Born in North London, Terry-Thomas came from a working class background yet became stereotyped as an upper-class cad. From the comic rotter school, he was particularly associated with the Boulting Brothers comedies in the 1950s and post-war British film comedy with its links back to radio and music hall.
Terry-Thomas’ type was a combination of the raffish World War II pilot and upper-class rogue who spent too much time at the racecourse, a type which exported well…
Terry Thomas’ type was a combination of the raffish World War II pilot and upper-class rogue who spent too much time at the racecourse, a type which exported well when he played the RAF pilot, alongside Bourvil and Louis de Funes, in Don’t Look Now … We’re Being Shot At (1963), one of the most popular French films ever.
His flamboyant moustache, his gap-tooth, his cigarette holder, his sports cars and his tendency to dress on the loud side were the familiar emblems of ‘class’ trying too hard to be ‘classy’. His popularity as a comic cad was ensured by his ultimate ineptitude and underlying innocence.
Terry Thomas (born Thomas Terry Hoar-Stevens) was a jobbing cabaret artiste before wartime work in the “Stars in Battledress” troupe made his name, postwar he appeared in variety and on radio and TV as a stand-up comedian and impressionist, playing himself in early films such as Helter Skelter (d. Ralph Thomas, 1949) where he performed his famous “Technical hitch” sketch.
It was the Boultings who encouraged Terry Thomas to develop a screen persona, as the blustering Major Hitchcock in Private’s Progress (1956) and its sequel I’m All Right Jack (1959), whose exasperated harangue, “You’re an absolute shower!” became a national catch-phrase.
In Carlton-Browne of the FO (1958) he was the quintessential upper-class “silly-ass”, a sad relic of a vanished world.
In Blue Murder at St Trinian’s (d. Frank Launder, 1957), The Naked Truth (d. Mario Zampi, 1957), Too Many Crooks (d. Zampi, 1959) and School for Scoundrels (d. Robert Hamer, 1959) that famous gap-toothed smile, military moustache, dandified attire and rich, fruity voice with its “Oh, good show” banter, made him the definitive postwar cad or rotter, constantly scheming to avoid his creditors or ensnare some hapless heiress.
American audiences also enjoyed his caricatured upper-class Englishman and he appeared in several Hollywood films in the 1960s and co-productions such as Those Magnificent Men… (Ken Annakin, 1965).
Terry Thomas’s career was curtailed when he contracted Parkinson’s disease in 1971, reducing him to occasional appearances, as in The Bawdy Adventures of Tom Jones (d. Cliff Owen, 1976).
Autobiographies: Filling the Gap (1959), Terry Thomas Tells Tales with Terry Daum (1990). Biography: The Complete Terry-Thomas by Robert Ross (2002).