Mervyn Johns was born in Pembroke, Wales on 18 February, 1899. He originally intended to become a dentist and attended Llandovery College to pursue this ambition. However, at the age of 22 he met Alys Steele, a concert pianist from Australia. They married in 1920 and stayed together for over 50 years until her death in 1971. She encouraged Mervyn's ambition to become an actor and he abandoned his dentistry studies at the beginning of 1923. Initially, the couple travelled to support Alys's career. On 5 October, 1923, when the couple were in South Africa, Alys gave birth to a daughter, Glynis, who was to become a very famous actress in her own right.
Mervyn took any opportunities that were offered in the profession, but, as many actors do, he found it difficult to make the break into films. He was probably fortunate that he could afford to bide his time as his wife's career went from strength to strength. His first film role came in 1935 in the forgettable Lady in Danger, playing a reporter. In 1938 he appeared in an early made for television production of Pride and Prejudice, but he would not appear on the small screen for another 20 years.
On the outbreak of WWII in September 1939, Johns was too old for conscription, but he was able to help morale by appearing in wartime films. It was his opportunity to graduate to the status of leading actor, and he grabbed it with both hands. He appeared in 13 films between 1940 and 1945, becoming ever more recognisable to wartime audiences. His most celebrated role, as architect Walter Craig, came at the end of the war in the seminal British horror film, Dead of Night. After this exposure, Mervyn was in regular demand for two decades as he returned to playing supporting roles. Appearances in the 1951 film of Scrooge as Bob Cratchit, Moby Dick in 1956 alongside Gregory Peck and The Day of the Triffids in 1962 with Howard Keel, kept him in the public eye on both sides of the Atlantic.
He appeared in his 70th and last film, The Confessional, in 1976. On television he appeared in such classic series as The Saint, Dangerman, The New Avengers and Dixon of Dock Green. His best-remembered role came in 1965 and rekindled his association with the Dickensian Christmas. He played Brandon Storey in a Christmas episode of The Avengers, called Too Many Christmas Trees. Storey was an avid collector of Dickens memorabilia who had developed a fixation with A Christmas Carol. His attempts to reproduce the perfect Christmas were a deliberate echo of the aims of Bob Cratchit, but underneath Storey's happy exterior things were not as they seemed. Johns's final screen appearance was in an episode of the BBC private eye series, Shoestring, in 1979. A long and happy retirement followed until his death on 6 September, 1992, at the age of 93. These last years were spent in the company of his second wife, Diana Churchill, whom he married in 1976.
Significant Film Appearances
In any long career there are maybe two or three films that define an actor. For Mervyn Johns, his three most significant roles were in Halfway House (1943), Dead of Night (1945) and Scrooge (1951). These three films saw Johns at the height of his powers, turning in performances that would still be highly regarded more than 50 years later.
Halfway House (1943)
This film was a strange hybrid of styles. Part morality tale, part supernatural thriller, part wartime propaganda. It was made and released at a time when the British public were still unsure as to which way the war would go. Set in Mervyn Johns's native Wales it featured ten characters at various crossroads in their lives. They consist of a musician pushing himself to the point of death, a divorcing couple and their daughter, a black marketeer, a former army man leaving prison after a theft conviction, a neutral Irishman with his girlfriend and a couple mourning the death of their son. All of them check into an inn called the 'Halfway House' in the village of Cwm Bach. The landlord Rhys and his daughter Gwyneth seem to appear from nowhere to greet the guests. Neither of them cast a shadow. The newspapers are all a year old, as are the reports on the radio. Furthermore, the hosts seem to have an uncanny insight into their guests' problems. What is the secret of the 'Halfway House', and will it help them to reach the correct decisions?
The role of the avuncular Rhys came naturally to Mervyn Johns. His on-screen rapport with the landlord's daughter Gwyneth was helped by the actress playing the role, his own daughter Glynis Johns. Their scenes together are superb, and Glynis gives a glimpse of the talent that made her a huge star in America. From his first scene you know that Rhys is unusual - not just from his sudden appearance out of thin air, but from the sense of quiet power that Mervyn Johns instantly invests in the character. He makes Rhys a man that commands trust and respect despite, or perhaps because of, his hidden depths. He is quiet, fatherly and patient with his troubled guests. When he loses that patience with one of them it is genuinely shocking and powerful. He delivers patriotic lines, that might sound unconvincing in this day and age, a power and reality that impresses even modern-day audiences. When he reveals the secret of the inn it chills and unsettles the audience. Despite being rarely shown, Halfway House is a film well worth seeking out.
Dead of Night (1945)
This film was made at the end of WWII, but the concerns of a public that increasingly turned to the supernatural to seek comfort, as the death toll mounted, are clear in this set of stories. It is a portmanteau film made up of five separate stories linked together by scenes concerning an architect named Walter Craig. Unusually, the linking scenes are integral to the plot, rather than just being an excuse to introduce another episode. Walter Craig (Johns) is haunted by a recurring dream that appears to be coming true. Craig arrives at a house and tells his sceptical audience that he has met them all before, night after night. Their scepticism is increasingly challenged as Craig correctly predicts the events of an increasingly frightening evening. The film is rightly regarded as a classic of British cinema, and is often credited with being the first modern horror film. Successive generations of film buffs have discovered this film and its reputation has grown over the years. This is due, in large measure, to the towering central performance of Mervyn Johns as the increasingly terrified architect.
Mervyn Johns gave arguably the strongest performance of his career as Walter Craig. His restrained demeanour was well utilised in the set-up scene of the film. His wife receives a phone call asking Walter to drive to an isolated farmhouse, that he has been asked to redesign, called Pilgrim Farm. When he leaves, the appearance of normality gives no hint as to what is going to happen. Even when he arrives, his feeling of deja-vu is expressed very mildly. As the film progresses Craig becomes more unsettled, more frightened and more psychotic as he realises what is going to happen. Mervyn Johns manages this with a restraint that heightens the terror of the situation. If he had overplayed the role the whole film would have become melodramatic and ineffective. It is the essential normality of Walter Craig that makes the events that unfold all the more terrifying. A lesser actor would have tried to turn the film into his own starring vehicle. Mervyn Johns manages to make the film his by underplaying this dream role. Only a gifted and generous actor like Johns would have been able to do this effectively.
In 1951, Alastair Sim gave a fantastic performance as Scrooge that still stands as the definitive cinematic reading of the role in the eyes of most critics. It was such an inspired performance that the excellent cast of character actors were, for the most part, relegated to anonymous background roles. The exceptions to this were Michael Hordern as Jacob Marley and Mervyn Johns as Bob Cratchit.
Despite his Welsh roots, Johns was totally believable as the put-upon clerk from London's East End. He brought Cratchit's essential goodness to the screen in the form of a flesh and blood character instead of the cipher-like saint portrayed by Dickens in the original novel. In doing so, Johns managed to draw attention to his plight in a way that few actors have managed before or since. The way in which he plays games with his children is captured beautifully, but the most effective scene comes after the loss of his son Tiny Tim. The lament for his 'little, little child' is tremendously moving and it brings Scrooge's heartless attitude to the 'surplus population' into sharp relief. He portrays every facet of Cratchit's character and matches Alastair Sim in every one of their scenes together. In other versions of the novel the problem created by an over-dominant Ebenezer Scrooge is that the whole film focuses on one character to the detriment of the story. In his quiet way, Mervyn Johns provides a point of reference for the film that gives it a proper balance.
Throughout his career, Mervyn Johns showed what a tremendously gifted character actor he was. On many occasions he stole scenes almost by accident, but when he was given the lead role he was unfailingly generous to his fellow actors, allowing them to shine to the benefit of the film he was appearing in. Many people will have admired his work without necessarily remembering his name, and in many ways Mervyn Johns would have been content with that.