It’s interesting that the Network label have chosen to use the appearance of Jeremy Spenser as one of the selling points on the packaging of the DVD of Wonderful Things (1959), which was released last week – he “smoulders” apparently. It’s a film that hasn’t been seen for decades, it seems, and, having just watched it, we haven’t really missed a great deal. The script is limp, Frankie Vaughan makes a strangely unlikeable lead, and the songs are less than stellar. The one thing that makes the film watchable is Jeremy Spenser, in a supporting role as Vaughan’s brother. Even saddled with a clunky script, dodgy accent, and what appears to be an inability to button his shirt up, it is Spenser to whom our eyes are drawn whenever he is on screen.
Many will be asking “who is Jeremy Spenser?” Well, Spenser started out as a British child actor, progressed into a teen heart-throb, made a move towards leading man material, but then fells into smaller and smaller film roles before disappearing from the screen altogether. Following roles in Summertime (1955) and It’s Great to be Young (1956), it looked as if Spenser would make the transition into leading man material easily. But his career seemed to falter after Ferry to Hong Kong (1959).
Perhaps his best-remembered role is It’s Great to be Young, a charming little British semi-musical from 1956 featuring John Mills as a music teacher who gets the sack for playing piano in a pub, only for the kids at the school to stage a sit-in in the gym in order for him to be reinstated. Spenser plays the boy who masterminds the sit-in and sets the screen alight with slightly tongue-in-cheek youthful exuberance. The film was outdated by the time it was released (the kids love jazz not rock ‘n’ roll), but that doesn’t matter. It’s a sweet little film, and one that was shown with great regularity on UK TV during the 1980s and early 1990s.
He is slightly less successful in The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), in which he stars alongside Laurence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe. Spenser plays a young king, but the reserved nature of the role didn’t really suit him (not that I have ever liked the film much anyway). One could argue his sympathetic portrayal of Miguel Hernriques, an officer on board the Ferry to Hong Kong was one of the few redeeming features of that film – one in which Orson Welles gives an almost ridiculous performance. The romance between Curd Jurgens and Sylvia Syms is unrealistic, and Spenser’s portrayal of the vulnerable young officer is about the only thing that rings true in the whole film.
And then it was over, it seems. Over the next few years, his name slipped further and further down the credits of the films he appeared in, until his final appearance in Fahrenheit 451 in which he literally is seen eating an apple – and nothing else. What appeared after that appears to be a mystery, although the internet does come up with various theories and a forum or two has a member who claims to know Spenser and tells us he is alive and well. A couple of people report having played chess with him a decade or so ago.
In the end, his whereabouts now is unimportant (providing he is happy and healthy, of course). What is known is that when Spenser’s brother, David (also an actor), passed away in August 2013, The Guardian reported that Jeremy was still alive. What’s clear even from a relative dud such as Wonderful Things is that a fine actor, and even greater screen presence, ended his career (or had it ended for him) much too soon, and just at the point when it should have blossomed. It appears that even working with the likes of Vivien Leigh, Marilyn Monroe, John Mills, Laurence Olivier, Orson Welles and Dirk Bogarde couldn’t guarantee a successful career. Or perhaps it was playing supporting roles with those luminaries which caused the problem in the first place. We shall probably never know. However, when I saw this portrait of him recently, I realised he is clearly the greatest screen Dorian Gray that never was.