SIR John Mills reminisces about his large Denham home as he prepares to move into smaller premises

IT is the memory of the family Christmases that Sir John Mills will treasure most when he closes the door on Hills House in Denham for the very last time.

At 96, Sir John and his wife Lady Mary Hayley Bell, 92, have found the 17th century house is too large and rambling for them and they are set to move to a bungalow also in the village. One of the reasons they are leaving the house is because of the stairs. Mary has Alzhiemer's, and John's hearing is poor and his sight has gone.

But Sir John is in high spirits about the move. "I believe in life there is a time for everything and we have had 29 glorious years in this house. It is one of the happiest houses I have ever lived in, and I have lived in 14. And it just so happens we are very lucky indeed because the time has come to move where there aren't any stairs."

Sir John and Lady Mary moved into the house in 1975. They had been guests at the house before, when it was owned by film director Sir Alexander Korda. They had their daughter Hayley christened in the church next door. The Mills have two other children Juliet and Jonathan.

We are sitting in the drawing room which overlooks the four-acre garden. A grand piano stands stately in front of the window on which are framed photographs of the family and stars of the silver screen who were his close friends - Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier and David Niven. Over the fireplace is an oil painting of Lady Mary in her younger days and on an antique desk is a BAFTA award.

Sir John is a little frail but looks very dapper wearing light brown cords, a leather beige waistcoat and a white and pink floral shirt with a pink cravat.

He reminisces about the house.

"The thing that will stick in my mind are the family Christmases. It is a wonderful family house. The children are now living all over the world, but they manage to congregate here at Christmas, so the Christmases have been very special. We do the usual English Christmas with all the trimmings. And the hall is a marvellous place for the tree. Eight or nine of us would be here on Christmas day.

"It is a wonderful party house. It is beautifully planned. There's the hall, dining room and kitchen off of it, and that leads onto the drawing room - this is a lovely room, isn't it?"

One of his most memorable parties - and Sir John has had many, even these days he is still throwing them - is the day he and Lady Mary renewed their marriage vows on their diamond wedding anniversary on a crisp day in January 2001.

Sir John and Lady Mary went across to St Mary's church, hand in hand, 60 years after they first tied the knot with the world's press snapping the moment. Then family and friends returned to the house for a celebration.

"I think that was one of the nicest memories," he says.

The renewal of their vows was in sharp contrast to their original wedding day on January 16, 1941, which was a quieter affair at Marylebone Register Office. The war was on and he got 48 hours' leave and they had a one night honeymoon in Duke's Hotel in Jermyn Street.

He remembers the day he first met Mary in China in Tientsin in the Thirties when he was touring and she was the colonel's daughter. Then they met again at the Comedy Theatre where he was starring in Mice and Men.

"She had a fantastic personality. I was just taken by her and she was beautiful. She did a very wise thing which made the marriage very secure, she gave up acting because she said one week she would be in Wigan and I would be in Beverly Hills, and that's no good in a marriage. You are supposed to be together. God was very kind and she became a very successful writer. She was at home with the children and me and could still work."

Mary wrote Whistle Down the Wind which Andrew Lloyd Webber produced as a musical and Duet for Two Hands.

"She wrote lovely poetry. She wrote poems to me."

When asked what the secret is to keep his marriage alive and fresh he says: "I think one of the vital ingredients is a sense of humour - hang on to that. We are very lucky."

Lucky in love and lucky in career - Sir John has lived a charmed life.

"I have been very lucky," he says a number of times during our conversation. And the house, he feels, has attributed to his success.

"The man I bought the house from was Peter Bezencenet who had taken great care of it, and he said this is the happiest house he has ever been in."

It was Brown Resolution (1935) which made Sir John a star. After the war he went to Hollywood and was great friends with Rex Harrison, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh.

But the role that stands out for him the most was playing the village grotesque in Ryan's Daughter.

"I think it has to be the one that I won the Oscar for because it was so unusual. I couldn't speak in it. I wasted all those years talking," he jokes.

He says he always wanted to be an actor.

"I always intended to be an actor since I was five and I never changed. I never wanted to be an engine driver or anything else. My sister was a brilliant dancer. She did Muffin the Mule when she was older and I used to watch her dance. I just wanted to be an actor."

Even today, Sir John hasn't quite retired from acting. "I still do a bit. I do appearances for charity to keep my hand in. I did a picture with Stephen Fry about 18 months ago, it was only a small part. It was great fun.

"There are masses of phone calls every day. The phone never stops. It is very busy."

So how does Sir John keep up his energy?

"I eat well and take exercise. I love swimming. I have a pool and the new house has a pool ten yards from the house. It's the best exercise in the world because there is not strain. I do about ten to 20 lengths a day."

His other secret, he divulges, is taking a nap in the afternoon.

"I always get my feet up after lunch, even in the old days when I was young and filming. I wouldn't have lunch, I would have a quick salad and lie flat for half an hour and that would re-energise me."

So when he and Mary finally leave the house, with the walls echoing with the memory of the family gatherings and fun parties, will there be anything that he will miss?

"I don't think I will miss anything, I am so looking forward to the new house which is absolutely lovely. And Mary loves it too."

So, when he finally shuts the door for the very last time, what will he say?

"Thank you. I had a marvellous time."