Kenneth Gilbert More C.B.E. (20 September 1914 – 12 July 1982) was one of Britain’s most successful and highest paid actors of his generation, with a multi award-winning career in theatre, film and television spanning over 4 decades.
At the height of his fame during the 1950’s Kenneth More appeared in some of the most memorable feature films of the decade including Genevieve (1953), Doctor in the House (1954), The Deep Blue Sea (1955), Reach for the Sky (1956), The Admirable Crichton (1957), A Night to Remember (1958), The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw (1958), North West Frontier (1959) and The 39 Steps (1959).
Starting out as the lovable, happy-go-lucky gentleman with boyhood charm and cheerful optimism, he would later refine his acting style into a leading man who could articulate a whole range of emotions in serious dramatic performances. Kenneth More managed to embody courage and a sense of moral certitude with a relaxed, informal manner that made audiences warm to him immediately.
From very early on in his career More was very conscious of his talents, what parts suited him as an actor and what did not. More would have been the first to admit there were other actors that could better perform the works of Shakespeare than he. More was probably being self-deprecating. He had more range than he sometimes gave himself credit for, but he knew how best to appeal to an audience.
Born in Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire, Kenneth More was the son of a civil engineer, a profession he initially pursued but with little success. More was not a trained actor and had not gone into show business to tread the boards. He was merely looking for work and happened to walk past the Windmill Theatre in London’s West End one day and saw a sign above the door ‘General Manager – Vivian Van Damm’. More had remembered that a man called Van Damm had known his father and so he asked for a job. More was soon a stagehand earning two pounds and ten shillings a week, shifting scenery and helping to get the nude female performers off the stage during their risqué performances. One day he was called upon to help comic Ken Douglas on stage with a sketch, More playing the small part of a Policeman. It was this experience and the subsequent taste of the audience’s laughter which made him want to pursue a career in acting. He was soon an actor in his own right appearing on stage as Ken More in comedy sketches. Following 2 years at the Windmill he moved into repertory theatre with seasons at Byker’s, Grand Theatre in Newcastle, and the Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton.
With the outbreak of war, and following a stint with the Merchant Navy, More joined Royal Navy cruiser HMS Aurora (R12) . It would end up having the greatest impact on his character and his acting style during wartime. As ship’s Action Commentator he found an opportunity to hone his craft as an actor, keeping steady nerves when reporting action during conflict to the crew below decks. He also got on well with his shipmates by helping them to write wonderfully romantic love letters home to their ladies. Aurora would journey across the Atlantic and Mediterranean seeing its fair share of action. Wartime missions aboard Aurora, and later with aircraft carrier HMS Victorious (R38) would lead him to receive medals, including campaign stars for Africa, Italy, the Atlantic and Pacific.
After being demobbed from the Navy Kenneth More returned to England and signed with agent Harry Dubens, who was seeking actors who had served in the forces. More went into ‘The Crimson Harvest’ (1946) at the Gateway Theatre in Notting Hill, and it was there that BBC producer Michael Barry saw him and offered him a contract to play in small television roles at the Alexandra Palace to help restart the BBC.
Jenny Laird and John Fernald’s ‘And No Birds Can Sing’ (1946) marked More’s West End debut at the Aldwych Theatre, playing the part of the Reverend Arthur Platt. Within a year he was back on stage in ‘Power Without Glory’ (1947) by Michael Hutton at the New Lindsey, Notting Hill Gate. It was so well received that it led to a live version being broadcast on the BBC. That same year Noel Coward cast More as a British Resistance Leader in ‘Peace in Our Time’ at the Lyric Theatre; a story of what might have happened if Britain had lost the Second World War. Kenneth More and Noel Coward got on well and stayed friends throughout their lives. 1950 saw More in ‘The Way Things Go’ by Frederick Lonsdale at the Phoenix Theatre, alongside a cast which included Michael Gough, Glynis Johns, Ronald Squire and Janet Burnell.
His first breakthrough came on stage at The Duchess Theatre in 1952 playing the role of Freddie Page alongside Peggy Ashcroft in Terence Rattigan’s ‘The Deep Blue Sea’. It was noted actor Ronald Culver who had put More forward for the part having known Rattigan. The production was an enormous success and Kenneth More received great critical acclaim. He would often cite it as his favourite stage performance.
It was whilst Kenneth More was performing in ‘The Deep Blue Sea’ that filmmaker Henry Cornelius came back stage to offer him a part which would change his career forever, the role of Ambrose Claverhouse in a film called Genevieve (1953). Cornelius had remembered More from a screen test he had directed him in for the part of Lt. E.G.R. (Teddy) Evans in Scott of the Antarctic (1948). This had been More’s first attempt to break into cinema which had not come to fruition although plenty of film work followed. Cornelius was sure More was the Claverhouse he needed for ‘Genevieve’ and he was not disappointed. More’s perfect comic timing was made for the part and he won the audience immediately making him a rising star overnight. ‘Genevieve’ was the second most popular movie that year and went onto become a British comedy classic, winning Best British Film at the British Film Academy Awards.
More channelled the same energy and zest for life he had shown as Claverhouse in his next performance as student Doctor Richard Grimsdake in the first of the much-loved Doctor in the House (1954) film series. It was a winning formula becoming the most popular film at the box office in 1954 securing More Best Actor at the British Film Academy Awards.
1955 saw Kenneth More returning to the role of Freddie Page in a big screen version of Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea, playing alongside Vivian Leigh. Incidentally, he had brought the role back to life the previous year for BBC television’s Sunday-Night Theatre series. The screen adaptation was produced by Alexander Korda and directed by Anatole Litvak. More’s performance was once again praised by audiences and critics alike, leading to being awarded the prestigious Volpi cup for Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival, as well as nominations for Best Actor at the British Film Academy Awards. Further honours were bestowed by the Variety Club of Great Britain as Most Promising International Star of 1955. He had finally made his mark.
It was a serious leading role initially turned down by Richard Burton which would make More a major star. Playing the legless, real-life fighter pilot Douglas Bader in Reach for the Sky (1956) was the role of a lifetime. He felt the part of Bader was one he was born to play as he mentioned in his autobiography, ‘More or Less’: “Bader’s philosophy was my philosophy. His whole attitude to life was mine.” More had met Bader at Gleneagles where they played a round of golf together, Bader winning each time. They got on well which was somewhat surprising in that Bader was not that keen on actors. Not wanting to caricature him More kept his distance whilst preparing for the role, only meeting him on a handful of occasions for dinner with his friend, actor Ronald Squire. ‘Reach for the Sky’ became a smash hit upon release and the most popular British film of 1956, winning a British Film Academy award for Best Film. Playing Bader also garnered a Best Actor award for More from popular cinema publication, Picturegoer magazine.
‘Reach for the Sky’ did something much greater for his career, it showed British audiences that Kenneth More was not just suited to comic roles, he had range as a leading man in dramatic performances. In later years More called several of his films ‘favourites’ in the press, but it is the belief that ‘Reach for the Sky’ remained his preferred choice and greatest accomplishment on screen.
Hugely popular films The Admirable Crichton (1957), A Night to Remember (1958), The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw (1958), North West Frontier (1959) and The 39 Steps (1959) galvanized his status as one of Britain’s most sought-after actors of the decade. Once he was a £5 a week actor in rep, now he was commanding £50,000 a film.
At the height of his fame More was offered several opportunities to go to Hollywood but with the success he was enjoying at home he did not see the point, or even what he had to offer Tinseltown at this juncture.
The 1960s saw More continue as a leading man in Sink the Bismarck! (1960), The Greengage Summer (1961) and We Joined the Navy (1962). He would cite The Comedy Man (1964) as one of his most favourite roles playing down an out middle-aged actor Chick Byrd. This character resonated with him on two levels. The first was how it represented the experiences he had as a struggling young actor, the second was how he was coming to terms with the present, his own age and the shifting trends of the industry. It would be More’s last leading role on the silver screen. Further successes on film came but in cameo or supporting roles, including The Longest Day (1962), Oh What a Lovely War (1969), Battle of Britain (1969), Scrooge (1970) and The Slipper in the Rose (1976).
More finally achieved worldwide fame as leading man on the small screen in a BBC adaptation of John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga (1967). He had been working steadily on television throughout the 1960’s in starring roles, but The Forsyte Saga caught the world’s imagination and was a huge, phenomenal success. The series managed to achieve that rare cult-like status and helped introduce Kenneth More to a whole new audience, many who had not seen his earlier work. Several years late More took on another famous literary character playing the part of a Catholic priest who was adept at solving mysteries in GK Chesteron’s Father Brown (1974). The TV Times awarded him Best Actor for his performance.
Kenneth More had returned to the theatre as early as 1963, playing the part of Peter Pounce alongside Celia Johnson in ‘Out of the Crocodile’ at the Phoenix Theatre. A year later he appeared in a musical version of ‘The Admirable Crichton’ co-starring with Millicent Martin in ‘Our Man Crichton’ at the Shaftesbury Theatre. By the end of the 1960s he had received great critical praise as Hugh in a production of ‘The Secretary Bird’ (1968) by William Douglas Home at the Savoy Theatre. It turned out to be the biggest stage success of his career. Terence Rattigan’s ‘The Winslow Boy’ (1970), Alan Bennett’s award-winning ‘Getting On’ (1971), ‘Sign of the Times’ (1973) and ‘On Approval’ (1977) followed, all of which reinforced More’s popularity in his later years.
He was appointed a CBE in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours list of 1970. The Kenneth More Theatre, a regional playhouse named in his honour opened in Redbridge in 1974. The Variety Club of Great Britain bestowed More with a special silver heart in 1975 for 40 years in show business. He had been a great supporter of the club over the years taking part in a great deal of charitable events. A special, televised ceremony was held in the Lancaster ballroom of the Savoy Hotel and was attended by many of the industry’s best-known names, including Sir. Douglas Bader who More had remained friends with throughout the years.
1978 saw the release of his autobiography ‘More or Less’, reported to have sold 100,000 copies almost immediately upon release. It received widespread critical and public praise and showed that his appeal had not diminished after 4 decades in the business, despite how times had changed. More was considered an ‘institution in British entertainment’ according to presenter Michael Parkinson whilst introducing his on his chat show in 1978.
More announced his retirement in 1980 due to illness, at the time he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. It is now very likely that he was suffering from Multiple System Atrophy (MSA), due in part to the age of onset and the speed at which the condition progressed. Kenneth More passed away on July 12th, 1982. His wife Angela Douglas was by his side having nursed him in his final years.
Kenneth More’s memorial was held at St Martin-in-the-Fields on 20 September 1982, which also marked his birthday. The service was packed with family and friends alike, including Lauren Bacall, Dame Anne Neagle and Lady Bader, wife of Sir Douglas Bader who had passed away the same year. A plaque was erected at St. Paul’s Church Covent Garden, known more commonly as the Actor’s Church.
It is now well over 40 years ago since his passing, yet Kenneth More’s performances have endured, continuing to screen worldwide on television and home entertainment. What greater legacy can there be for an actor than to be able to continue to thrill audiences long after one has taken their final bow.
Kenneth More was married on three occasions during his lifetime and fathered two children:
- Beryl Johnstone (1939 – 1946), fathering daughter Jane (born 1941)
- Mabel Edith “Bill” Barkby (18 August 1952 – 7 July 1967), fathering daughter Sarah (born 1954)
- Angela Josephine Douglas (17 March 1968 – 12 July 1982)
KennethMore.com represents the estate and family of the late actor and is owned and managed by entertainment publicist Nick Pourgourides. He has been instrumental in educating the public on the life of the actor; helping to organise the first Kenneth More Day in 2019 on national television channel Talking Pictures, commemorative plaques unveiled in London’s West End at The Duchess Theatre and the actors’ restaurant Joe Allen, as well as appearing on national radio, and writing for several magazines about his childhood hero.
Nick Pourgourides also curates the Kenneth More archive which includes many of the late actor’s awards, film files and personal correspondence, and is committed to protecting Kenneth More’s legacy: “Its imperative to me that Kenny doesn’t get forgotten as so many other actors of his generation have. Protecting his name and image is the central objective of my work representing his estate. Until this has been achieved my mission will continue.”
Nick Pourgourides is currently writing the first, authorized book on Kenneth More (‘More Please’) with excerpts from the late actor’s final autobiography ‘More or Less’ (1978), following the estate successfully obtaining the rights in 2019.
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