Margaret Rutherford (1892-1972)

Above: detail of the Agatha Christie Memorial, located at the intersection of Cranbourn Street and Great Newport Street by St Martin’s Cross near Covent Garden, in London.

From Wikipedia:

“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. 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”.”

Jack Buckley wrote at seenandheard-international.com on 18/04/2020:

“You have to be forty-one at least, to make an impression as the dotty old woman on screen. That was Margaret Rutherford’s age when she began her film career. She said in a BBC television interview that she was puzzled why so many people found her films comic. Solving crime is a serious business, she added. Coming from her lips, we find that comic too.

However, there is a very dark side to her early life: Her grandfather, the Rev Julius Benn, was murdered by his son William – Margaret’s father – who was then imprisoned in a mental diseases institution. Her mother changed the family name to Rutherford, before committing suicide herself. Margaret struggled all her life to overcome the weight of these horrors, which she tried to keep out of the media – not entirely successfully. She was brought up by an Aunt Bessie in Wimbledon, where there is a blue plaque to celebrate that detail. Two in fact, the other at Wimbledon High School, where she excelled at music, drama and elocution. On the school’s recommendation, Bessie funded acting lessons. Margaret was known at the school as shy Peggy Rutherford.

Tony Benn, who was a cousin, spoke of her as a genial companion and produced a photo for a BBC documentary of the two of them sitting in deck chairs on a beach. He said she was exactly the same on screen and off. There is good reason for that. She wasn’t acting.

I can confirm this myself. When I arrived in London as a student, my first lodging was in a B&B, a short walk from Archway, up the steep hill toward Highgate village. Highgate was a popular residence for many in the arts, decades before Glenda Jackson became its MP. Coming down the hill, more than once was Margaret, double chins wobbling, cape flying, greeting everyone, whatever the weather, with a sunny good morning, how are you? Genial? yes. Acting? no.

It brought a smile on your face however you were feeling. I didn’t understand at the time, but this woman had a gift from the gods. All this was before I had understood that acting depends on an innate musicality.

Margaret first made her living by teaching piano and elocution. I’m quite sure that she would have insisted that her elocution students made their speech sound like themselves and not like, say, Malcolm Muggeridge – something imposed from outside.

The same, of course, applies to making music. Her friends said her piano playing was remarkably good. Unlike her husband’s, who would bore everyone blue by hacking away on the piano endlessly after dinner, while Margaret rolled her eyes in dismay heavenwards.

She finally got a one-liner to speak at the Old Vic, responding to Edith Evans in a crowded scene. In 1939 she played the role of Miss Prism in John Gielgud’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest – a performance which is recorded for eternity in Anthony Asquith’s 1952 all-star film with Edith Evans as Lady Bracknell  – a role which Margaret would also later make her own.

Noel Coward wrote the role of the medium, Madame Arcati, for her in Blithe Spirit (1945) but at first she turned him down, afraid that making a mockery of ghosts of the other world would bring even more vengeance upon herself. But Coward, who quickly rewrote a few lines, was very persuasive, and gently explained to her that it was not at all like that, and it would be one of her great triumphs. As indeed it was.

Also, in 1945 she met her husband, Stringer Davis, when they were appearing together at the Oxford Playhouse. Stringer was a bit player who made a career as such; Margaret was soon being offered enough film scripts to be able to ask if a supporting role may be added into the script for her husband. That is how Stringer became Miss Marple’s assistant.

The four Miss Marple films, made between 1963 and 1965, are at the top of the league in comedy-whodunnits. But the Miss Marple of Agatha Christie’s creation is a world apart from Margaret Rutherford in that role.

I am personally delighted that Agatha Christie is enjoying a renaissance. A reappraisal of her writing started some ten years ago, led by the poet, Sophie Hannah, who explained that it was not just Christie’s superb prose, but the originality of her carefully researched plots. The whodunnit was never so entertainingly complex.

When the two women met, some people find it surprising that they got on. They were both intelligent – in perhaps different ways. But both Mrs Christie and Ms Rutherford knew where their bread was buttered…”

From: Noel Coward – a Biography (1995), by Philip Hoare:

“Margaret was brought up by her aunt and, when she discovered her family history, became mentally unstable. Her condition improved when she was acting, but a doctor was often waiting in the wings with a sedative injection so she could continue. Little of this history was known to her fellow actors, although John Gielgud knew of her mental problems, and both Coward and (Binkie) Beaumont would have been aware of them. (Around this time, Stephen Tennant proposed to Rutherford, but refused her admittance when she arrived for the weekend at his home, Wilsford Manor. She was later found by the butler in the coal cellar, eating coal.)”

Playwright Philip Meeks wrote at timeout.com on 21 November 2016:

“Noël Coward wrote the psychic Madame Arcati in ‘Blithe Spirit’ especially for (Margaret Rutherford). She also played Miss Prism in Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ and Mrs Danvers in the stage version of Daphne DuMaurier’s ‘Rebecca’. And of course, a radio play aside (starring Gracie Fields), she was the first to give voice to Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple.

Fellow actor Stringer Davis wouldn’t marry Margaret while his mother was alive. This led to an engagement of 15 years. It seems that theirs was a lavender marriage: they slept in separate rooms. When Stringer died, he was buried with a sealed letter in his upper breast pocket – from John Gielgud.

Pushing 40, she made it known she wanted to play Shakespeare’s Juliet, believing her inner beauty would shine through. She was also quoted as saying, ‘I may be Margaret Rutherford on the outside but inside I’m Jane Russell!’ 

Gordon Langley latched on to Margaret and claimed she had adopted him. He told her he was a hermaphrodite in urgent need of expensive surgery, which she paid for. This was, of course, gender reassignment. After Margaret’s death, Langley published a self-serving memoir that revealed the truth about Rutherford’s past – and a secret Margaret had kept hidden all her life. 

It is the mark of a true gay icon that in death, as in life, the world they inhabit is stranger than fiction. Margaret died a year before her husband and was buried with the soft toys she and Stringer referred to as their ‘family’.”

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