The cad has a long and honourable place in British film tradition. In fictional terms, he (it is always a him) has his antecedents in the raffish army officers who inhabit the pages of Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy, in Mr Jingle, the flashy ne’er-do-well of Dickens’s Pickwick Papers, in the eighteenth-century rake, or in Patrick Hamilton’s anti-hero, Ernest Ralph Gorse. As seen in British films, he is liable to have a ‘magnificent masher’ of a moustache, drive a sports car and light up like a fruit machine whenever a woman takes his eye. Examples of this breed include Guy Middleton, the lecherous sports master in The Happiest Days of Your Life (1950), Donald Sinden’s louche young medical student in Doctor in the House (1954), and, most memorably of all, Terry-Thomas. Born Thomas Terry Hoar Stevens, he is the upper-class Englishman as bounder and poltroon, the type who cheats at sports (witness him as the crafty pilot in Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, 1965, or as the master of one-upmanship on the tennis court in School for Scoundrels, 1960). He uses every underhand method at his disposal to get his hands on money and women. He rattles off his dialogue in a nasal whinny and snorts rather than laughs. In Terry-Thomas’ case, the gap between his front teeth, which stick out beneath his moustache like tusks (he has a well-nigh permanent, insincere smile affixed to his face), invariably makes him look all the more untrustworthy.
Searching for stars: stardom and screen acting in British cinema – Geoffrey Macnab