On this day in 1990, Terry-Thomas died at Busbridge Hall Nursing Home in Godalming, Surrey. Something of a Chap icon, in fact more of a spiritual godhead, Terry-Thomas personified the upper-class Englishman with a strong caddish streak.
He was born Thomas Terry Hoar Stevens in 1911, changing his stage name to Terry-Thomas in the 1930s, after trying less successful pseudonyms such as Thomas Terry and Mot Snevets (an anagram of Tom Stevens). An early attempt to disguise his dental diastema was abandoned, when he realised that the gap between his front teeth could actually benefit his image. He added to this a whangee cigarette holder, a moustache and a selection of flamboyant waistcoats, which accentuated his naturally dandyish dress sense.
He described the character he portrayed in most of his films, sketches and radio performances as “A certain kind of Englishman, who reads the Times and no other newspaper. A brolly carrier. A squash player. A bowler hat wearer. White collar; stiff, of course.” This was all the more remarkable for an actor who began his career as a market trader in Smithfield Market in the 1920s, where he made his mark by wearing suede shoes and a carnation buttonhole.
Terry-Thomas created the caricature of an English gent purely from his imagination, devising countless trademark phrases that only he could have uttered. “Hard cheese!” appeared for the first time in School for Scoundrels (1960) and later in Those Daring Young Men in their Jaunty Jalopies (1969), in which T-T displays the caddish way to react to the news of one’s father’s death. “You’re an absolute Shower!” first appeared in I’m Alright Jack (1959) and became his catchphrase for the rest of his career.
The Chap will be publishing a fulsome tribute to Terry-Thomas in our 100th edition, out on 17th May this year. In the meantime, an excellent documentary on his life and work may be viewed on OnesTube.
Contrary to the characters he played, Terry-Thomas was not a snob or a small-minded isolationist misanthrope. During the late 1960s he appeared in many films made in France and Italy, having tired of working in Hollywood. He built a house on the Balearic isle of Ibiza, living there until his Parkinson’s Disease force him to sell up and move to a charity flat paid for by the Actors’ Benevolent Fund. When a visit by his second cousin Richard Briers revealed the appalling squalor in which he was living, a benefit concert was staged in 1989 for him, hosted by Michael Caine, raising £75,000. Terry-Thomas moved to the nursing home in Godalming, where he died on 8th January 1990.
In these Brexit-smothered times, the career of Terry-Thomas reminds us that being British was once something to celebrate and enjoy with pazazz and a gentle, affectionate mockery of our archetypes. Terry’s response to those who asked the nation to divide themselves into remainers and leavers, and particularly to those who voted for the latter option, would surely have been: “You’re an absolute shower!”
Gustav Temple meets the actress who launched her career aged 18 in A Taste of Honey