Rodney Ackland

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Ackland photographed by Howard Coster, 1936 Playwright & actor Rodney Ackland.jpg
Ackland photographed by Howard Coster, 1936

Rodney Ackland (18 May 1908 in Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex – 6 December 1991 in Richmond upon Thames, Surrey) was an English playwright, actor, theatre director and screenwriter.


Born as Norman Ackland Bernstein in Southend, Essex, to a Jewish father from Warsaw and a non-Jewish mother, [1] he was educated at Balham Grammar School in London. In his 16th year he made his first stage appearance at the Gate Theatre Studio, playing Medvedieff in Gorky's The Lower Depths and later studied acting at the Central School of Speech Training and Dramatic Art. He married Mab Lonsdale, daughter of the playwright Frederick Lonsdale, in 1952; she died in 1972.

Theatre career

In 1929, after performing with various repertory companies, he toured as Young Woodley in the play of that name. At the Gaiety Theatre in 1933 he played Paul in his own adaptation of Ballerina, which also toured the following year, and at the Criterion in 1936 he played the role of Oliver Nashwick in his own original play After October which transferred there from the Arts Theatre.

In 1941, he co-wrote the screenplay for the film Temptation Harbour starring Robert Newton and Simone Simon. Two musical collaborations came in 1942 with his version of Blossom Time starring Richard Tauber as Franz Schubert at the Lyric Theatre, and his London Coliseum production of the musical play, The Belle of New York . He also wrote and directed The Dark River at the Whitehall Theatre in 1943, starring Peggy Ashcroft. He joined Robert Newton as co-authors of Cupid and Mars (1945), and A Multitude of Sins (1951)

The first staging of his large-cast drama, The Pink Room (or The Escapists), in Brighton and then at the Lyric Hammersmith in London on 18 June 1952, was largely financed by Terence Rattigan, who liked the play and believed it deserved a London production. The Pink Room was a tragi-comedy set in the summer of 1945 in a seedy London club (based on the French Club in Soho). [2] It received a severe critical panning and after that, apart from one further play and an adaptation, it led to a 40-year near-silence from the playwright. According to its director, Frith Banbury, "When the play failed, Terry never wanted to see Rodney again."

However, following the abolition of the Lord Chamberlain's licensing and censorship functions in 1968, there was a growing permissiveness about what could be presented on the stage, and in the 1980s, while ailing with leukaemia, Ackland rewrote aspects of this play, re-titling it Absolute Hell . It was put on in its new form in 1988 to considerable success at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond-upon-Thames, directed by Sam Walters and John Gardyne, and starring Polly Hemingway and David Rintoul.

In 1991 it was adapted and directed for BBC Television by Anthony Page, starring Dame Judi Dench, and the play was revived by Page at the Royal National Theatre in 1995, again with Dench in the leading role. In 2018 the National staged another revival, directed by Joe Hill-Gibbins and starring Kate Fleetwood. [3]

See also Nick Smurthwaite's theatre profile of Ackland for The Stage, Revival of a Realist, 5 February 2004

Film career

Rodney Ackland's first contact with Alfred Hitchcock was as a supporting actor in the 1931 screen version of John Galsworthy's play The Skin Game . [4] But a year later Hitchcock recognised his potential as a screenwriter, collaborating with him on the second film adaptation of J Jefferson Farjeon's London fog-bound thriller Number Seventeen starring Leon M Lion. [5]

Ackland co-wrote the popular British film Bank Holiday (1938), contributed additional dialogue to Young Man's Fancy (1940), and made some uncredited contributions to 1941's Dangerous Moonlight and 1944's Love Story . [6]

His screenplay for Hatter's Castle in 1941, from the novel by A.J. Cronin, provided a rampant star role for Robert Newton as the megalomaniac Scottish hatter. [7] In 1942 he shared with Emeric Pressburger an Academy Award nomination for the screenplay of 49th Parallel , starring Raymond Massey and Eric Portman, (released in the United States as The Invaders). [8]

Ackland is credited with discovering the actress Sally Ann Howes, the child of neighbour Bobby Howes, when he insisted that she audition for his 1943 film Thursday's Child , which he both wrote and directed.

He renewed his association with Pressburger in 1946 with a screenplay for the stagey, now forgotten thriller Wanted for Murder , mainly as a film vehicle for the talents of Eric Portman playing a man obsessed by his father's role as the public hangman. In the same year he made the first adaptation of Georges Simenon's novel Newhaven/Dieppe , directed by Lance Comfort, with another overwrought performance by Robert Newton, set against swirling studio fog.

He twice collaborated with Rattigan as a movie scriptwriter: in 1942 for Anthony Asquith's Uncensored , starring Eric Portman; and again — but neither he nor Rattigan were credited — for the 1948 Associated British production of Bond Street , four stories in one, about a wedding trousseau.

His final work for the cinema was on the screenplay of an adaptation of Alexander Pushkin's The Queen of Spades . Ackland intended to direct the film, but fell out with the producer Anatole de Grunwald and star Anton Walbrook. Thorold Dickinson took over at short notice and rewrote Ackland's script with the help of de Grunwald. [9]

Assisted by a co-author Elspeth Grant, Ackland wrote his memoirs, The Celluloid Mistress, or The Custard Pie of Dr. Caligari, published by Alan Wingate in London in 1954.


John Gielgud and Dolly Haas in the 1947 Broadway production of Ackland's stage dramatization of Crime and Punishment Gielgud and Haas in Crime and Punishment.jpg
John Gielgud and Dolly Haas in the 1947 Broadway production of Ackland's stage dramatization of Crime and Punishment

Selected filmography

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  1. William D. Rubinstein, Michael Jolles, Hilary L. Rubinstein, The Palgrave Dictionary of Anglo-Jewish History, Palgrave Macmillan (2011), p. 13
  2. The Oxford Companion to English Literature, 6th Edition. Edited by Margaret Drabble, Oxford University Press, 2000 Pp 4
  3. Billington, Michael (26 April 2018). "Absolute Hell review – postwar Soho gets a Weimar makeover" via
  4. Taylor, John Russell (16 April 2013). Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock. A&C Black. ISBN   9781448211616 via Google Books.
  5. "Number Seventeen (1932) - Alfred Hitchcock | Cast and Crew". AllMovie.
  6. "Rodney Ackland". BFI.
  7. "Hatter's Castle (1941) - Lance Comfort | Cast and Crew". AllMovie.
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  9. "BFI Screenonline: Queen of Spades, The (1949)".