Dame Margaret Rutherford: Actress Starred in Chimes at Midnight, The VIPs, Miss Marple

Although emotionally fragile and eccentric, the sweet-natured actress delighted audiences as Madame Arcati and Miss Marple through her heyday of the 1960s.

Margaret Rutherford’s family hoped she would be a piano teacher, but she was determined to be an actress. In her forties, her career finally took off, with great acclaim for her comic performances.

Serious ambitions

Margaret, though a much-loved comedienne, never gave up the fond hope of being seen as a serious actress. In 1962 she headlined on a tour with a small company entitled ‘Our Little Life’, which consisted of several short, earnest pieces.

It was not to the British public’s taste. Neither was her 1964 job in a film by Orson Welles: released a little later, ‘Chimes At Midnight’ was a black and white picture bedevilled by lack of money and resultant technical shortcomings.

It is a life of Falstaff, compiled by Welles from four separate Shakespeare plays. It was neither a box office or critical success at the time, although now seen as a Welles classic. Margaret relished the chance to work with the larger-than life Orson and to deliver some Shakespearean lines – albeit in prose rather than the poetry that she was so in love with.

Private life

Poetry-reading was the passion of Margaret’s private time, and she was a fine, naturalistic, reader on stages, on the radio, in schools, and in prisons. Her charitable work extended beyond befriending the inmates of adult prisons to encompass the young offenders at the Feltham Borstal, where she was an honorary ‘Mum’. Married from 1945 to the actor Stringer Davis, Margaret was heavily reliant on her husband, who devotedly took care of all daily practicalities.

A tendency towards depression grew more marked over the years, causing Margaret several self-imposed stays in sanitoria. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, Stringer’s steadying support was vital to her.

Final days

For her work in the 1963 film by Anthony Asquith, ‘The VIPs’, Rutherford won an Oscar. In 1967 she was awarded a Damehood.

Following a lifetime of robust physical health, Margaret Rutherford unhappily suffered a year or two of pain and anguish at the end of her life, before dying at the age of 80 in 1972.

At the time, obituaries singled out as her greatest legacy the role of ‘Madame Arcati’ in Noel Coward’s ‘Blithe Spirit’, which she created on both stage and screen. But with the passage of time and the choices of TV schedulers, it is the role of ‘Miss Marple’ in four British B-movies for which she is best remembered nowadays. Margaret, always deeply insecure, actually turned down both of these roles. She played so hard-to-get that she might well have lost them, and the world would have missed out on some great enjoyment. Fortunately, the producers persisted.

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