David Tomlinson

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        Biography (1917-2000)
        T E X T

        David Cecil MacAlister Tomlinson was born on May 7 1917, and educated at Tonbridge, where he excelled at squash and rackets. Tomlinson's success as Mr Banks in Mary Poppins may have owed something to his own father, a stern Folkestone solicitor who, he recalled, "never gave up his search for the perfect piece of beef. This was the only perfection he ever sought." If the young David and his brothers brought schoolfriends home for tea, his father would simply scowl at them and bark: "Haven't they got any tea in their own houses?"


        David Tomlinson grew up with a stammer. When he turned 17 his father informed him, that he had secured him a job at Shell-Mex. "But I'd like to be an actor," he stuttered. "Be an actor?" expostulated his father. "Good God, you can't even speak!" Tomlinson persisted, but ran out of money before finding an acting job. Finding himself passing the Central London Recruiting Depot, he signed on with the Grenadier Guards. This was an error: "The Foreign Legion would have been a holiday camp compared to life in the Guards," he later recalled.

        After 16 months he obtained a discharge, and resumed his quest to become an actor. He eventually found a foothold with the Folkestone Repertory, and then joined John Gielgud's company, understudying for Alec Guinness. During the war Tomlinson served in the RAF. Already a qualified pilot, he became a flying instructor in Canada. In 1941, still in the RAF, he made his film debut as the lead in Anthony Asquith's Quiet Wedding.

        Tomlinson appeared in three other films during the war. The best of them was Way to the Stars (1945), co-written by Terence Rattigan and Anatole de Grunwald, in which he played an eager young airman alongside John Mills, Michael Redgrave, Stanley Holloway and Trevor Howard. After the war, Tomlinson made 19 films in four years. In 1950 he played another airman in The Wooden Horse, about the escape from Stalag Luft III. Many of the characters in the film were modelled on friends of his brother Peter, who had been captured in Holland in 1942.

        In 1950, David Tomlinson starred with Robert Morley in the West End production of The Little Hut, adapted by Nancy Mitford from a French play. Morley and Tomlinson never got on with the director, Peter Brook - "not in our view, an attractive man - and, good heavens, wasn't he young" - and the play was received some hostile reviews. Nevertheless it ran for three years. Tomlinson and Morley became lifelong friends, and co-owned a racehorse.

        Throughout the 1950s and 1960s he was in many other West End plays, notably All for Mary, Dear Delinquent and Boeing, Boeing. His films included Three Men in a Boat (1956), with Laurence Harvey and Jimmy Edwards, Up the Creek (1958) with Peter Sellers, and Tony Richardson's Tom Jones (1963), in which, as Lord Fellamar, he was called on to attempt the rape of Susannah York. "Put your hand up her skirt!" shouted Richardson during the rape scene, and Tomlinson duly complied. "Poor Susannah was not pleased and somewhat anxious" he recalled, "but I was able to reassure her by word and deed."

        Shortly after the release of Three Men in a Boat, he found himself in court, charged with reckless flying. He had been piloting a Tiger Moth around his Buckinghamshire home when he lost consciousness and the plane crashed. One witness claimed to have seen him looping-the-loop and pretending to dive-bomb his own house. Tomlinson's counsel was at pains to rebut any suggestion of levity. "When you earn your living playing the fool," he told the court, "you like a rest when you get home. That is just the position with Mr Tomlinson." The jury returned a not guilty verdict.

        He made two further films for Disney, playing the dastardly villain in The Love Bug, the top-grossing film of 1969, and the master wizard Emelius Browne in Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971). He always told children he was chosen as Emelius Browne because he was the only actor who could sing under water. Financial security made Tomlinson less inclined to take all the work he was offered, though until 1974 he continued to appear in the theatre, notably as the Prime Minister in Bernard Shaw's On The Rocks in Dublin (1969). Thereafter he concentrated on films, such as Wombling Free (1977) and The Water Babies (1978), both directed by his friend Lionel Jeffries.

        He worked again with Peter Sellers on the disastrous The Fiendish Plot of Fu Manchu (1980). Sellers was already seriously ill and paranoid, but Tomlinson brought out the best in him. "The only person I want to see is David," Sellers remarked in hospital shortly before his death. Tomlinson was a generous and gregarious man but shrewd in financial matters; in 1987 he had the foresight to resign from all his supposedly safe Lloyd's syndicates.

        Maintaining his avid interest in all things airborne, he became a keen ornithologist and wrote several letters to The Daily Telegraph on the dangers to jet planes of birds nesting too close to runways. He also contributed valuable information on the nesting habits of the stork. "I may look like a disappointed spaniel," he once said, "but by nature I am cheerful." He enjoyed lunching in Boodle's, always shod in brightly polished shoes.

        He married, in 1953, Audrey Freeman, an actress; they had four sons.

      • Source: The Telegraph, 26 Jun 2000


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