Margaret Rutherford

Margaret Rutherford
Margaret Rutherford
Born Margaret Taylor Rutherford
11 May 1892(1892-05-11)
Balham, London, England, UK
Died 22 May 1972(1972-05-22) (aged 80)
Chalfont St Peter, Buckinghamshire, England, UK
Occupation Actress
Years active 1925–67
Spouse Stringer Davis (1945–1972) (her death)

Dame Margaret Taylor Rutherford (known as Margaret Rutherford) DBE (11 May 1892 – 22 May 1972) was an English character actress, who first came to prominence following World War II in the film adaptations of Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit, and Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. In 1963 she won the best supporting actress Oscar as The Duchess of Brighton in The VIPs.[1]

She is probably best known for her 1960s performances as Miss Marple in several films based loosely on Agatha Christie's novels.


Early life

Margaret Rutherford's father, William Rutherford Benn, suffered from mental illness.[2] During his honeymoon he had a nervous breakdown and was confined to an asylum. He was eventually released on holiday and on 4 March 1883, he murdered his father, the Reverend Julius Benn, a Congregational church minister, by bludgeoning him to death with a chamberpot. Shortly afterwards, William tried to kill himself as well, by slashing his throat with a pocketknife.[3] After the murder, William Benn was confined to the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. Several years later he was released, reportedly cured of his mental affliction. He changed his surname to Rutherford, and returned to his wife, Ann (née Taylor).

Margaret Rutherford was born in 1893 in Balham, the only child of William Rutherford Benn and his second wife Florence, née Nicholson. Her father's brother Sir John Benn, 1st Baronet was a British politician, and her first cousin once removed is British politician Tony Benn. As an infant, Margaret Rutherford and her parents moved to India. She was returned to Britain when she was three to live with an aunt, a professional governess Bessie Nicholson, in Wimbledon, England, after her pregnant mother, Florence, committed suicide by hanging herself from a tree.[4] Her father returned to England as well. His continued mental illness resulted in his being confined once more to Broadmoor in 1904.

Margaret Rutherford was educated at Wimbledon High School, and, from the age of about 13, at Raven's Croft School[5], a boarding school at Sutton Avenue, Seaford, where she is listed, aged 18, on the 1911 census.[6]

Stage career

Rutherford worked as a teacher of elocution and then went into acting later in life, making her stage debut at the Old Vic in 1925, aged 33. Her physical appearance was such that romantic heroines were out of the question, and she soon established her name in comedy, appearing in many of the most successful British plays and films. "I never intended to play for laughs. I am always surprised that the audience thinks me funny at all", Rutherford wrote in her autobiography.[7] Rutherford made her first appearance in London's West End in 1933 but her talent was not recognised by the critics until her performance as Miss Prism in the play The Importance of Being Earnest at the Globe Theatre in 1939. In 1941 Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit opened on the London stage at the Piccadilly Theatre, with Coward himself directing. Rutherford played Madame Arcati, the bumbling medium, a role which Coward had earlier envisaged for her.

Rutherford had a distinguished theatrical career alongside her film successes. Totally against type, she played the sinister housekeeper Mrs Danvers in Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca at the Queen's Theatre in 1940. Her post-war theatre credits included Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest again at the Haymarket Theatre in 1946 and Lady Bracknell when the same play transferred to New York in 1947. She played an officious headmistress in The Happiest Days of Your Life at the Apollo Theatre in 1948 and such classical roles as Madame Desmortes in Ring Round the Moon (Globe Theatre, 1950), Lady Wishfort in The Way of the World (Lyric Hammersmith, 1953 and Saville Theatre, 1956) and Mrs Candour in The School for Scandal (Haymarket Theatre, 1962). Her final stage performance came in 1966 when she played Mrs Malaprop in The Rivals at the Haymarket Theatre, alongside Sir Ralph Richardson. Unfortunately, her declining health meant she had reluctantly to give up the role after a few weeks.

Film career

Although she made her film debut in 1936, it would be Rutherford's turn as Madame Arcati in David Lean's film of Blithe Spirit (1945) that would actually establish her screen success. This would become one of her most memorable performances, with her bicycling about the Kent countryside, cape fluttering behind her. Interestingly, it would also establish the model for portraying that role forever thereafter. She was Nurse Carey in Miranda (1948) and Professor Hatton Jones in Passport to Pimlico (1949). She reprised her stage roles of the headmistress alongside Alastair Sim in The Happiest Days of Your Life (1950) and Miss Prism in Anthony Asquith's The Importance of Being Earnest (1952).

More comedies followed, including Trouble in Store (1953) with Norman Wisdom, The Runaway Bus (1954) with Frankie Howerd and An Alligator Named Daisy (1955) with Donald Sinden and Diana Dors. Rutherford then rejoined Norman Wisdom in Just My Luck and co-starred in The Smallest Show on Earth with Virginia McKenna, Peter Sellers and Leslie Phillips (both 1957). She also joined a host of distinguished comedy stars, including Ian Carmichael and Peter Sellers, in the Boulting Brothers' satire I'm All Right Jack (1959).

In the early 1960s she became synonymous with Miss Jane Marple in a series of four films loosely based on the novels of Agatha Christie. Rutherford, then aged 70, insisted on wearing her own clothes for the part and having her husband appear alongside her. In 1963 Christie dedicated her novel The Mirror Crack'd : "To Margaret Rutherford in admiration". Christie reportedly did not approve of the 1960s films as they portrayed Marple as a comedy character and were not faithful to the original plots.

In 1963 Rutherford was awarded an Academy Award and Golden Globe as Best Supporting Actress for her performance as the absent-minded, impoverished, pill-popping Duchess of Brighton, the only light relief, in Terence Rattigan's The V.I.P.s, a film featuring a star-studded cast led by Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. She appeared as Mistress Quickly in Orson Welles' film Chimes at Midnight (1965) and was directed by Charlie Chaplin in A Countess from Hong Kong (1967), starring Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren, which was one of her final films.

Rutherford was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1961 and was raised to Dame Commander (DBE) in 1967.

Personal life

Rutherford married character actor Stringer Davis in 1945 and the couple appeared in many productions together. They were happily together until Rutherford's death in 1972. Davis adored Rutherford, with one friend noting: "For him she was not only a great talent but, above all, a beauty." Davis rarely left her side. He was private secretary and general dogsbody – lugging bags, teapots, hot water bottles, teddy bears and nursing Rutherford through periods of depression. These illnesses, often involving stays in mental hospitals and electric shock treatment, were kept hidden from the press during Rutherford's life. In the 1950s, Rutherford and Davis unofficially adopted the writer Gordon Langley Hall, then in his twenties. Hall later had gender reassignment surgery and became Dawn Langley Simmons, under which name she wrote a biography of Rutherford in 1983.


Rutherford suffered from Alzheimer's disease at the end of her life and was unable to work. Davis cared for his wife devotedly at their Buckinghamshire home but she died on 22 May 1972, aged 80.[8] Many of Britain's top actors, including Sir John Gielgud, Robert Morley and Joyce Grenfell, paid tribute at a memorial service, where 90-year-old Sybil Thorndike praised her friend's enormous talent and recalled that Rutherford had "never said anything horrid about anyone".

Rutherford and Davis (who died in 1973) are interred alongside each other in the graveyard of St. James's Church, Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire.

Selected stage performances


Year Title Role Notes
1936 Talk of the Devil Housekeeper
1936 Dusty Ermine Evelyn Summers aka Miss Butterby, old gang moll
1936 Troubled Waters Bit role uncredited
1937 Missing, Believed Married Lady Parke
1937 Catch as Catch Can Maggie Carberry
1937 Big Fella Nanny uncredited
1937 Beauty and the Barge Mrs. Baldwin
1941 Spring Meeting Aunt Bijou
1941 Quiet Wedding Magistrate
1943 Yellow Canary Mrs. Towcester
1943 Demi-Paradise, TheThe Demi-Paradise Rowena Ventnor
1944 English Without Tears Lady Christabel Beauclerk
1945 Blithe Spirit Madame Arcati
1947 While the Sun Shines Dr. Winifred Frye
1947 Meet Me at Dawn Madame Vernore
1948 Miranda Nurse Carey
1949 Passport to Pimlico Professor Hatton-Jones
1950 Happiest Days of Your Life, TheThe Happiest Days of Your Life Muriel Whitchurch
1950 Quel bandito sono io Mrs. Dotherington Also released as Her Favorite Husband
1951 Magic Box, TheThe Magic Box Lady Pond
1952 Curtain Up Catherine Beckwith/Jeremy St. Claire
1952 Miss Robin Hood Miss Honey
1952 Importance of Being Earnest, TheThe Importance of Being Earnest Miss Letitia Prism
1952 Castle in the Air Miss Nicholson
1953 Innocents in Paris Gwladys Inglott
1953 Trouble in Store Miss Bacon
1954 Runaway Bus, TheThe Runaway Bus Miss Cynthia Beeston
1954 Mad About Men Nurse Carey
1954 Aunt Clara Clara Hilton
1955 Alligator Named Daisy, AnAn Alligator Named Daisy Prudence Croquet
1957 Smallest Show on Earth, TheThe Smallest Show on Earth Mrs. Fazackalee
1957 Just My Luck Mrs. Dooley
1959 I'm All Right Jack Aunt Dolly
1961 On the Double Lady Vivian
1961 Murder, She Said Miss Jane Marple
1963 Murder at the Gallop Miss Jane Marple
1963 Mouse on the Moon, TheThe Mouse on the Moon Grand Duchess Gloriana XIII
1963 V.I.P.s, TheThe V.I.P.s Duchess of Brighton, TheThe Duchess of Brighton
1964 Murder Most Foul Miss Jane Marple
1964 Murder Ahoy! Miss Jane Marple
1965 Chimes at Midnight Mistress Quickly
1965 Alphabet Murders, TheThe Alphabet Murders Miss Jane Marple uncredited cameo
1967 Countess from Hong Kong, AA Countess from Hong Kong Miss Gaulswallow
1967 Arabella Princess Ilaria
1967 Wacky World of Mother Goose, TheThe Wacky World of Mother Goose Mother Goose voice


  1. ^ John Gielgud, ‘Rutherford, Dame Margaret Taylor(1892–1972)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press
  2. ^ Guardian "Philip French's screen legends" 26 July 2009
  3. ^ Sweet, Matthew (7 March 2004). "A life in films: Murder she hid". The Independent on Sunday (London). Retrieved 30 November 2007. [dead link]
  4. ^ Billington, Michael (2001). Stage and Screen Lives. Oxford University Press. p. 291. ISBN 9780198604075. ; Andy Merriman in Radio Times, 4–10 June 2011
  5. ^ Raven's Croft School
  6. ^ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography profile
  7. ^ Rutherford, Margaret; Robyns, Gwen (1972). Margaret Rutherford: An autobiography. London: W. H. Allen. ISBN 9780491003797. 
  8. ^ "Obituary". Variety (Los Angeles): p. 71. 24 May 1972. 

Further reading

  • Rutherford, Margaret, as told to Gwen Robyns. Margaret Rutherford: An Autobiography. W. H. Allen, London. 1972.
  • Simmons, Dawn Langley. Margaret Rutherford. A Blithe Spirit. London, 1983.
  • Merriman, Andy, Margaret Rutherford: Dreadnought with Good Manners. London, Aurum Press. 2009. ISBN 9781845134457

External links

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