Rutherford [married name Stringer Davis], Dame Margaret Taylor
, was born in Balham, London, on 11 May 1892, the only child of William Rutherford (formerly Benn), a traveller in silks in India, and his wife, Florence Nicholson. She was taken to India as a baby, but when, at the age of three, she suffered the death of her mother, she was returned to England to live with an aunt, Bessie Nicholson. Her father died shortly afterwards. She was educated at Wimbledon high school and Raven's Croft School in Seaford, Sussex. She qualified as a licentiate of the Royal Academy of Music and became a music teacher, doing nothing to further her wish to act professionally until, at the age of thirty-three, she inherited a small income when her aunt died. A letter of introduction from John Drinkwater enabled her to join the Old Vic company as a student in 1925, the year in which Edith Evans played the leading parts there, but this did not lead to more work in the theatre and she returned to teaching at Wimbledon, where she spent two more years before being engaged as an understudy at the Lyric, Hammersmith, by Sir Nigel Playfair.
From Hammersmith, Margaret Rutherford went to Croydon, Epsom, and Oxford, playing in weekly repertory, and at Oxford she met the director Tyrone Guthrie. His eagle eye picked out her strikingly original personality and talent, and he directed her soon afterwards at Her Majesty's in London. In 1935 she played for Guthrie in an ill-fated but star-studded drama, Hervey House
, with Fay Compton, Gertrude Lawrence, and Nicholas Hannen, and in Robert Morley's comedy Short Story
. On this latter occasion she won a spirited battle against the redoubtable Marie Tempest, who was none too pleased with a newcomer's success in her own established field of light comedy. She attempted to thwart Margaret Rutherford by distracting the attention of the audience in their scenes together, but Marie Tempest finally capitulated good-humouredly when she found her rival had the courage to stand up to her. In 1938, in an Irish comedy, Spring Meeting
, by Mollie Keane, under the direction of John Gielgud, she had a big personal success as a comic aunt, Miss Bijou Furse, exchanging racing tips with the old butler (played by Arthur Sinclair), extracting a tiny hot-water bottle from the depths of her capacious cardigans, and devouring her breakfast egg with unconcealed relish and delight. The director had had considerable difficulty in persuading her to undertake the part, since she saw little humour in the play when it was first given to her to read. Don't you think that as we are living in such gloomy times, she wrote, that people want to laugh?
Margaret Rutherford's solemnity was, of course, an invaluable asset in her acting of farce. With an unfailing instinct for execution and timing, there was always a hint of sadness, as in many of the greatest comedians, behind the comicality of her performances. In herself a deeply serious person, she loved music and poetry, and her beautifully spoken poetry readings for the Apollo Society and elsewhere were important to her.
In 1939 (a year before she somewhat improbably created the part of the malevolent housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, in Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca
at the Queen's Theatre) Margaret Rutherford appeared as Miss Prism in John Gielgud's production of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of being Earnest
for some special matinées. For the run of the play at the Globe in London which followed, she accepted the offer to repeat her performance but only on condition that she might also understudy Edith Evans (playing Lady Bracknell)an unheard-of stipulation for an important actress. Her Miss Prism contrasted her class-conscious humility and terror of Lady Bracknell's imperious demands with her rapturous recognition of her beloved handbag (on which the dénouement of the play rested). When, in 1947, the production was taken to the United States, Edith Evans did not wish to go, and Margaret Rutherford was invited to replace her, which she did with notable success, though the director thought her Lady Mayoress rather than the Queen Mary of Edith Evans. She was a versatile member of the company and fitted in with the production with skill and versatility. As the spiritualist Madame Arcati in Noël Coward's Blithe Spirit
she suffered great agonies in fearing to make mock of a cult which she knew to be taken very seriously by its devotees, and at the end of its long stage run at the Piccadilly in 1941 she suffered a nervous breakdown as a result. Continually in demand as the years went by, she conjured up a series of superb sketches of domineering but endearing lady dragons.
Margaret Rutherford had a notable career in films, beginning in 1938 in Dusty Ermine
, directed by Bernard Vorhaus. Her film credits included the Ealing comedy Passport to Pimlico
(1949), Frank Launder's and John Dighton's school farce The Happiest Days of your Life
(1950), and reprises of Madame Arcati in Blithe Spirit
directed by David Lean (1945) and Miss Prism in Anthony Asquith's film version of The Importance of being Earnest
(1952). She achieved transatlantic popularity for her portrayal of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple in several films, beginning with Murder she Said
(1961). In 1964 she won an Oscar as best supporting actress for The VIPs
, playing alongside Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Her success in films did not perhaps give her very great satisfaction, though she was always touchingly appreciative of praise and popularity.
On 26 March 1945 Margaret Rutherford married an actor, James Buckley Stringer Davis, who was devoted to her. She always insisted on his being engaged to play small parts in every film, stage, or television production in which she appeared. A most modest and dedicated actress, who adored her husband and who was infinitely kind, unassuming, and intensely professional, she was perhaps increasingly disturbed to find herself famous as a figure of fun. As she began to age, she began to lose her confidence. She insisted on continuing to fulfil commitments after she was already seriously ill, and she failed to complete a film, from which she retired, after some humiliation at the hands of the impatient director, with the greatest dignity. Her last appearance, as Mrs Malaprop, at the Haymarket with Sir Ralph Richardson in Sheridan's The Rivals
an engagement she was finally obliged to give up after a few weekswas a most poignant struggle against her obviously failing powers. She died on 22 May 1972 in the Chalfont and Gerrards Cross Hospital, Chalfont St Peter, Buckinghamshire. Not long before her death her friends were approached by a journalist who was endeavouring to help her complete her autobiography. Dame Margaret (she was appointed OBE in 1961 and DBE in 1967) had been incapacitated by illness, and neither she herself nor her husband was able to complete the assignment, and the ghost writer was at a loss how to gain the further material which she needed and was trying to fill the gaps with tributes from some of her friends and colleagues. But it appeared in the course of detailed researches that a certain amount of information had come to light about Margaret Rutherford's earlier life, involving an unhappy family background and recurrences of mental disturbance which would be pointless and painful to bring to light, and the book was finally cobbled together as well as possible under these unhappy circumstances, and published in 1972.
Never slender or good-looking, Margaret Rutherford had extraordinary charm. Light on her feet, she moved with grace and distinction, taking the stage with confidence and apparent ease. She wore costume to perfection, and her phrasing and diction, whether in William Congreve, R. B. Sheridan, or Oscar Wilde, were equally impeccable. On the night she left the cast of The School for Scandal
at the Haymarket in 1962, in which she had been a memorable Mrs Candour, she gave a party on the stage after the last performance, leaving a happy memory of her dancing joyously up and down the stage hand in hand with the stage carpenter. Kenneth Tynan had a recollection of her:
Playing Lady Wishfort in Congreve's Way of the World [at the Lyric, Hammersmith, in 1953], Miss Rutherford can act with her chin alone. I especially cherish the chin commanding, the chin in doubt and the chin at bay. My dearest impression is a vision of Miss Rutherford, clad in something loose, darting about her Boudoir like a gigantic Bumble Bee at large in a hothouse.
M. Rutherford and G. Robyns, Margaret Rutherford: an autobiography (1972) · E. Keown, Margaret Rutherford (1956) · The Times (23 May 1972) · WWW · British Theatre [yearbook, P. Noble] (1946?) · personal knowledge (2004) · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1972) · DNB
BFINA, performance footage
BL NSA, Margaret Rutherford, 18921972, Channel 4, 5 Oct 1993, V2444/2
BL NSA, Art of Margaret Rutherford, BBC Radio 3, 10 Dec 1975, NP2653W C1
BL NSA, performance recordings
M. Noakes, pencil drawing, 1970, NPG · R. Mahrenholz, photograph, NPG [see illus.]
Wealth at death
£13,850: administration, 10 Aug 1972, CGPLA Eng. & Wales