Kenneth More

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Kenneth More Pencil Portrait
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Here’s Kenneth More, looking rather pensive, as well he might, on the run from the authorities in the 1959 Rank remake of The 39 Steps.

The movie is rightly regarded as a rather shallow reinvention of Hitchcock’s 1935 original, and whilst More’s affability and leisurely demeanor do little to ramp up the tension, the film still has an undeniable charm. Shot in colour, director Ralph Thomas makes effective use of the location shoot in Scotland to convey the sheer expansiveness of a genuine man hunt. Undeniably the most popular star of his day at the British box office – his portrayal of Douglas Bader in Reach for the sky a distinct career defining moment – More’s affability and bulldog breed persona would ensure another major hit for producer Betty Box.

As the 60’s dawned, changing trends in public taste would reduce the actor’s status to celluloid anachronism, yet displaying considerable foresight, More would reinvigorate his international reputation with The Forsyte Saga”, the landmark 1967 BBC Tv series which would receive worldwide syndication and laudatory reviews.

More was a shrewd man when it came to the business of acting. He knew his limitations and what roles suited him. When the director Sir Peter Hall once suggested that he play Claudius to Albert Finney’s Hamlet at the Royal National Theatre, he declined saying “One part of me would like to, but the other part said that there were so many great Shakespearian actors who could have done it better. I stick to the roles I can play better than them.” Late into his celluloid career, he was still acutely conscious of what would work for him on screen – his cameo as the Ghost of Christmas past in the 1970 adaption of Scrooge an obvious and pleasing case in point. This musical version easily ranks alongside the 1948 Alistair Sim’s vehicle as the best interpretation of Dickens’ classic novel.

Kenneth More was a British actor, one of the league of likeable gentlemen of post-war British cinema. He began in stage revue and worked in the mid-1930s at the Windmill Theatre, making his first appearance there in August 1935 in a revue sketch. He had previously come to the Channel Island of Jersey when his father was appointed manager of the Jersey Eastern Railway, commencing his acting career whilst at Victoria College. In 1957, as an Old Victorian he presented the school with an oil painting of King Charles I, which to this day, hangs prominently in College Hall, but equally lasting a legacy was his institution in 1962 of the annual Kenneth More Prize for Drama.

Born in Gerrards Cross in 1914 More’s early grounding was in variety and legitimate theatre in the north of England, making his first appearance at the Windmill Theatre in August 1935 in a revue sketch. A personal favourite amongst his many roles was in fact a theatrical one, portraying the part of Freddie Page in Terence Rattigan’s “The Deep Blue Sea” in 1952. The play, which also featured Peggy Ashcroft, was subsequently made into a movie in which he would co-star with Vivien Leigh.

The war would interrupt his fledgling career – he served in the Mediterranean and the Pacific as a lieutenant in the Royal Navy Voluntary Reserve – and this experience was reflected in “Sink the Bismarck”, one of his most celebrated roles.

On screen, like many leading men in the 1950s such as John Mills and Jack Hawkins, he seemed to spend most of the decade in uniform. When he read ‘Reach for the Sky,’ the biography of the legless wartime pilot Douglas Bader, he was desperate to play the role, even though it was earmarked for Richard Burton. “I knew I was the only actor who could play the part properly” he said. “Most parts that can be played by one actor can equally well be played by another, but not this. Bader’s philosophy was my philosophy. His whole attitude to life was mine.”

His skills as a comedian would be best utlised in the film Genevieve,” which, like The Forsyte Saga television series, in which he played Young Jolyon, became well known in the United States.

Married three times with two daughters, More, who was made a Commander of the British Empire in 1970, was, at the time of his death, with his third wife, the actress Angela Douglas. These are the facts of the case but the reality is invariably something else. The more than two decades difference in age had reportedly placed a strain on the relationship, and before More’s illness became public knowledge the couple had separated. Douglas returned to the matrimonial home to care for her husband, which suggests an inherent sense of duty whilst in no way diminishing the feelings for him that almost inevitably still existed.

Recommended viewing

Reach for the sky (1956)

Douglas Bader was an inspiration to many, overcoming the loss of both legs in a 1931 plane crash to become a Battle of Britain flying hero, yet those very qualities that enabled him to overcome such terrible adversity also, by all accounts, made him an objectionable character. Kenneth More himself, was guest of honour at an evening event where he intended to refer to Bader and the film he made of his life, but was advised to switch subjects to avoid offending a number of the evening’s former POW attendees. Apparently, Bader’s fellow PoW’s had suffered considerably from his ‘performances’ with the German guards & officers; further testimony to man who believed the world revolved around his own actions.

“Reach for the sky” is Kenneth More’s film and needs to be; the singular directorial focus on Bader’s life all but eclipsing the other supporting roles, however ably delivered. The actor in fact, would spend time playing golf with the flying ace, studying his character, and came to feel that they shared the same philosophy of life. He portrays Bader as an essentially charming yet clearly wilful man, and whilst his more objectionable elements are downplayed, there are nonetheless sufficient glimpses of those rough edges. His reckless attitude to safety, convention or rules, his refusal of any help after the near fatal flying accident, and his occasionally dismissive attitude towards wife Thelma, who he clearly adores. Bader’s plight is genuinely moving, however, especially in the pre-war hospital scenes when the man used to being forever best struggles with his new circumstances.

A war story as well as a biopic, “Reach For The Sky” tugs purposefully at the heartstrings, whilst the special effects and location shooting enhance the storyline to great effect. The combination of spectacular aerobatics, recreations of the Battle of Britain, and an inspiring story of courage, all contributed the film’s pole position as box office top draw for 1956.

I first saw the movie as a seven year old, and it remains a perennial feature in Film 4’s movie scheduling to this day.

The Admirable Crichton (1957)

A Night to remember (1958)

Among the many films about the Titanic, “A Night to Remember” has long been regarded as a high point by historians and survivors alike for its accuracy, despite its modest production values when compared with James Cameron’s 1997 Oscar-winning film. The latter production had much to commend it – breathtaking CGI and a visually more accurate recreation of the actual sinking – yet counterbalancing these factors were the central relationship between Rose and Jack (pure hokum), and a theme song by Celine Dion that I would happily have sunk to the bottom of the Atlantic to avoid.

Kenneth More heads a huge and stellar cast, with 200 speaking parts, as second officer Herbert Lightoller, from whose point-of-view the story unfolds. Also in the cast are Laurence Naismith as the ill-fated Captain Smith; Michael Goodliffe (one of More’s antagonists the following year in “The 39 Steps”,) as the conscience-stricken ship’s designer Thomas Andrews; Tucker McGuire as feisty American millionaire Molly Brown, whose courage and tenacity saved many lives; and Anthony Bushell as the captain of the Carpathia, who launched a noble but vain rescue mission once he was apprised of the disaster.

Keen eyed fans will also spot two future TV favorites: The Avengers’ Honor Blackman as a woman who believes that she has nothing to live for, and future teen heartthrob The Man From UNCLE’s David McCallum as a wireless operator. The climactic sinking of the vessel is re-created with painstaking accuracy; filmed in “real time,” it is a mere 37 minutes shorter than the actual tragedy.

More’s character discharges his duties until the ship sinks, swimming far enough away to avoid being sucked under by the bubble vortex. Finding salvation aboard one of the lifeboats, he brings leadership and stoicism to a difficult situation, until the survivors are rescued.

The 39 Steps (1959)

When Richard Hannay (Kenneth More) picks up a baby’s rattle, that simple act sparks off a trail leading to espionage, intrigue and murder. The baby’s ‘nanny’ is a secret service agent with orders to smash an espionage organization intent on smuggling plans of vital importance to Britain out of the country.

Fearing for her life, the ‘nanny’ confides in Hannay who, whether he likes it or not, is now involved. When the mining engineer discovers her murdered in his flat, all he knows is that the brain behind the organization can be found in Scotland and the mystery is tied in with ‘The 39 Steps’. Pursued by the police and members of the organization, Hannay boards a train for Scotland to unravel the mystery and clear himself of a murder charge. In a music hall the high stakes for the country’s safety are played out, as Hannay and his attractive schoolteacher companion learn the true meaning of those innocent-sounding, yet sinister words, ‘The 39 Steps’.

It’s a much maligned movie – essentially a remake of Hitchcock’s 1935 original – yet the location shots are sumptuous, the colour hues quite vivid, and More is the archetypal rumbustious leading man. True objectivity is difficult for any admirer of John Buchan’s novel, since each and every version is more than welcome. This release features an amusing cameo from Sid James as a long distance lorry driver with a monosyllabic sidekick called Bert, and Barry Jones as Professor Logan, a consummate villain, seemingly insipid yet undeniably dangerous.

Fans of the lush location filming are directed to the following website:

Equally, automobile enthusiasts will enjoy the following link:

Man in the moon (1960)