Margaret Rutherford

Last updated

Margaret Rutherford

Margaret Rutherford.gif
Margaret Taylor Rutherford-Benn

(1892-05-11)11 May 1892
Balham, London, England
Died22 May 1972(1972-05-22) (aged 80)
Resting placeSt. James's Church, Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire, England
Years active1925–67
(m. 1945)

Dame Margaret Taylor Rutherford, DBE (11 May 1892 – 22 May 1972) was an English actress of stage, television and film.


She came to prominence following World War II in the film adaptations of Noël Coward's Blithe Spirit , and Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest . She won an Academy Award and a Golden Globe Award for her role as the Duchess of Brighton in The V.I.P.s (1963). In the early 1960s she starred as Agatha Christie's character Miss Marple in a series of four George Pollock films. She was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1961 and a Dame Commander (DBE) in 1967.

Margaret Rutherford's early home, her aunt Bessie's house in Wimbledon, 1895-1920 Dame MARGARET RUTHERFORD - 4 Berkeley Place Wimbledon London SW19 4NN.jpg
Margaret Rutherford's early home, her aunt Bessie's house in Wimbledon, 1895–1920

Early life

Rutherford's early life was overshadowed by tragedies involving both of her parents. Her father, journalist and poet William Rutherford Benn, married Florence Nicholson on 16 December 1882 in Wandsworth, south London. One month after the marriage, he suffered a nervous breakdown and was admitted to Bethnal House Lunatic Asylum. Released to travel under his family's supervision, he murdered his father, the Reverend Julius Benn, a Congregational Church minister, by bludgeoning him to death with a chamber pot, before slashing his own throat with a pocket knife at an inn in Matlock, Derbyshire on 4 March 1883. [1] [2]

Following the inquest, William Benn was certified insane and removed to Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. Seven years later, on 26 July 1890, he was discharged from Broadmoor and reunited with his wife. He legally dropped his surname.

Margaret Taylor Rutherford, the only child of William and Florence, was born in 1892 in Balham, South London. Margaret's uncle, Sir John Benn, 1st Baronet, was a politician, and her first cousin once removed was the Labour politician Tony Benn. Hoping to start a new life far from the scene of their recent troubles, the Rutherfords emigrated to Madras, India, but Margaret was returned to Britain when she was three years old to live with her aunt Bessie Nicholson in Wimbledon, south London, after her pregnant mother hanged herself from a tree.

Young Margaret had been told that her father died of a broken heart soon afterwards, so when she was 12 years old she was shocked to learn that her father had actually been readmitted to Broadmoor Hospital in 1903, where he remained under care until his death on 4 August 1921. Her parents' mental afflictions gave rise to a fear that she might succumb to similar maladies, a fear which haunted her for the rest of her life, and she suffered intermittent bouts of depression and anxiety. [3]

Margaret Rutherford was educated at Wimbledon High School (where a theatre space, the Rutherford Centre, is now named after her) and, from the age of about 13, at Raven's Croft School, a boarding school in Sutton Avenue, Seaford. [4] While she was there, she developed an interest in the theatre and performed in amateur dramatics. After she left school, her aunt paid for her to have private acting lessons. When her aunt died, she left a legacy which allowed Rutherford to secure entry to the Old Vic School. In her autobiography, Rutherford called her Aunt Bessie her "adoptive mother and one of the saints of the world". [5]

Stage career

Rutherford, a talented pianist who first found work as a piano teacher and a teacher of elocution, went into acting relatively late in life, making her stage debut in 1925, at age 33, in the Old Vic. 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. "I never intended to play for laughs. I am always surprised that the audience thinks me funny at all", Rutherford wrote in her autobiography. [5] Rutherford made her first appearance in London's West End in 1933, but her talent was not recognised by the critics until her performance as Miss Prism in John Gielgud's production of The Importance of Being Earnest at the Globe Theatre in 1939.

In 1941 Noël Coward's Blithe Spirit opened on the London stage at the Piccadilly Theatre, with Coward's directing. Rutherford received rave reviews from audiences and critics alike for her lusty portrayal of the bumbling medium Madame Arcati, a role which Coward had envisaged for her. Theatre critic Kenneth Tynan once said of her performances: "The unique thing about Margaret Rutherford is that she can act with her chin alone." [6] Rutherford's quirky, energetic stage presence was such that she could deftly steal a scene even when playing relatively minor roles.[ citation needed ]

Another theatrical success during the war years included her part as the sinister housekeeper Mrs. Danvers in Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca at the Queen's Theatre in 1940. Her post-war theatre credits included Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest again at the Haymarket Theatre in 1946 and Lady Bracknell when the same play transferred to New York City in 1947. She played an officious headmistress in The Happiest Days of Your Life at the Apollo Theatre in 1948 and classical roles such as Madame Desmortes in Ring Round the Moon (Globe Theatre, 1950), Lady Wishfort in The Way of the World (Lyric Hammersmith, 1953 and Saville Theatre, 1956) and Mrs. Candour in The School for Scandal (Haymarket Theatre, 1962). Her final stage performance came in 1966 when she played Mrs. Malaprop in The Rivals at the Haymarket Theatre, alongside Sir Ralph Richardson. Her declining health meant she had to give up the role after a few weeks.[ citation needed ]

Film career

Although she made her film debut in 1936, it was Rutherford's turn as Madame Arcati in David Lean's film of Blithe Spirit (1945) that established her screen success. Her jaunty performance, cycling about the Kent countryside, head held high, back straight, and cape fluttering behind her, established the model for portraying that role thereafter. She was Nurse Carey in Miranda (1948) and the sprightly Medieval expert Professor Hatton-Jones in Passport to Pimlico (1949), one of the Ealing Comedies. She reprised her stage roles of the headmistress alongside Alastair Sim in The Happiest Days of Your Life (1950) and Miss Prism in Anthony Asquith's film adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest (1952).

More comedies followed, including Castle in the Air (1952) with David Tomlinson, 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. Rutherford then worked with Norman Wisdom again in Just My Luck (1957) and co-starred in The Smallest Show on Earth with Virginia McKenna, Peter Sellers and Leslie Phillips (both 1957). 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 (1959).

In the early 1960s, she appeared as Miss Jane Marple in a series of four George Pollock films loosely based on the novels of Agatha Christie. The films depicted Marple as a colourful character, respectable but bossy and eccentric. Authors Marion Shaw and Sabine Vanacker in their book Reflecting on Miss Marple (1991) complained that the emphasis on the "dotty element in the character" missed entirely "the quietness and sharpness" that was admired in the novels. [2] The actress, then aged in her 70s, insisted on wearing her own clothes for the part and having her husband 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. [2] [7] Rutherford reprised the role of Miss Marple in a very brief, uncredited cameo in the 1965 film The Alphabet Murders .

Rutherford played the absent-minded, impoverished, pill-popping Duchess of Brighton, the only comedy relief, in Terence Rattigan's The V.I.P.s (1963), a film featuring a star-studded cast led by Dame Maggie Smith, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. For her performance, she won an Academy Award and Golden Globe Awards for Best Supporting Actress. At the time she set a record for the oldest women and last born in the nineteenth century to win an Oscar.

She appeared as Mistress Quickly in Orson Welles' film Chimes at Midnight (1965) and was directed by Charlie Chaplin in A Countess from Hong Kong (1967), starring Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren, which was one of her final films. She started work on The Virgin and the Gypsy (1970), but illness caused her to be replaced by Fay Compton.

Personal life

In 1945, Rutherford, fifty-three, married character actor Stringer Davis, forty-six, after a courtship that lasted for 15 years. Davis' mother reportedly considered Rutherford an unsuitable match for her son, and their wedding was postponed until after Mrs. Davis had died. [8] Subsequently, the couple appeared in many productions together. Davis adored Rutherford, with one friend noting: "For him she was not only a great talent but, above all, a beauty." [9] The former serviceman and actor rarely left his wife's side, serving Rutherford as private secretary 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 Rutherford's life. The Marple films capture something of the couple's public personae as projected in the press at the time: their cosy domesticity, erratic housekeeping and almost childlike innocence and affection.

In the 1950s, Rutherford and Davis unofficially adopted the writer Gordon Langley Hall, then in his twenties. Hall later had sex reassignment surgery and became Dawn Langley Simmons, under which name she wrote a biography of Rutherford in 1983.

Rutherford was made a Dame of the British Empire in 1967.


Rutherford suffered from Alzheimer's disease at the end of her life and was unable to work. Davis cared for his wife at their Buckinghamshire home until her death on 22 May 1972, aged 80. [10] Many of Britain's top actors, including Sir John Gielgud, Sir Ralph Richardson, Dame Flora Robson and Joyce Grenfell, attended a memorial Service of Thanksgiving at the Actors' Church, St. Paul's, Covent Garden, on 21 July 1972, where 90-year-old Dame Sybil Thorndike praised her friend's enormous talent and recalled that Rutherford had "never said anything horrid about anyone".[ citation needed ]

Rutherford and Davis (who died in 1973) are interred at the graveyard of St. James's Church, Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire. "A Blithe Spirit" is inscribed on the base of Margaret Rutherford's memorial stone, a reference to the Noël Coward play that helped to make her name.

Margaret Rutherford honour plaque in London Margaret Rutherford plaque.jpg
Margaret Rutherford honour plaque in London

Theatre performances


1936 Troubled Waters Bit rolefilm debut, uncredited
1936 Dusty Ermine Evelyn Summers aka Miss Butterby
1936 Talk of the Devil Housekeeper
1937 Beauty and the Barge Mrs. Baldwin
1937 Big Fella Nannyuncredited
1937 Catch as Catch Can Maggie Carberry
1937 Missing, Believed Married Lady Parke
1941 Spring Meeting Aunt Bijou
1941 Quiet Wedding Magistrate
1943 Yellow Canary Mrs. Towcester
1943 The Demi-Paradise Rowena Ventnor
1944 English Without Tears Lady Christabel Beauclerk
1945 Blithe Spirit Madame Arcati
1947 While the Sun Shines Dr Winifred Frye
1947 Meet Me at Dawn Madame Vernore
1948 Miranda Nurse Carey
1949 Passport to Pimlico Professor Hatton-Jones
1950 The Happiest Days of Your Life Muriel Whitchurch
1950 Her Favourite Husband Mrs. Dotherington
1951 The Magic Box Lady Pond
1952 Curtain Up Catherine Beckwith / Jeremy St. Claire
1952 The Importance of Being Earnest Miss Letitia Prism
1952 Castle in the Air Miss Nicholson
1952 Miss Robin Hood Miss Honey
1953 Innocents in Paris Gwladys Inglott
1953 Trouble in Store Miss Bacon
1954 The Runaway Bus Miss Cynthia Beeston
1954 Mad About Men Nurse Carey
1954 Aunt Clara Clara Hilton
1955 An Alligator Named Daisy Prudence Croquet
1957 The Smallest Show on Earth Mrs. Fazackalee
1957 Just My Luck Mrs. Dooley
1959 I'm All Right Jack Aunt Dolly
1961 On the Double Lady Vivian
1961 Murder, She Said Miss Jane Marple
1963 The Mouse on the Moon Grand Duchess Gloriana XIII
1963 Murder at the Gallop Miss Jane Marple
1963 The V.I.P.s The Duchess of Brighton
1964 Murder Most Foul Miss Jane Marple
1964 Murder Ahoy!
1965 Chimes at Midnight Mistress Quickly
1965 The Alphabet Murders Miss Jane Marpleuncredited cameo
1967 A Countess from Hong Kong Miss Gaulswallow
1967 Arabella Princess Ilaria
1967 The Wacky World of Mother Goose Mother Goosevoice, final film role


For One Night Only: Margaret Rutherford. Margaret Rutherford (Timothy Spall in drag) tells her life story in cabaret form before an audience. Without Walls TV Series (UK) 5 October 1993.


The English PEN International Centre included several readings of poems by Rutherford on a list entitled Library of Recordings.pdf (1953). The works listed were:

78s and singles

Related Research Articles

Miss Marple Fictional character in Agatha Christies crime novels

Miss Marple is a fictional character in Agatha Christie's crime novels and short stories. Jane Marple lives in the village of St. Mary Mead and acts as an amateur consulting detective. Often characterized as an elderly spinster, she is one of Christie's best-known characters and has been portrayed numerous times on screen. Her first appearance was in a short story published in The Royal Magazine in December 1927, "The Tuesday Night Club", which later became the first chapter of The Thirteen Problems (1932). Her first appearance in a full-length novel was in The Murder at the Vicarage in 1930, and her last appearance was in Sleeping Murder in 1976.

<i>The Importance of Being Earnest</i> Literary work by Oscar Wilde

The Importance of Being Earnest, A Trivial Comedy for Serious People is a play by Oscar Wilde. First performed on 14 February 1895 at the St James's Theatre in London, it is a farcical comedy in which the protagonists maintain fictitious personae to escape burdensome social obligations. Working within the social conventions of late Victorian London, the play's major themes are the triviality with which it treats institutions as serious as marriage, and the resulting satire of Victorian ways. Some contemporary reviews praised the play's humour and the culmination of Wilde's artistic career, while others were cautious about its lack of social messages. Its high farce and witty dialogue have helped make The Importance of Being Earnest Wilde's most enduringly popular play.

Flora Robson English actress

Dame Flora McKenzie Robson was an English actress and star of the theatrical stage and cinema, particularly renowned for her performances in plays demanding dramatic and emotional intensity. Her range extended from queens to murderesses.

Dame Penelope Anne Constance Keith, is an English actress and presenter, active in all genres, including radio, stage, television and film and primarily known for her roles in the British sitcoms The Good Life and To the Manor Born. She succeeded Lord Olivier as president of the Actors' Benevolent Fund after his death in 1989, and was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in the 2014 New Year Honours for services to the arts and to charity.

Edith Evans

Dame Edith Mary Evans, was an English actress. She was best known for her work on the stage, but also appeared in films at the beginning and towards the end of her career. Between 1964 and 1968, she was nominated for three Academy Awards.

<i>Blithe Spirit</i> (play) Play written by Noël Coward

Blithe Spirit is a comic play by Noël Coward. The play concerns the socialite and novelist Charles Condomine, who invites the eccentric medium and clairvoyant, Madame Arcati, to his house to conduct a séance, hoping to gather material for his next book. The scheme backfires when he is haunted by the ghost of his annoying and temperamental first wife, Elvira, after the séance. Elvira makes continual attempts to disrupt Charles's marriage to his second wife, Ruth, who cannot see or hear the ghost.

Joan Hickson British actress

Joan Bogle Hickson, OBE was an English actress of theatre, film and television. She was known for her role as Agatha Christie's Miss Marple in the television series Miss Marple. She also narrated a number of Miss Marple stories on audiobooks.

Joyce Carey

Joyce Carey, OBE was an English actress, best known for her long professional and personal relationship with Noël Coward. Her stage career lasted from 1916 until 1987, and she was performing on television in her nineties. Though never a star, she was a familiar face both on stage and screen. In addition to light comedy, she had a large repertory of Shakespearean roles.

Stringer Davis

James Buckley Stringer Davis, generally known as Stringer Davis, was an English character actor on the stage and in films, and a British army officer who served in both world wars. He was married to actress Margaret Rutherford.

<i>Murder Most Foul</i> (film) 1964 film by George Pollock

Murder Most Foul is the third of four Miss Marple films made by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Loosely based on the 1952 novel Mrs McGinty's Dead by Agatha Christie, it stars Margaret Rutherford as Miss Jane Marple, Charles Tingwell as Inspector Craddock, and Stringer Davis as Mr Stringer. The story is ostensibly based on Christie's novel, but notably changes the action and the characters. Hercule Poirot is replaced by Miss Marple and most of the other characters are not in the novel.

Seana McKenna is a Canadian actress primarily associated with stage roles at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.

<i>The Importance of Being Earnest</i> (1952 film) 1952 film by Anthony Asquith

The Importance of Being Earnest (1952) is a British film adaptation of the 1895 play by Oscar Wilde. It was directed by Anthony Asquith, who also adapted the screenplay, and was produced by Anthony Asquith, Teddy Baird, and Earl St. John.

<i>Blithe Spirit</i> (1945 film)

Blithe Spirit is a 1945 British fantasy-comedy film directed by David Lean. The screenplay by Lean, cinematographer Ronald Neame and associate producer Anthony Havelock-Allan is based on producer Noël Coward's 1941 play of the same name, the title of which is derived from the line "Hail to thee, blithe Spirit! Bird thou never wert" in the poem "To a Skylark" by Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Isabel Jeans Actress

Isabel Jeans was an English stage and film actress known for her roles in several Alfred Hitchcock films and her portrayal of Aunt Alicia in the 1958 musical film Gigi.

Judy Campbell English actress, playwright

Judy Campbell was an English actress and playwright, widely known to be Noël Coward's muse. Her daughter is the actress and singer Jane Birkin, her son the screenwriter and director Andrew Birkin, and among her grandchildren are the actresses Charlotte Gainsbourg and Lou Doillon, the late poet Anno Birkin, the artist David Birkin and the late photographer Kate Barry.

Margaret Rawlings English actress

Margaret Rawlings, Lady Barlow was an English stage actress, born in Osaka, Japan, daughter of the Rev. George William Rawlings and his wife Lilian Rawlings.

Pauline "Polly" Adams is an English actress best known for her work on the stage both in England and in the United States, and for her portrayal of Mrs. Brown on the television series Just William.

Richard Pearson (actor) English character actor

Richard de Pearsall Pearson was an English character actor, who appeared in numerous film, television and stage productions over a period of 65 years. He played leading roles in several London West End plays and also supported Maggie Smith, Robert Morley and others in long-running West End stage productions. His many screen appearances included character parts in three Polanski films.

Beryl Measor, was an English actress. She was born in Shanghai, and studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. She was a star pupil, winning the RADA Silver Medal in 1931.

Moya Nugent

Moya Nugent was a British actress and singer. She made a few broadcasts and three silent films but was chiefly known as a stage performer, and was particularly associated with the works of Noël Coward, appearing in twelve of his plays and two of his revues. Before that, she appeared early in her career in Peter Pan, and was cast in other children's plays and pantomimes. She was in the West End casts of revues by Cole Porter and others, and in musical comedies such as Lilac Time.


  1. Sweet, Matthew (7 March 2004). "A life in films: Murder she hid". The Independent on Sunday. London. Retrieved 30 November 2007.[ dead link ]
  2. 1 2 3 Merriman, Andy (2009). Margaret Rutherford: Dreadnought with Good Manners. London: Aurum.
  3. Billington, Michael (2001). Stage and Screen Lives. Oxford University Press. p. 291. ISBN   978-0-19-860407-5.; Andy Merriman in Radio Times, 4–10 June 2011
  4. "Oxford Dictionary of National Biography profile". Archived from the original on 15 July 2012. Retrieved 18 November 2011.
  5. 1 2 Rutherford, Margaret; Robyns, Gwen (1972). Margaret Rutherford: An autobiography. London: W. H. Allen. ISBN   978-0-491-00379-7.
  6. Tynan, Kenneth. "Acting and the Theatre". Archived from the original on 11 August 2014. Retrieved 1 August 2014.
  7. Clymer, Phil. "Filling Miss Marple's shoes". Retrieved 3 August 2014.
  8. Norman, Neil (24 September 2009). "Miss. Marple's torment". Express: Home of the Daily and Sunday Express. Retrieved 25 September 2009.
  9. Merriman, Andy (15 August 2011). Margaret Rutherford: Dreadnought with Good Manners. Aurum Press. ISBN   978-1-84513-758-8.
  10. "Obituary". Variety. Los Angeles. 24 May 1972. p. 71.

Further reading