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Johns, Mervyn (1899-1992)


Main image of Johns, Mervyn (1899-1992)

With a distinguished stage career and several accomplished lead performances in films of the 1940s, Mervyn Johns is best remembered as one of Ealing Studios' most prolific players and for a string of character parts into the 1950s and beyond, notably his put-upon clerk Bob Cratchit to Alastair Sim's miser in Scrooge (d. Brian Desmond Hurst, 1951).

Born in Pembroke, Wales, he came to acting comparatively late, having trained as a medical student at London Hospital before serving with the Royal Flying Corps during WWI. Encouraged by his first wife, concert pianist Alys Steele, he went to RADA, graduating with a Gold Medal. After eight years in repertory at Bristol, he won acclaim for his stage performances in Shaw comedies, including The Doctor's Dilemma and Pygmalion. From the mid-1930s he took minor roles in films; one of his earliest credited appearances was in Alfred Hitchcock's Jamaica Inn (1939).

Too old to serve in WWII, he became a stalwart of Ealing Studios, thriving in the studio's semi-repertory company of character players and demonstrating his range in 12 features between 1940 and 1946. He was a German spy in The Next of Kin (d. Thorold Dickinson, 1942), a machine-gun toting church warden in Went the Day Well? (d. Alberto Cavalcanti, 1942), a spiv-turned-fireman in The Bells Go Down (d. Basil Dearden, 1943), a heroic ship's engineer in San Demetrio London (d. Charles Frend, 1943) and a stern Victorian patriarch in Pink String and Sealing Wax (d. Robert Hamer, 1946). He was a key player in some of Ealing's more fantastical projects: a cackling psychopath in the Will Hay comedy My Learned Friend (d. Hay/Basil Dearden, 1943), a ghostly innkeeper (alongside his daughter, Glynis) in The Halfway House (d. Dearden, 1944) and the architect whose alarmingly prophetic dreams structured the horror compendium Dead of Night (d. Cavalcanti/Charles Crichton/Basil Dearden/Robert Hamer, 1945).

His post-Ealing roles were rarely so central, but an uncanny knack for inhabiting his characters meant his performances always lingered in the memory. In addition to a superlative Cratchit - equally intimidated by Scrooge reformed as by Scrooge the misanthrope - his Friar Lawrence in particular stood out among Romeo and Juliet's (d. Renato Castellani, 1954) starry international cast.

Having made his television debut in a live production of Pride and Prejudice (BBC, tx 22/5/1938), he largely avoided the small screen until the mid-1950s, when he suddenly became ubiquitous. Memorable characterisations included Samuel Pepys in 'Ninety Sail' (Sunday Night Theatre, BBC, tx. 17/10/1954) and Mr Jarvis Lorry in A Tale of Two Cities (BBC, 1957); he took the lead in crime drama Leave It to Todhunter (BBC, 1958). In the 1960s he enjoyed guest roles in the likes of No Hiding Place (ITV, tx. 31/8/1964), Danger Man (ITV, tx. 8/12/1964), The Avengers (tx. 25/12/1965) and The Saint (tx. 13/4/1968); his performances typically offered variants on the now-established personae of meek, troubled underdog or other-worldly eccentric.

By the late 1970s such appearances had become less frequent, and his final role came in the Shoestring episode 'Knock for Knock' (BBC, tx. 7/10/1979). His last years were spent in retirement with his second wife, actress Diana Churchill; his death at 93 in 1992 left behind a legacy of minutely-observed character work spanning five decades.

Richard Hewett

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Bells Go Down, The (1943)Bells Go Down, The (1943)

Stirring film about the Fire Services in Blitz-torn London

Thumbnail image of Captain Boycott (1947)Captain Boycott (1947)

Lively drama about 19th-century Irish civil disobedience

Thumbnail image of Captive Heart, The (1946)Captive Heart, The (1946)

Ealing POW drama, made only a few months after the end of WWII

Thumbnail image of Dead of Night (1945)Dead of Night (1945)

Classic Ealing portmanteau film: five tales of the supernatural

Thumbnail image of Diamond City (1949)Diamond City (1949)

Lively British 'Western' set in South Africa's diamond fields

Thumbnail image of Halfway House, The (1944)Halfway House, The (1944)

Unusual cross between ghost story and WWII propaganda film

Thumbnail image of My Learned Friend (1943)My Learned Friend (1943)

Surprisingly dark Will Hay comedy about the law, blackmail and murder

Thumbnail image of Next of Kin, The (1942)Next of Kin, The (1942)

Brutally effective WWII propaganda film on the dangers of careless talk.

Thumbnail image of Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945)Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945)

Family and class conflict, murder and blackmail in Victorian Brighton

Thumbnail image of Rebel, The (1960)Rebel, The (1960)

Tony Hancock's big-screen debut stars him as a talentless but ambitious artist

Thumbnail image of San Demetrio London (1943)San Demetrio London (1943)

Inspiring tale of wartime heroism based on a true story

Thumbnail image of Scrooge (1951)Scrooge (1951)

Alastair Sim's definitive portrayal of Charles Dickens' curmudgeon

Thumbnail image of Went the Day Well? (1942)Went the Day Well? (1942)

Chilling classic imagining a brutal Nazi invasion of a small English village

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Thumbnail image of Who's Who at EalingWho's Who at Ealing

Meet the team at 'the studio with team spirit'

Related people and organisations

Thumbnail image of Johns, Glynis (1923-)Johns, Glynis (1923-)