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David Niven

It’s become some thing of a ritual in the Rosen household on bank holiday for me to identify a classic film for the family. Looking down the schedules the best I could find was Jason and the Argonauts which I remember for its special effects that some 50 year later in the age of such realistic computer graphics, must look terribly dated.

However I did see a reference to David Niven speaking on films at the unlikely time of 10-30 and urged the family to watch and savour a man who was so debonair, charming, a brilliant raconteur and – later in his career – writer but possibly a greater man (he never spoke of his immense war) than actor.

He always stressed in interview his luck both to have a career as an actor and to become one.

The Prisoner of Zenda (1937)

The Prisoner of Zenda (1937)

He was the last of the studio English gentleman those members of the Hollywood cricket club like C Aubrey Smith and Ronald Colman. He started as an extra, he was always kind to extras, and made himself a more than competent actor.

He appeared in The Prisoner of Zenda with C Aubrey Smith and made his career as a toff. Educated at Stowe (he gave an inscribed copy of his first book The Moon’s a Balloon to every house) and Sandhurst, and son of a soldier, he was the only British actor of note to return home and serve in World War 2, bravely so as a sort of SAS operative behind enemy lines. He never spoke of his war and attributed his silence to the respect for the 37,000 dead soldiers at a grave near Bastogne which he came across when seeking to identify one.

The interviews – one by Britain’s head boy Cliff Michelmore and two by Michael Parkinson – were the best platform for Niven to tell his stories with aplomb.

He must have been a popular figure in Hollywood but his life there was blighted by tragedy when his first wife Primmie Rollo fell down a flight of stairs to her death.

His career now firmly established, he returned to volunteer in World War 2 and was awarded subsequently America’s highest award for foreigners, the Legionnaire of Honour, pinned on him by General Eisenhower. Niven was a sort of Brian Johnston figure with a keen sense of fun.

ParkyHe was almost the polar opposite of the son of Barnsley Michael Parkinson but you could see the interviewer enjoy Niven as much as the audience. In those day the interviewer was not the star, his job was to pose the questions and listen (and great interviewers like John Freeman you never even saw), both of which Parkinson did well, but occasionally the camera switched to him and you saw the pleasure Parkinson was experiencing in in the interview. The second interview was made when Niven was 71, two years before his death. He occasionally slurred the words which may have given the impression he had one too many in the Green Room. Niven was too professional to fall for that trick as many did. In fact it was the incipient motor neurone that was to take him from us 2 years later.

The interview was followed by Around the World in Eighty Days, a first film for director and chancer Mike Todd.

It’s too long, silly in parts and comedian Cantiflas as Passepartout is miscast but has some sumptious locations.

The Pink Panther (1963)

The Pink Panther (1963)

Of course Niven had a stellar career in films notably Separate Tables, The Pink Panther and various war films, but he is probably most associated with Around the World in 80 Days.

What made Niven the successful actor he became?

He had, despite his bespoke air, the common touch. This was not contrived. He just had it. At his funeral in 1973 the largest wreath came from the porters at Heathrow with the words:
‘The finest gentleman to walk through these halls. He made a porter feel like a king”

About Neil Rosen

Neil went to the City of London School and Manchester University graduating with a 1st in economics. After a brief stint in accountancy, Neil emigrated to a kibbutz In Israel. His articles on the burgeoning Israeli film industry earned comparisons to Truffaut and Godard in Cahiers du Cinema. Now one of the world's leading film critics and moderators at film Festivals Neil has written definitively in his book Kosher Nostra on Jewish post war actors. Neil lives with his family in North London. More Posts