Dame Margaret Taylor Rutherford, DBE (11 May 1892 – 22 May 1972) was a British character actress of stage, television and film, probably best known for her later career as Agatha Christie's character Miss Marple. She first came to prominence following World War II in the film adaptations of Noël Coward's Blithe Spirit, and Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. She won the Academy Award and Golden Globe Award for her role as The Duchess of Brighton in The V.I.P.s (1963). Rutherford was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1961 and a Dame Commander (DBE) in 1967.
Margaret Rutherford's early life was overshadowed by tragedies involving both of her parents. Her father was William Rutherford Benn, a journalist and poet. One month after his marriage to Florence, née Nicholson, on 16 December 1882, William Benn suffered a nervous breakdown and was admitted to Bethnal House Lunatic Asylum. Released to travel under family supervision, he murdered his father, the Reverend Julius Benn, a Congregational Church minister, by bludgeoning him to death with a chamber pot, before he slashed his own throat with a pocket knife, at an inn in Matlock, Derbyshire, on 4 March 1883. Following the inquest, William Benn was certified insane and removed to Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. Seven years later, on 26 July 1890, he was discharged from Broadmoor, reunited with his wife and legally dropped his surname.
Margaret Taylor Rutherford, the only child of William and Florence Rutherford, was born in 1892 in Balham, South London. Margaret's uncle Sir John Benn, 1st Baronet was a British politician, and her first cousin once removed was British Labour politician Tony Benn. Hoping to start a new life far from the scene of their recent troubles, the Rutherfords emigrated to Madras, India. But Margaret was returned to Britain when she was three years old to live with her aunt Bessie Nicholson in Wimbledon, London, after her pregnant mother committed suicide by hanging herself from a tree. Young Margaret had been told that her father died of a broken heart soon after, so when she was 12 years old she was shocked to learn that her father had actually been readmitted to Broadmoor Hospital in 1903, where he remained under care until his death in 1921. Her parents' mental afflictions gave rise to a fear that she might succumb to similar maladies, which haunted Margaret Rutherford for the rest of her life, and she suffered intermittent bouts of depression and anxiety.
Margaret Rutherford was educated at Wimbledon High School and, from the age of about 13, at Raven's Croft School, a boarding school at Sutton Avenue, Seaford. While there, she developed an interest in the theatre and performed in amateur dramatics. Upon leaving school, Nicholson paid for her to have private acting lessons. After Nicholson died, money from her legacy 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."
Rutherford, a talented pianist who first found work as a piano teacher and a teacher of elocution, went into acting late in life, making her stage debut at the Old Vic in 1925, aged 33. As her celebrated "spaniel jowls" and bulky frame made the part of a romantic heroine out of the question, 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. 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 John Gielgud's production of The Importance of Being Earnest at the Globe Theatre in 1939. In 1941 Noël Coward's Blithe Spirit opened on the London stage at the Piccadilly Theatre, with Coward himself directing. Rutherford received rave reviews from audiences and critics alike for her lusty portrayal of the bumbling medium Madame Arcati, a role which Coward had earlier envisaged for her. The theatre critic Kenneth Tynan once famously said of her performances: "The unique thing about Margaret Rutherford is that she can act with her chin alone." Rutherford's quirky and energetic stage presence was such that she could deftly steal a scene even when playing relatively minor roles.
Another theatrical success during the war years included her unexpected part as 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 to give up the role after a few weeks.
Although she made her film debut in 1936, it was Rutherford's turn as Madame Arcati in David Lean's film of Blithe Spirit (1945) that actually established her screen success. Her jaunty performance, cycling about the Kent countryside, head held high, back straight, and cape fluttering behind her, established the model for portraying that role thereafter. She was Nurse Carey in Miranda (1948) and the sprightly Medieval expert Professor Hatton Jones in Passport to Pimlico (1949), one of the Ealing Comedies. 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 film adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest (1952).
More comedies followed, including Castle in the Air (1952) with David Tomlinson, 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 worked with Norman Wisdom again in Just My Luck (1957) 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 appeared as Miss Jane Marple in a series of four George Pollock films loosely based on the novels of Agatha Christie. The films depicted Marple as a colourful character, respectable but bossy and eccentric. Authors Marion Shaw and Sabine Vanacker in their book Reflecting on Miss Marple (1991) complained that the emphasis on the "dotty element in the character" missed entirely "the quietness and sharpness" that was admired in the novels. The actress, then aged in her 70s, 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 from Side to Side "To Margaret Rutherford in admiration", though the novelist too was critical of the films for diverging from her original plots and playing dramatic scenes for laughs. Rutherford reprised the role of Miss Marple in a very brief, uncredited cameo in the 1965 film The Alphabet Murders.
Rutherford played the absent-minded, impoverished, pill-popping Duchess of Brighton, the only light relief, in Terence Rattigan's The V.I.P.s (1963), a film featuring a star-studded cast led by Dame Maggie Smith, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. She won an Academy Award and Golden Globe as Best Supporting Actress for her performance. 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. She started work on The Virgin and the Gypsy (1970), but illness caused her to be replaced by Fay Compton.
In 1945, Rutherford, 53, married character actor Stringer Davis, 46, after a courtship that lasted for 15 years. Davis's mother reportedly considered Rutherford an unsuitable match for her son, and nuptials were postponed until Mrs. Davis's demise. Subsequently, the couple appeared in many productions together. Davis adored Rutherford, with one friend noting: "For him she was not only a great talent but, above all, a beauty." The ex-serviceman and actor rarely left his wife's side, serving Rutherford as private secretary, gofer and general dogsbody. More importantly, he nursed and comforted her through periodic debilitating depressions. These illnesses, sometimes involving stays in mental hospitals and electric shock treatment, were kept hidden from the press during Rutherford's life. The Marple films capture something of the couple's public personae as projected in the media at the time: their cosy domesticity, erratic housekeeping and almost childlike innocence and affection.
In the 1950s, Rutherford and Davis unofficially adopted the writer Gordon Langley Hall, then in his 20s. 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 at their Buckinghamshire home until her death on 22 May 1972, aged 80. Many of Britain's top actors, including Sir John Gielgud, Sir Ralph Richardson, Dame Flora Robson and Joyce Grenfell, attended a memorial Service of Thanksgiving at the Actors' Church, St Paul's, Covent Garden, on 21 July 1972, where 90-year-old Dame 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 at the graveyard of St. James's Church, Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire. "A Blithe Spirit" is inscribed on the base of Margaret Rutherford's memorial stone, a reference to the Noël Coward play that helped to make her name.
|1936||Dusty Ermine||Evelyn Summers aka Miss Butterby||film debut|
|1936||Talk of the Devil||Housekeeper|
|1936||Troubled Waters||Bit role||uncredited|
|1937||Missing, Believed Married||Lady Parke|
|1937||Catch as Catch Can||Maggie Carberry|
|1937||Beauty and the Barge||Mrs. Baldwin|
|1941||Spring Meeting||Aunt Bijou|
|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|
|1949||Passport to Pimlico||Professor Hatton-Jones|
|1950||Happiest Days of Your Life, TheThe Happiest Days of Your Life||Muriel Whitchurch|
|1950||Her Favourite Husband||Mrs. Dotherington|
|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||The 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||Wacky World of Mother Goose, TheThe Wacky World of Mother Goose||Mother Goose||voice|
For One Night Only: Margaret Rutherford. Margaret Rutherford (Timothy Spall in drag) tells her life story in cabaret form before an audience. Without Walls TV Series (UK) 5 October 1993.