Thomas Kirby Walls (18 February 1883 – 27 November 1949), known as Tom Walls, was an English stage and film actor, producer and director, best known for presenting and co-starring in the Aldwych farces in the 1920s and for starring in and directing the film adaptations of those plays in the 1930s.
Walls spent his early years as an actor, from 1905, mostly in musical comedy, touring the British provinces, North America and Australia and in the West End. He specialised in comic character roles, typically flirtatious middle aged men. In 1922 he went into management in partnership with the comic actor Leslie Henson. They had an early success in the West End with a long-running farce, Tons of Money , after which Walls commissioned and staged a series of farces at the Aldwych Theatre that ran almost continuously over the next decade. He and his co-star Ralph Lynn were among the most popular British actors of their time.
In addition to his work in the theatre, Walls directed and acted in more than forty films between 1930 and 1949. Some of these were screen versions of the successful stage plays, others were specially-written comedies on similar lines, and there were also serious films, particularly later in Walls's career.
Away from acting, Walls's passion was horse racing. He set up stables at his home in Surrey and trained about 150 winners, including April the Fifth, his 1932 Derby winner.
Walls was born in Kingsthorpe, Northampton, the son of John William Walls, a plumber and builder, and his wife, Ellen, née Brewer.He was educated at Northampton County School, after which he tried a variety of jobs, working in Canada for a year and, on his return, joining the Metropolitan Police.
In 1905 Walls embarked on a stage career. His first engagement was as member of a seafront Pierrot troupe in Brighton.He played in pantomime in Aladdin at Glasgow in the 1905–06 season, under the management of Robert Courtneidge. He performed in a concert party and in musical comedy, touring the British provinces and North America as the Jester in The Scarlet Mysteries. In 1907 he made his West End debut, playing Ensign Ruffler in Sir Roger de Coverley at the Empire, Leicester Square.
Walls appeared in Edwardian musical comedies in the West End and on tour from 1908 to 1921. In February 1910 he married Alice Hilda Edwards, an actress on the musical comedy stage. They had one son, Tom Kenneth Walls.During 1910–11, Walls toured in Australia, playing Peter Doody in The Arcadians , Mr. Hook in Miss Hook of Holland , and the Marquis de St. Gautier in The Belle of Brittany.
Back in London, Walls had substantial roles in The Sunshine Girl (1912); The Marriage Market (1913) and A Country Girl (1915). Later in 1915 he played Coquenard in a revival of Messager's Veronique ; between then and 1921 he appeared in nine other musical comedies and a pantomime.His best known show of these years was probably Kissing Time (1919), in which he played Colonel Bolinger opposite Leslie Henson. His biographer, Sean Fielding, writes, "His forte was the portrayal of amiable philanderers or eccentric older gentlemen, usually with a forceful, even hectoring manner."
Walls went into partnership with Henson and became managing director of Tom Walls and Leslie Henson, Ltd, controlling several touring companies.In 1922 the partnership presented the farce Tons of Money at the Shaftesbury Theatre. It was a great popular success, running for nearly two years. Walls played a supporting role in the piece and cast Ralph Lynn in the leading part, propelling Lynn to stardom. Walls took a lease of the Aldwych Theatre, where he and Henson presented another farce, It Pays to Advertise, which ran for nearly 600 performances. To replace the piece, Walls acquired the rights to another farce, A Cuckoo in the Nest by Ben Travers.
Walls and Lynn co-starred in the Aldwych productions, and Travers was careful to maintain the equilibrium of their stage partnership by ensuring that each had as many funny lines as the other.Initially, Travers found Walls difficult as an actor-manager, and also distressingly unprepared as an actor. But even Walls's calls to the stage manager for lines became a popular part of opening nights at the Aldwych.
There were twelve Aldwych farces under Walls's management. The first eight averaged runs of 369 performances. The last four did less well, averaging under 150 performances.Walls gathered a regular troupe of supporting actors, including Robertson Hare, Mary Brough and Winifred Shotter. Travers wrote for these players, drawing on their strengths, his plays populated by:
the horsy, cunning Tom Walls; the silly ass Ralph Lynn, always dropping his monocle; the bald, clerkish, respectable Robertson Hare always liable at some point in the play to have his trousers removed for perfectly logical reasons; the slim, pretty Winifred Shotter, equally liable to dash across the stage in her underclothes; and Mary Brough, the gruff, suspicious landlady.
In 1935 Tom Walls was the prominent name showing on a hoarding in Knightsbridge for Lady In Danger at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre
Walls made an early foray into films in 1924 in a silent screen version of Tons of Money, though he did not reprise his stage role. When the talkies arrived, Walls moved his focus away from the theatre and into cinema. He directed seventeen films between 1930 and 1938, acting in most of them. He directed his last, Old Iron, at the end of the 1930s. In the 1930s, Walls and Lynn regularly appeared in the lists of the top ten British film stars. Walls usually outranked Lynn in the top ratings, because, in the words of the critic Jeffrey Richards, "everyone warmed to the old reprobate whereas the 'silly ass' was not to everyone's taste."
Walls continued to act on screen in both comedies and dramas until his death, often playing character roles in other directors' films. In 1943 he appeared in the serious film Undercover as the father of a guerrilla leader in Yugoslavia. His final film was The Interrupted Journey (1949).
In his private life Walls's great passion was flat racing. In 1927 he established a stable at his home in Ewell, Surrey, with up to twenty-five horses at any one time. Over the next twenty years his horses won about 150 races, including the 1932 Derby won by his April the Fifth.The expense of the stables, together with a generally lavish lifestyle, was a severe drain on Walls's finances.
In 1939 Walls took over the Alexandra Theatre in the London suburb Stoke Newington, which he ran as a repertory theatre. On tour and then at the Shaftesbury Theatre he produced and acted in a farce by Wilfred Eyre, His Majesty's Guest (1939).He toured in Springtime for Henry (1940), of which The Manchester Guardian commented, "Mr. Tom Walls is, of course, outstanding. Deliciously amusing, with a masterly attention to detail, his progress from sin to virtue and back again is a delight to watch". The following year he toured in Frederick Lonsdale's Canaries Sometimes Sing, and in 1942 presented and starred in another farce, Why Not To-Night? on tour and then at the Ambassadors in London.
His last stage appearance was in 1948, in a revival of The Barretts of Wimpole Street , in which his performance as the tyrannical Edward Moulton-Barrett was thought to lack menace.
Walls died at his home in Ewell, Surrey at the age of 66.His ashes were scattered on Epsom racecourse.
Ben Travers CBE AFC was an English writer. His output includes more than twenty plays, thirty screenplays, five novels, and three volumes of memoirs. He is best remembered for his long-running series of farces first staged in the 1920s and 1930s at the Aldwych Theatre. Many of these were made into films and later television productions.
John Robertson Hare, OBE was an English actor, who came to fame in the Aldwych farces. He is remembered by modern audiences for his performances as the Archdeacon in the popular BBC sitcom, All Gas and Gaiters.
Mary Bessie Brough was an English actress in theatre, silent films and early talkies, including eleven of the twelve Aldwych farces of the 1920s and early 1930s.
Ralph Clifford Lynn was an English actor who had a 60-year career, and is best remembered for playing comedy parts in the Aldwych farces first on stage and then in film.
Gordon James was an English actor who became known as the "heavy" in the Aldwych farces, between 1923 and 1933. He also appeared in some twenty films between 1929 and 1942.
Winifred Florence Shotter was an English actress best known for her appearances in the Aldwych farces of the 1920s and early 1930s.
Rookery Nook is a farce by the English playwright Ben Travers based on his own 1923 novel. It was first given at the Aldwych Theatre, London, the third in the series of twelve Aldwych farces presented by the actor-manager Tom Walls at the theatre between 1923 and 1933. Several of the actors formed a regular core cast for the Aldwych farces. The play depicts the complications that ensue when a young woman, dressed in pyjamas, seeks refuge from her bullying stepfather at a country house in the middle of the night.
Tons of Money is a farcical play by British writers Will Evans and Arthur Valentine. It was co-produced by Tom Walls and Leslie Henson. In the story of the play, a hard-up inventor pretends to be his cousin, in order to escape the clutches of his creditors.
Turkey Time is a farce by Ben Travers. It was one of the series of Aldwych farces that ran nearly continuously at the Aldwych Theatre in London from 1923 to 1933. The story concerns two guests, staying at the Stoatt household for Christmas, who offer shelter to a pretty concert performer left stranded when her employer absconds, leaving his cast unpaid.
The Aldwych farces were a series of twelve stage farces presented at the Aldwych Theatre, London, nearly continuously from 1923 to 1933. All but three of them were written by Ben Travers. They incorporate and develop British low comedy styles, combined with clever word-play. The plays were presented by the actor-manager Tom Walls and starred Walls and Ralph Lynn, supported by a regular company that included Robertson Hare, Mary Brough, Winifred Shotter, Ethel Coleridge, and Gordon James.
Thark is a farce by the English playwright Ben Travers. It was first given at the Aldwych Theatre, London, the fourth in the series of twelve Aldwych farces presented at the theatre by the actor-manager Tom Walls between 1923 and 1933. It starred the same cast members as many of the other Aldwych farces. The story concerns a reputedly haunted English country house. Investigators and frightened occupants of the house spend a tense night searching for the ghost.
A Cuckoo in the Nest is a farce by the English playwright Ben Travers. It was first given at the Aldwych Theatre, London, the second in the series of twelve Aldwych farces presented by the actor-manager Tom Walls at the theatre between 1923 and 1933. Several of the cast formed the regular core cast for the later Aldwych farces. The plot concerns two friends, a man and a woman, who are each married to other people. While travelling together, they are obliged by circumstances to share a hotel bedroom. Everyone else assumes the worst, but the two travellers are able to prove their innocence.
Plunder is a farce by the English playwright Ben Travers. It was first given at the Aldwych Theatre, London, the fifth in the series of twelve Aldwych farces presented by the actor-manager Tom Walls at the theatre between 1923 and 1933. Several of the actors formed a regular core cast for the Aldwych farces. The play shows two friends committing a jewel robbery, for arguably honourable reasons, with fatal results.
A Cup of Kindness is a farce by the English playwright Ben Travers. It was first given at the Aldwych Theatre, London, the sixth in the series of twelve Aldwych farces presented by the actor-manager Tom Walls at the theatre between 1923 and 1933. Several of the actors formed a regular core cast for the Aldwych farces. The play depicts the feud between two suburban families.
A Night Like This is a farce by Ben Travers, written as one of the series of Aldwych farces staged nearly continuously at the Aldwych Theatre, London, from 1923 to 1933. The farces were directed by Tom Walls, who co-starred in most of them with Ralph Lynn, and a supporting cast of regular Aldwych performers. The play is a spoof of detective plays and thrillers, with the two stars successfully taking on a criminal gang. Eventually, the gang is rounded up, and the jewels taken from the heroine are restored to their proper owner.
A Night Like This is a 1932 comedy film directed by Tom Walls and starring Walls, Ralph Lynn and Winifred Shotter. Ben Travers wrote the screenplay, adapting his own play, the original 1930 Aldwych farce of the same title.
Fifty-Fifty is a farce by H. F. Maltby, adapted from a French original, Azaïs, by Louis Verneuil and Georges Berr. It was the penultimate work of the series of Aldwych farces that ran nearly continuously at the Aldwych Theatre in London from 1923 to 1933. The play centres on the sudden rise of an impoverished music teacher to become manager of a grand casino.
Dirty Work is a farce by Ben Travers. It was one of the series of twelve Aldwych farces that ran in uninterrupted succession at the Aldwych Theatre in London from 1923 to 1933. The play depicts the maladroit but ultimately successful efforts of a shop-walker to outwit a gang of jewel thieves.
A Bit of a Test is a farce by Ben Travers. It was the last, and least successful, of the series of twelve Aldwych farces that ran in uninterrupted succession at the Aldwych Theatre in London from 1923 to 1933. The play depicts the efforts of the England cricket captain to keep his star batsman out of trouble during an Ashes series in Australia.
Stormy Weather is a 1935 British comedy film directed by Tom Walls and starring Walls, Ralph Lynn and Robertson Hare.