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‘Lovely and down to earth’ actor Kenneth More remembered on centenary of his birth

PUBLISHED: 09:00 20 September 2014

Kenneth More, who played Second World War hero pilot Douglas Bader in Reach for the Sky

Kenneth More, who played Second World War hero pilot Douglas Bader in Reach for the Sky

Archant

A man takes over a theatre bar during a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, pouring drinks until he smashes some glasses and a bottle.

But this is not a clumsy employee; it is a renowned star of stage and screen.

Kenneth More, who played Second World War hero pilot Douglas Bader in Reach for the SkyKenneth More, who played Second World War hero pilot Douglas Bader in Reach for the Sky

Kenneth More had never graced the streets of Ilford, yet in the 1970s he jumped at the chance to have its new theatre named after him and began a friendship with the staff which would last for the rest of his life.

Kenneth, known affectionately as Kenny, was born in Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire, exactly 100 years ago today.

After leaving school, he worked as an apprentice engineer, failed a medical for the Royal Air Force and, aged 19, held a job at Sainsbury’s for only two weeks.

But a chance meeting with the manager of London’s Windmill Theatre, Vivian Van Damm, whom his father knew when they lived in Richmond, bagged him a stagehand job.

Kenneth More at the topping out ceremony for the Kenneth More Theatre in October 1973Kenneth More at the topping out ceremony for the Kenneth More Theatre in October 1973

And, a year later, he took his first steps into an acting career.

The star’s time in the spotlight saw him eventually break into films and television.

His high points included Genevieve (1953), Reach for the Sky (1956) and BBC series The Forsyte Saga (1967). He was also voted Best Actor of the Year by the British Film Academy in 1953.

Reach for the Sky, which saw Kenneth play Second World War hero pilot Douglas Bader, was the highest-grossing British film of 1956.

Poster for a Kenneth More filmPoster for a Kenneth More film

By the time Ilford’s Kenneth More Theatre came calling in 1973, the actor had been in the profession for nearly 40 years.

Barbara Hills, a volunteer and board member who joined the Oakfield Road theatre before it opened, said: “It was quite popular to have theatres named after actors.

“There were local people, but they were not able or willing to do it, so they got on to Kenny and he agreed.”

The actor attended the topping-out ceremony for the theatre in October 1973 and, on January 3, 1975, unveiled a plaque to commemorate the official opening night.

Kenneth MoreKenneth More

On April 3, 1977, he made his first appearance on the stage, at an evening featuring local performers, prose and poetry.

Barbara, from Goodmayes, said: “He wanted to be as helpful as he could and came along quite a bit to see how we were.

“One time, he said he would take me and the manager, Vivyan Ellacott, out to dinner, but we were quite busy. I said I had to attend to the bar and he came too.”

The “fairly primitive” bar included a fridge which contained ice cubes.

“Kenny said, ‘I will get those out’, and then there were ice cubes all over the counter and floor,” said Barbara.

Kenneth even served visitors, with one man exclaiming: “Oh my God,” at the sight of him.

However, he wasn’t a natural, as he smashed two glasses and a bottle.

“He only did one night in the bar,” said Barbara. “He didn’t last long!”

But Kenneth saw the funny side and, the next day, an ice machine was mysteriously dropped off.

In 1980, the star presented the theatre’s first Kenny Awards. But by that time his health was suffering.

Barbara said: “He had Parkinson’s. One time, he asked if I could take his arm when we went on stage and everybody thought he was a bit drunk.

“They didn’t know he was an ill man. He got too ill to come in.”

Kenneth died at the age of 67 on July 12, 1982.

The following day, the theatre remained closed and in the evening its canopy lights were turned off in a mark of respect.

Barbara said: “We were all so sad. He was a lovely and down to earth man. Everybody loved him.”


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