Margaret Rutherford proudly posing with her Oscar, Golden Globe and Variety Club Awards. 1963.

Chin Up: Margaret Rutherford

20th November 2009

Dame Margaret Rutherford’s performances in films such as Blithe Spirit and The Importance of Being Earnest are still warmly recalled over thirty-five years after her death. As a delightful new biography by Andy Merriman reveals, though, her private life wasn’t roses all the way. Jack Watkins speaks to the author…

When Margaret Rutherford stepped forward to audition for a place at the Old Vic drama school in 1925 she found, to her deep embarrassment, that the new pair of shoes she had specially bought for the occasion squeaked each time she moved. When she completed her reading, Lilian Baylis, the legendary Old Vic manager, cuttingly remarked: “I think production might be a safer line than acting.”

In fact, Rutherford was admitted to the school, but the moment not only foreshadowed the comic future to come, but encapsulated her tortuous struggle to launch her career. Already she was thirty-two years old. She would have to wait a further three years to make her professional stage debut, and would not become truly established until the late 1930s, by which time she was approaching fifty.

Margaret Rutherford went on to become probably the best-loved British comic actress there has ever been. She had the gift, given to few, of holding the stage or screen simply by her presence, and of making audiences laugh by the merest look. Her remarkable appearance was a boon to critics. Kenneth Tynan once said that she could act ‘with her chin alone’. Another wrote that ‘her jaw was pillowed in an accordion of jowls’. When her performance in Castles in the Air provided – as was so often the case – some of the only moments to savour in the film, her reward was to be described by the New York Times as ‘thundering through the picture like a dedicated rhino’.

An early publicity shot 1930’s

In theatre, and in films such as The Happiest Days of Your Life, Blithe Spirit, The Importance of Being Earnest and I’m All Right Jack, she exemplified a peculiarly English form of dotty absent-mindedness and, as this biography reveals, she was little different offstage. Yet her private life had more than its share of sadness. She barely knew her father, who was twice committed to Broadmoor, and who had murdered her grandfather. Her mother committed suicide. Rutherford herself would suffer from manic depression – or what is now known as bi-polar disorder – throughout her life, and frequently required treatment.

Merriman’s credentials for writing this book are impeccable. For a start, he too has had to deal with a personal challenge: his daughter has Down’s syndrome, and the issues this presented for his family he explored in a radio drama, Minor Adjustment. Although the author admits: “I wasn’t exactly born in a trunk,” he did also grow up in a show business and theatrical background, and is at ease when interviewing actors and performers. Not only were two of his grandparents on the stage, but his father, Eric Merriman, was the creator and co-writer of the Kenneth Horne radio comedy Beyond Our Ken, and wrote comedy material for such as Frankie Howerd, Dave Allen and Tommy Cooper. Merriman adds: “I’m somewhat drawn to theatrical eccentrics, and I have always loved Margaret Rutherford’s screen persona.”

His last book was the well-received biography of Hattie Jacques, another female with a large presence in every sense. Whereas Rutherford appeared contented and self sufficient in her eccentricity, Jacques often projected neediness and vulnerability – but, says Merriman, “the more I researched Margaret Rutherford’s life, the more parallels I discovered.” Both felt typecast, he explains, and their contemporaries felt that they were capable of a greater range of parts than they were awarded. “I suppose Hattie was more typecast, but because of their looks and size, neither ever got the chance to play the romantic lead.”

Whereas Jacques, it seems, was conscious of her looks and size, Rutherford was oblivious to hers. When Merriman remarks that she was no ‘fashionista’ in the dress sense, I am reminded of the instance, described in the biography, of her wearing a yellow blanket with green stripes, made into a – ‘dashing’ (in her words) – trouser suit, on an acting tour of Canada. “Only Rutherford could have got away with this sartorial disaster,” reflects Merriman.

I question him on his reference to her as a ‘great actress’, not apparent from the limited range of her film work. “I suppose I am referring to some of her theatrical roles, which were more dramatic, and less obviously comedic,” he replies. “Sadly, I never saw her on stage, but Kenneth Tynan described her performance as Lady Wishfort in William Congreve’s The Way of The World as a ‘Banquet of Acting’ – which I think is a lovely phrase. And when she was Madame Desmortes in Peter Brook’s production of Ring Round the Moon, the director described her as a ‘true born actress’.”

Though Rutherford died, aged 80, in 1972, Merriman managed to speak to several contemporaries, and many others who worked with her – none of whom, it appears, had a bad word to say about her. “They all loved her,” he agrees. “She was incredibly kind and thoughtful, although somewhat naïve and otherworldly. All her friends and contemporaries gave examples of her generosity, and were very protective of her and her mental illness.”

If it all makes her sound too good to be true, throughout the book there is a gentle undercurrent of melancholia. Rutherford did find happiness in her private life, marrying, at the age of 53, fellow actor Stringer Davis. He was devoted to her and she to him, even to the extent of having a clause written into her later contracts guaranteeing him a role in her films – firm proof, it must be said, of the old maxim ‘love is blind’, for truly there can have few duller, more leaden actors. But mental fatigue and breakdowns dogged the actress throughout her career, and she had frequent recourse to medication and institutionalisation, and even underwent electro-convulsive therapy.

Merriman is not a prurient writer, but Rutherford’s decline in her later years, when memory loss caused difficulty in remembering lines, requiring her to be replaced on her last two contracted films, is moving to read, nonetheless.

For a time in the early 1960s, though, she had risen to become the highest paid British actresses working for MGM – ironically for the rather undistinguished run of films which starred her as Miss Marple. True, as Merriman says, she was no ‘glamour queen’, but there’s a sweetness about her that endures. Perhaps the director Ken Annakin put it best when he said: “She had hard features. But the inner workings and emotions almost make her beautiful.” In the hearts of many devotees of a golden period of post-war British comedy, she will indeed always be lovely Margaret.

Margaret Rutherford: Dreadnought with Good Manners by Andy Merriman is published by Aurum Press at £18.99

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