Remembering Margaret Rutherford: murder on and off screen

Margaret Rutherford and Stringer Davis in Murder Ahoy

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 Ernest – a performance which is recorded for eternity in Anthony Asquith’s 1939 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 Acarti, 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 enough being offered filmscripts 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.

One of the most significant contributions to the Miss Marple films was Ron Goodwin’s music. His leitmotifs deposited precisely at the right moment of the narrative or the danger-warnings quietly hinted in musically mocking terms, are an entertainment all their own, with some unique, ear-catching instrumentations. The closer I listen to his music; I’m amazed to hear how many extraordinary sounds you can get out of a trumpet. Not surprising then, to find that he was indeed a trumpeter, trained at London’s Guildhall School of Music. Another original touch is Goodwin’s use of an  overly amplified clavichord, which distorts it, rendering it somewhat out of tune, reminiscent of John Cage’s prepared piano, where some strings are wrapped with rubber, paper, sandpaper and other ‘unexpected’ materials: a delightfully mocking effect. The usual suspects in unexpected places. Cup of tea inspector? The composer must have had as much fun inventing these combinations as we do when we hear them.

I recall being bored with The V.I.P.s at its 1963 premiere. What on earth was I thinking of? Re-watching it twice this week I found it a masterpiece. Not least because of Terence Rattigan’s script, which is clearly written to tailor-fit the actors. Rattigan is on record as saying what prompted him was the true-life episode of Vivien Leigh eloping with Peter Finch to escape her marriage to Laurence Olivier but being caught out by a fog at London Airport (as Heathrow was known before 1966).

Director, Anthony Asquith, had already told Rattigan that he had had interest from Sophia Loren as his leading lady. But when Welsh, mellifluous-voiced Richard Burton was given the role as her husband, his wife, Elizabeth Taylor, called Asquith to plead with him to cast herself in this role – knowing what she did of acting becoming real life during rehearsals. Asquith agreed.

Paul Andros (Burton) is a billionaire international banker and his wife, Frances (Taylor) a movie star with whom the whole world seems to be in love (Rattigan had successfully given these attributes and their psychological consequences to previous characters in his plays). One of Frances’s suitors, Mark Champselle (Louis Jourdan) is a handsome gigolo. And not much else. Another, Les Mangrum (Rod Taylor) a passionate Australian, don’t-take-no-for-an-answer suitor. (The only time this Australian had played an Australian on screen). Mangrum has a very loyal secretary Dee Mead (Maggie Smith) for whom we have to wait till a final scene with Andros to see what a magnificent actor she is.

The whole action takes place not at the real London Airport but at a colossal set – the biggest ever constructed by MGM in England. Actors had their own trailers. Ms Taylor’s had fresh flowers daily, inside and out; Ms Rutherford’s had a small stove on which she made the fried eggs on which she was living.

Enough of the Androses. The rest of the cast are passengers also locked down by the fog, but in the VIP lounge. Max Buda (Orson Welles) is a quick-witted moviemaker, even quicker with his put-downs (just like Welles in real life) most ably aided by his man-Friday/PA/fixer Schwutzbacker (Martin Miller – an outstanding actor). The Duchess of Brighton (Margaret Rutherford) – a penniless noble, who has never flown. On hearing the take-off announcement, she exclaims O dear, I didn’t bring a seatbelt. 

Orson Welles and Margaret Rutherford in The V.I.P’s

Like Shakespeare, when the Andros affairs become wearisome, Rattigan brings on these excellent comedians and their improbable ‘problems’ to entertain us.

Terence Rattigan had been hugely popular in the fifties, but by the sixties his star had fallen: the angry young men were in charge. Rattigan recognised this and even sent Joe Orton a cheque and fan letter when he saw Entertaining Mr Sloane. 

You can see why the Academy didn’t reward Elizabeth Taylor with an Oscar. Her voice is not her greatest asset.  Frances’s three men call for three varied nuances of voice. Her performance is an unvaried whining recital; not even her exceptional beauty can save her. My guess is that Loren would have been worse. The critics applauded Taylor. They must have been looking but not listening. It can sometimes be a hazard having musical training.

Orson Welles was admirable as Max Buda because he was a man who never stopped acting in real life, just like the character Rattigan hands him. Same for his sidekick.

Margaret Rutherford won the Oscar because she wasn’t acting on screen or off. And this was largely due to her perfectly attuned ear between bouts of fried eggs. A pleasure to note that voters of the Academy have an appreciation of this ear. She wasn’t well enough to attend the Awards ceremony, but Peter Ustinov collected her prize for her.

The following year, 1967, she was made Dame Commander of the British Empire, which must have been some consolation after the flop on stage as Mrs Malaprop in Sheridan’s The Rivals in 1966. This ought to have been another Rutherford triumph. But dementia had set in and she was unable to memorise her lines. [This character has an entry in the OED: a malapropism is when a similar-sounding word is used instead of the intended word, for instance, when the leading character in The Rivals says to his son I am glad you are so sensible of my attention instead of sensitive of.] When Margaret forgot, she improvised. But the improvisations couldn’t take in the malapropisms. After only three performances The Rivals was taken off the West End.

Did I mention that Stringer had been given a one-line role to accompany Her Grace to her suite at bedtime? Their life together was a model of profound companionship. Both were too old to have children. And would probably not have wanted them even if they could.

Margaret and Stringer took on the services of a woman named Violet Lang-Davis as their housekeeper and after Margaret’s death, Lang-Davis continued to work for Stringer. After his death she tried to sell off their possessions including the Oscar and Golden Globe Margaret won in 1964. In due course she was arrested but never appeared for trial and as a prosecutor in the Department for Public Prosecution’s office noted in 1985: ‘Lang-Davis, it would appear, never stood trial and is still at large.’ And Miss Marple is no longer here to solve her disappearance. Cup of tea, inspector?

Dame Margaret Rutherford 1892-1972 RIP. You made millions laugh and continue to make them laugh in difficult times.

Jack Buckley

Margaret Rutherford’s films can be seen from time to time on Talking Pictures TV (free) or can be found on Amazon Prime and elsewhere where there maybe a cost involved.

1 thought on “Remembering Margaret Rutherford: murder on and off screen”

  1. Loved and still do love Margaret Rutherford and Stringer Davis… they were and still are the very best!!!!!!

    Reply

Leave a Comment