Kenneth Gilbert More, CBE, 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. He made an indelible mark on British show business which continues to resonate to this day.
Born in Vicarage Road, Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire, on 20 September 1914, Kenny (as he was known) 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.
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.
With the outbreak of war, and following a stint with the Merchant Navy, Kenny soon found himself on active service aboard Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Victorious (R38), but it was his time on board the cruiser HMS Aurora (R12) which 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 both ships would lead Kenny to receive medals including campaign stars for Africa, Italy, the Atlantic and Pacific.
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’s, The 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.
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.
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.
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 1981, passing away of a rare form of Parkinson’s (Multiple Atrophy Syndrome) only a year later 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 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)
- 1935 – Look Up and Laugh / Bit Part (uncredited)
- 1937 – Carry On London / Bit Part (uncredited)
- 1946 – The Silence of the Sea (TV) as The German
- 1946 – School for Secrets as Bomb Aimer (uncredited)
- 1946 – Toad of Toad Hall (TV) as Mr. Badger
- 1948 – Scott of the Antarctic as Lt. E.G.R.(Teddy) Evans R.N.
- 1949 – Man on the Run as Corp. Newman the Blackmailer
- 1949 – Now Barabbas as Spencer
- 1949 – Stop Press Girl as Police Sgt. ‘Bonzo’
- 1950 – Morning Departure as Lieut. Cmdr. James
- 1950 – Chance of a Lifetime as Adam
- 1951 – The Clouded Yellow as Willy Shepley
- 1951 – The Franchise Affair as Stanley Peters
- 1951 – The Galloping Major as Rosedale Film Studio Director
- 1951 – No Highway in the Sky as Dobson, Co-Pilot (uncredited)
- 1951 – Appointment with Venus as Lionel Fallaize
- 1952 – Brandy for the Parson as Tony Rackhman
- 1953 – The Yellow Balloon as Ted
- 1953 – Never Let Me Go as Steve Quillan
- 1953 – Genevieve as Ambrose Claverhouse*
- 1953 – Our Girl Friday as Pat Plunkett
- 1954 – Doctor in the House as Richard Grimsdyke*
- 1954 – The Deep Blue Sea (BBC TV) as Freddie Page
- 1955 – The Man Who Loved Redheads as Narrator (voice)
- 1955 – Raising a Riot as Tony Kent
- 1955 – The Deep Blue Sea as Freddie Page*
- 1956 – Reach for the Sky as Douglas Bader* / **
- 1957 – The Admirable Crichton as Bill Crichton
- 1958 – A Night to Remember as Second Officer Charles Herbert Lightoller
- 1958 – Next to No Time as David Webb
- 1958 – The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw as Jonathan Tibbs
- 1959 – The Thirty-Nine Steps as Richard Hannay
- 1959 – North West Frontier as Captain Scott
- 1960 – Sink the Bismarck! as Captain Shepard
- 1960 – Man in the Moon as William Blood
- 1961 – The Greengage Summer as Eliot
- 1962 – Heart to Heart (TV) as David Mann
- 1962 – Some People as Mr. Smith
- 1962 – The Longest Day as Captain Colin Maud
- 1962 – We Joined the Navy as Lt. Cmdr. Robert Badger
- 1964 – The Comedy Man as Chick Byrd
- 1966 – Lord Raingo (TV) as Sam Raingo
- 1967 – The Forsyte Saga (TV) as ‘Young Jolyon’ Forsyte
- 1967 – The White Rabbit (TV) as Wing Cmdr. Yeo-Thomas
- 1968 – Dark of the Sun, (known also as The Mercenaries) as Doctor Wreid
- 1969 – Fräulein Doktor as Col. Foreman
- 1969 – Oh! What a Lovely War (1969) as Kaiser Wilhelm II
- 1969 – Battle of Britain (1969) as Group Captain Barker
- 1970 – Scrooge as the Ghost of Christmas Present
- 1974 – Father Brown (TV) as Father Brown*
- 1976 – The Slipper and the Rose: The Story of Cinderella as Lord Chamberlain
- 1977 – Where Time Began (also known as Journey to the Centre of the Earth) as Prof. Otto Linderbrock
- 1978 – Leopard in the Snow as Sir Philip James
- 1978 – An Englishman’s Castle (TV) as Peter Ingram
- 1979 – The Spaceman and King Arthur as King Arthur
- 1980 – A Tale of Two Cities (1980) (TV) as Dr. Jarvis Lorry (final performance)
Career highlights – Awards
- 1953 Nominated as Best British Actor (BAFTA) for Genevieve*
- 1954 Won Best British Actor (BAFTA) for Doctor in the House**
- 1955 Won Best Actor at Venice Film Festival for The Deep Blue Sea**
- 1955 Won Most Promising International Star (Variety Club)
- 1955 Nominated Best British Actor (BAFTA) for The Deep Blue Sea*
- 1956 Nominated Best British Actor (BAFTA) for Reach for the Sky*
- 1956 Won Picturegoer Magazine Best Actor Award for Reach for the Sky**
- 1970 Appointed a CBE in the New Year’s Honours
- 1974 Won Best Actor on Television in the TV Times Top Ten Television Award*
- 1975 Won Variety Club 40 Years in Show business Award
Career highlights – Popularity at the Box Office
- 1954 – 5th most popular British star
- 1955 – 5th most popular British star
- 1956 – Most popular international star
- 1957 – 2nd most popular international star
- 1958 – 3rd most popular international star
- 1959 – Most popular British star
- 1960 – Most popular international star
- 1961 – 3rd most popular international star
- 1962 – 4th most popular international star
Selected theatre credits
- 1946: And No Birds Sing by Jenny Laird and John Fernold. Aldwych Theatre, London, WC2. Cast list included; Kenneth More as The Rev. Arthur Platt, Elizabeth Allan, Nigel Stock, Derek Tansley and Elspeth Seely-White
- 1947: Power Without Glory by Michael Hutton. New Lindsey Theatre Club, Notting Hill Gate, London (later transferred to The Fortune). Cast list included; Kenneth More as Eddie, Beatrice Yarley and Dirk Bogarde
- 1948: Peace in our Time by Noel Coward. Lyric Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1. Cast list included; Kenneth More as George Bourne, Dora Bryan, Bernard Lee, Elspeth March and Ralph Michael
- 1950: The Way Things Go by Frederick Lonsdale. Phoenix Theatre, Charing Cross Road, London WC2. Cast list included; Kenneth More as John, Michael Gough, Glynis Johns, Ronald Squire and Janet Burnell
- 1952: The Deep Blue Sea by Terence Rattigan. Duchess Theatre, Catherine Street, London WC2. Cast list included; Kenneth More as Freddie Page, Googie Withers, Roland Culver, Raymond Francis and Peter Illing
- 1961: The Angry Deep (as Director) by Anthony Higgins. Theatre Royal, Brighton. Cast list included Anthony Verner
- 1963: Out of the Crocodile by Giles Cooper. Phoenix Theatre, Charing Cross Road, London WC2. Cast list included; Kenneth More as Peter Pounce, Celia Johnson and Cyril Raymond
- 1964: Our Man Crichton (Musical adaptation of “The Admirable Crichton”) by J.M. Barrie. Shaftesbury Theatre, Catherine Street, London WC2. Cast list included; Kenneth More as Crichton, Millicent Martin, Patricia Lambert, George Benson, Dilys Watling, David Kernan, Anna Barry, and Glyn Worsnip
- 1968: The Secretary Bird by William Douglas Home. Savoy Theatre, The Strand, London WC2. Cast list included; Kenneth More as Hugh Walford, Jane Downs, Terence Longdon, Katherine Parr and Judith Arthy
- 1970: The Winslow Boy by Terence Rattigan. New Theatre, St. Martin’s Lane, London WC2. Cast list included; Kenneth More as Sir Robert Morton, Megs Jenkins, Laurence Naismith, Annette Crosbie, Christopher Cazenove and Peter Cellier
- 1971: Getting On by Alan Bennett. The Queen’s Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1. Cast list included; Kenneth More as George Oliver, Gemma Jones, Brian Cox, Keith Skinner and Mona Washbourne
- 1973: Sign of The Times by Jeremy Kingston. The Vaudeville Theatre, The Strand, London WC2. Cast list included; Kenneth More as Andrew Parry, Sandra Duncan, Liza Goddard, Dennis Ramsden, Joan Sterndale Bennett and Norman Beaton
- 1977: On Approval by Frederick Lonsdale. The Vaudeville Theatre, The Strand, London WC2. Cast list included; Kenneth More as Duke of Bristol, Patricia Routledge, Moray Watson and Carolyn Seymour
Published works include three autobiographies (plus several articles for national publications):