Terry-Thomas, like the hyphen between his name, was an entirely ersatz creation. Born the son of a Smithfield Market butcher, he transformed himself into the Wodehouseian embodiment of an archetypal English gentleman, albeit one with a caddish streak running through him like obscene graffiti through a stick of rock. [pull_quote_right]In Too Many Crooks, kidnapped and blindfolded, he unmasks his phoney European aristocrat captor by pointing out the poor quality of his cigar [/pull_quote_right]Using props like monocles, cravats, cigarette holders and garish waistcoats, a string of memorable catchphrases (“You’re an absolute shower!”) and a gap in his teeth wide enough to accommodate a 9-volt battery, he created one of the most widely recognised figures of 20th century cinema.
After several years in music hall and radio, he broke into movies in the late 1950s. Letting his raffish persona do the acting, Thomas essentially photocopied the same performance in over twenty British comedies. There was some room for variety though: he sometimes played a fairly decent upper-class cove, in over his head (Carlton-Browne of The F.O., I’m All Right Jack) but in the main, Thomas stuck to his ‘predatory, upper-class rotter on the make’ routine (School For Scoundrels, Too Many Crooks).
This was his golden period and it’s where one finds the pure, unalloyed Terry-Thomas in all his feckless glory. The tennis match in School For Scoundrels is perhaps his most celebrated moment of roguery (“Hard cheese, old boy!”) but such moments abound during this period. In Too Many Crooks, kidnapped and blindfolded, he unmasks his phoney European aristocrat captor by pointing out the poor quality of his cigar – “Who’s your accountant!?” – and as Major Hitchcock in I’m All Right Jack, he waltzes off with the best lines in the film: ‘Did a bit of time and motion study myself last night: redhead, very athletic!”
In the 1960s, he exported his patented image of the perfidious, toffee-nosed Englishman over to Hollywood, where he came to represent the scuffed flip-side of British gentility – David Niven’s penniless step-brother if you will: one hand cradling a gin & tonic, the other one slipping the wallet out of your pocket. He was memorably untrustworthy in How To Murder Your Wife, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines.
With fortunes (and health) fading, he unexpectedly became something of a horror regular in the 1970s, being fatally exsanguinated by Vincent Price in The Abominable Dr. Phibes, then later being dismembered and neatly arranged into dozens of kilner-jars in The Vault of Horror. During this time, he was immortalised in Disney’s Robin Hood, playing Prince John’s serpentine assistant Sir Hiss, a snake made all the more distinctive by an unmistakable gap in his teeth.
Tragically, Parkinson’s disease took hold of him in later life and he spent his final years in a housing association flat, his vast fortune gone. He died in January 1990, but the personality he created lived on and now, 25 years later Depp’s homage should bring the old boy to the attention of a new generation. Jolly good show.