JOLLY GOOD FUN
Bounder! The Biography of Terry-Thomas
By Graham McCann
(Aurum 291pp £16.99)
Alastair Sim: The Star of Scrooge and the Belles of St Trinian's
By Mark Simpson
(The History Press 256pp £18.99)
In the heyday of the British film industry, Terry-Thomas and Alastair Sim made respectable careers playing people who weren't respectable. They played characters who were ‘not quite gentlemen', but in different ways: Terry-Thomas was the embodiment of the player or bounder, while Sim depicted seedy, shabby, failed or faded gentility better than almost anyone else. The near-contemporaries coincided on screen on several occasions, so the appearance of this brace of biographies is serendipitous.
Sim was the elder of the two actors, born in Edinburgh in 1900, the son of a tailor. Terry-Thomas was born Thomas Terry Hoar Stevens eleven years later in Finchley and, despite being merely middle-class, affected a dandyish manner almost from the womb, as a way of blanking out his dreary suburban surroundings and his parents' unhappy union. Both actors achieved their greatest success playing amplified, exaggerated, grotesque versions of their real personalities, but both also had deceptively wide ranges. Sim began on stage as a straight actor before moving into film as a more manic, comic performer than he later became; while T-T was a skilled mimic, something he rarely got a chance to show.
Another thing that Alastair Sim and Terry-Thomas had in common was their work ethic. Sim, who began professional life as an elocution teacher in his native Edinburgh, was a fastidious director even when he wasn't meant to be directing, which caused no end of on-set tensions. T-T's apparent effortlessness and dilettantism masked massive ambition, drive and professionalism, the last of which he expected from his colleagues. Off-duty, however, both are shown by their biographers to have been amusing, charming men.
A populist former Cambridge academic, Graham McCann has spent the last decade or so producing books on film and comedy at a fearsome rate. In contrast, Mark Simpson is making his authorial debut, being a civil servant more used to writing government reports on private finance initiatives. Surprised to find that there had been no proper biography of such a major figure as Sim, Simpson spent the next decade finding out why, the guarded actor having left almost no trace of his seventy-five years apart from his work.
T-T's well-known film work is covered at length in Bounder, but McCann's conceit is to present his subject as the founding father of British television comedy. This is no hyperbole. Between 1949 and 1952, his series How Do You View? practically defined the medium's humorous trajectory. The BBC would have been happy with a simple act show. Instead, T-T, writers Sid Colin and Talbot Rothwell, and producer Bill Ward pushed at the limitations of the medium and paved the way for later shows like Hancock's Half-Hour. Sadly, because no recordings survive, the show’s legacy is all too often overlooked; but its contemporary effect was seismic.
McCann's other achievement is to convey what jolly company and rollicking good fun the real-life T-T must have been. Harry Secombe called him ‘the finest raconteur ever’, and that quality shines through here. No sad clown he. It's impossible not to adore a man who, upon meeting Pablo Picasso, asked the artist if anyone had ever requested ‘a word in your eye’. Unfortunately, the book suffers from a lack of original interview material with colleagues and contemporaries. McCann's excellent earlier books on Morecambe and Wise and Frankie Howerd were leavened liberally by such anecdotes. Apart from occasional observations from Sarah Miles, Jonathan Cecil, Barry Cryer and T-T's cousin Richard Briers, Bounder is mostly a survey – admittedly a very thorough one – of the paper trail left by T-T himself in articles, interviews and BBC contributor files.
In contrast, the privacy-obsessed, interview-shy Sim left no such trail (whatever the question, his standard reply to journalists was ‘I don't know’), so Simpson is to be commended on having found as much material as he has, particularly with regard to the actor's early years. Similarly, Sim's long and fruitful association with the now unfashionable Scots dramatist James Bridie is chronicled well. Simpson has spoken to many who worked with Sim, and their reminiscences help build up a picture of a stubborn, difficult, exacting, but ultimately kind and lovable man. This picture is obscured very occasionally by sloppy editing: cinematographer Otto Heller becomes 'Otto Helier', for example.
Sim's kindness towards young actors and actresses, such as George Cole, has been well documented. Simpson acknowledges the ‘murkiness of innuendo’, wondering whether Sim's privacy obsession did not mask darker impulses. After all, when Sim met his wife Naomi, he was twenty-six, and she was twelve – but the friendship was purely platonic for many years. Although Simpson, unintentionally, makes the waters even murkier in the way he broaches the subject, the answer is ultimately supplied by friends like the child actor-turned-BBC executive John Howard Davies, who testify to Sim's honourable intent.
As you'd expect from a seasoned biographer like Graham McCann, Bounder is pacy. Conversely, Mark Simpson's book can be a little dry in places, which might be the influence of the day job. Alternatively, it might be the subjects themselves imposing their considerable personalities on these welcome books.