James Robertson Justice was
an actor who was more than the sum of his parts. His booming voice, bushy
beard and beetle brows made him a stalwart of countless British films over
quarter of a century in the post-war era. With the success of the romantic
comedy Doctor in the House, playing the formidable Sir Lancelot
Spratt, it made him recognisable across the world as the stern but
loveable authority figure, hardboiled yet with a soft centre.
With the box office
receipts from the West End musical version of Ian Fleming’s children’s
classic Chitty Chitty Bang Bang flooding in, surely it is time to
reassess Justice’s life and times. The film of the book - on which the
Adrian Noble production owes as much if not more than the original novel –
was one of Justice’s last appearances in the cinema. His connections to
the creator of James Bond had in effect come full circle.
One of Justice’s early
occupations was as a reporter for Reuters, a name synonymous with
international news, when the firm was still based in Blackfriars. Both
Fleming and Justice served at a time when a journalist’s background was
considered more important than his aptitude for shorthand. They would also
serve – though not together – in the Royal Navy. They also shared an
interest in ornithology, though Fleming’s interest stretched really only
as far as stealing the name of James Bond from the author of a book on
Justice’s time with Reuters
was short but far from uneventful. When working on the nightshift he would
present himself in dressing gown and pyjamas. Such eccentricity must have
endeared himself to his superiors as he managed to avoid being sacked
after an incident involving a paper aeroplane.
Reuters was ruled by the
autocratic Sir Roderick Jones and when one day he was seated in the back
seat of his car he was surprised to find a sheet of Reuters’ copy in the
shape of an aircraft. It had been sent plummeting out of an open window by
Justice and when the offending object had landed an uneasy silence fell
over the office. They all waited for the call from Sir Roderick'’ office.
Eventually, the ‘phone rang and Justice was summoned forth. A few minutes
later and Justice reappeared, none the worse for wear, apparently still
employed by Reuters.
In later years, his ability
to play authority figures would supply the bread and butter roles that
kept him employed for so long on the silver screen from the tough, but
fair, Sir Lancelot to the rather similar Lord Scrumptious in Chitty
Chitty Bang Bang. To all intents and purposes he was typecast, largely
down to the fact that he was generally playing himself, with one or two
During his three score and
ten, he channelled his wanderlust, he undertook a variety of jobs from
selling insurance, working on a barge and apparently digging sewers. All
of which must have aided him in his later – and more – lucrative career as
For an actor who
personified a certain type of Englishman, Justice was actually a proud
Scot. Born in Wigtown, his passion for his homeland never diminished,
although educated at one of England’s top public schools, Marlborough
College, he would return as often as possible. He served two terms as
Rector of the University of Edinburgh, narrowly beating Peter Ustinov,
with whom he was often confused. One of his best-loved roles was as the
doctor in the classic Ealing comedy about a shipwreck off the coast of
Scotland, Whisky Galore! He would live there, off and on, for the
rest of his life, indulging his passion for nature.
It even helped during his
spell fighting against General Franco in the Spanish Civil War whilst in
the International Brigade. He apparently stopped a charge by pointing
skywards and yelling ‘Look! Greylag geese!’ His socialist ideals did not
end there, standing – unsuccessfully – as a Labour candidate in the 1950
Justice was also interested
in birds of the human variety. Despite being married, he once had an
affair with a young Molly Parkin, the dress designer, novelist and agony
aunt, around the same time that he was enjoying the fruits of success
brought by his role in Doctor in the House. Public morals were a
greater deal stricter than today and the affair could have disrupted
Justice’s acting career, although the romance was overshadowed, by guilt
on Parkin’s side – like Dilys, Justice’s wife, she was Welsh. Justice’s
enthusiasm for the affair alarmed Parkin, as he wanted to set her up in an
apartment and start a family. Her disquiet was fuelled further by the
knowledge that Justice had already lost his young son in a tragic drowning
With such a burden of guilt
– on both sides – Justice and Parkin separated, although the marriage to
Dilys was doomed, but it would not be long before Justice found love
Irina von Meyersberg was an
Estonian baroness turned actress whom Justice met in 1961. Justice, who
was adept with several languages, propositioned her in German, leaving her
husband to live with her new love until his death in 1975. Irina became a
British citizen and became friends with Lady Scott, wife of Sir Peter.
As one of the founding
fathers of the Wildfowl Trust, Justice had known Sir Peter Scott for a
number of years when they had spent days punt-gunning. With Sir Peter and
Lord Geoffrey Penny, they would help develop a rocket propelled net method
of catching ducks and other birds holding the first trial in 1948. Justice
had served in the Royal Navy, joining up at the outbreak of the Second
World War, somehow wangling himself into the engineering branch of the
RNVR, despite a total lack of knowledge of engines. When he left the
service in 1943, he wore the straight gold braid stripes of an officer –
or so he said. His time was well spent as he would proceed to play
uniformed characters on screen almost from the off.
A year before the trial of
their groundbreaking device, he had appeared as Petty Officer Evans in
Scott of the Antarctic opposite that great star of British movies, Sir
John Mills, in a film based on the race to reach the South Pole. As a good
friend of Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s son, Justice’s dedication to the
role knew no bounds, even if it meant shaving his beard for the part! It
is the only example of him appearing clean-shaven in a film in a career of
nearly hundred features.
indispensable Justice became in the British movie industry, it is
surprising that he started a career in film with virtually no training. He
was spotted appearing as Chairman in music hall at the Players Theatre by
director Harry Watt that saw him cast as a centurion in Fiddlers Three.
He had already appeared on camera, uncredited, for a role as operations
room officer in a drama cum documentary called For Those in Peril
soon after being invalided out of the Royal Navy.
Over the next ten years he
would resurface time and again on screen. Ironically, one of the people to
give him one of his first major roles was someone who would, in later
years, occasionally be mistaken for him: Peter Ustinov.
The young Ustinov, the son
of a Russian émigré, had been touted as Britain’s answer to Orson Welles.
He had sold a screenplay in his early twenties and had embarked on a
career as a film director adapting F. Anstey’s Vice Versa. It would
feature an early appearance from Anthony Newley as well as that of a
rather older recruit to acting, namely, James Robertson Justice. The tale
of a young boy who swaps his body with his father has been adapted for
television and remade by Hollywood but this stands as the best version,
owing no small part to Justice’s performance.
Ustinov described Justice
as ‘an unknown actor who had fought in the Spanish Civil War on the side
of unpopular legitimacy and been a collaborator of my father’s in the
early days at the Reuter’s building in Blackfriars…’
With the character of the
irascible headmaster of the school attended by the young Dick, played by
Newley, Justice’s ‘bearded, bear-like’ demeanour began to emerge on the
big screen almost fully formed. The obligatory sojourn to Hollywood in
1951 to taste the big time in Biblical epics such as David and
Bathsheba and Land of the Pharoahs, then a swift return to
Britain and the part that would catapult him to stardom.
When Doctor in the House
was released, in the middle of the decade before the Swinging Sixties, it
smashed all previous box office records for a British film, being seen by
nearly one for every two possible moviegoers in the population at the
time. From its first preview at a suburban picture house, it was a
guaranteed winner. It made Dirk Bogarde a bona-fide star for the Rank
Organisation. The movie would spawn a handful of sequels as well as a
long-running television series.
Considering how much a hit
they had on their hands, Rank initially had shown little or no faith in
the project. Doctors were box-office poison and Betty Box, the producer,
was given next to no budget, forcing her to use Rank’s few remaining
contract artists. With hospital dramas ten-a-penny on television, it seems
hard to fathom their reluctance but is yet another example of British
cinema’s lack of vision.
Adapted from the comic
novel written by then anaesthetist Richard Gordon, the story of student
doctor and his fellows at the fictional St Swithin’s Hospital, would also
assist the nascent careers of other screen thespians besides Bogarde.
Donald Sinden, who had nabbed the role in The Cruel Sea, coveted by
the man who would become one of Britain’s greatest screen actors, and
Kenneth More, the genial actor who had come up with trumps with
Yet one presence that
ensured the film’s success was that of James Robertson Justice as Sir
Lancelot Spratt. With his height, bulk and near constant apoplexy, he
oozed power and struck fear into the hearts of mortals, whether doctors or
patients. To those who knew him in his private life, away from the bright
lights of the film industry, he was far from playing a part, it was pretty
much Justice to a T.
Doctor in the House
was deemed rather daring for its day. Laughing at authority was a new
concept to the British and although it may seem quaint, if not to say
dated, it allowed a post-war film audience to laugh at its elders and
betters, albeit in the safety of numbers. Essentially, it paved the way
for the Carry On series, both director-brothers Gerald and Ralph Thomas
had a hand in both camps, and the alternative comedy of the Thatcher era.
Not only did Justice
capture the essence of the film he shared, with Dirk Bogarde, its most
memorable scene. When examining a patient, Sir Lancelot enquires of the
hero of the piece, Simon Sparrow, ‘What’s the bleeding time?’ he replies
with the oft-repeated reply ‘Half past two, sir.’ Needless to say, it
always brought the house down, Justice’s image was now fixed in the eyes
of the viewing public, for better or worse.
From this point forward,
the die was cast and although he was never short of work for the next
fifteen years, he was now played variations on Sir Lancelot. His comedic
ability belied the fact that he could just as easily play someone with
more menacing characteristics. Henry VIII was one of the more obvious
choices from central casting, but others were a little more imaginative.
In Seven Thunders, a
black and white thriller set during the Second World War, Justice played
opposite Stephen Boyd, an escaped prisoner of war hiding out in the south
of France. Dr Martout, Justice’s character, is a rather sinister fellow
and the polar opposite to the prickly customers he was normally used to
playing. In another low-budget children’s movie called The Magnet
he played a tramp under a Gaelic nom de plume. Gaelic was but one of the
ten languages he could speak, enabling him to translate his skills. He
even appeared in a movie directed by Bardot’s husband, Roger Vadim, having
already starred alongside the French screen temptress in the sequel to the
first Doctor movie.
Today Justice would be
termed a ‘Champagne socialist’ as his politics, despite his public image
been that of haughty authority figures, failed to impact on his love of
the good life. With success came a somewhat profligate lifestyle.
He had a love of fast cars,
once picking Molly Parkin up in a flashy sports car, both personally and
professionally. Elspeth Huxley describes him in her biography of Sir Peter
Scott as being ‘a brilliant raconteur, indifferent to money.’ Being such a
generous host, he once held a party at top London restaurant where the
caviare was served in large bowls and guests handed tablespoons!
With the end of the
‘greatest decade’ the British film industry took a nosedive with the
American studios retreating to the safety of the Hollywood hills. Divorced
from Dilys and now spending his life with Irina, now Irene, ill health
would prevent Justice from continuing his career as a screen icon.
Financial insecurity followed and by the time of his death, he was
bankrupt, having being nursed by Irene in his last years.
With the cult status of the
Carry On series and with the constant interest in the lives of many of its
players, whether it be Sid James, Kenneth Williams and Charles Hawtrey, it
is amazing that there has been so little written about James Robertson
Justice. Notorious film director Ken Russell, not a fan of Barbara Windsor
and company, once described the Carry On films as little more than the
cinematic equivalent of comfort food.
With hindsight, Doctor
in the House, its sequels and television spin-offs set the standard
that a series such as the Carry On films simply exploited. Now they merely
look dated, but entertaining enough for those stuck indoors on a wet
Sunday afternoon. Yet with actors such as Dirk Bogarde, Kenneth More and
James Robertson Justice they would never have survived to be watched over
and over again. Indeed, without the character of Simon Sparrow, Bogarde
would never have had the profile to expand his career, becoming one of
Britain’s best film actors of his generation.
Justice’s legacy, however,
is not only that of portraying some of the most enduring, as well as
endearing, images of British authority figures in post-war British cinema
but his interest in nature, politics and especially falconry.
For a number of years, he
employed Philip Glaiser as his personal falconer, a man who would later
set up what is now the National Birds of Prey Centre, run by his daughter
Jemima Parry-Jones. It was under his auspices, due to his friendship with
the Duke of Edinburgh, that a young Prince Charles was instructed in this
most ancient of sports.
It has been difficult to
compress the life of one man such as James Robertson Justice into such a
short article, which is probably why it really needs a proper biography.
Yet as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang continues to play to packed houses
and one or more of the Doctor series are being transmitted on cable
and satellite to long-suffering insomniacs, a reappraisal of Justice’s
life and work is way overdue.
Note: If anyone knows of any stories about him
do email Howard as he'd be interested in any additional information. Also
look out for Howard's book,
The World of Simon Raven, edited by himself which has just been
published by Prion in the UK.
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