Web Page No 2202
13th October 2015
Top Picture: Margaret Rutherford
Second Picture: Stringer Davis
Third Picture: In Blythe Spirit
There appeared at time in the early 1960’s that whatever film you went to see Margaret Rutherford was almost certain to be in it.
She first came to prominence following World War II in the film adaptations of Blithe Spirit, and Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. In 1963 she won the best supporting actress Oscar and a Golden Globe for her role as The Duchess of Brighton in The VIPs and was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1961 and a Dame Commander (DBE) in 1967.
Her early life was overshadowed by tragedy. Her father was William Rutherford Benn, a journalist and poet and member of the famous Benn family of London. One month after his marriage to Florence, née Nicholson, on 16th December 1882, he suffered a nervous breakdown and was admitted to Bethnal House Lunatic Asylum. Released to travel under family supervision, he murdered his father, the Reverend Julius Benn, a Congregational minister, by bludgeoning him to death with a chamber pot, before he slashed his own throat with a pocket knife at an inn in Matlock on 4th March 1883. Following the inquest, William Benn was certified insane and moved to Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. Seven years later, on 26th July 1890, he was discharged from Broadmoor, reunited with his wife and legally dropped his surname.
Margaret Taylor Rutherford was an only child and was born in 1892 in Balham. Margaret's father's brother Sir John Benn, 1st Baronet was a British politician and her first cousin once removed was British Labour politician Tony Benn. Hoping to start a new life far from the scene of their recent troubles, the Rutherfords emigrated to Madras. However, Margaret was returned to Britain when she was three to live with her aunt, Bessie Nicholson, in Wimbledon, after her pregnant mother committed suicide by hanging herself from a tree. At twelve years old, Margaret learned that her father was not dead as she had been by her relatives but, in fact, had been readmitted to Broadmoor Hospital in 1903, where he remained under care until his death in 1921.
Her parents' mental afflictions along with a fear that she might succumb to similar maladies haunted her for the rest of her life and contributed to intermittent bouts of depression and anxiety.
She was educated at Wimbledon High School and, from the age of 13, at Raven's Croft School, a boarding school in Seaford. While there, she developed an interest in the theatre and performed in amateur dramatics. Upon leaving school, her aunt Bessie paid for her to have private acting lessons. Also, when Bessie died, it was money from her legacy that allowed Margaret to secure entry into the Old Vic School.
Unbeknown to many she was a talented pianist who first found work as a piano teacher and a teacher of elocution and went into acting late in life, making her stage debut at the Old Vi cin 1925, aged 33. As her celebrated "spaniel jowls" and bulky frame made the part of a romantic heroine out of the question, she soon established her name in comedy, appearing in many of the most successful British plays and films. She made her first appearance in London's West End in 1933 but her talent was not recognised until her performance as Miss Prism in John Gielgud's production of The Importance of Being Earnest in 1939. In 1941 Noël Coward's Blithe Spirit opened on the London stage at the Piccadilly Theatre, with Noel Coward himself directing. She received rave reviews from audiences and critics alike for her portrayal of the bumbling Madame Arcati. Another theatrical success during the war years included her part as the sinister housekeeper Mrs Danvers in Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca in 1940.Her stage career was now set but although she made her film debut in 1936, it was her Madame Arcati in David Lean's film of Blithe Spirit in 1945 that actually established her screen success.
But her forte was comedy, although she always said that no one was more surprised than her when the audience laughed. More comedies followed, including Trouble in Store (1953) with Norman Wisdom, The Runaway Bus (1954) with Frankie Howerd and An Alligator Named Daisy(1955) with Donald Sinden and Diana Dors. she then rejoined Norman Wisdom in Just My Luck and co-starred in The Smallest Show on Earth with Virginia McKenna, Peter Sellers and Leslie Phillips. She also joined a host of distinguished comedy stars, including Ian Carmichael and Peter Sellers, in the Boulting Brothers satire I'm All Right Jack.
In the early 1960s she appeared as Miss Jane Marple in a series of four films loosely based on the novels of Agatha Christie. The films depicted Miss Marple as a colourful character, respectable but bossy and eccentric and it was her outstanding performance in this role that set the mould for Miss Marple on screen for years to come. The actress, then aged in her 70s, insisted on wearing her own clothes for the part and having her husband, Stringer Davis, appear alongside her. In 1963 Christie dedicated her novel The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side "To Margaret Rutherford in admiration", though the novelist too was critical of the films for diverging from her original plots and playing dramatic scenes for laughs
In 1945 she had married character actor Stringer Davis after a courtship that lasted for 15 years. Stringer Davis' mother reportedly considered Margaret Rutherford an unsuitable match for her son and their marriage were postponed until Mrs Davis' demise. The ex-serviceman and actor rarely left his wife's side, serving as her private secretary, gofer and general dogsbody. More importantly, he nursed and comforted her through periodic debilitating depressions. These illnesses, sometimes involving stays in mental hospitals and electric shock treatment, were kept hidden from the press during her life.
Towards the end of her life she suffered from Alzheimer's and was unable to work. Stringer Davis cared for his wife at their Buckinghamshire home until her death on 22nd May 1972, aged 80. Many of Britain's top actors, including John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Flora Robson and Joyce Grenfell, attended a memorial Service of Thanksgiving at the Actors' Church, St Paul's, Covent Garden on 21st July 1972, where 90-year-old Sybil Thorndike praised her friend's enormous talent and recalled that she had "never said anything horrid about anyone".
She and her husband (who died in 1973) are interred at the graveyard of St. James's Church, Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire. "A Blithe Spirit" is inscribed on the memorial stone.
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News and Views:
On this day 13th October 1960-1965
On 13/10/1960 the number one single was Tell Laura I Love Her - Ricky Valance The top rated TV show was Bootsie & Snudge and the box office smash was Psycho. A pound of today's money was worth £ 13.68 and Tottenham Hotspur were on the way to becoming the Season's Division 1 champions. The big news story of the day was the start of the TV series No Hiding Place
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