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Last Updated: Saturday, 23 April, 2005, 19:54 GMT 20:54 UK
Sir John Mills: A very English actor

By Nick Higham
BBC News

John Mills was a very English actor, who made his name in a string of patriotic war films.

Sir John Mills at Oscars 1971
Sir John won his only Oscar in 1971 for Ryan's Daughter
He played officers and other ranks with equal aplomb, crossing class barriers with an ease rare for actors of his generation, who were usually typecast as one or the other.

In one of his earliest wartime films, In Which We Serve (made in 1942), he played the cocky Able Seaman Shorty Blake. In one of his finest, Tunes of Glory (made in 1960) he played a neurotic colonel cracking up, as one critic put it, as if from "the strain of too many stiff upper lips".

His range was a tribute to his versatility and his skill - but also to that indefinable quality that made audiences want to watch him, and directors to cast him, over and over again.

Even before the outbreak of World War II he was an accomplished screen actor with almost 20 films to his credit, not to mention a promising stage career.

One of his great regrets was that the war put paid to his prospects as a Shakespearean actor - he never got a chance in later life to play Hamlet or Henry V.

Blossoming career

He was fortunate that his screen career blossomed at a time when the British film industry was also flourishing - he never had to move to Hollywood, nor particularly wanted to.

And he worked with a series of great British wartime directors: Anthony Asquith (We Dive at Dawn and The Way to the Stars), Carol Reed (The Young Mr Pitt), Sidney Gilliat (Waterloo Road) and the documentary maker Paul Rotha.

Sir John Mills (right) with Sir John Gielgud (left)
He made countless performances on both stage and screen

Perhaps the most successful partnership was with David Lean. They first worked together on Noel Coward's tale of a destroyer under attack off Crete, In Which We Serve, with Coward himself playing the ship's captain.

They went on to make another four films together, including some of Mills' best work.

There was Great Expectations in 1946, in which he played Pip, the former orphan who becomes a gentleman of means.

There was the comedy Hobson's Choice in 1954, in which he played a cheeky chappy, Willie Mossop - Mills sometimes said it was his favourite role, in which he adopted an impressive Lancashire accent (he was good at accents - in other films he played a convincing cockney, and in one film, The Rocking Horse Winner, a stable-hand who sports the accent of his own native Suffolk).

And in 1970 there was his memorable part as the village idiot in Ryan's Daughter, for which Mills won an Academy Award - it was, as he used to observe, a little ironic that after a lifetime learning lines he should win an Oscar for a role in which he didn't speak and scarcely made a sound beyond whimpering.

Over the top

When required, he could go over the top as an actor - indeed some critics thought he had in Ryan's Daughter, which was generally a rather overblown and overwrought affair.

But he could also bring a mild-mannered and understated diffidence to parts like the policeman investigating a murder in Tiger Bay - in which his 13-year-old daughter Hayley Mills made her acting debut.

In all he made more than 120 screen appearances. In later years there were lots of character parts and cameos, and inevitably many of the films and television programmes in which he appeared weren't all that good.

But his own performances were always impressive and sometimes memorable, even when Mills himself did not appear.

One of his most moving roles was as the husband in the animated version of Raymond Briggs's cartoon fable of nuclear war, When the Wind Blows.


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