A CHILDHOOD HERO…
When I was growing up in the 1980’s the television was filled with repeats of yesteryear. As a result, it was very easy to catch-up on programming my parents had first seen when they were originally televised, or feature films they had first viewed on the big screen.
One face that became very familiar in our household was that of stage and screen actor Mr. Kenneth Gilbert More (20th September 1914 – 12th July 1982).
I was first introduced to him by my father, one rainy Sunday afternoon when the British comedy classic, Genevieve (1953), was showing on Thames Television. His effortless charm, perfect comic timing and happy-go-lucky attitude caught me hook and line. From Doctor in the House (1954), The Admirable Crichton (1957), to Next to No Time (1958), he soon became a firm favourite of mine.
As I grew older I continued to seek his films out. They took me from lighthearted escapism to serious, dramatic adventures. Films such as the immortal classic Reach for the Sky (the story of British ace pilot Douglas Bader, (1956), an excellent screen adaptation of John Bucan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps (1959), the incredibly powerful retelling of the demise of the SS Titanic in A Night to Remember (1958), Northwest Frontier with Lauren Bacall (1959), and the legendary wartime mission to Sink the Bismarck (1960). Honourable mentions go to The Comedy Man (1964) with Angela Douglas, plus two wonderful cameo performances in legendary screens classics The Longest Day (1962) and Battle of Britain (1969).
No matter how thrilling the story there was always such a genuine believability to the roles he inhabited. Kenny (as he preferred to be called) conveyed heroism and the classic British ‘stiff upper lip’ with such ease that every one of his performances grounded you in the reality of the situation, no matter what the genre. It’s not surprising that over the years his work would be rewarded with many accolades including a BAFTA, CBE, and a theatre named in his honour.
But what was he like off stage and behind the camera I wondered? Years later I took to my research to find out more about the man who had dominated the British golden age of cinema during the 1950’s, and again on the small screen into the 1970’s with original television adaptations of the hugely popular The Forsyte Saga (1967) and Father Brown (1974).
I discovered three wonderful autobiographies (sadly now out of print and desperately in need of reprinting: publishers take note): the aptly named Happy Go Lucky (1959), Kindly Leave the Stage (although more anecdotal than biographical, 1965), finally, and the most comprehensive, More or Less (1978). A fascinating life retold in each volume fully conveying to the reader a maxim of living life to the fullest and never taking it too seriously.
“When you write an autobiography it must be without malice, you mustn’t hurt anybody, or try not to hurt anybody, and yet you must be truthful, and it’s very difficult to balance the two…You’ll always hurt somebody and you’ll always make somebody very happy.”
Kenneth More on More or Less, his final autobiography published, as interviewed by Mavis Nicholson for Afternoon Plus, Thames Television
My research continued with the beautifully written autobiography of Ms. Angela More Douglas, Swings and Roundabouts (1983). Acclaimed actress, author and of course Kenneth’s wife, whom he lovingly called Shrimp. Beautifully written, it’s a deeply personal and candid journal which not only acts as a loving tribute to Kenny, but is also an excellent companion piece to his memoirs.
Sadly the internet was rather sparse…Apart from IMDB and Wikipedia pages, and a few interview excerpts, there was very little presence here for a man who had given so much to his profession and his audience. Even his Desert Island Discs recordings of 1956 and 1969 were unavailable to listen back to (although his choices remain and are well worth a look).
Here lay the task of writing a definite piece in tribute, sharing my fondness for one of England’s greatest film stars, but also serving as a way of hopefully introducing him to a whole new audience.
Of course he was very much a man of his time… Growing up in an era where the British Empire was still thriving and living through two world wars, the second of which saw him on active service and in action aboard Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Victorious (R38), and cruiser, HMS Aurora, (a model of which could be found on display in his study at Bute House, Ladbroke Grove).
Success on stage and screen did not come swiftly however, but due to his late father’s friendship with Vivian Van Damm who ran the Windmill Theatre in Soho, Kenny was able to secure a job as a stagehand on the proviso that he never became an actor, something Van Damm’s surprisingly despised of as a profession… Fortunate for Kenny the ‘acting bug’ bit him and it was not long before he was regularly appearing in repertory theatre, culminating with a move to the West End and fine notices in The Deep Blue Sea which finally put him on the map.
A selection of awards won by Kenneth More. Images courtesy of The KM Theatre
Kenny believed the entertainment industry was a magical one, full of opportunity and promise. It’s not surprising I ended up working in it myself. Whenever I need my spirits lifted I often return to his films. He never fails to bring a smile to my face. Kenny left us far too early at the age of 67 from Muscular Atrophy disease (and not typical Parkinson’s disease which has been widely reported), but at least we have the ability to step back in time and imagine what it must have been like to have been in his company. Best of British is a phrase often banded about these days, but for anyone who has yet to see his work, I employ you to do so and discover its very meaning.
“Courage. Warmth. Integrity. Little boy lost. Humour. Kindness. Pride.”
The qualities of Kenneth More as described by Angela Douglas in her autobiography Swings and Roundabouts
“I wouldn’t embarrass him by telling of some of the things he’s done to help people. But there’s an awful lot of people walking around who’ve got good reason to be grateful to him. When I had some emotional trouble years ago he was a pillar of comfort to me.”
The late Sir Roger Moore interviewed for a TV Times feature on Kenneth in the 1970’s. Roger Moore would act as best man at his wedding to Angela in 1968.
A FEW OF HIS FAVOURITE THINGS
As remembered by Ms. Angela More Douglas
Pastimes: “Golf. Driving his car. Which he always bought new and changed every year. His last was an MG. In the past he had so many, from a Rolls to a mini. Listening to Mahler…..reading. Mostly about the American Civil War….”
Hobbies: “He had a good collection of watches (Rolex, Cartier) and he loved antique clocks…He had lots of cufflinks…He enjoyed good wine…and it had to be French. He had an extensive collection of books on Churchill…”
Personal items: “St Christopher’s medal which used to belong to British actress and friend Kay Kendall (Genevieve)…A gold bracelet he wore which he bought for himself on a whim. A signet ring with an antique shank and an Amethyst stone. It was sent to Germany to have Kenny’s family crest engraved on it. It was my wedding present to him. I wore it for years after he died. Both are now with his daughter Sarah.”
Images courtesy of Angela Douglas
Sense of style: “Immaculately neurotically ‘clean and tidy’.”
Favourite book: “’Get Yamamoto. His treasure from his childhood was a copy of ‘Winnie the Pooh’.”
Favourite saying: “’This too will pass’” and “don’t let anyone get to close to you…they’ll only let you down’. Sounds so cynical and unlike him.”
A sweet tooth: “Loved peppermint dark chocolate with white filling, liquorice and Ponterfract cakes. He also liked Fullers White walnut cake, and his favourite was Battenburg cake.”
Traits: “Very generous to young actors….if he thought they didn’t have any money he would find a way to slip £20 into a pocket or two…Always first to pick up the bill in a restaurant.”
Personality: “Socially always up for a lark…being the first to strip off into the swimming pool…or sometimes doing it fully clothed! But at home quiet….full of thought. Usually learning lines….which even when he became ill he didn’t have difficulty doing. (unlike me!)”
Images courtesy of Angela Douglas
Travelling: “The greatest fun we ever had were on beaches….In January we always went to the West Indies or Africa ( beach and safari) for two weeks and in the Summer two weeks in the South of France…He loved to deep-sea dive….snorkle…and surf…we were both water babies! He taught me.”
On working with Kenny in The Comedy Man: “A very happy experience filming with Alvin Rakoff (the director). One moment I remember when Kenny realised on the first day of shooting that the respected actor Richard Pearson didn’t have a stand in, Kenny told the producers that until the issue was resolved, he (Kenny) would get in his car and go home! Result? Richard Pearson was given a stand in. Kenny always stood up for the underdog!”
With thanks to:
Ms. Angela More Douglas:
For her sincere kindness and generosity. Please seek out her wonderful autobiography Swings and Roundabouts. Her first novel, Josephine, A Memoir, will be published later this year and is already highly anticipated.
Mr. Stephen Day and Ms. Sally Woodfield at The Kenneth More Theatre
Images courtesy of Angela Douglas