Remembering: Mr. Kenneth More CBE. An exclusive interview with Angela More Douglas

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Kenneth More’s original Pinewood studios headshot on display at The KM Theatre

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.

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Kenneth with Genevieve co-star and friend Kay Kendall. Picturegoer magazine – June 13th 1953. Original periodical on display at The KM Theatre. Angela Douglas: “Kenny told me they slept together once but all they did was giggle!”
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Kenneth More and Kay Kendall on the dance floor. Jack Hawkins looks on. Image on display at The KM Theatre
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More or Less – Kenneth More, An Autobiography (Hodder & Stoughton)

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).

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Dana Wynter and Kenneth More relaxing on the set Sink the Bismarck! Image on display at The KM Theatre
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A Kenneth More bust on display at The KM Theatre
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A caricature of Kenneth More by Clive Francis. On display at The KM Theatre

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.

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Kenneth More’s CBE on display at The KM Theatre

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).

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The Kenneth More Theatre faithfully keeping Kenny’s memory alive in Redbridge, on the aptly named Kenneth More Road
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The Safety Curtain at the The KM Theatre. Image source: The Kenneth More Theatre

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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.

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Kindly Leave the Stage (Michael Joseph), Happy Go Lucky (Hale), and More or Less (Hodder & Stoughton): all by Kenneth More

“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.

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Kenneth More (far right), his mother Winifred Edith, known as ‘Toppy (centre), and sister Kathleen (far left). Image courtesy of Kenneth’s daughter, Sarah
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Kenneth More’s school tie from Jersey. Image courtesy of Angela Douglas
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Kenneth More’s childhood school ruler (made by Pears) with birth year. Image courtesy of his daughter Jane

Now let us turn back the hands of time to the very beginning…

Kenneth More was born in Gerrards Cross on Sunday 20 September 1914, only a couple of weeks into the outbreak of World War One. 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 grew up in Richmond with his sister Kate (18 months older), before a move to Jersey when his father was made general manager of the Jersey Eastern Railway. Bertie would end up getting through two inheritances during his lifetime, giving away much of his fortune to hard-luck cases and outlandish inventions. He passed away destitute at forty-five.

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 leaving school Kenny entered training as a civil engineer, something of a family tradition. 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 as well as a lack of a school certificate. With £100 from his grandmother (known affectionately as ‘Dear One’), he traveled to Canada hoping to make his fortune as a fur trapper. He was deported upon arrival 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’s surprisingly despised of as a profession…

Fortunate for Kenny the ‘acting bug’ bit him and it was not long before he was playing straight in the 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.

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Kenneth’s beloved HMS Aurora (Arethusa-class) . Source: Wikipedia (public domain)

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Kenneth More’s wartime medals on display at The KM Theatre
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A gold and diamond embossed replica of Kenneth’s navy cap badge. Gifted to Angela by Kenny. Image courtesy of Angela Douglas
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Kenneth More with Lord Mountbatten. Image courtesy of The KM Theatre

Following a stint with the merchant navy he 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, 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, having to report to crew below decks what was going on above during a conflict without conveying nerves. Aurora would journey across the Atlantic and Mediterranean during the war seeing its fare share of action. Years later a model of the Aurora could be found on display in Kenny’s study at Bute House, Ladbroke Grove.

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Kenneth More’s 1954 BAFTA Award for Doctor in the House

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The Deep Blue Sea – Venice Film Festival Award 1955. Kenneth More’s personal copy – on display at The KM Theatre

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Reach for the Sky – Picturegoer Award 1956/57. Kenneth More’s personal copy, on display at The KM Theatre

Following the end of the war Kenny would return to repertory theatre before moving to the West End with highly acclaimed notices as Freddie in Terence RattiganThe Deep Blue Sea . This followed with a film adaptation giving him a Best Actor Award at the Venice Film Festival for his performance in the same role.  

Though Henry Cornelius’ Genevieve put him on the map, it was a part turned down by Richard Burton which was to propel Kenny into the stratosphere, taking the lead role as Douglas Bader in the biopic Reach for the Sky. It would become the most popular British film of the year and led to more awards, acclaim. The rest, is they say, is history…

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)

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A selection of awards won by Kenneth More on display at The KM Theatre

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Model of the RMS Titanic built by the Second Unit of A Night to Remember. Kenny later gifted it to his driver.
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An original Kenneth More memorial program for 20th September 1982

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.

“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.

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A Georgian magnifying class owned by Kenneth More. Angela Douglas: “It was always on his desk in his study.”
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Kenny’s make-up box and paints pencil on display at The KM Theatre. Note the 1943 Veuve Clicquot champagne cork – used by actors to apply make-up

A FEW OF HIS FAVOURITE THINGS

As remembered by Ms. Angela More Douglas

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Angela Douglas More. Image credit: David Poole

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…”

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Happy at home, Angela and Kenny in their Bayswater Mews, sifting through fan mail for the Forsyte Saga. Note the top shelf holds his Britannica encyclopedias and beloved Churchill books, whilst a bust of Homer (later stolen during a burglary) and a picture of Sir Thomas More can be found above the desk. Angela Douglas: “We lived in this little mews (6 Queensborough Studios) for six years.” Image from the collection of Angela More Douglas, as featured in Swings and Roundabouts (Elm Tree Books/Hamish Hamilton Ltd/Corgi/Phantom Publishing)
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Sir Thomas More print which hung in the study (see above). Kenneth was distantly related to Henry VII’s Lord Chancellor. Image courtesy of Dennis Mayers. Picture restoration by A Gentleman’s Jotter

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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’.”

1970 Rolex DateJust Chronometer worn by Kenneth More. Image courtesy of his daughter, Jane
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Piaget wristwatch worn by Kenneth More. Image courtesy of his daughter, Sarah
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Kenneth’s pocket mints holder – tin composite in the shape of a pig. Angela Douglas: “He always had this in his pocket wherever we went.”
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Cigarette case belonging to Kenneth More (although not a smoker). Given to celebrate Our Man Crichton’s run at the Shaftesbury Theatre in 1964. On display at The KM Theatre
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Kenneth’s script pencil holder. Image courtesy of Morris Bright MBE
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Cufflink box owned by Kenneth More. Angela Douglas: “He must have had about 40 sets. He kept them in this lovely Russian keepsake box.”

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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.”

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Get Yamamoto by Burke Davis (Arthur Barker Limited) accompanied by Kenneth’s favourite Battenberg cake.
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Angela Douglas: “The ring was my present to him on our wedding day. I bought an antique shank and I chose the amethyst stone. The jeweler had to send it to Germany to have his seal engraved. I wore it continually after he died. That was when it was chipped sadly.” Image courtesy of his daughter Sarah.
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Angela Douglas: “Kenny’s bracelet he bought. I had ‘When You’re Smiling’ put on the back. He always sung it when he was tipsy.” Note: Kenneth G More on front. Image courtesy of his daughter Sarah.
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Angela Douglas: “This was one of Kenny’s favourite pictures of me.”
The delightful Georgian property, Bute House, Ladbroke Grove. Kenny and Angela named it themselves after his childhood home in Richmond. The original sign still remains on the walled entrance. It was painted by a stage hand at Pinewood. Note: Bute House was featured as the home of Peter Ingram (Kenneth More) in An Englishman’s Castle. Angela Douglas: “The study was our living room really. Large room, high ceilings, marble fire place for log burning. If you were standing out front looking at the house, the study was on the right, the drawing room on the left. Both rooms led out and down to a huge garden. At the bottom there was an artists studio. We were there for ten years.”
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Kenny’s last house. Rumbold Road in Fulham. Angela Douglas: “It was much larger than one would think, with a lovely garden terrace and two garages in the back. I practically put our home together. The front door was reclaimed from Old Scotland Yard. We were there for three years, and me for 20.” Note the blue plaque outside the upper floor.
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Christmas 1979, Kenneth in the kitchen at Rumbold Road, Fulham. Angela Douglas: “I loved that velvet jacket he wore.” Image from the personal collection of Angela More Douglas, as featured in Swings and Roundabouts (Elm Tree Books/Hamish Hamilton Ltd/Corgi/Phantom Publishing)
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One of six bottles given to Kenneth More by Taylor’s on his last birthday, September 20th 1981. Image courtesy of his daughter Sarah.
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Tea and cakes at the Original Maids of Honour, London, Kew

A few of his favourite London spots: Kew Gardens…we often went there…and always had a delicious tea at The Maids of Honour. His favourite place to lunch was The Garrick Club.”

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.”

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Angela Douglas: “We had a K for Kenny and and A for Angela in our home. Here’s the original.” Image courtesy of Angela Douglas
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Angela with her pet dog Timmy. A small photograph by Kenneth More. Image from the personal collection of Angela More Douglas
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Angela Douglas: “A lock of his hair taken on our wedding day: March 16th 1968.” Image courtesy of his daughter Jane.
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Angela and Kenny on their wedding day. Image courtesy of Angela Douglas
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Angela and Kenneth larking about in Sussex. Image courtesy of Angela Douglas

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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!)”

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Image courtesy of Angela Douglas.

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Angela Douglas: “Kenny brought this shell up from a dive whilst on our holiday in Northern Cyprus, 1963.” Image courtesy of Angela Douglas
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Angela Douglas: “Kenny and I were in Heals on Tottenham Court Road choosing new garden furniture for Rumbold Road when he excitedly saw this and said he wanted to buy it. It was a bit shop worn and when I exclaimed he said “I don’t care she looks like you when wake up in the morning!”  Image courtesy of Angela Douglas
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Angela Douglas: “This little mechanical toy when wound up would twirl to the tune of  “when you are in love.” Kenny gave it to me on my last birthday before he died. Image courtesy of Angela Douglas
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Angela Douglas: “Coming home inebriated in the wee small hours after a quarrel with me, Kenny had this sign printed and kept it in his bathroom.” Image courtesy of Angela Douglas
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Original Evening Standard newsstand for Kenneth’s marriage to Angela. Image courtesy of his grandaughter, Charlotte
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Swings and Roundabouts. Angela Douglas: “This was the last official photo taken of Kenny. He was ill at the time but he wanted to help me with my book knowing the front cover was important.” Photo credit: Snowdon. (Elm Tree Books/Hamish Hamilton Ltd/Corgi/Phantom Publishing)

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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.

Check out Amazon, e-Bay and Talking Pictures for the above and to discover many more great films showcasing the work of Kenneth More.

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, will be published later this year and is already highly anticipated. You can follow here on Twitter.

Mr. Stephen Day and Ms. Sally Woodfield at The Kenneth More Theatre:

For making me feel so welcome and for allowing me exclusive access to their archives. Please make a trip to this wonderful theatre. You can also donate to help support their work here.

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1 Comment

  1. Lovely tribute! I too grew up watching this wonderful actor on rainy Sunday afternoons. My favourites were the Doctor movies with Dirk Bogarde but his Douglas Bader lives long in the memory. More of these please, Gentleman’s Jotter!

    Like

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