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Memories of a screen great who was shaped by East Anglia

PUBLISHED: 11:11 05 February 2018 | UPDATED: 11:11 05 February 2018

In the year 2000 Sir John paid a sentimental return to Norwich with his daughter Juliet. The letters he carved on the wall of his old school were still there. Picture: Archant library

In the year 2000 Sir John paid a sentimental return to Norwich with his daughter Juliet. The letters he carved on the wall of his old school were still there. Picture: Archant library

ARCHANT © 2000

Born in Norfolk 110 years ago and growing up in Suffolk he was a small football-crazy boy turned down by the Canaries who suggested he ate more rice pudding.... so he headed off to become a movie star and national treasure instead. Derek James reports.

Sir John pictured in 2000 at the theatre which bears his name in Ipswich. He is seen here with Ivan Cutting, founder and director of Eastern Angles Theatre Company, and Dulcie Gray.Sir John pictured in 2000 at the theatre which bears his name in Ipswich. He is seen here with Ivan Cutting, founder and director of Eastern Angles Theatre Company, and Dulcie Gray.

It was a strange place to arrive in this world. The Watts Naval Training College for Boys in mid-Norfolk... but in February of 1908 the headmaster Lewis Mills was a proud man when his wife Edith gave birth to a son.

Lewis was in charge of this long-vanished college at North Elmham which which trained young men for the Royal Navy and the Merchant Navy, and known to his family – although I suspect not the pupils – as ‘Dads’.

The little boy was christened Lewis Ernest Watts Mills - but you will know him as Sir John Mills, one of the finest and most popular actors this country has ever produced.

His memory lives on through his many films and TV appearances and thanks to the people of Ipswich who have their own theatre named in his honour and which is also home to the brilliant Eastern Angles Theatre Group.

Sir John Mills and Anthony Steel chat to an autograph hunter during takes from filming 'Galloping Foxley' at Downham Market station for Tales of the Unexpected in April 1979.Sir John Mills and Anthony Steel chat to an autograph hunter during takes from filming 'Galloping Foxley' at Downham Market station for Tales of the Unexpected in April 1979.

Young Lewis’ teacher father moved around Norfolk and Suffolk and the boy John grew up with a great love and fondness for our neck of the woods.

From the training college the family moved to Belton, a few miles inland from Gorleston, where Dads became the headmaster of the village school. John would later reflect on happy summer days at the family beach hut.

“It was a four-mile walk from home. We carried with us heaps of sandwiches and bottles of lemonade,” he recalled, as he looked back on sunny and fun-filled days.

“We took fishing tackle with us, and spent the day shrimping and swimming, or fishing for dabs from the jetty,” he added.

The family then went to live in Felixstowe. Young John attended the Sir John Leman School at Beccles which he loved. “I was happier at Beccles than I ever dreamed possible. The school was attractive with good playing fields.

“I was desperately keen on games and consequently rather good at them. I was picked for the second XI cricket team in my first year. My christening consisted of a full toss in the mouth by a demon fast bowler from Bungay Grammar School which broke one of my rather large front teeth,” he said.

It was at Beccles – where he lived with Mr and Mrs Newton – that, aged 11, he played Puck in the school’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – only to fall madly in love with the girl playing Titania... such happy, innocent times.

But times were a-changing.

At the age of 12 John went to the old Norwich High School for Boys in Upper St Giles where, in 2000, he and his daughter Juliet discovered his name ‘LEW’ - ‘I used to call myself that’ - still carved in the brickwork of the building.

So did he enjoy his time at the school?

“It was the worst two years of my life. I have quite vivid memories of it because I was bullied. It was a time when bullying was at its height. But after a time I had a showdown with the number one bully and broke his nose... after that it was wonderful,” Sir John told our reporter.

“I don’t think I learned very much at the school. I was hopeless in the classroom and had to work like mad to survive but I got through the exams and was crazy about sport,” he added.

So crazy that he had a trial with Norwich City Football Club. “I wasn’t big enough. They told me to get some rice pudding into me and to come back next year,” he said.

But it was the stage not the football pitch which the boy John really wanted to walk out on.

“From the age of six I knew I was going to be an actor. I was besotted by the idea and I just didn’t want to do anything else.”

After he left school John worked at a clerk at a corn merchants in Ipswich before becoming a commercial traveller with a disinfectant company in London.

In 1929 he made his professional debut as a £4 a week chorus boy in a show at London Hippodrome.

That led to a job with a theatrical company touring the Far East which caught the attention of one Noel Coward... and John was on his way to becoming a film star.

During the Second World War he served with the Royal Engineers and later become a much sought-after actor. His lead role in the 1946 film of Great Expectations was especially memorable and John was voted the sixth most popular star in the country.

From then on he became one of the best-loved and in-demand actors in the land. If John Mills was in a film then the chances were it was worth playing good money to see.

Most of us have our favourite Mills movie. The one he really loved was playing the Lancashire bootmaker Willie Mossop in the 1954 film of Hobson’s Choice.

He would sometimes appear with his talented daughters, Juliet and Hayley, and for his challenging and moving role in Ryan’s Daughter he won an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor.

In all, John made more than 120 films over seven decades. On TV he took a leading role in Quatermass and came to Norwich to film for Anglia’s wonderful Tales of the Unexpected.

He was appointed a CBE in 1960 and was knighted by the Queen 16 years later.

In 2002 he received a Bafta Fellowship - the academy’s highest honour - and was named a Disney Legend by the Walt Disney Company.

Married to Mary Hayley Bell for 64 years, he died in 2005 aged 97 following a chest infection. His wife died a few months later.

What an incredible life. I reckon it was a good job he failed to impress during his trial with the Canaries... and stayed away from the rice pudding.

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