Familiar to many from his appearances in classic Disney films, David Tomlinson’s extensive screen career was matched by an equally colourful family life. As he embarks on a tour of a one-man show about Tomlinson’s life, Miles Jupp tells Nick Smurthwaite how the actor’s story relates to his own experiences of fatherhood
Best known for playing the strait-laced but soft-centred Mr Banks in the 1964 film Mary Poppins, David Tomlinson had a rather colourful and dramatic life off screen as well as on it. His story is set to be told in The Life I Lead, a one-man touring show starring Miles Jupp, the comedy actor and host of BBC Radio 4’s The News Quiz.
Jupp says he was unaware of Tomlinson’s backstory when he was approached by James Kettle, one-time head writer on The News Quiz, with an outline for a play about his life. “All I knew was that he was a screen presence I liked in my childhood,” says Jupp, who bears a passing resemblance to Tomlinson.
Like many who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, the 39-year-old actor knew Tomlinson from his role in Mary Poppins and two other Disney films: Bedknobs and Broomsticks and The Love Bug, although by then he had already clocked up some 40 screen appearances.
‘Though there are lots of laughs, it was the sad bits that made me want to do it’
“When I saw James’ first draft, I knew I wanted to do it,” Jupp says. “Though there are lots of laughs, what made me want to do it were the sad bits.” These began with Tomlinson’s discovery, in his youth, that his solicitor father Clarence was leading a double life. He lived with his wife Florence and four sons in Folkestone at weekends, and with his mistress in west London during the week, when he claimed to be “lodging at his club”.
The deception was uncovered when a letter Clarence had written to his mistress Sophie was mistakenly sent to his wife. When confronted by one of his sons, Clarence showed no remorse, claiming that it was simply a question of wanting to make both the women he loved happy. He went on to have seven children with Sophie, who changed her name by deed poll to Tomlinson so that they could pass as a married couple.
At the age of 26, Tomlinson was struck by terrible tragedy with the death of his first wife Mary, an American widow he had met while he was working as an RAF flight instructor in Canada. At the time, he had been posted back to Britain, leaving Mary and her two young sons by her first marriage in New York. Distraught at being unable to take her boys to join David in Britain, she killed herself and the two children. In his 1990 autobiography, Luckier Than Most, Tomlinson wrote that he had never been able to bring himself to visit Mary’s grave.
Chastened by these early experiences, Tomlinson went on to find marital happiness with the actor Audrey Freeman, now 87, and their four sons. One of the recurring themes of The Life I Lead is fatherhood, manifested in Tomlinson’s difficult relationship with the insensitive Clarence, and in his own problems coping with a severely autistic son, Willie, at a time when the condition was barely comprehended let alone tolerated.
“David’s story is one of fathers and sons,” says writer Kettle. “In the 1960s when David made all three Disney films, he got to know Walt Disney quite well. Disney was a patriarchal figure and he got involved with the Tomlinsons’ struggle to care for Willie. They had been told Willie was deaf and dumb but Disney didn’t accept this diagnosis and he helped them to search for other opinions and options for Willie, in terms of his education and care.”
With four sons of his own, Jupp says he spends a lot of time pondering fatherhood. “As a hands-on father, I find Willie’s story the most moving of all because there are those awful moments for any parent when you feel helpless to do what’s needed,” he says.
Kettle and Jupp have spoken at length to Tomlinson’s three other sons – David, a circuit judge, James, a retired actor, and Henry, who works in film and TV – as well as his widow, Audrey, who were all supportive of the show. Kettle says: “They all spoke to me extremely candidly and I’m confident the show isn’t going to upset the family. It is not a story of internal torture, it’s very much a celebration of Tomlinson. I think he emerges from it as a likeable and noble figure.”
As it is a solo show, in addition to playing Tomlinson, Jupp will play – among others – Walt Disney, Julie Andrews, David’s father, a theatrical landlady, and David’s friends, Peter Ustinov and Peter Sellers.
“He seems to have been a fun guy,” says Jupp. “What I liked about him was that he tackled his problems head on, rather than bottling them up – which is quite a modern way of dealing with your issues.”