Uncertain prospects


THE TIMES WE LIVED IN:IT WAS A Dazzling Prospect right enough: a new play from the popular Irish writer Molly Keane, with two of the best-known names in the British entertainment business among the cast. But this publicity shot, taken at Dublin’s Olympia Theatre in the spring of 1961, somehow suggests, not a Dazzling Prospect, but a Dodgy Proposition.

Keane, in the centre of the picture, looks frail and pale. To the left of the frame Margaret Rutherford stares sleepily at the camera, looking as if she’s about to doze off at any moment. Sir John Gielgud, flanked by the play’s co-author, John Perry (left), and director, Richard Leech (right), clutches a glass of something far too small – which may explain why he appears to be on the point of running away. Leech offers a manic baring of teeth. Only Perry, hand on hip, appears halfway normal.

In fairness, Rutherford – darling of many a big-screen classic comedy caper in the company of Norman Wisdom, Donald Sinden and Peter Sellers – always looks pretty much the same, whether she’s cycling around the Kent countryside in Blithe Spirit, cape billowing behind her, or sleuthing as Miss Marple, which is how we mostly remember her today.

What people who tune in to reruns of those early Marples on satellite TV probably don’t know is that Rutherford had a life so extraordinary that even Agatha Christie wouldn’t have dared put it into fictional form.

Her father – William Benn, whose brother John was Tony Benn’s grandfather – murdered her grandfather. Young Margaret took her mother’s name and was brought up by an aunt. To carve a hugely successful stage and screen career out of such inauspicious beginnings – and with such unpromising looks into the bargain – was a remarkable achievement.

Although it moved from the Olympia to London for a run at the Globe Theatre, Dazzling Prospect wasn’t Rutherford’s finest hour. Our rather glum photograph proved prescient; critics gave the play such a savaging that Keane didn’t write another word for decades. Rutherford kept working for another six years. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and died in 1972, aged 80.

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