Hubert Gregg

Hubert Gregg MBE played the ‘sneering’ Prince John in Walt Disney’s live action movie the Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men (1952). As a student Gregg had studied at the Webber Douglas School of Singing and Dramatic Art and his career started with a part in a production of Jean-Jacques Bernard’s Martine. After early appearances in light West-End farce, he moved on to revue and more high-brow performances in Shakespearean plays, including a season at the Regents Park Open Air Theatre. He started his radio career as a part-time announcer with the BBC Empire Service, a forerunner of the World Service and also made his TV debut in a dramatization of the life of St. Bernard at Alexander Palace.

During two seasons at the Chichester Festival Theatre in southwest England, he played Britannus to John Gielgud's Caesar in George Bernard Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra. Gregg also appeared in Terrance Rattigan’s first long running Broadway and London success, French without Tears, along with parts in While the Sun Shines and Off the Record. He also both acted and directed William Douglas Home’s comedy The Secretary Bird. In this he played the part of Hugh Walford, a part that was to become his favorite stage part next to Hamlet.

His skill at directing found him working on Agatha Christie’s first theater success, The Hollow at the Fortune and Ambassadors in 1951. Then for three years, on Agatha Christie’s The Unexpected Guest, later in 1953 with his direction, he helped gain,-for six years-the record breaking success of The Mousetrap. But he soon became fed up with both Christie and the play. "She was a mean old bitch," he would say. "She never even gave me the smallest gift." He later wrote a book about his experiences, Agatha Christie and All That Mousetrap (1980).

Hubert Robert Harry Gregg was born in Islington, North London on July 19th 1914. He came from a poor background. His father was wounded in the Somme and, with no income, sold toys in the street, but four miles away from his home so as not to shame his family. But Hubert later won a scholarship to St. Dunstan’s College in South East London. His parents couldn’t afford to send him to university so instead he enrolled at the Webber Douglas School of Singing and Dramatic Art and between 1933 and 1936 he played a multitude of roles for the Birmingham Repertory Company and the Old Vic.

As a private soldier in the Lincolnshire Regiment during 1939, Gregg put pen to paper and wrote the words and music to his first song I’m Going to Get Lit Up When The Lights Go Up In London. But the musical-comedy star Hermione Gingold refused to sing it. "She said quite correctly that we couldn't sing about getting lit up when we didn't know who was going to win!" said Gregg.

The song was launched in 1943, when victory was on the horizon, and was recorded by Alan Breeze with Billy Cotton and his Band. But provoked concerns in Parliament over possible nights of drunkenness in the capital. Lady Astor asked if this was “the disgraceful way Britons were going to behave.” Prime Minister Winston Churchill replied that he was confident, “we shall celebrate a victorious peace in a way worthy of the British nation.” Gregg married the actress Zoe Gail in 1943.

His feature film debut came with Noel Coward, John Mills and Michael Wilding in David Lean's 1941 classic In Which We Serve and it was during World War II that he worked for the political warfare executive on the BBC German Service. Gregg’s ability to speak German so fluently led Goebbels to think he was a German traitor!

Over a hundred songs and lyrics followed his first success, like London In The Rain, I’ve Got An Invitation To The Royal Coronation, My Mother’s Ambitious For Me, Spring Is At It Again and Everybody Shines When The Sun Shines.

On one particular grim day, after seeing the German Doodlebugs devastating his native city he composed on the back of a theater program, what later became the folk anthem- Maybe it’s because I’m A Londoner. "It took me 20 minutes to write it before supper one night, Gregg said. “It's only got 16 bars, but people seem to like it."

In 1947 it was given to Bud Flanagan by impresario Jack Hilton and Flanagan literally made the song his own during a four-year run in the West End revue Together Again.

Apart from writing songs, including Elizabeth, for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, Gregg also turned his hand to writing plays and two novels. In 1951 his first book April Gentleman was published. Also at the beginning of this year he was chosen to play the part of the evil Prince John in Walt Disney’s second live-action movie, filmed at Denham studios, the Story of Robin Hood. A role he seemed to perform with relish. His cinema career continued with roles such as Mr. Pusey in the Alexander Mackendrick comedy The Maggie (1953,) Final Appointment (1954), Simon and Laura (1955)(with Kay Kendal and Peter Finch) and Doctor at Sea (1955) (which he also wrote the music for).

In 1958 he starred in his first musical Chrysanthemum at the Prince of Wales, along with his second wife Pat Kirkwood (his first wife was the singer Zoe Gail whom he married in 1943 and divorced five years later).

In 1962 his musical version of Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat was broadcast on the BBC Light Programme, the three men being Kenneth Horne, Leslie Phillips and Gregg himself, and it was in radio that he eventually found a more durable career.

With his relaxed style, velvety voice and endless show business anecdotes from his varied career, he became hugely popular with radio audiences. He started with the series I Remember it Well, Square Deal followed and then the show that he hosted on BBC Radio 2 for thirty five years-Thanks for the Memory. Playing ‘vintage records from the square chair’ he delighted his listeners with unashamed nostalgia. Lesley Douglas, Radio 2 Controller, said: “He painted pictures of a bygone era with wit and style.”

After 23 years of marriage Gregg divorced Pat Kirkwood and a year later he married Carmel Lytton, 30 years his junior. In 1981 he was given the Freedom of the City of London and in 2003 he was awarded an MBE for his services to music. In 1993, he celebrated 60 years of broadcasting by presenting 'Sounds and Sweet Airs', which he also wrote. 1994 was the 50th Anniversary of D-Day, for which he appeared on 'Hubert Gregg and The 40s'.
Hubert Gregg died on Monday 29th March 2004 at his home in Eastbourne, East Sussex. He is survived by his third wife Carmel and their son and daughter and a daughter from his previous marriage to Pat Kirkwood.


Clement Glen said...

Hubert Gregg
Prince John
Walt Disney's Story of Robin Hood

Anonymous said...

What an astonishing and incredible career. I did know something of Hubert Gregg and his compositions and famous radio programmes but did not know all the rest. How ever did he find the time. Also through the War years which interrupted many a career he seemed to just go on and on. I have said before that his performance as Prince John is the finest I have ever seen and probably if we are honest, it is the outstanding performance of the film. I know that Ken Annakin really rated him in this role. I know of some of his other roles on film but none match this one. I wonder who had the imagination and foresight to cast him in this role

Clement Glen said...

Hi Neil,

It never ceases to amaze me how much incredible talent was involved in the making of this film. I will no doubt uncover more as I research the rest of the cast.

I am not sure who cast him in the role of Prince John. But Ken Annakin had worked with him previously on both Landfall (1949) and Vote For Hugget (1949). Perhaps he had something to do with it. Either way as you say, he was an excellent choice.