Born: July 14 1911
Died: January 8 1990
The Americans regarded him as the quintessential Englishman. With smartly tailored suits, impeccable grooming and the long cigarette-holder protruding from underneath a curled moustache, he gave the impression of a self-confident old-world toff. But the characteristic languid upper-class accent and refined manners Terry-Thomas flaunted on the screen did not emanate from an aristocratic upbringing. All his lordly affectations were acquired in an attempt to improve his social status.
Why was he was always in demand amongst producers and directors of all nationalities? Surely it was because, whether playing the cunning rotter, henpecked husband or military twit, he alone was usually worth the price of a movie ticket. T-T was simply hilarious — one of the few comedians to consistently bring laughter every time he appears on the screen.
Thomas Terry Hoar Stevens was born on Bastille Day 1911 the fourth son of an itinerant company director father. From his mother, he inherited a distinctive gap between his front teeth. He was the only male to sport this dental deficiency, which seemed standard issue for the female members of the family.
Following a belated and undistinguished schooling at Ardingly College in Sussex, young Tom was sent to earn a living with a cold storage company at Smithfield meat market. Here he exhibited his sartorial elegance, regularly reporting for work clutching a silver-topped Malacca cane and wearing yellow gloves, suede shoes and garish ties. The managing director informed him he looked “like the juvenile lead in a musical comedy”. Felicitous words, seeing that T-T had become one of the lead-ing players in the firm’s amateur dramatic society.
It soon became clear that Terry wasn’t cut out for the world of commerce, and much to his father’s chagrin, moved into the entertainment industry. The late 1930s saw him playing ukulele with his own band, The Rhythm Maniacs, giving exhibition dances and performing odd dates in cabaret. At first he assumed the name Mot Snevets (Tom Stevens spelt backwards), but later settled for his forenames reversed. The hyphen was added as an afterthought.
As a sign of things to come, he began working in films as an extra. Fellow background artistes included Michael Wilding, Richard Greene and Stewart Granger, who all eventually climbed their way up the hierarchy to star billing.
T-T claimed that the life of a film extra, involving long periods of idleness, suited him perfectly. Appearing variously as a stone-age man, dude or mediaeval knight, he graduated from non-speaking roles to uttering a line or two, and even contributed animal noises for the soundtrack to a Jessie Matthews picture!
In 1939, Terry-Thomas received, as he would later tell radio audiences, “a cunningly worded invitation to join the Army”. He promptly reported to the Royal Corps of Signals in Yorkshire. Upon alighting from his chauffeur-driven limousine, a sergeant-major asked for his number. “Kensington 0736”, T-T replied. This quip was rewarded with a contemptuous glare. He was informed, “From now on, you’re just number 2389211.”
Not surprisingly, Terry proved altogether less than spectacular as a soldier, although in time he did become an NCO. His military career picked up, however, after joining the Army entertainment unit, ‘Stars In Battledress’. Here he trod the boards alongside other future stars of variety, amongst them, Charlie Chester, Harry Secombe and Arthur Haynes. In these shows, he began performing a routine called Technical Hitch, which was to become his passport to fame.
In this sketch, he played a frantic BBC radio announcer who is forced to imitate popular vocalists (Paul Robeson, Richard Tauber and Al Jolson) when he discovers he has mislaid their records. Terry’s amazing vocal range of four-and-a-half octaves turned out to be a tremendous boon, allowing him to sing bass, tenor and baritone. A few snippets of this turn were included in the 1949 screen comedy, Helter Skelter.
Following demob, T-T presented Technical Hitch to a West End audience in the Sid Field revue Piccadilly Hayride. In addition to another solo spot, titled In Town To-night (for which he supplied all the voices and sound effects), he joined Sid and straight-man Jerry Desmonde in a Shakespearean King John sketch. Suddenly, Terry was pulling in big money and being noticed by many influential people. On 4th November 1946, the Piccadilly Hayride company performed before the King and Queen in the Royal Variety Performance.
In 1948, T-T returned to the film studios, but now as a star. First he appeared with Jean Carson in A Date With A Dream, closely followed by The Brass Monkey, co-starring Carole Landis. Tragically, Miss Landis committed suicide shortly after returning to Hollywood, and the picture’s release was postponed.
Around this time, Terry was making an impact in other media. His first radio broadcast was back in 1938, on a tea dance programme called Friends To Tea. It didn’t go well. He later attributed his poor performance to being persuaded to copy the style of the famous wireless storyteller, A. J. Alan. After the war, he tried his hand at writing a series to be called Terry’s Topics with the Frank Muir. Unfortunately, the two found it too difficult to write together, and although a pilot episode was recorded, it never made it to air. Muir had to look elsewhere for a scriptwriting partner.
After occasional broadcasts in showcases for new talent like Victory Star Show and Variety Bandbox, his first radio series began in anger. To Town With Terry, which he co-wrote with Talbot Rothwell (later responsible for the Carry On movie screenplays), ran for six months. The BBC chiefs were happy with it, but Terry felt it wasn’t up to standard. Five years passed before he embarked on a follow-up, Top Of The Town, featuring a different guest star each week. For the premier episode, this was the great Tony Hancock.
T-T made a very early and significant impact on television with a series called How Do You View? He played a man-about-town surrounded by eccentric characters: an aged butler called Moulton (H. C. Walton), Miss Hap the secretary (Janet Brown), tea-lady Rosie Lee (Avril Angers) and Locket, his car-deficient chauffeur (Carry On regular and husband of Janet, Peter Butterworth).
The programmes also featured an interview spot, where T-T in various guises (the first being the Rank films gong-basher) would answer questions from Leslie Mitchell or Brian Johnston. Terry enjoyed these segments immensely and found it extremely difficult to keep a straight face.
One of these interviews, with a beefeater at the Tower of London, surfaced on a feeble album of songs and sketches released in the early sixties. Titled Strictly T-T, the funniest thing about it was the cover, which showed our hero seated in a well-stocked wine cellar, tucking into an enormous brandy glass filled with milk.
How Do You View? was written by Sid Cohn and Talbot Rothwell, and transmitted ‘live’ but without an audience. For the third season, a shapely newcomer joined the cast – Britain’s answer to Marilyn Monroe, Miss Diana Dors. Wednesday nights became a viewing must for eighty percent of people with sets, but unfortunately no tele-recordings were made. Consequently no snippets from this historic series survive.
Terry’s TV success was instant, and shot him to stardom in Britain. When a new magazine, TV Mirror, was launched in August 1953, it was T-T who graced the front cover of the inaugural issue, smoking four cigarettes at once through a holder shaped like a television antenna.
In between series, he popped over to New York and guested on the Ed Sullivan show. The Sunday before he was due to appear, Sullivan told the audience, “Don’t forget to watch next week folks. . . we have England’s top television star, Tommy Tucker!”
But, important as his work on radio, television and the stage was at the time, it is not for those that we remember Terry-Thomas today. The more permanent medium of film has captured all his finest characterisations — the cads, silly-asses, villains and frightfully-keen Britons abroad which were guaranteed to ameliorate any movie, regardless of any other shortcomings.
His first full-length feature was the Boulting Brothers’ Private’s Progress. He played a stern major who goaded his troops into action with the memorable catch-cry, “You’re an absolute shower!”.
Terry made four pictures with another British actor who was destined for international stardom, Peter Sellers. The first was The Naked Truth, concerning a scandal magazine of the same name, whose editor (Dennis Price) threatens to publish damning stories about certain high-profile members of the community, unless a ten thousand pound suppression fee is paid. T-T particularly disliked filming the scene in which he was drugged and dumped into a snake-infested lake. The discomfort continued with MGM’s tom thumb as he was in agony with acute back pains through most of the shoot.
This effective partnership of comedy actors continued with two satires from the Boultings. Carlton-Browne Of The F.O. dealt with Foreign Office diplomatic relations with a long-lost remote British colony. Later that year, industrial friction between management and labour was sent up in I’m All Right, Jack. Terry, as personnel manager Major Hitchcock, represented the former, while Sellers received accolades for his performance as union leader, Fred Kite.
Although a stunt man was usually employed for the more physically demanding scenes in his movies, Terry, against his better judgment, often risked injury or even death for a few seconds of footage. In A Matter Of WHO, he had to drive an open-topped Austin 7 straight underneath a moving lorry. Later he was clinging on for dear life, as he travelled up an Austrian alp in a ski-lift without a floor! Kill Or Cure saw him secured upside-down to a spinning steel pillar. He even ran along the top of a moving train for Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines.
This last film marked the beginning of a comic double act with Eric Sykes. (It wasn’t the first time they had worked together — in the late 1950s they had both performed in a ‘Three Musketeers’ skit for the London Palladium stage show, Large As Life). In this star-riddled aviation epic and its motoring sequel, Monte Carlo Or Bust!, T-T played different generations of Ware-Armitages. Both were identical and just the sort of wonderfully wicked villain found in Edwardian melodramas.
Eric was the downtrodden lackey, mercilessly bullied into nobbling the other competitors’ machines. His master’s nefarious schemes naturally come unstuck, causing the Ware-Armitage handlebar moustache to bristle with rage. Sykes invariably copped the blame and was given a thorough horse-whipping, or, if his boss was feeling particularly peeved, a lit cigar up the arse!
The pair also made one commercial for Benson & Hedges. More were requested, but Eric didn’t want to continue in the role of Terry-Thomas’s dogsbody. Hardly surprising, really.
In the sixties, Tinseltown beckoned T-T. Many American directors saw the appeal of this eccentric Englishman, who boasted a collection of over 150 waistcoats, and were quick to sign him up. It also gave Terry a chance to work with some very beautiful actresses: Tuesday Weld in Bachelor Flat (his first Hollywood movie and a hefty role as a professor of archaeology!), Gina Lollobrigida (Strange Bedfellows) and the outstanding Jayne Mansfield in A Guide For The Married Man.
During this Hollywood period, he contributed to TV shows such as Burke’s Law and The Judy Garland Show. Another LP recording was issued, specifically for the US market, with some amusing monologues in the Bob Newhart style.
Terry was the only non-American among a cast of famous comedians in Stanley Kramer’s It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. This time T-T was on the receiving end of the bullying. His intimidator was the brash Ethel Merman. The following year, he co-starred with Jack Lemmon in his personal favourite picture, How To Murder Your Wife.
The Europeans too felt there was a place for Terry in their productions. He claimed in his posthumously released autobiography, Terry-Thomas Tells Tales, that a list of all his films, including foreign assignments, would number more than 150. Many of these only required a few days’ shooting, and he returned home blissfully unaware of their titles! In others, he had more substantial roles. For Arabella, made on location in Italy, he took on four different characters, aided by wigs and coloured make-up.
Despite a heavy workload throughout his adult life, Terry managed to find time for a lot of womanising. His first wife, Pat, was nine years his senior and once a French Vicomtesse. She became his dancing partner in a cabaret act, Tern and Patlanski, before they married in 1938. Theirs was a stormy relationship and it wasn’t long before they both embarked upon a succession of extra-marital affairs.
In the 1950s, Australian singer/actress Lorrae Desmond became T-T’s girlfriend. Once Pat caught them in bed together, and began thrashing the nude Lorrae with a dog leash!
A pregnant twenty-six year old Belinda Cunningham became the second Mrs. Terry-Thomas in 1963 (at fifty-two, her husband was precisely twice her age). They had met a few years earlier on holiday in Majorca. Belinda gave Terry two sons, Timothy (nicknamed Tiger) and Trumper (who became known by the equally absurd ‘Cushan’).
Terry and Belinda settled on the Balearic island of Ibiza in the late 1960s. As his concession to that era of hippies and flower power, T-T had his Mercedes painted with a psychedelic floral pattern. Life was idyllic for a while but it wasn’t to last.
The downhill slide started with a near fatal illness in South Africa. He spent weeks recovering in hospital. Shortly afterwards T-T learnt he was suffering from Parkinson’s disease, a nervous disorder causing muscular rigidity and tremors. Work became impossible and expensive medical treatments quickly ate up all his savings.
Sadly, the man who, in his heyday, had frittered away millions of dollars, was now living off charity in a three room flat in south London. He passed away peacefully in a Surrey nursing home on 8th January 1990, aged 78. The showbiz world mourned the loss of the lovable king of the cads.
Piccadilly Hayride (revue with Sid Field)
(Prince Of Wales, 1946)
Humpty Dumpty (pantomime)
Fun And The Fair (revue with George Formby)
Room For Two (farce)
(Prince Of Wales, 1955)
King John (play)
(Adelphi, 1956) (single performance only)
Large As Life (revue with Harry Secombe)
It’s In The Bag (play)
(Duke Of York’s, 1960)
Don’t Just Lie There, Say Something (farce)
(Australian Metro Theatres, 1973)
Terry-Thomas appeared as an extra in italicised titles
When Knights Were Bold (1936)
Things To Come (1936)
Once In A Million (1936)
It’s Love Again (1936)
Rhythm In The Air (1936)
This’ll Make You Whistle (1936)
Rhythm Racketeer (1937)
Climbing High (voice) (1938)
For Freedom (1940)
Under Your Hat (1940)
A Date With A Dream (1948)
The Brass Monkey (aka Lucky Mascot) (1948)
Helter Skelter (1949)
Melody Club (1949)
Cookery Nook (short) (1951)
The Queen Steps Out (short) (1951)
Private’s Progress (1956)
The Green Man (1956)
Brothers In Law (1957)
Lucky Jim (1957)
Blue Murder At St. Trinian’s (1957)
The Naked Truth (1957)
Happy Is The Bride (1958)
tom thumb (1958)
Too Many Crooks (1959)
Cariton-Browne Of The F. O. (1959)
I’m All Right, Jack (1957)
School For Scoundrels (1960)
Make Mine Mink (1960)
His And Hers (1961)
A Matter Of WHO (1961)
Bachelor Flat (1962)
Operation Snatch (1962)
Kill Or Cure (1962)
The Wonderful World Of The Brothers Grimm (1962)
Mouse On The Moon (1963)
It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)
The Wild Affair (1963)
How To Murder Your Wife (1965)
Strange Bedfellows (1965)
Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines (1965)
You Must Be Joking! (1965)
Our Man In Marrakesh (1966)
The Sandwich Man (1966)
Munster, Go Home! (1966)
The Daydreamer (voice) (1966)
Top Crack (1966)
Kiss The Girls And Make Them Die (1967)
Jules Verne’s Rocket To The Moon (1967)
The Perils Of Pauline (1967)
A Guide For The Married Man (1967)
The Karate Killers (TV) (1967)
I Love A Mystery (TV) (1967)
Danger: Diabolik (1968)
Where Were You When The Lights Went Out? (1968)
Don’t Look Now – We’re Being Shot At (1968)
How Sweet It Is! (1968)
Don’t Raise The Bridge, Lower The River (1968)
Checkmate For McDowell (1968)
Arriva Dorellik (1968)
2000 Years Later (1969)
Monte Carlo Or Bust! (1969)
Twelve Plus One (1969)
Arthur Arthur (1969) (unreleased)
Seven Times Seven (1970)
The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)
Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972)
Vault Of Horror (1973)
Robin Hood (voice) (1973)
The Cherry Picker (1974)
The Heroes (1974)
Side By Side (1975)
Spanish Fly (1976)
The Bawdy Adventures Of Tom Jones (1976)
The Mysterious House Of Dr. C. (1976)
The Last Remake Of Beau Geste (1977)
The Hound Of The Baskervilles (1978)
Colpo Grosso … Grossissimo … Anzi Probabile
Ella, Ellos Y La Ley
Who Stole The Shah’s Jewels?
The Master’s Pants
Happy Birthday Harry!
How To Kill 400 Duponts
Terry claimed appearances in many more foreign productions.
He also produced the following film travelogues:
Terry-Thomas In Tuscany
Terry-Thomas In The South Of France
Terry-Thomas In Northern Ireland
To Town With Terry
with Ruth Dunning
BBC Home Service: 12 October to 14 December 1948 (not 26 Oct), 20 December 1948, 28 December 1948 to 18 January 1949, 24 January to 28 March 1949 (not 14 Feb)
(23 x 45min episodes)
Top Of The Town
with Joan Sims, Leslie Mitchell, H. C. Walton
Series #1: BBC Light Programme 1 November 1953 to 21 February 1954 (not 31 Jan)
(16 x 60 min episodes)
Series #2: BBC Light Programme 31 October 1954 to 27 February 1955 (not 30 Jan)
(17 x 45 min episodes)
How Do You View?
with H. C. Walton, Janet Brown, Avril Angers, Peter Butterworth
Series #1: BBCTV fortnightly, 5 April to 17 May 1950 (4 episodes)
Series #2: BBCTV fortnightly, 8 November 1950 to 28 February 1951 (9 episodes)
Series #3: BBCTV fortnightly, 19 September to 28 November 1951 (6 episodes)
Series #4: BBCTV fortnightly, 2 April to 11 June 1952 (6 episodes)
Around The Town
with Max Miller
BBCTV 1 October 1955
with Lorrae Desmond, Kenneth Griffith, Dennis Kirkland
BBCTV fortnightly, 12 January to 22 March 1956 (6 episodes)
My Wildest Dream
with Tommy Trinder, Alfred Marks and David Nixon or Eddie Gray
Associated-Rediffusion/ITV 8 May to 4 September 1956, 19 September 1956 to 6 February 1957,
11 February to 22 April,30 April to 11 June 1957 (57 episodes) (London)
BBCTV 20 July 1963
The Old Campaigner
with Jean Harvey, Jonathan Cecil, Lois Penson, Janie Booth, Reginald Marsh
(Pilot on Comedy PlayhouseBBC1 30 June 1967)
BBC1 6 December 1968 to 10 January 1969 (6 episodes)
The Best Laid Plans/Minx/Man Of Letters/White Man’s Tomb/Home Cooking/French Farce
A Sweet Old-Fashioned Boy/Lay Down Your Arms
Decca 78rpm 10804
Caedmon LP TC-1 137 (1958), Harper Audio Cassette
(with T-T as Bertie Wooster & Roger Livesey as Jeeves)
Indian Summer Of An Uncle
Jeeves Takes Charge
Decca LP LK 4398 (1961), London LP 5764 (1963)
Bring Back The Cat
A ‘Reasonable’ Rhyme
Ram In A Jam
Jo The Carrier Lad
Mishap In Mayfair
The Vegetarian Beefeater
The Poy Friend
Nouvelle Vague or How Vague Can Some People Be
Send For Me
Mary Bella Crawfish Esq.
Terry-Thomas Discovers America
Warner Bros LP W(S) 1558 (1964)
It Could Have Been So Pleasant
Booking The Beatles
You Haven’t Lived
Home Sweet Home
One Of The Gang
The Ring Fell Under The Sofa
Hello Mater, Hello Pater
Joan Of Arc And The Mouthpiece
BBC LP REC 134M (1973)
includes one track with T-T from Victory Star Show (8 June 1946)
They Played The Palladium
Decca double LP RFLD 30 (1983)
includes Lay Down Your Arms
Three Billion Millionaires
United Artists LP UTL 4
T-T plays a doctor in one sketch
Terry-Thomas can also be heard on the following movie sound-tracks:
The Day Dreamer
Columbia LP OL-6540/OS-2940
Disneyland LP 3810
The Wonderful World Of The Brothers Grimm
MGM LP 1E/S1E-3
It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World
RYKO enhanced CD RCD 10704 (1997)
Three Men And A Gimmick
by Robert Hirst
(The World’s Work Ltd., 1957)
biographies of Peter Cushing, Terry-Thomas & Arthur Askey
Filling The Gap
(Max Parrish & Co., 1959)
Terry-Thomas Tells Tales
by Terry-Thomas with Terry Daum
also available as Isis Audio Book read by John Rye JAB 93045, (1993)
The Complete Terry-Thomas
by Robert Ross
(Reynolds & Hearne, London. 2002)
Bounder – The Biography of Terry-Thomas
by Graham McCann
(Aurum, London. 2008)