Saturday, 16 September 2006

A brace of Thesigers

Looking in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for something on the great explorer Wilfred Thesiger I drew a blank and was disappointed to find that his biography will not be included until the January 2007 update. He was 93 when he died in 2003 and one would have thought that they could have been ready to slip him in without hanging about so long, but apparently this is not how their publishing programme works.
But, as so often happens with reference book browsing, the search led me to an unrelated entry which gave me much pleasure.
For years I have enjoyed the performances, usually brief cameos, of the actor Ernest Thesiger, who specialised in grotesques such as the cadaverous tycoon in The Man in the White Suit, the mad scientist in Bride of Frankenstein and the Duc de Berri in Olivier’s Henry V. He appeared in nearly 60 films and had a distinguished stage career from 1909.
But from the ONDB and elsewhere I learnt more about him, in particular that he had been a notable eccentric. He was a great friend (and crochet partner) of Queen Mary and was thought to have based his appearance in a later drag role on her. It is said that he used to lay lilies at the feet of the handsome doorman at the Savoy Hotel in London.
In 1914 he attempted to join a Highland regiment because he rather fancied himself in the kilt, but finally went to France as a private with the Queen Victoria Rifles, taking his needlework with him. In 1945 he published a book entitled “Adventures in Embroidery”.
Alec Guinness relates in his journal that Thesiger was once stopped whilst walking down Piccadilly by a woman who asked him, "Didn't you used to be Ernest Thesiger?", to which he replied "Still am!" and hurried on.
Actually the ONDB biography is rather pedestrian and omits many of the jollier stories about him, in particular his famous comment (sometimes attributed to others) when asked about his wartime experience in the trenches:
My dear, the noise! And the people!

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