was called out, you would stand whilst he approached your table. The conversation would be all too agreeable, lulling oneself into a false sense of security as mundane questions on subjects like the weather and lunch were discussed. Suddenly, and with an alarming change of pace, one would be regaled with a barrage of complicated multiplication questions, failure in answering any one correctly resulting in a violent blow to the solar plexus area with his clenched fist. I can still recall the pain as the wind was taken out of my sails, my face crashing into the desktop as I collapsed bent double, whilst my fellow pupils looked on in anguish. I wasn’t the only pupil singled out for this treatment, but the experience was nonetheless upsettingly regular. The sense of foreboding prior to each one of his lessons was palpable, yet I could never bring myself to tell my parents; in fact the revelation of what had happened to me was not revealed to another teacher until my family had moved away from the area some years later. When he found out, my father was physically sick whilst my mother was able to recall the said individual regularly flirting with both herself and the other mothers at the end of each academic day. It was only years later that I was able to comprehend his motives and the tangible lack of incriminating evidence he sought by avoiding facial battery.

For more than one generation of children, ‘respect’ for school teachers who beat pupils with canes and gym shoes, whilst indiscriminately hurling their blackboard rubber at the classroom, was a way of life. As for myself, I must consider any future course of action when I come face to face with him again in another lifetime, since I do not believe moral challenges begin and end with our time on earth. Like a small number of people I have known throughout my lifetime, I deeply despise him. Returning to a theme I have touched on in previous commentaries, there was malice of forethought on his part, and whilst I have forgiveness in my heart for certain reactive actions on the part of others – a very necessary trait in view of some of my lamentable deeds – there are others who have accumulated sufficient experience of life to understand every single repercussion of their moral malfeasance. In turn, they will seek to protect every inch of their own reputation, secure in the belief that everyone’s silence has a price. As I’ve already said – despicable people.

David Niven may well have reflected on school life in a similar vein yet when he was sent to the newly opened private school at Stowe, he actually enjoyed the experience. “I had been turning into an evil little bastard,” he allowed, “but going to Stowe turned my life around.” So did sex for during the school holidays, David, then 14, “went exploring Piccadilly Circus, where there were lots of lovely working girls,” among them Nessie, a “17-year-old blonde with prominent hooters” who seems to have assumed the tart-mother figure crossover role for the remainder of his adolescence. “I’ve been addicted to sex ever since then,” Niven reflected when he was 61. “I hurt my back rather badly during some bedroom acrobatics around that time. My bad back sometimes returned when I was filming and I always told people I damaged it during the war. I was too embarrassed to say I hurt it having intercourse.”

His sexual initiation at the hands of Nessie was hilariously recalled on his first “Parkinson” chat show appearance, his universally debonair appeal almost convincing the casual viewer that his behaviour towards women should somehow be judged against a superficially tolerant set of moral values. His continued philandering throughout both his marriages and in particular his first to the woman he described as “the love of my life,” suggests a man with deep emotional problems, his subsequent war time experiences heightening those childhood experiences of cruelty and rejection.

At the outbreak of hostilities in 1939, Niven, on the very brink of stardom, was among the first of the British clan in the acting community to join the war effort. He was re-commissioned as a Lieutenant on February 25, 1940, and swiftly transferred into the Commandos. As a result, he was to have a notably different combat experience from the behind-the-lines regimen of USO revues and War Bond drives favoured by a number of his Hollywood colleagues. In August 1942, his unit fought in the disastrous Allied attack on the French port of Dieppe; of the 6,000 men taking part, 1,027 were killed and 2,340 captured. The actor was charged with the responsibility of writing letters to the wives and girlfriends of the men lost under his command and, as he remarked towards the end of his life, “The mental scars of war stay with you. My mental scars are more than I can handle. I leave them alone when I can. The horror of actual battle is more than I can stand.”

Before returning to Hollywood, Niven took part in the D-Day landings of June 1944, and subsequently was one of those to liberate the Bergen-Belsen death camp. “I was sick,” he recalled of the latter experience, a sentiment echoed by his fellow actor Dirk Bogarde, “Physically sick . . . Even now, I sometimes fancy that I catch a hint of that stench in my nostrils, and my stomach heaves. I feel like it will never leave me.”

Women, it seems, were the cause of most of his problems and much unhappiness. He fell in love and married a blonde English girl, Primula Rollo (known as Primmie). The couple had two children, David, Jr. and James (called Jamie) and sadly, their happiness was extremely short lived. One night while playing a party game at Tyrone and Annabella Power’s house, Primmie mistook the cellar door for a closet and fell to the stone floor. She died a few days later at the age of 28.

Niven was inconsolable, yet, in perhaps one of the more puzzling aspects of his life, he sought to assuage his grief by constant womanizing. A friend quotes him as saying, “I was insatiable. No woman was safe. It was no disrespect or lack of love for Primmie – I was just trying to get something out of my system that was better out than in. I believe I was very ill in a sexual kind of way.” He eventually consulted a psychiatrist and was told that this feeling would pass.

There’s no doubt that he was grief stricken. Douglas Fairbanks’ wife answered all the letters of condolence as Niven could not bring himself to do it. Nor could he bring himself to return to the house where he might have lived with Primmie, but had the door permanently locked. With the help of friends, most notably Fred Astaire, and Clark Gable who had suffered after Carole Lombard’s death, he managed to return to work.

Looking back on this period and the sudden death of his wife, anyone of us might ascribe this behaviour towards women as some form of intimate reaction to a deeply cathartic experience. Regrettably, this premise does not hold up under close scrutiny. As close friend John Mills put it in 1985 : “Niv loved Primmie to death, but he loved ALL women, though not in the way he loved Primmie. So he loved as many women as he could – even when he was married to Primmie. I didn’t approve, but it’s not my place to judge”. Shedding further light on this particular behavioural trait, Niven allegedly confessed his regrets over his first wife to the writer Michael Munn in 1982, in a series of intimate discussions, hotly disputed by his children. “I was a fool. When we were apart during the war, it was all too easy to have sex with other women who wanted to go to bed with a Hollywood movie star. Some of them no more than sixteen, but I was insatiable, you see – always have been. It’s a terrible flaw in me. I can forgive myself by and large, but to be unfaithful to the best wife a man ever had was unpardonable. I knew it at the time, but my erection was stronger than my spirit, if you’ll pardon the vernacular.”

Niven’s lack of self-effacement over the subject of womanising may have raised smiles in certain male circles, but such a predilection remains a source of considerable research in determining what sexual behaviour says about ourselves and society in general. According to experts at the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction at Indiana University, Bloomington, the average number of lifetime sexual partners for men aged 30 to 44 is around seven, while for women in that same age group, it’s four, both results somewhat lower than visitors to my site might expect.

Of equal interest is the realisation that, despite the seemingly universal desire for sex, society still lionizes heterosexual men for the same licentious behavior women are stigmatized for. This creates a cultural paradox where a premium is placed on female sexuality which is meant to be admired but never enjoyed. The resultant conflicting messages create a culture of confusion where a woman should be desirable but not sexual.

The latin word prōmiscuus, the original definition for promiscuity, carried a base meaning of “indiscriminate sexual choice.” This would imply that, at least originally, promiscuity was meant to relate not so much to the quantitative issue – the actual number of people engaged sexually, as in the qualitative sense i.e. the lack of careful choices regarding sexual partners. For me personally, notwithstanding the inherent risk of transmittable disease as it relates to the first definition, I have always been more focused on the qualitative aspect of the latin derivation and how my own lifetime’s conduct and that of my chosen partner might compare to this. In the final analysis, whichever women involved themselves with David Niven, they did so secure in the knowledge that his qualititive ability to select carefully and maintain a committed relationship in every sense of the word was a non existent feature of his emotional makeup. One can therefore argue the case that, as a direct result of their liason with him, many of these women voluntarily brought upon themselves every heartache imaginable, whilst he in turn, with the notable exception of his first wife, was largely able to forgive himself the hedonistic indulgence afforded to the rich and famous. Whatever one’s opinion, it appears apparent that each successive intercoursal experience singularly failed to anaesthetise his deep seated emotional neuroses; the reality in effect, never living up to the fantasy.

Recommended listening

Desert Island Discs (1977)

The first ‘Desert Island Discs’ was broadcast on January 29, 1942, There have been only four main presenters of the programme, its creator Roy Plomley reigning supreme throughout 43 years and 1,791 shows before his death.

1.Blue Mink -You Are The Sunshine Of My Life 2.Royal Scots Dragoon Guards Pipes, Drums and Military Band – Amazing Grace 3. Gloria Gaynor – Never Can Say Goodbye 4.Giuseppe Verdi -Celeste Aida (from Aida) Soloist: Jussi Björling Orchestra: Rome Opera Orchestra Conductor: Perlea 5. George McCrae – Rock Your Baby 6. Léo Delibes – Bell Song (from Lakmé) Soloist: Maria Callas Orchestra: Philharmonia Orchestra Conductor: Tullio Serafin 7.Danny Kaye -There Is Nothin’ Like A Dame 8. Castaway’s favourite – William Shakespeare – Once more unto the breach (from Henry V) Artist: Laurence Olivier

Book – British army survival manual.

Luxury item – Double Bed (would we have expected anything less from Mr Niven!)

Recommended viewing

Dawn Patrol (1938)

The First of the few (1942)

Biopic that chronicles the true story of how two of the most remarkable men in aviation history, visionary Spitfire designer RJ Mitchell (Leslie Howard) and his test pilot Geoffrey Crisp (David Niven), designed a streamlined monoplane that led to the development of the Spitfire.

The dialogue is quaint – “Oh that’s grand Mitch” and the Italian/German characterisations are stereotypical but there’s much to enjoy about this film including some exclusive test footage of Supermarine prototypes.

Howard, in his last ever screen appearance, was rather ‘long in the tooth’ for his role, mirroring a similar sentiment felt over his performance in “Gone with the Wind”. Nevertheless, his dogged determination and steely resolve to build a revolutionary new design is ably conveyed whilst Niven perfectly captures the ‘devil may care’ essence of test pilot bravado.

The film was a staple of sunday afternoon programming in the 70’s and with my interest in aviation I would never miss it, each successive period in Mitchell’s life unfolding like an old friend, such was my familiarity with the script. Nevertheless, it’s screening on Christmas Day 2000, in a prime evening slot was rather too much to stomach, especially in view of the licence fee I now found myself paying. Thirty years earlier, at such an important time of the year, television executives would have been lynched by the public, but in the modern world of cable channels and such proliferation of choice, the most outrageously dated films can appear in the interest of “themed evenings”.

The film took factual liberties in order to promulgate the ‘war effort’, Mitchell being portrayed as a man who literally ‘worked himself to death’, sacrificing both his health and marriage for the greater good of England’s cause. The reality was somewhat different.

In August 1933, the designer had undergone a colostomy operation to treat rectal cancer. Despite this, he continued to work, not only on the Spitfire, but also on a four-engined bomber, the Type 317. Unusually for an aircraft designer in those days, he took flying lessons and got his pilot’s licence in July 1934.

In 1936 cancer was diagnosed again, and subsequently, in early 1937, Mitchell gave up work, although he was often seen watching the Spitfire being tested. He went to the American Foundation in Vienna for a month, but died on 11 June 1937 at age 42. His ashes were interred at South Stoneham Cemetery, Hampshire four days later.

A matter of life and death (1946)

The elusive Pimpernel (1950)

Carrington V.C. (1955)

Zane Grey Theatre: Season 1, Episode 21

Village of Fear (1 Mar. 1957)

Niven is Raikes, a traveling book salesman, greeted by a dead man hanging in an alley when he arrives in a deserted Western town. The twenty six minute television play is a taut production, as our leading man is corralled together with the other townsfolk in order to determine the individual responsible for the death of the hold up gang leader’s brother. In view of his affiliation with the printed word, he is charged with the responsibility of convincing the locals to identify the culprit, in order to spare further bloodshed. He encounters mistrust, unco-ordinated plans, ill considered testimonies and a distinct lack of firearms. As the gang relaxes at a nearby bar, the pressure builds to an unbearable peak until Niven takes desperate measures.

This episode is included in Volume One of Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theatre, a 4 disc DVD retrospective. More information on the series can be located at


If you can tear yourself away from the soaps, then this episode can be viewed on Youtube via \http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pUrWys8Roi4\

Eagle eyed Trekkies will spot DeForest Kelley (Bones -Doctor McCoy) as a wary townsfolk member, who is eventually won over by Niven’s character.

Around the world in eighty days (1956)

Separate Tables (1958)

Set in 1953, the film is a detailed study of the lies, class judgements and repressed passions of the long-term residents of the Beauregard Private Hotel in Bournemouth. Made up of two one act plays, ‘Separate Tables’ explores the seedy gentility of the guests, who live by the strict social rules of a bygone era.

The first play, entitled “Table by the Window”, focuses on the troubled relationship between a disgraced Labour politician (the role was switched to an american businessman for Burt Lancaster) and his ex-wife (Rita Hayworth) whilst the second, “Table Number Seven”, is set about eighteen months after the events of the previous play, and deals with the touching friendship between a repressed spinster (Deborah Kerr) and a retired English army officer, Major Pollock (David Niven). The secondary characters – permanent residents, the hotel’s manager, and members of the staff, appear in both plays. In the film version, the plays run concurrently, due in no small measure, to the work of the screenwriter John Gay.

Rattigan had been compelled to re-write the character of Major Pollock in order to launch his play in the West End; the officer’s homosexual proclivities ultimately revealed as inappropriate harassment of women in a local cinema. The subject of male importuning on the Esplanade might well have inflamed Rattigan’s social conscience, but homosexuality in the early 50’s remained a criminal offence and without the necessary script alteration, his play would never have passed muster with the censorship of the day.

Filmed between November 1957 and January 1958, ‘Separate Tables’ was a resounding success with film critics and the public alike. Niven brought an arresting mix of surface bluster and repressed self loathing to his portrayal of the Major, his eventual decision to remain a resident at the hotel after his conviction becomes common knowledge, heartbreakingly heroic. The final breakfast table scene is a salutory acting lesson in understatement, a shame therefore that the actor failed to capitalise on his newly won recognition by pitching himself into more lightweight froth.

The Guns of Navarone (1961)

Niven is the humanitarian explosives expert hell bent on keeping his “hands clean” in this rousing, explosive World War II adventure.

Based on Alistair MacLean’s thrilling novel, Gregory Peck heads a star-studded cast charged with the near impossible mission of destroying a pair of German guns nestled in a protective cave on the strategic Mediterranean island of Navarone, from where they can control a vital sea passage.

Parking his ‘urbane English socialite’ alter-ego for the entire shoot, Niven ramps up the tension, periodically clashing with his implacable team leader – Mallory (Peck) – in some of the film’s best scenes.

It’s a long haul – 2.5 hours – but never feels like it. For those fortunate enough to have seen it on the big screen, the special effects – in particular Peck’s rain soaked mountaineering scene – were cutting edge work for their day, and the film deservedly picked up an academy award the following year.


Guns of Darkness (1962)

The troubled South American republic of Tribulacion is the setting for Anthony Asquith’s thriller, in which Niven and Leslie Caron help a president escape.

Events unfold on New Year’s Eve when the government of President Rivera is overthrown by revolutionary military forces. Wounded, Rivera escapes and is found the next day in a state of collapse by Tom Jordan (Niven), an immature idealist whose failure to hold a job down has led to marital difficulties with his wife, Claire (Caron). Jordan decides he is morally bound to help Rivera reach the border 80 miles away, and Claire reluctantly agrees to accompany them on the journey. After a number of close calls with the police, they are forced to abandon their car and to proceed by foot across rocky mountain terrain. They reach the border and are captured and taken into custody. At this point Claire tells Tom that she is pregnant, prompting her feckless husband to take drastic action in order to get them across the border.

With a Latin setting and French co-star, ‘Guns of Darkness’ is uncommonly exotic for a British film and considerably grittier than one might expect, possessed of a moral gravity lacking from most adventure films of this era. An early cameo appearance from James Robertson Justice suggests otherwise, yet while it’s a film alert to compromise and brutality, it certainly doesn’t skimp on excitement; there are tight squeezes, narrow escapes and an absolutely gripping scene in which the escaping trio’s vehicle sinks in a marvellously glutinous patch of quicksand, nearly taking them with it.

There’s sufficient sterling support from various ITC stalwarts to suggest another Lew Grade episodic adventure, but the moral overtones, and a convincing screenplay from John Mortimert, ensure this movie remains ‘superior fare.’

A forgotten entry in the Niven catalogue, but no worse for it.

The Pink Panther (1963)

Paper Tiger (1974)

Niven was always at his best playing life-cashiered failures, as in “Separate Tables” for which he won an Oscar. In this rather low key entry in his film oeuvre, he’s the tutor to a Japanese child who finds he has to live up to the Walter Mitty-ish fantasies with which he’s entertained the boy when both are kidnapped by terrorists. His performance as a man trying to make up for a loser’s lifetime is at once noble and sad, but it lifts this rather leaden idea to heights to which it might never have aspired.

Niven became very fond of the child actor Ando during the making of the movie, and I recall a joint interview the pair gave to promote the movie at the time of its release. What little english the boy had learned onset was rapidly evaporating, and the actor was forced to affectionately coax his young protégé along in matters of Q & A sessions.

Recommended reading

The Moon’s a balloon (1971)

It appeared, some forty years ago, whilst visiting friends and relatives of my parents, an impossibility not to find Niven’s autobiography somewhere on a bookshelf, so resounding was the literary success of his first printed work.

The book was after all, a wonderfully wry, extremely keenly observed and utterly addictive read. Four decades on, it may just be the best autobiography ever written by a Hollywood celebrity.

When the first part of his two volume autobiography was published, he was in the twilight of his career, (although in my opinion there was a charming addition to his film canon yet to be made), and the time was ripe to detail the whole of his life; a pivotal moment he clearly recognised himself. Truly, the manuscript represented manna from heaven for a major publishing house, for if any film star’s existence warranted a memoir it was surely Niv’s.

Bring on the empty horses (1974)

Niven’s follow-up to ‘The Moon’s a Balloon’ is less autobiographical and more anecdotal, being essentially a series of evocative stories about the culture of Hollywood between 1935 and 1960. Niven is an excellent storyteller and knew most of the personalities in Hollywood during that period; Clark Gable, Errol Flynn, Carole Lombard, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall etc. The combination of pictorial galleries and Niven’s incisive humour ensured another bestseller, the public at large suitably enraptured with the actor’s refined literary version of ‘Hollywood Babylon’.

Stories abound, his recollection of filming “Charge of the Light Brigade” with Errol Flynn passing into literary folklore. Horsing around and ruining one take after another, the Hungarian director Mike Curtiz finally lost patience with the incorrigible pair, exclaiming in no uncertain terms: “You lousy bums, you and your stinking language…you think I know fuck nothing…well, let me tell you – I know FUCK ALL!”

Niv: The Authorised Biography of David Niven (Graham Lord) (2004)

Extensively researched and written with the full co-operation of Niven’s family, this book benefits from newly revealed documents and intimate reminiscenses from close friends yet predictably excoriates his second wife, Hjördis, a woman who it would appear, the actor remained inexplicably married to for decades. So bad, would the state of their relationship become, that Niven was reputedly harboring thoughts of “having her removed”, his darkest moods providing the basis for a stage play entitled “Chalet”.


She reportedly loathed her husband’s sociable ways, and treated him cruelly when he was sick with motor neurone disease at the end of his life. She had to be coerced into attending his funeral and arrived for the service in a drunken state. The actor Robert Wagner, enroute to see Niven one last time, told Lord, “I didn’t go (to the funeral) because I was afraid that I’d really have lost it with her.”

She grew tired of his reminiscenses, particularly after the publication of his first book and the endless round of press interviews required to promote it. Perhaps more than anyone, she understood his need for embellishment, his need for conviviality and bonhommie. He once related the story of an intimate question posed to him over drinks by Prince Ranier and the speed with which he had extricated himself from a potentially embarrassing answer. In reference to a particular sexual favour, he responded that the most memorable lady in this department had been Grace………….ie Fields !!! The incident reads well, sounded even funnier in live interviews and requires a healthy suspension in logic to believe it ever occured; not necessarily the assignation you understand, but the response to the lady’s husband.


"Parkinson" Show (BBC Tv) 14/10/72


A timeless reminder of what a godsend Niven truly was to the chat show format. A peerless raconteur, and an hour plus performance that had nothing to do with ‘flogging product.’