Miles Jupp reveals how being a dead ringer for a Disney star led to his new show
The secret life of one of the stars of Mary Poppins is the unexpected subject of a new one-man play featuring comedian Miles Jupp.
It all happened because his long-standing writing partner thought Miles was the spitting image of the Disney actor David Tomlinson and wrote the play especially for the comedian.
But Miles remains baffled about the resemblance that led to him portraying the man on stage.
He says: “I never noticed it myself at all, but he is someone that I watched a lot when I was little in Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks.”
So, when comedy writer James Kettle called to tell Miles – star of Rev and Radio 4 show The News Quiz – of his revelation it took him by surprise.
“James said something about watching Tomlinson in a film and that it reminded him of me and it set off a chain of events.
“So I wasn’t aware (of looking like David) when James rang and said, ‘I’ve this idea and I’m going to do a bit of research are you interested?’ I said ‘yes’, but I say yes to a lot of things that don’t happen so I didn’t think too much about it.
“He then rang back and said he had been in the library for a couple of days and had found out things about Tomlinson’s life that were extraordinary and surprising – that was probably three years ago – and here we find ourselves.”
The Life I Lead, which is the finished play, tells the extraordinary life story of actor David Tomlinson who is best remembered for playing Mr Banks in Disney’s classic film Mary Poppins and Professor Emelius Browne in Bedknobs and Broomsticks, as well as Thorndyke in The Love Bug.
From his early life as a Second World War fighter pilot to his meeting with Walt Disney, it’s a story of mysteries, heartbreak, father-son relationships and unexpected Hollywood success.
As playwright James dug deeper into Tomlinson’s life, he made extraordinary discoveries including that David’s father had had another secret family living across town, that the actor’s first wife had killed herself and his two step-children, and that David’s youngest son was one of the first children in the UK to be diagnosed with autism.
Miles said: “Bits of his life were extremely sad. He was in the RAF in the Second World War and went to America and fell in love and got married. She died very shortly afterwards in very tragic circumstances that had a great impact on him and was something the family told me they didn’t know any of this for a long time.
“His son, Henry, didn’t find out until he was a teenager that his father had been married before and his father’s first wife died in these circumstances. That’s something that had a big impact on his life and something none of them knew.
“With things like that you worry you are portraying someone else’s grief on the stage and you want to get it right for his family. If your parents have had an unhappy childhood, as you get older that’s something you start to wear a bit more heavily and it’s something about which you are completely powerless.
“Much later in life he uncovered the truth about his father but he managed to get a good relationship with him. I suppose you would associate people of that generation being this stiff upper lip archetype, but Tomlinson was the sort who met any problems head on
“Also one of his sons, Willy, is autistic and the autism diagnosis was a brand new thing back then. They had this lovely son who would suddenly have these big temper tantrums and they couldn’t get through to him and they didn’t know what was going on. When I’m doing those bits of the play night after night, it is a piece of theatre but it is also very real because you’re talking about someone’s son, someone’s brother, someone’s uncle. There is a responsibility for that.”
With so many heartbreaking moments to portray, both Miles and writer James wanted to seek out the actor’s surviving family and get their approval.
Miles said: “They have been completely delightful about it. We were slightly anxious about meeting them but they said, ‘Come round, let’s tell you some stories’. They seemed very happy we were remembering their father and invited James round and told him stories, but then they said, ‘It’s your show and the story you are choosing to do, so do it the way you want to do it. For heaven’s sake don’t change anything on our account’. They weren’t proprietorial in any way, they are just very nice people.”
Miles met up with the family when he was performing in Norwich and they asked him back to their home in Suffolk. David had four sons –David Jnr, William, Henry and James – and is survived by his wife Audrey.
“Henry invited me to come and stay with him and his wife in Suffolk and very kindly invited his mum Audrey over for lunch. He said I should meet her before she is in the audience as that would be too nerve-wracking, which was very thoughtful.
“She was amazing although they were all very surprised that this play had come out of nowhere. When I arrived to do the show in Bury she had sent me his dressing gown in a parcel – I hung it up in my dressing room.
“I had been talking and thinking and reading about him for months so I treated it like an artefact and hung it up in my study when I got home. The next thing I knew, my wife was wearing it, saying ‘Where has this come, from it’s fabulous!’ I did try it on as there was some possibility of wearing it in the play but I think he was in significantly better shape than I am.”
However, the play isn’t all tragedy. There are lots of funny moments including the American agent Tomlinson invented to represent him.
Miles says: “He would then play him on the telephone and drive hard bargains or talk himself out of jobs he really didn’t like and say, ‘Between you and me, my client is asking too much money, he’s not worth it. I can give you the names and numbers of people who will do it for half the price and twice as well.’”
Although Miles has the advantage of looking similar to the man he was playing, how else did he try to get into Tomlinson’s shoes for the role?
Miles said: “If I was Daniel Day Lewis I would probably… I don’t know what. If Tomlinson knew how to sail, I suppose I would have to learn how to sail. Because I’m not a mimic it was really about trying to think about his spirit, or his essence, and genuinely getting to know the family was a part of that.
“They have these different aspects of their father that they all wear very proudly. Actually, Henry looks the most like him but David Tomlinson Jnr, who is the eldest son and a judge, is very avuncular and has his mannerisms. There was an element of watching them and copying them but they are very easy people to get to know because they are very sociable and a lot of fun.”
He also listened to a record of David reading an A A Milne story, which Henry lent him.
“He said that’s most like his speaking voice, which was a gentle storytelling mode. I did a few lines from the play and he said, ‘Oh yes, like that’. I watched him a lot and tried to think about the pitch of his voice and his facial mannerisms. It is weird acting when you are imagining you have someone else’s face.”
But Miles couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to make a play about his own life. “I would be slightly worried if someone made a play about me,” he says. “I suppose if someone wanted to do something that was an all-out attack on me, that at least would be an angle. I could see the point if they wanted to destroy me. If someone wanted to write a play about me because they found me interesting, oh God, I don’t know what would be wrong with them. I would be really baffled as would, ultimately, the audience.”
The Life I Lead is on at the Cambridge Arts Theatre, Tuesday 10 to Saturday, September 14. Tickets £20-£30.
Box office 01223 503333/cambridgeartstheatre.com.