Against The Wind: The Bluster Of James Robertson Justice

A man of many considerable talents, if anyone personified the phrase ‘a life well-lived,’ it would James Robertson Justice. Despite an elaborately concocted tale about how he entered the world in a whisky distillery on the Isle of Skye, Justice was born in Lee, South London on 15th June 1907, to a geologist from Aberdeenshire and his English wife. Throughout his childhood, Justice spent little time with his father, who often worked abroad for months at a time and though Justice senior eschewed his Scottish heritage, his son embraced it as a way to feel closer to his absent parent.

After attending Marlborough College, where he was placed a disappointing 68th out of 89 in his year, Justice briefly read sciences at University College, London before deciding to follow in his father’s footsteps and study geology at Bonn University in Germany. He would later say that he had not only completed his degree at UCL, but had also been awarded a doctorate at Bonn, both of which were untrue. Returning to England, he took a job as a reporter for Reuters and became a colleague of Ian Fleming, but his journalistic career soon fell flat, in small part because he frequently insisted on arriving for work in his pyjamas and dressing gown.

Easily bored and consumed by wanderlust, Justice decided to travel to Canada where he worked as a lumberjack and a gold-miner; yet he was soon eager to return to Britain and paid for his journey home by washing dishes aboard a Dutch cargo ship. Back in London, he embarked upon a new venture as an ice-hockey player for the London Lions; it lasted for one season until he turned his attention to motor-racing.

A stint as a League of Nations policeman in Germany and his horror at the spread of Fascism encouraged Justice to join the British Battalion of International Brigades after the outbreak of Civil War in Spain in July 1936. Whilst fighting for the Republican side, he was to have supposedly descended on a battlefield and stopped a Nationalist charge by loudly exclaiming ‘Look! Greylag geese.’ It was also during his time in Spain that he began to cultivate his characteristic beard and also added ‘Robertson’ to his name, a nod to the Scottish ancestry he was so fiercely proud of. When war broke out in 1939, Justice signed up for the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, but was dismissed after injuring his knee in 1943. The following year, he stumbled into what would be his most successful and lasting endeavour.

As a member of The Players’ Club, Justice befriend its chairman, Leonard Sachs who suggested that he take a bit part in the 1944 film, For Those in Peril. For Justice, performing came naturally and he found it a relatively easy way to fund the lifestyle to which he hoped to become accustomed. He had no pretensions of becoming a great actor and would tell friends, ‘I am not a star! I am in this profession to make money.’ Indeed, Doctor in the House writer, Richard Gordon believed that for Justice, ‘Every performance was himself.’ Further film appearances followed including Scott of the Antarctic (1948) and Whisky Galore! (1949).

However, it was as Sir Lancelot Spratt, the imperious and vociferous surgeon in Doctor in the House, the most popular British film of 1954, that Justice firmly cemented his place on the silver screen. Justice would reprise his most famous role a further five times in Doctor at Large (1957), Doctor in Love (1960), Doctor in Distress (1963), Doctor in Clover (1966) and finally Doctor in Trouble (1970). In total, Justice made nearly ninety films throughout his career and played numerous larger than life historical characters such as Henry VIII in The Sword and the Rose (1953) and Edward, Prince of Wales in Mayerling (1968).

Above: James Robertson Justice as Sir Lancelot Spratt in Doctor in the House (1954)

With his fee from Doctor in the House, Justice bought a cottage in Spinningdale, a hamlet in the Scottish Highlands. Having a home in his beloved Scotland was a source of tremendous joy for Justice, who, during the1950 general election, had unsuccessfully stood as a Labour MP for the North Angus and Mearns constituency. There, he was able to indulge his love of outdoor pursuits like falconry and shooting as well as collecting orchids and moths. Whilst contesting the Angus and Mearns seat, Justice met Peter Scott, the son of the celebrated explorer, and their mutual passion for birds led to the formation of the Severn Wildfowl Trust, which is now The National Birds Of Prey Centre. Another close friend was the Duke of Edinburgh, whom Justice met in 1940s and who asked him to teach Prince Charles about ‘plants, beasts and royal falconry.’ In 1957, he was chosen to present This is Scotland, the first programme ever to be broadcast by Scottish Television. He also served as Rector of the University of Edinburgh twice, from 1957 to 1960 and 1963 to 1966, on the second occasion winning against Sean Connery.

Above: This is Scotland (1957)

Justice’s enthusiasm for his Peregrine falcons was exceeded only by his fervour for attractive women, and as one former lover, the fashion journalist and writer Molly Parkin, who was thirty years his junior remembered ‘He had a most extraordinary appetite for sex and was prepared to try anything.’ For their first meeting, Justice took Parkin to The Ivy and she recalled how he kept ‘his fingers in my Marks and Spencer knickers all through the meal.’ In 1941, Justice had married Dillys Hayden, a nurse, and in 1945 they had a son, James. Tragedy struck after they moved to a mill house in Whitchurch in Hampshire where young James drowned in 1949. Hayden apparently blamed her husband for failing to fence off the stream next to their home and the marriage fell apart soon afterwards though the couple would not divorce until 1968. Justice preferred never to mention the death of his son, telling those who asked, ‘I don’t talk about it.’

On the set of The Abassadress in 1960, Justice met the German actress Irene von Meyendorff, who he described as his ‘great love,’ and they began an affair, even though he was still married to Hayden, and von Meyendorff had been divorced three times. Hayden finally agreed to a divorce in 1968, soon after Justice finished filming Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, in which he played the bombastic Lord Scrumptious, but also decided to sue her former spouse for not paying her the agreed amount of £50 a month since their separation. In order to pay his legal bills, Justice was forced to sell his property in Spinningdale, which came as a heavy blow. Penniless, Justice was helped out by his friend Toby Bromley who gave him a cottage on his estate in Hampshire. Bromley would later marry von Meyendorff in 1990 and they would stay wed until his death in 2001.

By 1970, several strokes had put an end to Justice’s career. He suffered from ill health for several years until his death on 2nd July 1975, three days after he married von Meyendorff. In the late 1960s, Justice and Bromley had made a series of wildlife documentaries together. Speaking about the unlikely relationship between culling and conservation, Justice explained how it was necessary so that no species was able to become dominant over another, describing it as ‘nature under command.’ His own exuberant and commanding nature allowed James Robertson Justice to dominate the screen; but like his beloved falcons, he remained a wanderer at heart.