Kenneth More was one of Britain’s most successful actors, with a multi award-winning career in theatre, film and television spanning over 4 decades.

Kenneth More was one of Britain’s most successful actors, with a multi award-winning career in theatre, film and television spanning over 4 decades.

Born in Vicarage Road, Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire, on 20 September 1914, Kenny was the son of Edith ‘Topsy’ Winifred Watkins; the daughter of a Cardiff solicitor, and Major Charles ‘Bertie’ Gilbert More; a Royal Naval Air Service pilot. Kenny was brought up with his older sister, Kate, in the idyllic setting of Bute Lodge in Richmond. They were well looked after, with a maid, cook and nurse running the family home. When Kenny was six his father, Bertie, thought the time was right for both Kenny and Kate to be sent to boarding school in Worthing. This had a great emotional impact on Kenny and his relationship with Kate.

It was the news that his father was to be made general manager of the Jersey Eastern Railway which brought the family back together. Kenny was sent to school at Victoria College, Jersey.

Kenneth More (far right), his mother Winifred Edith, known as ‘Toppy (centre), and sister Kathleen (far left). Image courtesy of Kenneth’s daughter, Sarah

Kenneth More (far right), his mother Winifred Edith, known as ‘Toppy (centre), and sister Kathleen (far left). Image courtesy of Kenneth’s daughter, Sarah

Kenneth More's father, 'Bertie' in 1918 Royal Air Force uniform

Kenneth More’s father, ‘Bertie’, in his Royal Naval Air Force uniform

The staff at Bute House in Richmond where Kenneth More was so tenderly cared for

The staff at Bute House in Richmond where Kenneth More was so tenderly cared for

Kenneth More at Victoria College school in Jersey. Courtesy of Victoria College

Kenneth More at Victoria College school in Jersey. Courtesy of Victoria College

Kenneth More's Victoria College tie

Kenneth More’s Victoria College tie

In his lifetime, Kenny’s father would end up getting through two inheritances, much of his fortune given away to hard-luck cases and outlandish inventions. He passed away destitute in 1931 at the age of forty-five leaving the family struggling to manage.

After finishing schooling Kenny travelled to Shrewsbury to enter into training as a civil engineer’s apprentice, something of a family tradition. It didn’t work out, nor did a turn on the shop counter at Sainsburys on the Strand. In an attempt to follow in his father’s footsteps, Kenny next applied to join the Royal Air Force but was turned down during his medical because of a problem with his equilibrium and a lack of a school certificate. With £100 from his grandmother (known affectionately as ‘Dear One’), he travelled to Canada with a friend and their partner in the hope of making his fortune as a fur trapper. Along the way he fell hopelessly in love with the girlfriend and upon arrival they all found themselves deported due to a lack of immigration papers.

Due to his late father’s friendship with Vivian Van Damm who ran the Windmill Theatre in Soho, Kenny was able to secure a job as a stagehand on the proviso that he never became an actor, something Van Damm despised of as a profession. Fortunately, enough for Kenny the ‘acting bug’ bit him and it was not long before he was playing straight in the Windmill’s Reudeville comedy routines, appearing in his first performance in 1935. Van Damm pulled back on his views and the two became good friends. Kenny stayed with the Windmill for 2 years, his work here led to regularly appearing in repertory theatre up and down the country, including seasons at Byker’s, Grand Theatre in Newcastle, and the Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton.

Kenneth More (3rd from left in 2nd row) in the Windmill Theatre Football Team, 1935

Kenneth More (3rd from left in 2nd row) in the Windmill Theatre Football Team, 1935

With the outbreak of war, and following a stint with the Merchant Navy, Kenny soon found himself on active service aboard 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. Aurora would journey across the Atlantic and Mediterranean seeing its fair share of action. Wartime missions aboard Aurora and aircraft carrier HMS Victorious (R38) would lead Kenny to receive medals including campaign stars for Africa, Italy, the Atlantic and Pacific.

Lieutenant Kenneth More RNVR (far right with telescope in hand) aboard HMS Aurora, whilst docked in Naples in 1944

Lieutenant Kenneth More RNVR (far right with telescope in hand) aboard HMS Aurora, whilst docked in Naples in 1944

By the end of the war Kenny had returned to England and signed with agent Harry Dubens who was seeking actors who had served at the front. Kenny would return to repertory theatre, as well as appearing in small roles both on television and cinema. Though Scott of the Antarctic (1948) was the first real attempt at a serious screen role in a major film it did not do for Kenny what he and his agent hoped it might. A lot of his performance was not focused on by the cameras, but instead that of its star, John Mills.

It was highly acclaimed notices as Freddie in Terence Rattigan’sThe Deep Blue Sea at the Duchess Theatre in 1952 which made the industry sit up and take notice. The production having run previously in Brighton and Cardiff before transferring to the West End.

Henry Cornelius’ British comedy, Genevieve (1953), with John Gregson, Dinah Sheridan and Kay Kendall was the film to finally put him on the map. Cornelius had screen tested Kenny for Scott of the Antarctic instead of the film’s director and felt the character of Ambrose Claverhouse perfectly suited More’s natural charm. Genevieve was almost never released, for when Rank Films saw the rushes they were not impressed with it. Fortunately they decided to put it out anyhow, most probably in order to try and recoup some of its cost. The audiences lapped up the London to Brighton car rallying adventure and the film went on to become the second most popular movie in Britain that year. Genevieve then won Best British Film at the British Academy Awards, as well as a nomination for Kenny for Best British Actor. The film was also Oscar nominated, both for Best Original Screenplay and Best Musical Score. Not a bad result for a film which was almost never released in cinemas!

It was the soon-to-become comedy classic Doctor in the House (1954) which gave Kenny his first major award, winning Best Actor at the BAFTA’s for his performance as Richard Grimsdyke, the happy-go-lucky student Doctor. This accolade was significant in that the award had gone to a comedy performance, something Kenny was forever proud of receiving. It would hang in his study throughout his life. Doctor in the House became the most popular film at the box office in 1954.

1955 saw Kenny returning to the role of Freddie in a big screen version of Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea, this time 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. Kenny’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 BAFTAs. Further honours were bestowed by the Variety Club of Great Britain as Most Promising International Star of 1955.

It was a serious leading role initially turned down by Richard Burton which would make Kenny the big star he had always hoped to become. Playing real-life fighter pilot Douglas Bader in Reach for the Sky was the role of a lifetime. He felt the part of Bader was one he was born to play:

“Bader’s philosophy was my philosophy. His whole attitude to life was mine.” 

Kenneth More from his autobiography, More or Less

Kenny 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, Kenny kept his distance when preparing for the role, only meeting him on a handful of occasions for dinner with his friend Ronny Squire. Reach for the Sky became a smash hit upon release and the most popular British film of 1956, winning a BAFTA for Best Film. Playing Bader also garnered a Best Actor award for Kenny from major Cinema publication, Picturegoer magazine.

Reach for the Sky did something much greater for his career, it showed British audiences that Kenny was not just suited to comic roles, he had range as a leading man in dramatic performances. However this didn’t make him want to shy away from further comedies, quite the contrary. Films like The Admirable Crichton (1957), Next to No Time (1958) and The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw (1958) all added to his impressive list of comedy acting credits.

Serious performances continued in big budget British films A Night to Remember (1958), Northwest Frontier (1959) and The Thirty-Nine Steps (1959), all of which helped in cementing his reputation as Britain’s most popular, and highest paid actor of the 1950’s.

Further successes in films Sink the Bismarck! (1960) and The Greengage Summer (1961) showed More was still in great demand and as popular as ever at the start of a new decade, but when the swinging sixties brought a huge cultural shift to the industry, and the tastes of the public at large, leading roles Kenny had always gravitated to began to diminish on the silver screen.

He continued to act on film but the theatre was where he excelled, with productions in Out of the Crocodile, Our Man Crichton, The Secretary Bird, Sign of the Times, as well as long stage runs with The Winslow Boy (1970) and Getting On by Alan Bennett (1971). It was a move to small screen, specifically a leading role in The Forsyte Saga (1967) which brought global success and Kenny’s career full circle. The series continued to showcase his versatility as an actor. 

Kenneth More official headshot from the 1970's

Kenneth More official headshot from the 1970’s

Kenny was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the 1970 New Year Honours. 1974 saw the Kenneth More Theatre open its doors to the public with a performance of “The Beggar’s Opera”. A rare honour bestowed to a living actor than to a theatre in one’s name. Three years later the KMT managed to pin down Kenny’s schedule to host ‘an evening of poetry, prose and music’ with Kenneth More Requests the Pleasure of Your Company. He was thrilled to be able to say he had performed on stage at his very own theatre. 

In 1974 the TV Times awarded him Best Actor for his performance in the television series, Father Brown, based on the books by G. K. Chesterton about a Roman Catholic Priest who solved murder mysteries. Kenny’s portrayal on camera won him a whole new audience, some of whom had never seen his earlier cinematic work. Producer empresario Lew Grade was so adamant More was the only choice to play Father Brown for television that he would ring him at home saying: “Good morning, Father, how are you today Father?” Kenny at first wasn’t convinced that he was right for the part, but finally acquiesced upon speaking to his agent. He was pleased that he did accept citing it as one of his best working experiences.


Kenneth More’s 1974 TV Times Award for Best TV Actor (Father Brown)

In 1975 Kenny was the guest of honour at a Variety Club lunch held in the Lancaster ballroom of the Savoy to accept an award celebrating 40 years in show business. 

“What have I done with my 40 years..? I’ve made some mistakes…six months in India with David Lean, the greatest director in the world in ‘The Wind Cannot Read’ and I turned it down. What a fool though. Oh heavens I should have done it! It would have set me on the road earlier…three years later I got ‘Reach for the Sky’, that I believe was turned down by Richard Burton. He didn’t do it and I did, so I suppose life in show business balances out one way or another for the best.”

Kenneth More with his thoughts on the way to pick up his Variety Club Award for 40 years in show business

1978 saw the release of his autobiography More or Less, selling 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.

Kenneth More celebrating his last birthday party. 'Let's make it the best one ever, Shrimp.' September 1981.Credit Angela More

Kenneth More celebrating his last birthday party. ‘Let’s make it the best one ever, Shrimp.’ September 1981. Credit Angela More

Sadly Kenny’s health started to deteriorate shortly afterward and although he continued to work and appear in public for as long as he could, he had all but retired from professional life by 1980. Though diagnosed at the time with Parkinson’s it is very likely that he had been suffering from Multiple System Atrophy. Kenny passed away at home on 12th July 1982 at the age of 67. His wife Angela Douglas was by his side having nursed him in his final years. Kenny’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 Kenny’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. Best of British is phrase used often, but none so more apt than describing the life and work of Kenneth More.

Kenneth More Royal Mail Stamp

Kenneth More Royal Mail stamp from the Remarkable Lives series in 2014

Kenneth More was married on three occasions during his lifetime and fathering 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)

Selected filmography