It’s 1946, when two struggling young actors, with their second daughter just being christened in a Buckinghamshire village, that the couple fall as much in love with the imposing manor house next to the chapel, as they are in love with each other. Little do they suspect that nearly 40 years later, as two of Britain’s most loved celebrities, Sir John and Lady Mills, they would own that 15th century dream house of their youth, just 25 minutes from London’s theatres.
Featured Image(above): Helly with John at the manor house
And that’s where Lady Mary excels. A mixture of furnishing styles everywhere in this grand house, not just in the spacious living room, is her special trademark. Her magic is that the furniture is not just beautiful to look at, but is terribly liveable and so comfortable. You always feel you can sprawl in any chair in any room. And it suits John down to the ground. There is a childlike simplicity and frankness about this man. He is such a natural, uninhibited character. And except for the deep furrows in his face his movements and the sprite, lithe figure belie his age.
John looks like a younger man in a hurry, leading such an active life, that inactivity for him remains a dream. At the back of the two-hectare garden is an isolated seat. “That is my escape seat,” laughs John. “I wrote most of my biography here. It’s too far from the house to be called to the phone.” The irrepressible veteran of more than 120 films over an acting career of 75 years, include GOODBYE MR CHIPS, GREAT EXPECTATIONS, SCOTT OF THE ANTARCTIC, HOBSON’S CHOICE, ICE COLD IN ALEX, RYAN’S DAUGHTER, THE 39 STEPS, and SAHARA, just to name a few.
And no matter whether it’s the musical CATS or the London Old Vic stage play OF MICE AND MEN, John’s performance is always unique and so memorable that many scenes reappear before your eyes even decades later. But it’s in 1971, while the Mills’s are still living in their Richmond Hill mansion, that I first interview John, 63, for the U.K. OBSERVER, celebrating ‘40 YEARS ABOVE THE TITLE’ of the films he has made. And out of all the celebrities I meet, interview or make friends with, John Mills CBE, remains my very favourite, because even 13 years after his death, aged 97 in 2005, the genuine warmth of his personality still encompasses me today.
Sir John and Lady Mary in their 15th-century dream house
Radiating a warmth and enthusiasm that captures you, he proudly shows me the colourful waistcoat he has been wearing for over three decades. His weight has not changed. The same applies to his riding gear. And I feel elated when John and Lady Mary invite me to come horse riding with them. John has just won three awards, including his first Oscar for the supporting role in RYAN’S DAUGHTER, portraying Michael, the mute village idiot. The screen’s hardy perennial enthuses, “It was like coming home after sports day at school. I was so excited. I couldn’t remember a single word I had said at the presentation. “And I didn’t realize what a difference it would make. Stage and film scripts keep flying in and I didn’t speak a single word in that film.”
But John speaks many a word as he tells what happened just before the Oscar presentation. “Why did you have to take it off my bum,” he had asked the plastic surgeon. “Well, you’re very hirsute,” was the surgeon’s reply. “You wouldn’t like to shave your finger every morning, would you? Besides, you’re an actor and wherever I take off the skin, it will always show a scar.”
The doorman from a London West End club, had slammed the cab door guillotine-fashion onto his hand, as John got into the taxi, chopping off the top half of his fourth finger. With a two-hour operation, a lengthy hospital stay, and his semi-new finger, John, arm in sling, only just made it in time to collect his Hollywood Oscar. Surrounded by a household of award-winning, talented and famous females, (wife, Mary, having written 23 plays, several novels and many poems, daughters Hayley and Juliet, as well as son Jonathan, having all carved out successful acting careers for themselves,) has John ever thought it might be better if they were a little less famous, a little less talented?
He shakes his head in amazement. “Oh, no! It’s so exciting. Yes, I know. A lot of people suggested that I was upset when Haley stole the show in TIGER BAY. I’ve never been able to understand that feeling of being capable of jealousy and frustration at your own kids’ success. “It’s like rearing a highly bred stallion, seeing him come out well and then getting depressed when he wins a race.” And a very cheeky ear to ear grin lights up John’s face, teasing. “Besides, there is always that sneaking feeling in the back of your head, that they might be able to keep you one day!”