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You Can Quote Me On That: Denis Compton

“We don’t know who Denis Compton is. He doesn’t appear to be at Disney Studios or have anything to do with them”.
A flummoxed Disney official during Tim Rice’s acceptance speech at the Oscars in 1994.

Words: Richard H Thomas

David Aulkin of The Independent suggested that Tim Rice’s joke paying thanks to Denis Compton as he accepted his Oscar –  “he was a boyhood hero of mine,” said Rice – was “hugely appreciated by maybe 20 of us”. Taki in The Sunday Times called the incident the “only laugh” amid “swathes of sanctimoniousness” at a “nauseating” occasion. The incident too, is a clear indicator that Sir Tim likes his cricket. He became MCC president within a decade of the Compton dedication and as “the most famous cricket-loving songwriter on earth” he remains, according Stephen Brenkley of The Independent, the only Academy winner to mention a cricketer in an acceptance speech. In the run up to his 1993 triumph for Best Original Song, The Times noted the incredulity with which Andrew Lloyd Webber asked “Where’s Tim when this is happening to him? He’s off in South Africa watching bloody cricket”.

If you are going to mention a cricketer in Hollywood, it may as well be a glamorous one. Compton was a poster boy for more than just Brylcreem. Brian Glanville described him as a “supreme cricketer” and until his knee gave up, a “dashing winger” for Arsenal. So important was that kneecap to England’s fortunes that it still resides, on its own little plinth, in the Lord’s museum.

Former PM John Major suggested that the memory of Compton’s play “will last for as long as the game of cricket itself”. Here was the marketability of Beckham and the flamboyance of Pietersen in one smiling, tuxedoed package. And if you thought Compton was out of place in a silver screen context, then you would have been wrong. He appeared on screen in that rarest of cinematic offerings – a film about cricket. Indeed, David Parkinson in the Guardian called The Final Test “Britain’s only significant cricket picture”.

Released in 1954 during the Ashes afterglow, it was a collaboration between director Anthony Asquith (son of former prime minister Herbert) and the distinguished playwright and cricket fan Terence Rattigan. Compton appeared as himself alongside England colleagues Len Hutton, Alec Bedser, Godfrey Evans, Jim Laker and Cyril Washbrook.

The plot concerns an ageing cricketer Sam Palmer (Jack Warner) playing his last Test match for England. Parallel to the on-field action, Palmer’s effete son prefers to visit a famous poet (Robert Morley) than watch his father’s swansong. I won’t spoil it, but it all works out in the end. Referring to the piece as “visually impoverished but endearing”, Geoff Brown in The Times suggests that while Compton and his teammates were included “to add a touch of realism”, Morley’s character was more believable. Critics have challenged its official status as a ‘comedy’, suggesting that it’s rather short on belly laughs, and the casting of Jack Warner as Palmer was slightly incongruous too. Later to find fame as Dixon from Dixon Of Dock Green, Warner was 58 when the film was shot and looked more suited to an afternoon at his allotment than a run chase in south London. Despite such misgivings, The Final Test is unique in cricketing history.

So Denis Compton remained generally unknown in Hollywood, but if by Christmas his grandson Nick is a household name in Bollywood, then England will have had a very good winter indeed.

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