January 2, 2017


James Robertson-Justice (1905-1975) b. Lee, London, UK.

James Robertson Justice

James Robertson Justice, the middle name added in his late 30s in order to cultivate a Gaelic persona, was a canny character actor who refused to take either himself or the trade he practiced seriously. He described himself as a terrible actor with no right whatever to stardom, and remained genuinely mystified by the eagerness of pro­ducers to pay him, by his reckoning, astronomi­cal sums simply to go before the cameras and be himself. Born in Lee, South London, James Robertson-Justice was the only child of a Scottish geologist and educated at Marlborough College in Wiltshire, and subsequently studied science at University College, London, and geology at Bonn University, Germany. Later he would work as a reporter for the Reuters news agency, and as a teacher and insurance salesman in Canada.

He entered into films inauspiciously with a number of minor roles for Ealing Studios, but shortly the studio would cast him in more memorable supporting roles as one of the fated explorers in Scott of the Antarctic (1948) and the island doctor in Whisky Galore! (1949). Robertson-Justice continued appearing in support roles, and by the time of John Guillerman’s Miss Robin Hood (1952) his booming irascible Scot was coming to the fore; here portraying an unscrupulous distiller. During 1952-53 Justice made three action-adventures for Walt Disney, The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men (1952), The Sword and the Rose (1953) and Rob Roy the Highland Rogue (1953); each time supporting Richard Todd. Before taking office at St Swithin’s, Justice was, how­ever, Spratt-like in The Voice of Merrill (1952), a tense, highly original low-budget thriller with a literary setting. Justice is a successful but difficult playwright whose bored, glamorous wife, Valerie Hobson, has an affair with a morose, failed writer, Edward Underdown.

Doctor in the House (1954) consolidated Justice’s reputation and gave birth to his most famous role as Sir Lancelot Spratt, the liverish, steam-rolling chief surgeon of the long-running Doctor series. In one memorable scene, surrounded by a gaggle of students, Justice is lay­ing down the law about the curious behaviour of human blood, and the scientifically approved term, bleeding-time, when he spots Dirk Bogarde daydreaming. ‘You – what’s the bleed­ing-time?’ he barks, whereupon Bogarde, jolted back to reality, snatches a guilty look at his watch and replies, ‘Ten past ten, sir.’ Justice’s performance, or rather, the impact of the Spratt character on audiences, created difficulties at Rank Studios because the follow-up, Doctor at Sea (1955), set on board a cruise ship, had made no provision for Spratt. But they overcame the problem by casting Justice as the ship’s captain and making the character indistinguishable from the bolshie head surgeon of St Swithin’s. He would revive the Spratt role five more times in Doctor at Large (1957), Doctor in Love (1960), Doctor in Distress (1963), Doctor in Clover (1966) and Doctor in Trouble (1970).

The majority of Justice’s screen performances after the first and best of the series, Doctor in the House, were variations of Spratt in one guise or another, most notably as the irascible scientist is WWII PoW comedy Very Important Person (1961) and conductor Sir Benjamin Boyd in Raising the Wind (1961). Two further loosely-connected comedies afforded Justice good opportunity to display quick-tempered stereotype alongside Leslie Phillips and Stanley Baxter; The Fast Lady (1962) and Father Came Too! (1963). Not long after completing the filming of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) Justice suffered a severe stroke He was to suffer a further series of strokes and his career was at an end.

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