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‘What’s the bleeding time?’
Andrew Roberts

James Robertson Justice became a star for his role as Sir Lancelot Spratt in Doctor in the House and this chapter describes the appeal of this screen patriarch to the British public. One often overlooked element of the character is the skill and attention to detail applied by an actor who enjoyed claiming a lack of thespian skills. Yet his image, on- and off-screen, was carefully contrived and his Rank contract stardom of the 1950s masked a more subtle and nuanced actor. Roles in Anthony Asquith’s Orders to Kill and the prisoner-of-war comedy thriller Very Important Person were reminders of talents so frequently employed in shoring-up comedy films rooted in an ethos that harked back to the 1930s.

in Idols of the Odeons
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‘Do push off, there’s a good chap’
Andrew Roberts

The chapter commences with an overview as to how John Mills did not accord with the standard image of the post-war male film star and how his popularity derived from his apparent ‘ordinariness’. The sheer scale of the actor’s career is discussed, together with how he achieved major stardom as the archetypal ‘Everyman’ during the Second World War. The October Man is considered in terms of post-war British film noir and showcasing Mills’s talent for conveying barely suppressed angst. By the 1950s Mills was frequently cast as officers and towards the end of the decade Town on Trial and Ice Cold in Alex displayed his authority figures as flawed, complex individuals. Tunes of Glory is evaluated as possibly the actor’s definitive performance and the chapter ends with When the Wind Blows, as an ironic reflection of Mills’s wartime pictures.

in Idols of the Odeons
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Hawling like a brooligan
Andrew Roberts

This section opens with More’s popular image of the 1950s and how he embodied a form of male screen identity defined as ‘the chap’. It goes on to argue that this persona was the creation of a stage and film actor of considerable dramatic range. Genevieve, the picture, that established Kenneth More as a box office attraction, is discussed with reference to the end of rationing and the early signs of the affluent society. The actor’s skill at depicting immaturity is also covered with especial reference to The Deep Blue Sea and Reach for the Sky is discussed in terms of its evocation of wartime heroism. The latter sections of the chapter detail the end of More’s contract with the Rank Organisation and how The Greengage Summer marked a transition to leading character actor. Particular attention is focused on The Comedy Man as representing the finest screen work of More’s later years and as a deconstruction of his familiar cinematic image.

in Idols of the Odeons
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The talented Mr Skikne
Andrew Roberts

Harvey was an actor who apparently delighted in generating his own publicity. This chapter discusses how an overseas-born star created his own image – including his screen name – which attracted much critical opprobrium. Early miscasting as a conventional juvenile lead is contrasted with Harvey’s skill at depicting villains and outsiders. A contract with the producer James Woolf eventually resulted in the actor being cast in Room at the Top, which, together with Expresso Bongo, consolidated his appeal as a leading character. Harvey’s career in the 1960s was marked by attempts at Hollywood stardom, alternated with incisive performances in British films, especially Life at the Top. The chapter concludes with an assessment of his last major British film, A Dandy in Aspic and Harvey’s importance to cinema.

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Not to be crossed
Andrew Roberts

The film career of Margaret Rutherford is an object lesson in how whimsy and eccentricity are traits that need not descend into indulgence. The key of Rutherford’s screen performances was her Madame Arcati in Blithe Spirt, whose beliefs are entirely real to her. The actress was at her finest in roles that saw her applying her own codes of conduct to a world her characters increasingly found unrecognisable, such as I’m All Right Jack and The V.I.P.s. Her Jane Marple and Mistress Quickly are equally vital figures, both staving off boredom and convention.

in Idols of the Odeons
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‘Mr Grimsdale!’
Andrew Roberts

The mainstream British film career of Norman Wisdom lasted from 1953 to 1966, during which time he was a box office success and frequently a figure of critical derision. This chapter details the origins of his stage and screen character ‘the gump’ and how Wisdom’s talents came to be overlooked by the critical Establishment of the day. It further examines the comedian’s need for a straight man for his pictures to succeed and how Wisdom’s routines, with their roots in Victorian music hall, also needed to function within the context of a rigidly hierarchical society. The chapter concludes with his most atypical work for William Friedkin and Stephen Frears.

in Idols of the Odeons
Britain’s ‘bad blonde’
Andrew Roberts

After reflecting on the screen and television image of Diana Dors towards the end of her career, this chapter goes on to contend that her dramatic abilities were visible from the outset of her film career. In addition to a discussion of the limitations of the Rank Organisation and the British film industry when confronted by such an individual talent, there is a further examination of attitudes towards female sexuality during the 1950s. Yield to the Night is evaluated as a key film in both Dors’s career and prurient societal attitudes towards those film stars who apparently revelled in their publicity. The latter section of the chapter describes how Diana Dors created some memorable performances amid some of the worst efforts of exploitation in the film industry.

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The ‘actor’s actor’?
Andrew Roberts

An account of how Peter Finch’s ability to create not just a character but his past and his fears was partially developed in the British film industry of the 1950s and 1960s in both comedy and drama. The actor may have gained a posthumous Oscar for Network, but this chapter contends that his talents were more subtly employed by Ralph Thomas in No Love for Johnnie, made towards the end of his contract with the Rank Organisation, and John Schlesinger in Sunday Bloody Sunday. The chapter ends with an appraisal of The Pumpkin Eater, in which Finch gives one of his most nuanced performances.

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‘There used to be a me, but I had him surgically removed’
Andrew Roberts

The final profile makes the argument that at his finest, Peter Sellers had few equals in his portrayals of the vulnerable, the lonely and those desperate to maintain a social facade. His star character roles for British cinema in the eight years following The Ladykillers are remarkable for their diversity and their insight. A move to ‘international productions’ by the mid-1960s, combined with the actor’s health issues, resulted in a coarsening of his work, not least the self-indulgence of Casino Royale. His penultimate film Being There was yet another demonstration of the fallibility of the Academy Awards and the chapter ends with the contention that Sellers’s finest work was in Heaven’s Above!

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Jo’burg’s favourite cockney
Andrew Roberts

By the time of his death. Sidney James was an almost instantly recognisable figure yet his image as a ‘jovial cockney’ was only one aspect of his career. Within two years of his arrival in the UK from South Africa, James was cast by the Archers in The Small Back Room, establishing his career as one of British cinema’s most versatile character players. A supporting role in Ealing’s The Lavender Hill Mob resulted in his being cast in Hancock’s Half Hour and by 1959 Tony Hancock and Sidney James were regarded by many of their audience as an unofficial double act. Finally, James’s work in the Carry On films is considered with reference to his becoming regarded as a British ‘icon’.

in Idols of the Odeons