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Last Updated: Saturday, 23 April, 2005, 17:13 GMT 18:13 UK
Sir John Mills interviewed in 2002

DAVID FROST: Right now one of Britain's finest actors Sir John Mills, well into his '90s of course, as we know, and despite illness planning a live performance again later this year. Famous for being the quintessential Englishman he won an Oscar in his heyday of course, Ryan's Daughter, but always resisted the pull of Hollywood. I went to visit him at his home to look back at his career just as he prepares to take to the stage again. I began by asking him when he first realised he wanted to become an actor?

JOHN MILLS: Now this is the truth, this is absolutely the truth, it was within five years, before I was five I decided I had to be nothing else but an actor, definitely, that's very strange but it's true.

DAVID FROST: Why was it do you think that acting was so irresistible so young?

JOHN MILLS: Well it was my sister, Annette who was a wonderful, wonderful dancer, it was the time exhibition dancing was at its height, there's the Castles, the Astaires and Sarah Mills and that was my sister and I thought she was the most glamorous thing I'd ever seen in my whole life.

DAVID FROST: And the really the, the person who was perhaps most influential in getting your career underway was I suppose, was Noel Coward, when did you meet him, abroad wasn't it?

JOHN MILLS: I met him when I gave an audition for the Quaint, it was a concert party...we did Shakespeare and everything else and Noel was coming back from New York doing Bittersweet and saw the Quaints in Hamlet and thought what the hell is this, I've got to find out what this is and that was, that was me.

DAVID FROST: He also, when you were considering, this was later but when you were considering going to Hollywood he was, he gave you advice didn't he?

JOHN MILLS: He absolutely...sat up all night, I was offered my part in Cavalcade, I was earning 15 a week at Drury Lane and Fox offered me 125 a week for two years and another three so I would be very, very rich and he spent all night persuading me it was the wrong thing to do.

DAVID FROST: So you've never regretted that?

JOHN MILLS: Never, never, never, never, never, never.

DAVID FROST: And so as the war approaches you're busy both in films and on stage really?

JOHN MILLS: Yes, yes.

DAVID FROST: And then the war, well you were invalided out weren't you?

JOHN MILLS: I was invalided out in 19 - late 40 I think, yes late 40 and then I started making films for the war effort, you know those special films, Careless Talk films and things and but you know the nice thing about it though is In Which We Serve was used as a recruiting film for the Navy.


DAVID FROST: Marvellous film, why was it so powerful do you think?

JOHN MILLS: Well it was Mountbatten's true story and all his speeches were used by Noel because they were very close friends and it just, and of course it had David Lean for the first time, you know and he, he was absolutely unique.

DAVID FROST: Your friends through the years, I mean did they change because career demands are different and so on, or were sort of people like Larry Olivier, David Niven, were they, were they your mates throughout...

JOHN MILLS: They were my mates throughout, until they disappeared, they were very close Vivian was close to Mary, we were very, very close to that bunch - I don't know whether these things are taken too seriously now but it was so much fun in those days it really was.

DAVID FROST: And all throughout this period you had this fantastic marriage that everyone...

JOHN MILLS: Well that was really such luck wasn't it, I mean Mary was, well she gave up acting for me because I was very ill when I came out of the army and then God was very kind and allowed her to start writing and she wrote very, very successfully for several years, even up 'til recently with Whistle Down the Wind.


JOHN MILLS: Yes. Very, very good writer and it was an ideal combination because she would write a play for me, I would do it, produce it with a chum and it would all be in the family and we never had to separate you see.

DAVID FROST: Was the, winning the Oscar one of the highlights of your life, it must...

JOHN MILLS: Yes definitely, I mean you know you may pretend it's not very important but it becomes very, very important as the time gets nearer and when you're there it's humming because nobody, nobody knows, you know nobody knows, you've been to one have you?

DAVID FROST: Yes, yes.

JOHN MILLS: Well nobody knows, so you just don't know.

DAVID FROST: You only produced two films and directed one?

JOHN MILLS: Yes that's right.

DAVID FROST: Why was that, did you...

JOHN MILLS: Well I wasn't asked.

DAVID FROST: Oh well that's a good reason.

JOHN MILLS: I would have done but I was a frightfully busy boy acting wasn't I?


JOHN MILLS: I mean I did a lot of acting and I didn't have a great deal of time to prepare...it takes years to make a film, to direct a film and but actually I'm a ham at the heart and I was very happy just being on that side of the footlights.

DAVID FROST: And your two glorious daughters Hayley and Juliet, you never said to them obviously, in the words of Noel Coward, don't go on the stage?



JOHN MILLS: Yes. Quite firmly and they took absolutely no notice whatsoever. I packed that up, stopped it and I just realised it was, we were doomed you know.

DAVID FROST: And you've acted with both of them in your time?

JOHN MILLS: Yes, yes.


JOHN MILLS: They're both very professional and people say what was it like acting with Hayley and I was fighting for my life most of the time, she was, she was really on the ball and so was Juliet.

DAVID FROST: As you look back over your life are there parts that you regret turning down?

JOHN MILLS: Yes, well not turning down but not being able to play. Hamlet's one, I think I'd have been a marvellous Hamlet but, I never, I never got to that, in fact I didn't get much Shakespeare because I was, got so busy with films during the war and there just wasn't time.

DAVID FROST: What do you plan to do next?

JOHN MILLS: Well I'm not going to retire, that's for sure. I had such a wonderful warm feeling now when I get out there, coming across the footlights it's something that I can hardly explain, it's such warmth greets me and I can even say the word love and I feel terrific, it's just wonderful, I 'spose it's long service, I don't know but it is wonderful and I wouldn't, I would hate to lose that. It's like that lovely story about Mattie Matthews do you know that story?

DAVID FROST: No I don't, no.

JOHN MILLS: Well Mattie Matthews was 82 and he was playing a comedy at Wyndhams and he was running for the tube after the show in his plus fours and a young reporter was trying to keep up with him, and he said Mr Matthews how do you explain this, I mean its, it's absolutely ridiculous, I mean here you are, you're 82, you're playing eight shows a week and running for the tube how do you explain it and Mattie stops and dead in his tracks and says, it's quite simple dear boy I take the Times. He said, what? I take the Times. He said what do you mean Mr Matthews? He said I open the paper in the morning and I read the obituary column, if I'm not in it I get up. I think I shall keep on getting up.

DAVID FROST: Keep on getting up, are you going to make it to 100?

JOHN MILLS: Tempting fate isn't it, but I don't see why not, the Queen Mum made 101, didn't she? I want to go on, I'm still very keen on life and I hope it goes on a bit.

DAVID FROST: I hope it goes on a bit and after a small health scare he's fit and well again, John Mills is, we're delighted to say, and indeed his moving memories came out on DVD this week. All the best to John Mills.



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