Brogan’s Heroes — The Railway, Sports Justice and What’s the Bleeding time?

20 Sep


Good Evening,


Time – or universal time – is a relatively modern concept, and the world survived quite happily without it for thousands of years.

Many people may well be surprised to learn that the one device which single handedly brought about uniform time throughout the United Kingdom was the steam train. Until 1840, The United Kingdom had a whole series of local times  which were roughly similar but which in actual fact had no actual correlation to one another.

However, from 1840 onwards there was a move towards what was known as “Railway Time” which was seen as necessary to ensure that there was some form of recognised timescale for the arrival and departure of the new steam trains otherwise there would be huge confusion as to when the new contraptions would be coming and going.

However, it took another 40 years before time in the UK became standardised by law. In between times ( no pun intended ) the railway companies agreed to use Greenwich Mean Time as their standard time, especially because the exact GMT could be sent to other parts of the country via the telegraph.

However, It was not until 2 August 1880, when the Statutes (Definition of Time) Act received the Royal Assent, that a unified standard time for the whole of Great Britain achieved legal status and effectively became both law and practice.

Today, everything we do is affected by and measured by time.

Our phones tell us the time, the radio constantly informs us of the time, all television programmes are scheduled to time with such standardisation of society that as soon as you hear the familiar tune announcing the evening news you know that it is six o’clock without having to look or check.

All air-travel understandably is controlled by time, your car tells you the time, sat nav’s estimate the time between A and B, shops and other places are sometimes only allowed to open between certain times.

And of course for some, the choice of wrist watch — a simple and straightforward device for simply telling you the time— is a matter of extreme fashion and expenditure, with many brands of watch costing thousands of pounds whilst providing exactly the same information as a watch which can cost less than a fiver.

It is sometimes hard to fathom just why companies that do nothing other than make time pieces hold such a stranglehold in the world of advertising and marketing– especially in the world of sports. Whilst many events have sponsors such as banks or beer companies or insurance companies, all of them put together find it hard to see off what might be considered the time keepers union when it comes to sports sponsorship.

Rado, Sekonda, Patek Phillipe, Rotary, Citizen, Omega, Cartier, Swatch, Tag Heuer — and of course the Big Daddy of them all– Rolex– seem to appear with recurring regularity at golf and tennis events around the world — yet they all sell just the one product.

You will not find a similar collection of car manufacturers, house builders, airlines or whatever in world sport sponsorship. You may find any number of these businesses in a secondary role but they will play second fiddle to the time team as often as not!

Amazingly neither tennis nor golf are sports which are principally regulated by time — unlike football, rugby or whatever — yet it is here that the watch men are absolutely to the fore. Football and other similar sports are actually played within a set time whereas other sports do not deem time as the key regulating factor.

For that reason I have often wondered why the watch men do not recruit football managers as the ideal people to lead an advertising campaign. Can you imagine the impact of an angry Sir Alex permanently pointing to this or that brand of watch for the benefit of a referee or fourth official?

Yet currently our televisions are filled with another seemingly angry Scot who has become synonymous with time fixation.

The 118 118 advertising people have decided to dip into the time archives to revive old footage of the one and only James Robertson Justice repeating perhaps the most famous medical joke in history to promote the 118 service.

It was as the boorish, loud and establishment figure of Sir Lancelot Spratt in the Doctor in the House films, that  allowed Roberstson Justice playing the all domineering head surgeon to demand of one of his students ” What’s the bleeding time?” only to be met with Dirk Bogarde replying ” ten past ten , sir”.

The scene became famous in the annals of British Cinematic comedy and showed Robertson Justice in a role which in many ways defined his public persona.

Yet, if anyone had cared to take a little time to examine things further, you would quickly find James Robertson Justice was absolutely nothing like Sir Lancelot Spratt — in fact he was nothing like anyone else on the planet!

James Norval Harald Justice was born on 15th June 1907 in Lewisham South London. He was the son of an Aberdeen born Geologist.

He was educated at Marlborough College in Wiltshire, and went on to study science at University College, London. However, in what would clearly become the start of a trend, he left after a year and became a geology student at the University of Bonn, where once again he again left after just a year — although he would later claim to hold a PHd from the university. This is a claim which others have said is…. questionable!

He was a very keen sportsman and played rugby for the Beckenham Rugby Football Club  ( for just a year of course ) during the 1924/1925 season where one of his team mates was Johnny Craddock who went on to partner the famous Fanny in later life!

By the time he returned from Bonn he apparently spoke an amazing number of languages fluently (possibly up to 20) including French, Greek, Danish, Russian, German, Italian, Dutch and Gaelic. This helped him to become a journalist with Reuters where he worked alongside Sir Ian Fleming and the father of Peter Ustinov amongst others.

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Yet again, after a year Justice decided to move on, and this time he emigrated to Canada  where he worked as an insurance salesman, taught English at a boys’ school, became a lumberjack and mined for gold. He came back to England penniless, working his passage on a Dutch freighter.

Amazingly, when he returned to Britain, he somehow talked himself into the job of secretary to the British Ice Hockey Association and went on to manage the national team at the 1932 European Championships in Berlin where they achieved a seventh place finish. He combined his administrative duties in 1931–32 with a season as goaltender with the London Lions Ice Hockey Club.

Next came motor racing!

Justice entered a Wolseley Hornet Special in the JCC Thousand Mile Race at Brooklands on 3 and 4 May 1932. The car was unplaced. However, the following year a “J. Justice (J.A.P. Special)” competed in the Brighton Speed Trials. His car of choice which he christened “Tallulah” noisily expired before the end of the course, and was pushed back to the start in full view of the spectators. The Brighton event was won by Whitney Straight and according to Denis Jenkinson: “Flitting round the periphery of the team was James Robertson-Justice.”

In February 1934 Straight took delivery of a new Maserati but revealed: “Jimmy Justice went off to Italy to collect the first car which was 8CM number 3011” and Motor Sport reported in 1963: “We remember him at Lewes with a G.N. and in a Relay Race with a Wolseley Hornet.”

After the car racing escapade, Justice left Britain again to become a policeman for the League of Nations in the Territory of the Saar Basin (a region of Germany occupied and governed by France and Germany under a League of Nations mandate originating in the Treaty of Versailles).

When the Nazis came to power he left the area, and set off to fight in the Spanish Civil War on the Republican side joining the International Brigade. It was here that he first grew his signature trademark bushy beard, which he then retained throughout his career no matter what he did.

On return to Britain, he joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, but after sustaining an injury in 1943 (thought to be shrapnel from a German shell), he was pensioned off. In the interim, he had married nurse Dyllis Hayden in 1941 and together the couple would have a son who tragically died at the age of four when he drowned in a stream near the family home.

When Justice returned from the war he took the deliberate decision to reinvent himself and for the rest of his life he claimed ever stronger Scottish roots — whether they were real or not! For example, at one time he claimed to have been born in 1905 in the grounds of a distillery on the Isle of Skye, and on another occasion he claimed to have been born in Dumfries and Galloway. On the back of this newly emphasised Scottish persona, he persuaded the Labour Party to allow him to contest the North Angus and Mearns (UK Parliament constituency) in the 1950 general election. Sadly he lost, and we shall never know just where James Justice MP might have gone in the political world, but I am of the view he would have been a fabulously interesting although completely maverick MP.

In 1944, Justice had decided to take up acting and joined the Players Club in London which was then chaired by the amazing Lionel Sachs who would later find fame with the BBC TV show ” The Good Old Days”.

The club was the precursor of that show and staged music hall nights and variety shows.

One night, Justice stood in for Sachs and as a result he was offered a film roll in 1944 having been “discovered” in the club.

This was the start of an acting career, fame and celebrity.

His first leading role was as headmaster in the film Vice Versa, written and directed by Peter Ustinov, who cast him partly because he’d been “a collaborator of my father’s at Reuters.”

He would go on to appear in 84 films.

However it was the character of Sir Lancelot Spratt in the Doctor in the House films which ran throughout the 50’s and 60’s that Justice is possibly best remembered for. The overbearing  Sir Lancelot showed James Justice’s comedic timing and expression to a tee and for the rest of his life he would be cast in reasonably similar roles and persona’s. With his large frame, trademark beard and booming voice he was instantly recognisable in any film.

However, he was in no way finished with his own eccentricities and his determination to insist and demonstrate his Scottishness.

He appeared in no less than four films with Gregory Peck, including Captain Horatio Hornblower, RN, and most notably, Moby Dick, in which Robertson-Justice played the one-armed sea captain also attacked by the white whale. In the 1961 box office hit The Guns of Navarone he once again co-starred with Peck, David Niven, Anthony Quinn, Stanley Baker and Anthony Quayle. However Justice was also asked to be the narrator in the film as well as act.

However, sometimes he would insist that the credits in films should be changed to accommodate his Scottish roots. Accordingly in some films he was credited as Seamus Mòr na Feusag — The Scottish Gaelic translation of this phrase is literally  “Big James with the Beard” — at other times he was credited as James R. Justice, James Robertson or James Robertson-Justice.

In private he much preferred the big James with the beard tag or just plain “Jimmy”!

He has twice served as Rector of Edinburgh University. First from 1957 to 1960, and again from 1963 to 1966, In between, the post was filled by the Right Honourable Joe Grimmond MP the leader of the Liberal party, and when his second spell ended he was succeeded by Malcolm Muggeridge.

He was a close friend of Prince Philip despite his lefty politics, he went on to become an informed naturalist and an expert falconer–  and he even taught the young Prince Charles how to handle a Falcon.

He would continue to act, however not long after he completed filming on the set of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in 1968, the seemingly invincible Justice suffered a severe stroke which brought his career effectively to an end.

By this time he had long separated from his wife who had left him after the tragedy with their son and after Justice had embarked on numerous affairs including one with Molly Parkin who described him as her sexual Svengali!

However, Justice and his wife did not divorce until 1968, by which time the great bearded one had been living with the German actress Irene von Meyendorff for a period of 8 years.

Von Meyendorff would nurse him through numerous strokes over the next seven years, before marrying him ( he was her fourth and final husband ) 3 days before he died on July 2nd 1975.

By the time of his death, Big James with the beard was penniless having lived enough of a life for several men, and having spent any money he ever earned on whatever took his fancy –everything from racing cars to horses.

However, before leaving the Justice story it is worth noting what he thought of as his most important and proudest screen roll.

At precisely 5:30pm on the 31st of August 1957, Scottish Television began its first ever broadcast with a variety special programme entitled This is Scotland. The broadcast came live from the Theatre Royal studios in Glasgow and featured a huge number of Scottish show business personalities and celebrated Scotland the nation. In truth the entire show was a remarkable production.

Those taking part included Deborah Kerr, David Niven, Ludovic Kennedy,Jimmy Logan,Stanley Baxter, Kenneth McKellar,Alistair Sim, Moira Shearer, Jack Buchanan, Ross Taylor,Sheila O’Neill, Andrew Keir,The Starlets,The Mitchell Singers, Geraldo’s orchestra,The Clyde Valley Stompers, and The Rock’n’Roll Sinners.

However, the main presenter on this the first ITV franchise show outside London was Scottish James with the big beard!

It is clear from the live nature of the show that Justice is visually moved and proud to be reading from the first autocue used for a broadcast from Scotland and he is forced to pause when reading the description of Scotland and all its glories. The sheer emotion of the moment clearly gets to him before he is able to recover.

Whatever he was, whatever he did in life and wherever he believed he was born, James Robertson Justice believed he was a larger than life Scot and in accordance with his wishes, Big James was cremated and his ashes were scattered on a remote Scottish moor to linger there for time immemorial.


The entire first programme ever broadcast by Scottish Television with James Robertson Justice can be found here:

We will not see his likes again anytime soon.


One Response to “Brogan’s Heroes — The Railway, Sports Justice and What’s the Bleeding time?”

  1. Dermot September 21, 2013 at 1:35 am #

    Another good read,I’m fed up saying that ,you’ll think I like you…also railway mentioned and no demeaning comments towards me..your getting soft…nice one pal.

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