19 June 2015

John Gregson

British actor John Gregson (1919-1975) was one of the favourites of the Ealing comedies of the 1950s. He was often typecast in 'stiff upper lip' military roles.

John Gregson
British collectors card, no. 22. Photo: J. Arthur Rank Organisation. Publicity still for The Battle of the River Plate (Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, 1956).

Men of Integrity

John Gregson was born Harold Thomas Gregson in 1919, in Liverpool, UK, of Irish descent.

He began his career as a telephone engineer who dabbled in amateur dramatics. Gregson served aboard a minesweeper with the Royal Navy during World War II. At one point, his minesweeper was torpedoed and he was rescued from the sea with a knee injury.

After demobilisation in 1945, he joined the Liverpool Old Vic for a year, making his stage debut in The Knight of the Burning Pestle. Then he moved on to Perth Theatre in Perth, Scotland. Here he met his future wife, actress Ida Reddish from Nottingham, who used the stage name Thea Gregory and had recently arrived from the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. In 1947 they moved to London and married there.

He acted alongside Robert Donat and Margaret Leighton in A Sleeping Clergyman at the West End Criterion Theatre in 1947. During the same period, he was also cast in his first film, the romantic period melodrama Saraband for Dead Lovers/Saraband (Basil Dearden, 1948), though his scenes ended up being cut. Undeterred, Gregson established himself as a popular favourite in subsequent Ealing comedies and later as a long term contractee with the Rank Organisation.

His screen personae tended to be men of integrity: regular guys who don't necessarily finish on top, introspective, somewhat diffident, and often troubled. His most fondly remembered role was that of vintage car enthusiast Alan McKim, in the comedy Genevieve (Henry Cornelius, 1953). Gregson, Dinah Sheridan, Kenneth More and Kay Kendall played two couples involved in a veteran automobile rally.

Hal Erickson at AllMovie: “Gregson achieved worldwide popularity as Alan McKim in the wistful comedy Genevieve (1953); though he spent virtually the entire film behind the wheel of a vintage automobile, Gregson didn't know how to drive--and so far as his co-stars were concerned, he was a very slow learner.”

John Gregson
British postcard in the Film Star Autograph Portrait series by Celebrity Autographs, London, no. 52. Photo: J. Arthur Rank Organisation.

John Gregson
British postcard in the Greetings series. Photo: J. Arthur Rank Organisation.

One of the most popular local stars at the box office

Between 1948 and 1971, John Gregson appeared in 40 films. He played in the Ealing comedies Whisky Galore!/Tight Little Island (Alexander Mackendrick, 1949) starring Basil Radford, The Lavender Hill Mob (Charles Crichton, 1951) with Alex Guinness and Stanley Holloway, and The Titfield Thunderbolt (Charles Crichton, 1953), about a group of villagers trying to keep their branch line operating after British Railways decided to close it.

For several years British exhibitors listed Gregson as one of the most popular local stars at the box office. He had a role in Walt Disney’s live action adventure film Treasure Island (Byron Haskin, 1950) and was featured in The Treasure of Monte Cristo (Monty Berman, 1961) starring Rory Calhoun.

Gregson became somewhat typecast in traditional 'stiff upper lip' military roles. His best known drama films include the war films The Battle of the River Plate/Pursuit of the Graf Spee (Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, 1956), Angels One Five (George More O'Ferrall, 1952) and Above Us the Waves (Ralph Thomas, 1955) with John Mills.

In the 1960s, film opportunities began to diminish, and he turned more and more towards television. He starred as Commander George Gideon in the 26 episodes of the series Gideon's Way/Gideon C.I.D. (1965-1966). He also appeared in The Saint (1966) with Roger Moore, and a popular comedy adventure series with Shirley MacLaine, Shirley's World (1971-1972).

He alternated television work with acting on stage, as well as doing voice-overs and appearing in commercials for Hamlet cigars. His final film roles were in the mystery The Night of the Generals (Anatalole Litvak, 1967) starring Peter O’Toole, and the thriller Fright (Peter Collinson, 1971) with Honor Blackman and Susan George.

In 1975, John Gregson died from a heart attack near Porlock Weir, Somerset, aged 55, whilst on holiday walking a trail. He was married till his death to Thea Gregory, with whom he had six children.

John Gregson
British postcard in the Picturegoer series, London, no. D. 198. Photo: Associated British Pathé.

Scene from Genevieve (1953). Source: webothlovesoup (YouTube).

Sources: Hal Erickson (AllMovie), I.S.Mowis (IMDb), Wikipedia, and IMDb.
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