Terry Thomas

Pencil Portrait by Antonio Bosano.

Terry Thomas Pencil Portrait
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Last update : 22/7/15

Like millions, I absolutely adored Terry Thomas.

Whilst there could never be a compelling case made for him as a fine actor – he would play the same character time and time again – he was nevertheless an international top drawer. In more than 50 films, many of them comedy classics, he was the quintessentially English cocktail of dandyishness and dastardliness, suitably embellished with the lightest of touches.

To British cinema-goers of the Fifities and Sixties, and across the great pond in America, he was instantly recognisable – that gap-toothed smile, the scruffy moustache like a slug on the upper lip, those inimitable catch-phrases; “You’re an absolute shower,” “Jolly good show,” “Hard cheese,” he had an indefinable air of untrustworthiness about him that was eminently appealing to both sexes.

Reviewing Graham Mccann’s excellent 2008 biography of the actor in The Guardian newspaper, Michael Coveney would write: Terry-Thomas, a suburban show-off with champagne tastes, was certainly a sybaritic old rascal, but it was all a magnificent act that sheered off into a tragic decline. Ten years after his Hollywood apogee, and a life of luxury on Ibiza, he was shivering with Parkinson’s disease, broke and almost forgotten, though comforted by his second wife and their two sons, in an unfurnished flat in Barnes. The arc of his life is like that of a Marlovian tragic hero. And it’s so predictable.

I have the book and as with so many biographies, one is initially drawn to the pictorial spreads and their underlying captions. The sheer heartbreak of TT’s decline is encapsulated in the two photographs of his second wife Belinda – separated only by a mere four pages – yet in reality, snaps that depict a long emotional journey over a quarter of a century. In the first, taken in April 1964, she positively radiates happiness, cradling their new born as her smiling husband peers over, his left hand gently pulling at the baby’s shawl for a closer look at his son’s face. If a picture truly paints a thousand words, then no finer an example may be found, except perhaps, for the subsequent entry in which she appears. Seated alongside her frail husband – now firmly in the grip of Parkinsons – the pair of them staring silently into space, she is evidently both physically and emotionally shattered. It’s heartbreaking.

Parkinson’s disease is caused by a loss of nerve cells in the part of the brain called the substantia nigra. Nerve cells in this part of the brain are responsible for producing a chemical called dopamine, which acts as a messenger between the parts of the brain and nervous system that help control and co-ordinate body movements. If these nerve cells become damaged, the amount of dopamine is reduced, thus ensuring that the part of the brain controlling movement cannot work as well as normal. Movements become slow and abnormal. Most disturbingly of all, the loss of nerve cells is a slow process. The symptoms of Parkinson’s disease usually only start to develop when around 80% of the nerve cells in the substantia nigra have been lost. This is precisely the news that would have been imparted to the incredulous comedy actor by his own London GP in 1971. As his biographer Graham Mccann so movingly describes on page 158 of his book: ‘Nothing, at that horrible, nauseating, bewilderingly surreal moment, made any sense at all, except for one very obvious thing : if news of the diagnosis was made public, then his carrer, in the eyes of some of the most hardened and powerful of his show-business peers, would almost certainly be deemed to be over.’

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Recommended viewing

Too Many Crooks (1959)

Busy stashing his ill gotten gains under the lounge floorboards, William Delany Gordon (Terry Thomas), is horrified to discover his prospective new son-in-law’s profession. “A Tax inspector?! They’re beyond the pale!” explains our debonair bounder to his long suffering wife.

Rather busy with his secretary in more ways than one, Gordon is unperturbed by his wife’s subsequent kidnapping, nonchalantly informing the gang’s incompetent leader Fingers (George Cole), that he’s welcome to keep her. They had originally intended to abduct his daughter, and as the initial £25,000 ransom demand is gleefully rebuffed, Fingers desperately lowers his price over and over again, finally offering to give her back for a mere £200, all to no avail.

Gordon’s meek wife Lucy – the always excellent Brenda De Banzie -seeks retribution for her errant husband’s indifference by plotting to steal his undeclared fortune, splitting the proceeds equally between herself and the gang.

Along the way, Gordon makes strenuous efforts to retrieve his hidden stash when the family home catches fire, whilst subsequently making three appearances on separate charges before a bemused magistrate (John Le Mesurier). As the police zero in on the protagonists, hope springs eternal for the Gordon’s marriage as their fortune is inadvertently cast to the wind.

There’s sterling support from Sid James, Bernard Bresslaw and the cockney blonde bombshell Vera Day, but ultimately it’s TT’s film. Whether leering or totally bemused, he runs the full gamut from pure farce to knock-a-bout comedy with equal aplomb.

School for Scoundrels (1960)

It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)

Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines (1965)

Another great childhood memory, this movie – depicting a fictitious London-Paris air race in 1910 – is a side-splitting rollercoaster comedy, featuring wonderful early flying contraptions, Ronald Searles’s animated cartoons, an all star cast, and best of all, TT as a dastardly Victorian villain who’ll stop at nothing to win the race, ably assisted by a delightfully droll Eric Sykes, as his downtrodden manservant. Ken Annakin’s direction is first rate, and the movie offers laughs galore in its depictation of stereotypical European and Far Eastern characters.

TT’s in the race to win at all costs – simply competing holds no appeal whatsoever – so cue much wire cutting, strut sawing, and hole punching in order to sabotage rival competitor planes. Eventually of course, our sneering snake-in-the-grass comes unstuck when his plane becomes engulfed by billowing smoke from a steam train, and subsequently wedges itself between the carriages of the Paris bound express. Suitably inconvenienced, our man edges forward towards the driver’s cab, jumping impressively between the carriage rooftops, his exhortations to “Stop the train” falling on deaf ears. Then, as if visited by divine intervention, he suddenly gets his geographic bearings and utters the immortal gallic command “arrête le train!!” It’s all hilariously to no avail as the impending tunnel quickly ‘clips his wings,’ the film somewhat flagging for its final quarter with his disappearance from the race.

Encore TT encore!!!

How to murder your wife (1965)

Recommended reading

Bounder! The biography of Terry Thomas (Graham Mccann) 2008

Unlike a lot of British character actors, whose style of comedy did not survive the Atlantic crossing, TT was a big hit in Hollywood, playing a British Army officer in Stanley Kramer’s hit comedy ‘It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,’ and Jack Lemmon’s valet in ‘How to Murder Your Wife.’ He also, improbably, enjoyed a cult following in France, after playing an RAF officer with a particularly luxurious moustache in ‘La Grande Vadrouille.’

There was no real malice in the man. The characters Terry-Thomas played could no more have committed murder than flown to the Moon. They were knaves rather than villains. And if you laughed at them, rather than with them, you laughed at them with affection. They were much too colourful to hate.

Mccann recounts the key periods in TT’s life with a light, breezy literary style that keeps the reader engaged. There’s a sense of foreboding as the 60’s decade runs its course, but the author remains resolute, describing his subject’s strenuous efforts to mainatin a career amidst mounting physical problems, with great sensitivity.

Whilst more anecdotal reminiscences would not have gone amiss, the book is more than comprehensive, and suitably tailed with a thorough overview of his professional career – theatre,radio, television, films, and longplaying records – in addition to an interesting ‘notes’ section. Bravo!

Gibraltar Connections (Reg Reynolds) 1999

The author’s connection to the rock of Gibraltar goes back to November 1942, when his father was an able seaman in the Combined Operations commandos who took part in the invasion of North Africa. After the assault was successfully completed, he sailed on the SS Clan MacTaggart to Gibraltar.

Stories imparted by his father fueled an interest in the rock, and the author would begin the first of numerous visits in 1986, just after the border to Spain was reopened.

As well as a number of book publications, Reynolds – now in his mid 60’s – continues to contribute articles to _’The Gibraltar Magazine.’_Past editions may be viewed via:


Terry Thomas is featured on the front cover of his book ‘Gibraltar Connections,’ and in particular his time on the rock filming ‘Operation Snatch’ in 1961. Snatch is american slang for a much sought after part of the female anatomy, and the film was suitably retitled ‘Operation Monkey’ for the US market!

The story takes place in Gibraltar, and is based on the local legend that if the resident Barbary Apes were ever to leave, the British would lose Gibraltar. The wartime comedy has Terry-Thomas as the keeper of the apes, a man required to go behind enemy lines to capture a replacement ape after one of local monkeys goes missing.

TT would visit the rock regularly throughout the decade before his second marriage to the much younger Belinda Cunningham, and during this period, would ofter be holed up at the Queen’s Hotel, 1 Boyd Street, with a nubile blonde.The hotel manager Ernest Francis – interviewed for Reynold’s slim volume – recalled a number of them. “I say – bang on!”