I published a post quite a while back called The Essential Englishman. I say a while back but now that I’ve looked, it was 2017. Anyway, as a working-class council house boy I’ve always envied those well-dressed gentlemen who look impeccable and talk ‘proper’, dropping witty comments here and there with apparent ease. I wrote about six Englishmen who all rather impressed me either themselves or in the characters they played on screen so I thought it might be time to look at some more candidates.
I’ve always liked the debonair Roger Moore. Many people think he was good as James Bond 007 but sorry Roger, I wasn’t impressed. His other famous character did impress me; Simon Templar alias the Saint. The Saint was based on the books by Leslie Charteris about an adventurer called Simon Templar. Templar seems to have no job but owns a smart London flat, drives a white Volvo with the registration plate ST1 and sets about helping damsels in distress and solving various crimes. The police, in particular Templar’s nemesis, Inspector Teal of Scotland Yard view Templar as a criminal and are determined to put him behind bars.
Moore had always wanted to film the Saint and in fact bought into the latter part of the series becoming a co producer. Most of the clothes worn in the series were Roger’s own clothes too showing how keen Roger was about the way he looked. Later, when the series ended, Moore co-starred with Tony Curtis in the Persuaders, another action series, although the Persuaders was filmed all over the world whilst the Saint, despite all the various locations portrayed in the series, was filmed almost entirely at Elstree studios in the UK.
One of the best elements of the series was the pre-title sequence where Moore turns to talk to the camera. In later episodes there is a voice over instead but someone usually recognises the famous Simon Templar. Cue an animated halo appearing over Roger’s head which he looks up at just before the title sequence begins.
Moore played James Bond in seven feature films. The last one was A View to a Kill in 1985. He died from cancer in 2017.
Colman was born in 1891 and became a well-known amateur actor in his native Surrey. He joined the army when the first world war began. He was seriously injured at the battle of Messines in 1914 and was invalided out. When his wartime wounds healed, he resumed his acting career and eventually graduated to films. In the USA he became a famous silent film star but it was not until the talkies began that he could use his best asset, his wonderful voice. According to Wikipedia, he mirrored the stereotypical English gentleman and he went on to great success in the golden age of Hollywood. He appeared in many famous films like The Prisoner of Zenda and two of my personal favourites, Lost Horizon and Random Harvest.
Colman died in 1958 aged 67.
Hyde-White was born in 1903 and trained at RADA, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. He once famously said that at RADA he learned two things; ’One, I couldn’t act and two, it didn’t matter.’
He became almost a fixture of many British films of the 1950’s and in fact his film credits are almost too numerous to mention. He appeared in some of my favourite films such as The Third Man, Last Holiday, The Browning Version, My Fair Lady and many others. In Hollywood he appeared with Marilyn Monroe in Let’s Make Love. In later life he also appeared in many US television series including two episodes of Columbo. Hyde-White was apparently in trouble with the inland revenue and was declared bankrupt in 1979. He died a few days prior to his 88th birthday and his body was flown back to the UK for burial.
More epitomised the English officer gentleman in many films, most notably with his portrayal of Douglas Bader in the film Reach for the Sky. He played an officer aboard the Titanic in A Night to Remember and a naval officer in Sink The Bismark.
He was under contract to the Rank organisation but was dropped by Rank after swearing and heckling their managing director at a BAFTA award ceremony.
In later life he had further success on TV playing the part of Jolyon Forsyte in the Forsyte Saga and later the title role in Father Brown. He died in 1982.
Thomas was a comedy actor who found fame in many British radio shows and films of the 50s and 60s. He typically played an upper-class rogue or bounder and his distinctive upper-class accent is fondly remembered by many, including me. According to Wikipedia in 1921 he began to develop his distinctive, well-spoken voice, thinking that “using good speech automatically suggested that you were well-educated and made people look up to you”. He apparently was impressed by Douglas Fairbanks so much so that he began to imitate Fairbanks’ debonair dress sense.
Thomas played a similar character in most of his films and was a great success in films like Carlton-Browne of the FO, I’m All Right Jack and School for Scoundrels. He appeared in a number of Hollywood films such as How to Murder Your Wife in which he played the genteel English butler to comic strip author Jack Lemmon. He is probably best remembered for his portrayal of the scheming rotter in Those Magnificent men in Their Flying Machines. Thomas died in sad circumstances in 1990 after suffering with Parkinson’s disease and spending most of his fortune on medical bills
C Aubrey Smith
C Aubrey Smith is perhaps an unfamiliar name on this list to anyone who is not a fan of classic films. Smith was born in 1848 and became a stage actor only after retiring from an early career as a cricketer. He appeared in some early British films but went to Hollywood in the 1930s where he carved out a career playing an English officer and gentleman. He was Colonel Zapt in the Prisoner of Zenda and played another colonel in Hitchcock’s Rebecca. In Hollywood he was the acknowledged leader of the British contingent and in 1932 founded the Hollywood Cricket Club. Other film stars considered to be “members” of his select social group were David Niven, Ronald Colman, Rex Harrison, Robert Coote, Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce and Leslie Howard.
Smith died in 1948 aged 85.
There are others I could possibly mention here, stars like Christopher Lee, Dirk Bogarde, Basil Rathbone, Dennis Price and Jack Hawkins but perhaps it’s time to look at some more modern actors. Hugh Grant has played the essential Englishman in a number of film roles starting with his part in Four Weddings and a Funeral, the 1994 British comedy written by Richard Curtis. Four Weddings is a direct successor to the Ealing comedies of the 1950s and 60s and Grant’s persona is in the same way, a successor to Ronald Colman, David Niven and many others of the same ilk.
I’ve always thought that Four Weddings was one of the best British comedy films ever, only marred by the constant use of the ‘f’ word. I was happy to hear that American audiences agreed with me and in the US version, the word ‘bugger’ was substituted.
Hugh Grant was born in 1960 and is still working in film and TV. He recently starred with Nicole Kidman in the TV mini series The Undoing.