What was it about post-war British cinema? Our films were lit up by a collection of wonderfully idiosyncratic performers. Think Alistair Sim, Terry-Thomas and Robert Morley. Perhaps the most idiosyncratic of them all was Margaret Rutherford. The drama critic, J. C. Trewin once remarked, ‘When you have seen any performance by Margaret Rutherford you are certain to remember it.’ How right he was.
She stole Blithe Spirit with her portrayal of the exuberant bicycling medium, Madame Arcati. She was wonderful as Miss Whitchurch, the domineering headmistress of a girls’ school mistakenly billeted at a boys’ school in The Happiest Days of Your Life. And she was a far more colourful and entertaining Miss Marple than the rather grey character in Agatha Christie.
Rutherford, modest to a fault, said her ‘English muffin’ face, with its ‘five chins’ and many wrinkles may have had something to do with her success. But the truth was that she was a highly accomplished actress, who, although associated with comedy roles, showed that she could play it serious with the best of them when the opportunity arose, as she did when cast as Mistress Quickly in Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight.
In his splendid biography, Andy Merriman charts how Rutherford rose from being a struggling actress, who combined playing minor roles in occasional stage performances with music teaching, to achieve international stardom by the 1960s. But for a person who generated so much laughter on stage and on film, Rutherford’s life had more than its fair share of tragedy and trauma. To her dying day, she kept a terrible secret: her father was a murderer, who had killed his own clergyman father by smashing his head with a chamber pot. William Benn escaped the gallows on grounds of insanity and was sent to Broadmoor. Rutherford — a cousin of the politician Tony Benn — was born after her father had been released, and shortly after her birth her parents moved to India. There, tragedy struck again: her mother hanged herself from a tree in the garden.
Rutherford remained haunted throughout her life that she too would suffer from mental illness. She did have a series of breakdowns, and succumbed periodically to depression. Yet that is only half the story. Despite her inner torment, what comes over most in Merriman’s book is Rutherford’s delightfully sweet character. Endearingly eccentric, extraordinarily generous and devoid of any airs and graces, she was loved by all who came into contact with her.
When the actress Judy Parfitt said that she admired Rutherford’s emerald paste earrings, the next day she found them left as a present in her dressing room. Benjamin Whitrow recalls an occasion when a party was given to celebrate Rutherford’s 70th birthday on stage after a show. Two trestle tables were set up — one down stage with champagne and three- cornered sandwiches for the cast, another way up stage with beer and four-cornered sandwiches for the crew. Rutherford was having none of it. ‘Margaret went straight up stage and grabbed the nearest stagehand, hauled him to the centre and started jiving with him. I have never forgotten this wonderful gesture.’
It was only one of many ‘wonderful gestures’ and acts of kindness by Rutherford which are documented by Merriman. When we add in the pleasure her performances have given to so many people, then Rutherford’s life was truly a life well lived.