Memories of a Cad by Roy Smiles

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Memories of a Cad by Roy Smiles.  Prod.  Liz Anstee.  Perf. Martin Jarvis, Alistair McGowan.

BBC Radio 4, 30 December 2014.  Available on BBCiPlayer

till 29 January 2015


Roy Smiles has written a series of biodramas, all focusing on well-loved figures of British comedy.  Ying Tong looked at The Goons, Pythonesque considered the career of Graham Chapman, while Dear Arthur, Love John looked at the personal and professional relationship of Dad’s Army stars Arthur Lowe and John le Mesurier.


Memories of a Cad relived a moment in 1984 when Richard Briers (Alistair McGowan) went on holiday to Majorca and encountered the ageing Terry-Thomas (Martin Jarvis).  Aged 73, Terry-Thomas had not worked for four years owing to Parkinson’s Disease; he spent most of his time at home, supported by his loyal second wife Belinda (Laura Shavin).  The disease not only affected his movements, but his memory as well; he could remember little of his past career.  Briers gently helped him to recall some of the highlights, including his stint at Smithfield Market, his spell of entertaining the troops during World War II, and his American film career, including a leading role in It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963) with Spencer Tracy (Lewis Macleod).


Constructed as a series of flashbacks, Memories of a Cad concentrated on Terry-Thomas’s deliberate assumption of the role of an upper-class bounder.  Born into mediocrity in Finchley, north London, his father was a butcher and his mother a homemaker, but they did manage to scrape together sufficient funds to send their son to Ardingly public school in Sussex.  Thomas was never a hard worker, but he assiduously cultivated his new role, showing the kind of youthful arrogance that might have seemed breathtaking, had it not been for his charm.  Thomas was an ambitious person, but he never managed to offend anyone.


As the action progressed, so the story became more familiar; following a stint at the London Palladium with the legendary Sid Field, Thomas carved out a broadcasting career in television and radio, before the Boulting Brothers cast him in a series of landmark black-and-white comedies, including Private’s Progress (1956), and I’m All Right Jack (1959).  He subsequently moved to America, where he became Hollywood’s idea of the perfect British gentleman.  Diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1971, his career gradually declined, as he became less and less able to work.


Much of this story has been told by Thomas himself in an episode of Desert Island Discs presented by Roy Plomley, an extract of which is also available on the BBC IPlayer (  Hence much of the interest in Smiles’s play stemmed from the ways in which Jarvis and McGowan essayed the parts of two well-known comedy legends.  Jarvis was particularly good as the old Terry-Thomas, with a wheezing voice and false bonhomie that belied his precarious medical state.  However, when he portrayed the younger Thomas, he sounded too much like Bertie Wooster (a role he has made his own on radio over many years with his solo performances of Wodehouse’s work).  McGowan’s Briers appeared more convincing, not least for his attempts to maintain a breezy fašade, even though he was clearly shocked by Thomas’s mental and physical deterioration.


The play ended with a revelation, showing that the two actors were more closely related than we might first have assumed.  Thomas had encouraged Briers to become an actor when he was a teenager; now it was Briers’s opportunity to return the favour.  A poignant piece, evoking the memories of two now sadly-departed comic actors.