A CHILDHOOD HERO…
When I was growing up in the 1980’s the television was filled with repeats of yesteryear. This enabled me to catch-up on a great deal of 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 three wonderful cameo performances in legendary screens classics The Longest Day (1962), Dark of the Sun (1968), 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 a 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).
Items on display at The Kenneth More Theatre
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 piece in tribute to my childhood hero – one of England’s greatest film stars. It would carry me on a journey discovering much more than I ever expected and ending with a friendship resulting in this special, exclusive pictorial feature. Kenny’s story told through his own personal possessions, kindly shared by his wife Angela More Douglas, his daughters and The Kenneth More Theatre. By cataloging his effects photographically, I hope this piece serves as a definitive way of promoting and protecting his legacy for future generations to discover and enjoy. If one more person seeks his films out, or picks up one of his books as a result, the job will have been accomplished.
Now let us turn back the hands of time to the very beginning…
Kenneth More was one of Britain’s most successful and highest paid actors of his generation, with a career in theatre, film and television spanning over 4 decades. He made an indelible mark in British show business, which continues to resonate to this day.
Born in Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire, on 20 September 1914, Kenny (as he was known) was the son of Edith ‘Topsy’ Winifred Watkins (the daughter of a Cardiff solicitor), and Major Charles ‘Bertie’ Gilbert More (a Royal Naval Air Service pilot). Kenny was brought up with his older sister, Kate, in the idyllic setting of Bute Lodge in Richmond. They were well looked after, with a maid, cook and nurse running the family home. When Kenny was six, his father, Bertie, thought the time was right for both Kenny and Kate to be sent to boarding school in Worthing. This had a great emotional impact on Kenny and his relationship with Kate.
It was the news that his father was to be made general manager of the Jersey Eastern Railway which brought the family back together. Kenny was sent to school at Victoria College, Jersey.
In his lifetime, his father would end up getting through two inheritances, much of his fortune given away to hard-luck cases and outlandish inventions. He passed away destitute at forty-five leaving the family struggling to manage.
On his father: “From him I inherit an easy-going attitude to life though not the casual attitude which was to bring him twice to the edge of ruin. I am also indebted to him for a certain inventiveness of mind which has helped me in my career, and for memories of his prodigal and sometimes misplaced generosity. There was nothing small-minded or mean about him.” More or Less – Kenneth More, An Autobiography (Hodder & Stoughton)
On his mother: “Life to her was what I always tried to make it for myself (sometimes without notable success) – a time to enjoy and to share with others of like mind. I am forever in her debt for this.” More or Less – Kenneth More, An Autobiography (Hodder & Stoughton)
On life: “our lives do have a set and definite pattern – if only we do not struggle against it. Sometimes we try so hard to achieve something that seems important at the time, and only years later do we realise that if we had but let events take their course, and been content to be carried on their tide, we would have achieved quite a different aim, for which we were probably better suited.” More or Less – Kenneth More, An Autobiography (Hodder & Stoughton)
After finishing school, Kenny entered into training as a civil engineer, something of a family tradition. It didn’t work out, nor did a turn on the shop counter at Sainsburys on The Strand. In an attempt to follow in his father’s further footsteps, Kenny next applied to join the Royal Air Force, but was turned down during his medical because of a problem with his equilibrium and a lack of a school certificate. With £100 from his grandmother (known affectionately as ‘Dear One’), he traveled to Canada with a friend and their partner in the hope of making his fortune as a fur trapper. Along the way he fell hopelessly in love with the girlfriend and upon arrival they all found themselves deported due to a lack of immigration papers.
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 despised of as a profession. Fortunately enough for Kenny the ‘acting bug’ bit him and it was not long before he was playing straight in Revudeville comedy routines, appearing in his first performance in 1935. This led to regularly appearing in repertory theatre until the outbreak of the Second World War.
Following a stint with the merchant navy, Kenny soon found himself on active service aboard Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Victorious (R38), but it was his time on board the cruiser, HMS Aurora (R12) which would end up having the greatest impact on his character and his acting style during wartime. As ship’s Action Commentator, he found an opportunity to hone his craft as an actor, keeping steady nerves when reporting action to the crew below decks during conflicts. Aurora would journey across the Atlantic and Mediterranean seeing its fare share of action. Wartime missions aboard both ships would lead Kenny to receive medals including campaign stars for Africa, Italy, the Atlantic and Pacific.
By the end of the war Kenny had returned to England and signed with agent Harry Dubens, who was seeking actors who had served at the front. Kenny would return to repertory theatre before moving to the West End with highly acclaimed notices as Freddie in Terence Rattigan’s, The Deep Blue Sea. Incidentally, a television, and later a film adaptation would follow which would garner a Best Actor Award at the Venice Film Festival.
Though Henry Cornelius’ much loved Genevieve (1953) with John Gregson, Dinah Sheridan and Kay Kendall, was to put Kenny on the map, comedy classics like Doctor in the House (1954), The Admirable Crichton (1957) and Next to No Time (1958) all aided in making him a firm favourite with the public.
However, it was a serious leading role initially turned down by Richard Burton which was to propel Kenny into the stratosphere. His performance as real-life fighter pilot Douglas Bader in Reach for the Sky would become the most popular British film of 1956, winning a BAFTA for Best Film. Performances in screen classics A Night to Remember (1958), Northwest Frontier (1959), The Thirty-Nine Steps (1959), cemented his reputation as Britain’s most popular, and highest paid actor of the 1950’s.
What are your main assets as an actor…?
Firstly, I have a voice that people can hear…
Secondly, that I have confidence, through experience…
Thirdly, that I’m a very emotional person, very very emotional, who still believes in magic, which I think is essential in the theatre…
And again I am an extrovert…I can deal with situations as they arise. And I have this gift, I suppose…of comedy timing, which is really the basis of all acting, because all lines have to be timed…I suppose those are my assets, my liabilities we won’t go into those…
…I wonder what the verdict of my own profession would be? I would like to hazard a guess: ‘same actor, different clothes!’
Talking with Michael Henry Flanders OBE on Omnibus (BBC)
On Reach For The Sky: Bader’s philosophy was my philosophy. His whole attitude to life was mine. I wanted this part, not just because I felt I could do full justice to it, but because it was an embodiment of my own belief that courage, faith and determination can overcome all obstacles.” More or Less – Kenneth More, An Autobiography (Hodder & Stoughton)
A selection of awards won by Kenneth More on display at The KM Theatre
Further successes in films Sink the Bismarck! (1960) and The Greengage Summer (1961) showed More was still in strong demand, but when the swinging sixties brought a huge cultural shift to the industry, and the tastes of the public, leading roles Kenny had always gravitated to began to diminish in film. He continued to act on screen but the theatre was where he excelled, with productions in Out of the Crocodile, Our Man Crichton, The Secretary Bird, Sign of the Times, and long stage runs with The Winslow Boy (1970) and Getting On by Alan Bennett (1971). It was a move to small screen, specifically leading roles in The Forsyte Saga (1967) and Father Brown (1974) which brought global success and Kenny’s career full circle.
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. I always wondered what it would have been like to have met him… Angela Douglas: “He would have loved the attention and would have taken you for a drink…. When you would ready to leave he’d make sure you were alright for the taxi fare home…”
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, 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.
Update: March 2019. Who would have thought that in such a space time I would be running Kenny’s official website, helping to promote his legacy so that many more people can be reminded of his life and career. It’s been a wonderful journey!
“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 (Elm Tree Books/Hamish Hamilton Ltd/Corgi/Phantom Publishing)
“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…”
Images courtesy of Michael Porter
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.”
Sense of style: “Immaculately neurotically ‘clean and tidy’.”
Images courtesy of Angela Douglas
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 too 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.”
Images courtesy of Angela Douglas
Travelling: “Some of the greatest fun we had were on beaches…In January we always went for two weeks to the West Indies or Africa (beach and safari). In the Summer we spent two weeks in the South of France. He loved the deep sea…to snorkel 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!”
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!)”
Image courtesy of Angela Douglas.
KENNETH MORE’S BEST FILM PERFORMANCES
Chosen by A Gentleman’s Jotter
Number 10: THE COMEDY MAN
Number 9: MAN IN THE MOON
Number 8: A NIGHT TO REMEMBER
Number 7: GENEVIEVE
Number 6: NEXT TO NO TIME
Number 5: THE ADMIRABLE CRICHTON
Number 4: NORTHWEST FRONTIER
Number 3: THE 39 STEPS
Number 2: SINK THE BISMARK
Number 1: REACH FOR THE SKY
Honourable mentions in supporting roles: DARK OF THE SUN, THE LONGEST DAY, THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN.
WITH THANKS TO:
Ms. Angela More Douglas:
For her sincere kindness and generosity. I’m proud to now call her a friend. Please seek out her wonderful autobiography Swings and Roundabouts. Her first novel, Josephine, An Open Book is out now. You can follow here on Twitter.
Mr. Stephen Day and Ms. Sally Woodfield at The Kenneth More Theatre: