David Niven: The Last English Gentleman

by Neil Bamforth

Having just watched an interview from many years ago featuring David Niven followed by the movie ‘A Matter Of Life And Death’, (‘Stairway To Heaven’ in the USA), I find myself wishing that some things hadn’t changed. Yes, I know many things had to change. The status of women and the acceptance of gay people and, well, all sorts of things just had to change but, I so wish the ‘better things’ had remained.

The genuinely ‘better things’. The common courtesy and decency that so many of the people of Nivens generation showed.

Of course, there were evil and terrible people around then too. Hitler for a start. But the decent people seemed, to me, to somehow have more decency than we often find today. Even from the supposedly decent people.

Perhaps I’m just biased? I have been a huge fan of David Niven since childhood. I watched old movies on TV with my grandmother that he appeared in. ‘The Charge Of The Light Brigade’ with Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland and Patrick Knowles. ‘The Real Glory’ with Gary Cooper and Andrea Leeds.

I’ve even watched his early screen appearances such as ‘Without Regret’. A vehicle for the long forgotten actress Elisa Landi. Niven, as her characters husband, said “Goodbye my dear” to her at a station in the opening scene and was never seen again throughout to movie.

‘Barbary Coast’ starring Joel Macrea, Miriam Hopkins and Edward G Robinson. Niven had the one line role of a cockney sailor who, during a bar room brawl says “Orl right! I’ll go!” and is promptly thrown out of the window into the street where the horse riding stars and several donkeys walked over him.

I have no idea why but, for some unfathomable reason, whilst many of my contemporaries wanted to be footballer George Best or some other great sports star or some rock star or other, I wanted to be David Niven.

I even tried to imitate his voice but, with an English northern accent, suffice to say, it didn’t work.

Not only was he a far better actor than he is often given credit for, winning an Oscar for his role in ‘Separate Tables’ in 1958, he was also a great raconteur and much in demand on chat shows.

Of course, nobody is perfect and there has been the odd voice suggesting he could be quite cold, if he wanted to cut you out of his life for some reason. His lifelong friend from his army days, Michael Trubshawe, felt he had been somewhat cut out for a while as, he said, perhaps Niven found their army history together had become boring.

On the other hand, later in life, when Trubshawe was somewhat ‘down on his luck’ financially, Niven did come to his aid.

Many of Nivens ‘stories’ were not entirely truthful. Sometimes the exploits of which he spoke had even happened to somebody he knew rather than himself. However, by occasionally ‘exaggerating’ the truth or, sometimes, bending it a little, he often made the story far more amusing than it otherwise was.

Perhaps one of the greatest accolades that shows he was a much loved human being, let alone actor, is the extraordinary tribute paid to him, after his death, by the porters at Heathrow Airport.

Not renowned for their ability to be easily impressed by the rich and famous, who often treated them like menials, at Nivens funeral, among the flowers that adorned the church, was a huge wreath from the porters at Heathrow Airport with a card that read: “To the finest gentleman who ever walked through these halls. He made a porter feel like a king.”

During WWII, Niven was based, for a while, in Richmond Park near London as the commanding officer of ‘Phantom’.

‘Phantom’ was a communications regiment. Their purpose was, on occasion, to infiltrate behind enemy lines and radio back what the Germans were doing.

Niven often said that the communications from behind enemy lines were often restricted to “The situation is confusing as the place is full of Germans”.

My adoptive father, who was some ten years older than my adoptive mother, actually served in ‘Phantom’ for a short while when Niven commanded them.

He is actually mentioned briefly in Nivens autobiography, ‘The Moons A Balloon’, when Niven describes his troops. My father is described as ‘a Lancastrian’ while other soldiers are a poacher and a ‘gay’ decorator who, apparently, frequently addressed Niven as ‘Dear’ instead of ‘Sir’.

His movie career often veered from the sublime – ‘Around The World In 80 Days’, ‘Carrington V.C.’ (‘Court Martial’ in the USA), ‘Seperate Tables’, ‘The Guns Of Navarone’ etc, to the ridiculous, ‘Vampira’ and ‘A Kiss For Corliss’ for example.

Somehow, regardless of how ‘bad’ a movie he sometimes found himself in, he never lost the love of his fans.

He even took responsibility for the occasional turkey of a movie by explaining that, “I never read the script, I just make sure my chums are in it too”.

Was David Niven ‘the last English gentleman’? Probably not but, he was certainly, in my view, among the finest there have ever been.

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Posted by on February 6, 2019. Filed under COMMENTARY/OPINION. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry
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4 Responses to David Niven: The Last English Gentleman

  1. Michael John Scott Reply

    February 6, 2019 at 11:08 am

    I was a big David Niven fan. The guy exuded class.

  2. Rachael Reply

    February 6, 2019 at 11:45 am

    I loved this man, as in a major teenage crush, for many years. I have watched everything he’s done. Thanks for the nice tribute to a great actor.

  3. Glenn Geist Reply

    February 6, 2019 at 2:32 pm

    Indeed, he did. Perhaps I’m wrong, but his generation had some concept of class – in a good sense of the word. There’s no one like that around any more.

    • Michael John Scott Reply

      February 7, 2019 at 10:42 am

      No. There’s no one like him anymore. He is truly one of a kind.

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