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Happy birthday, Bernard Miles

Updated: Mar 2, 2022

Today marks the 114th birthday of theatre impresario and actor Bernard Miles.

Bernard Miles (left) and John Mills in 1942's In Which We Serve

Lord Miles – he was made a peer in 1979 – appeared in the seventh series episode ‘The Rent Collectors’, contributing a soft West Country accent and helping decide Neddie Seagoon’s fate.

Miles: I declare that I will try the prisoner fairly, and that I am entirely unbiased, one way or the other, right? Bailiff: Right, sir! Miles: Good! [aside] Now, Tom. Just run across the road and get some good, strong rope.

(from ‘The Rent Collectors’, Series 7 Episode 16, broadcast 17 January 1957)

Seagoon was being tried for the offence of swimming in the canal, having fallen in trying to get off a passing bus. This had, of course, brought us the first appearance of Little Jim’s now famous catchphrase, ‘he’s fallen in the water’.

Rustic (Sellers): Hang 'im. Little Bootle had two hangings this year. We only had one… Miles: No, no, you can't 'ang 'im now. Got to get the tickets printed and send the invitations out. Jim Spriggs: Yes, and there's the village band. They'll have to get some practice in. Miles: Arr, they were shockin' last time. It wasn't fair to the prisoner. I mean you could see he was upset.

(from ‘The Rent Collectors’, Series 7 Episode 16, broadcast 17 January 1957)

At this point, the audience was treated to Bernard Miles leading the cast and orchestra in a verse of ‘The Blackbird’ – a traditional song later adapted and made famous by The Wurzels as the B-side to their number 1 hit ‘The Combine Harvester’.

While that was Miles' only personal appearance on the show, the Goons didn’t waste a chance to mention him whenever the script called for a similar West Country accent, usually thrown in when the plot was at sea.

Narrator (Sellers, West Country/pirate): The Personal Narrative of Captain Neddie Seagoon RN. A jolly jack tar in the employ of His Majesty's Navy. [FX: Wooden ship noises, sea, rigging] Sea dog (West Country/pirate): Moby Dick on the Bernard Miles! Arrrrggg. [Orchestra: Nautical theme]

(from ‘Personal Narrative’, Series 7 Episode 8, broadcast 22 November 1956)

Seagoon: Cast divits to the wind, and unlatch the keel! Sailor (Sellers, West Country/pirate): Bernard Miles sir! [FX: Waves, seagulls]

(from ‘Tales of Old Dartmoor’, Series 6 Episode 21, broadcast 7 February 1956)

Bernard Miles’ acting career began in the mid-1930s and carried on through the war years, seeing him appear in many war-themed films. In the image at the top of this page he is appearing in In Which We Serve, a 1942 film written and directed by Noel Coward and also featuring John Mills and Richard Attenborough, those famous Monty's Trebles.

In the 1950s he branched out, appearing in adaptations of Charles Dickens novels, as well as Moby Dick and the Alfred Hitchcock film The Man Who Knew Too Much, both in 1956.

In 1957 he appeared in the British comedy The Smallest Show on Earth in a supporting role, alongside a certain Peter Sellers. Sellers played Mr Quill the projectionist, and Miles was Old Tom the janitor.

Miles married actress Josephine Wilson in 1931. Wilson appeared in several wartime films too, although she seems not to have been quite as prolific as her husband. Wilson and Miles appeared on the big screen together in Chance of a Lifetime in 1950, which Miles also wrote and directed. This film is apparently available on Amazon Prime in some regions.

The pair are arguably best known for their work setting up and running the Mermaid Theatre in London in 1959. He originally set up a venue with this name in a barn by his house in St John’s Wood, north London, in the early 1950s but later raised money to build a dedicated theatre at Puddle Dock on the north bank of the Thames near Blackfriars station.

Rough Seaman: Oh, the Brown Cave, we call it. Tis somewhere in the cliff sides, overlooking the sea, my little beauty, arr har! The old smuggler's cave is right there. On a dark night they do say a ghostly voice – ghostly voice – arrr! The smell of ghostly cooking [laughs] [suddenly calm] Excuse me, I've got to get back to the Mermaid Theatre, you know.

(from ‘The Silver Dubloons’, Series 10 Episode 5, broadcast 21 January 1960)

Miles and Wilson ran the venue until the mid-1980s. One of the regular events was an annual production of Treasure Island, in which Miles played Long John Silver. He took the same role in more than one film adaptation, playing on his much-loved ‘rustic impersonations’ – i.e., West Country accent. This despite him being born and raised in Middlesex.

One such run of Treasure Island was in the winter of 1961-62, the cast of which also featured Spike Milligan as Ben Gunn.

Miles introduced Milligan to John Antrobus, who co-wrote two Goon Show episodes with Spike in the eighth series. The pair later co-wrote The Bed-Sitting Room, which Miles helped to promote and hosted at the Mermaid in 1963.

The Mermaid had a sad end, it seems. Miles and Wilson were forced to sell the theatre after running into financial difficulties, and soon after it was overtaken by the Barbican as the venue of choice for that area of London. It was threatened with demolition by the City of London in 2003 but was spared by interventions from the Save London’s Theatres group. However, it is now mainly used as a conference centre.

Wilson died in November 1990 and Miles died just a few months later in June 1991.

Miles was a hugely admired and respected character, having received a CBE in 1953 and a knighthood in 1969. A decade later, he and Wilson became Lord and Lady Miles of Blackfriars in the City of London, with Miles only the second actor to receive a peerage, after Laurence Olivier.

The British Film Institute has a detailed overview of his film career.

Eccles: Ahoy, mouth of the Amazon in sight! Pirate (Sellers): Arr, look out for the wash, arr. Seagoon: What wash? Pirate: The dreaded Amazon mouth wash, my dear! Ahaharr… They do say South America is haunted, my darlin’… With sixpence I learnt everything, ahaharrrr, narliemahar… Greenslade: Bernard Miles is now appearing at the Mermaid Theatre.

(from ‘The Last Smoking Seagoon’, Series 10 Episode 6, broadcast 28 January 1960)

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