In the 1950s, Kenneth More was arguably Britain’s biggest film star. Famously self-deprecating, he wasn’t the type to immerse himself in roles. But, such was his integrity, audiences trusted More the man and rooted for his larger-than-life characters. As Nick Pourgourides points out in his engaging new biography, More, Please!, More’s popularity grew after he moved into television and reached millions as Young Jolyon in The Forsyte Saga (1967) and as G.K. Chesterton’s clerical sleuth in Father Brown (1974).
He had started out as second banana to a comedian at Soho’s Windmill Theatre before honing his delivery skills by describing enemy action to his shipmates below deck while serving as a naval watch officer. Basing his screen persona on this unflappability and natural bonhomie, More gave off an air of affable assurance that proved winning in troubling times.
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Yet, despite the ubiquitous twinkle in his eye, he rarely played conventional romantic leads and was never a pin-up like his Rank stablemate, Dirk Bogarde. Neither sought Hollywood fame, while More’s emblematic Englishness made him a poor fit for either arthouse or social realism. Despite being a man of his age, however, he retains a timeless appeal.
The Yellow Balloon (1953)
Director: J. Lee Thompson
Fifty years ago, Kenneth More suggested on the BBC’s Omnibus programme that his thesping style could be described as “same actor, different clothes”. He didn’t often stray from the middle-class milieu, but he gives a deft display as working man Ted Palmer in J. Lee Thompson’s thriller (which was originally awarded an X certificate). Palmer is forced to put down his evening paper and do a little active parenting when his son is menaced by Len Turner (William Sylvester), the fugitive who had witnessed young Frankie (Andrew Ray) cause the accidental death of his best friend on a London bombsite.
Director: Henry Cornelius
More had been on screen for 17 years when he became an overnight star after playing breezy advertising executive Ambrose Claverhouse in the best Ealing comedy that Ealing didn’t make. Behind the wheel of his 1905 Spyker, More anticipates Dick Dastardly in his determination to beat John Gregson’s 1904 Darracq in a wacky race to Westminster Bridge following the annual London to Brighton vintage car run. For many, More’s triumphant “ha-ha” will be as indelibly etched as Larry Adler’s jaunty harmonica score, although his bickering antics with model girlfriend Kay Kendall and her St Bernard dog are every bit as memorable.
Doctor in the House (1954)
Director: Ralph Thomas
Despite Dirk Bogarde headlining this lively adaptation of Richard Gordon’s anecdotal bestseller, Simon Sparrow was so roundly upstaged by the hapless Richard Grimsdyke that More won the BAFTA for best British actor. He was paid a mere £3,500 for his efforts, however, and had to look on as Bogarde (who had previously been known for playing wideboys) reinvented himself as “the idol of the Odeons”. But Grimsdyke is very much the life and soul of St Swithin’s, as he keeps flunking out in order to remain eligible for the annuity granted by a relative to see him through medical school.
The Deep Blue Sea (1955)
Director: Anatole Litvak
Although he was playing against type as a self-centred cad, More knew the part of ex-RAF pilot Freddie Page better than any other in his career. He had created the role written by Terence Rattigan on stage in 1952 opposite Peggy Ashcroft and had revisited it on television alongside Googie Withers 2 years later. When producer Alexander Korda secured the film rights, More lobbied him to cast Ashcroft instead of Marlene Dietrich. Ultimately, however, Vivien Leigh essayed Hester Collyer and her brittle vulnerability makes the immature playboy seem all the more carelessly callous. More’s performance earned him the Volpi Cup at the Venice Film Festival.
Reach for the Sky (1956)
Director: Lewis Gilbert
Famed aviator Douglas Bader detested Paul Brickhill’s bestselling biography of his life and refused to see Lewis Gilbert’s film adaptation. But, having trounced him during a round of golf at Gleneagles, Bader got on famously with Kenneth More, who inherited the role of the airman who loses both legs in a flying accident after Richard Burton had opted to star in Alexander the Great (1956). More had read the book on holiday and knew instinctively that “Bader’s philosophy was my philosophy. His whole attitude to life was mine.” Films and Filming magazine concurred in claiming that More’s performance symbolised “everything we like to think of as English”.
The Admirable Crichton (1957)
Director: Lewis Gilbert
More’s characters had a habit of being shipwrecked and he followed Our Girl Friday (1953) with Lewis Gilbert’s droll revival of a 1902 J.M. Barrie play that was tailored to suit More’s patented brand of capable ebullience and chirpy charm. With angry young men emerging on the page and stage, flipping the class coin to show how an earl’s household comes to rely on their butler after they are cast away on a South Sea island might not seem that revolutionary. But More’s byplay with the ever-dependable Cecil Parker struck a chord with audiences and this became the year’s third-highest grossing film at the UK box office.
A Night to Remember (1958)
Director: Roy Ward Baker
Walter Lord’s bestselling account of the sinking of RMS Titanic had been adapted for American television 2 years before Roy Ward Baker made what maritime historians consider the most authentic screen recreation. Jack Watling played Fourth Officer Joseph Boxall, who served as an adviser on the project, but the focus falls on Charles Lightoller, who was the highest-ranking crew member to survive the tragedy. Drawing on his own experience of shipboard crises, More embodies the calm control that was required as the disaster unfolded. But he also conveys the quiet anger that Lightoller felt at having been let down by the White Star hierarchy.
The 39 Steps (1959)
Director: Ralph Thomas
More had hoped to reunite with Kay Kendall on this updating of John Buchan’s 1915 espionage thriller. However, the 32-year-old’s tragically declining health meant that More was teamed with Finn Taina Elg. Alfred Hitchcock warned director Ralph Thomas that he was making a mistake in seeking to rework his 1935 classic and the comparisons may not be entirely flattering. But More wisely opted not to replicate Robert Donat’s watchfully resourceful interpretation of accidental hero Richard Hannay in the earlier film. Instead, his adoption of some flat-capped blokeishness appealingly gives the action the feel of a rousing comic caper.
Sink the Bismarck! (1960)
Director: Lewis Gilbert
In early outings like polar chronicle Scott of the Antarctic (1948) and submarine saga Morning Departure (1950), More had been on the periphery of the pivotal action. But the North Atlantic pursuit of the eponymous German battleship in the spring of 1941 is the sideshow in Lewis Gilbert’s tense recreation of the scene in the Admiralty operations room, where the 9-day mission is being co-ordinated. Combining a haughty sense of superiority with a resentful respect for his foe, Jonathan Shepard was a fictionalised version of Captain R.A.B. Edwards, presumably so that More could develop a humanising rapport with Diana Wynter’s resourceful Wren.
The Comedy Man (1964)
Director: Alvin Rakoff
More had given notice of a change in his screen persona in The Greengage Summer (1961) and Some People (1962). But, with Beatlemania in full swing, he channelled the deadpan cynicism that would characterise A Hard Day’s Night (1964) into Alvin Rakoff’s flinty adaptation of Douglas Hayes’ little-known novel about an ageing juvenile lead struggling to maintain his dignity and remain relevant in the midst of a youthquake. Chick Byrd allowed More to deconstruct his image and hint at the darker facets that would enable him to make an effective transition to television, where he was offered more varied and challenging roles.