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Significant Scots
James Robertson Justice


James Robertson Justice: The English Scotsman

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 birds.

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 slight modifications.

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 an actor.

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 election.

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 accident.

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 again.

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.

Considering how 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 Genevieve.

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.

© Howard Watson 2002

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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