Looking back on the funerals and memorial services of stars such as Peter Cushing, Laurence Olivier and John Mills - and the actors who didn't want them

Borehamwood Times: Film nostalgia writer Paul Welsh Film nostalgia writer Paul Welsh

I have just been watching a 1980s movie entitled The Sea Wolves and it was packed with names of yesteryear that I had the pleasure to meet over the years such as David Niven, Gregory Peck, Trevor Howard, Roger Moore and character actors Martin Benson, Graham Stark, Patrick Macnee and Patrick Allen.

I consider myself very lucky to have met such great actors, nearly all of whom are sadly no longer with us.

I enjoyed a glass of whiskey with Trevor Howard at his home in Arkley and at his local, The Gate pub, before it was turned into a restaurant. His widow actress Helen Cherry did ask me to arrange a memorial service for him at the actor’s church in Covent Garden but then changed her mind as Trevor had always said he hated such events.

The lovely Nanette Newman has very kindly sent me a letter in response to my condolences on the loss of her husband Bryan Forbes and has kindly agreed to let me know when a memorial service is arranged for him later this year so I can in a way represent Elstree Studios of yesteryear.

I have attended a number of such occasions in the past including those held for Peter Cushing, Anna Neagle, Philip Madoc, Laurence Olivier, Richard Todd and John Mills. Unlike funerals ,these are events designed to celebrate a life in the public eye and for the great and the good to attend without intruding on the personal grief of families at funerals.

I did attend Trevor’s funeral at Hendon and I recall the absence of “starry” names and that we filed out past his coffin to the sound of his favourite jazz music. I wish Helen had let me organise a memorial service but she said when Trevor left David Niven’s, he commented “never do that for me” and naturally we respected his wishes.

When I attended John Mills’ funeral, his daughter Hayley kindly introduced me to her sister Juliet and her husband actor Maxwell Caulfield, who live in America.

Hayley is a lovely lady who I have enjoyed the pleasure of meeting many times over the years and she very kindly agreed to unveil the plaque honouring her dad in his presence at Elstree
Studios in 1996.

The last words John said to me on that occasion was: “Give me the tip if they ever have work for an old actor at the studio. I can’t believe it is 60 years ago since I first came to Elstree to appear in a Will Hay comedy.”

I remember attending Laurence Olivier’s memoral service in Westminster Abbey with the late managing director of Elstree, Andrew Mitchell. He and I shared a rare accolade in that, to my knowledge, we are the only two men to have been awarded an MBE for services to Elstree Studios in its nearly 90-year history. I apologise for appearing immodest about saying that but it is a source of pride, even if I have not had an occasion to wear the medal in the past 16 years. I would feel a bit silly sporting it at the Mops and Brooms and I do not think the palace would approve.

The Olivier memorial service was the hottest ticket in town as every star wanted to pay their respects and some just to be seen. There were even “names” such as the widow of Boris Karloff. Andrew and myself were given aisle seats so we could watch everybody pass us and it was a who’s who of famous names.

At the end of the service we all mingled as we headed for the exit. Michael Caine and Doug Fairbanks Jr were behind us but said they would pop out a side door to avoid the scrum. Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness and Kenneth Branagh, to mention a few, roughed it with the rest of us and Joan Collins looked great as usual.

A slightly stooped, grey-haired man was in front of me, obviously desiring no attention. As the exit queue ground to a temporary halt he turned round and said hello and I realised it was Oscar winner Jack Lemmon.

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