He was educated at Balham Grammar School in London. In his 16th year he made his first stage appearance at the Gate Theatre Studio, playing Medvedieff in Gorky's The Lower Depths and later studied acting at the Central School of Speech Training and Dramatic Art. He married Mab Lonsdale, daughter of the playwright Frederick Lonsdale, in 1952; she died in 1972.
In 1929, after performing with various repertory companies, he toured as Young Woodley in the play of that name. At the Gaiety Theatre in 1933 he played Paul in his own adaptation of Ballerina, which also toured the following year, and at the Criterion in 1936 he played the role of Oliver Nashwick in his own original play After October which transferred there from the Arts Theatre.
In 1941, he co-wrote the screenplay for the film Temptation Harbour starring Robert Newton and Simone Simon. Two musical collaborations came in 1942 with his version of Blossom Time starring Richard Tauber as Franz Schubert at the Lyric Theatre, and his London Coliseum production of the musical play, The Belle of New York. He also wrote and directed The Dark River at the Whitehall Theatre in 1943, starring Peggy Ashcroft. He joined Robert Newton as co-authors of Cupid and Mars (1945), and A Multitude of Sins (1951)
The first staging of his large-cast drama, The Pink Room (or The Escapists), in Brighton and then at the Lyric Hammersmith in London on 18 June 1952, was largely financed by Terence Rattigan, who liked the play and believed it deserved a London production. But it received a severe critical panning and after that, apart from one further play and an adaptation, it led to a 40-year near-silence from the playwright. According to its director, Frith Banbury, "When the play failed, Terry never wanted to see Rodney again."
However, following the abolition of the Lord Chamberlain's licensing and censorship functions in 1968, there was a growing permissiveness about what could be presented on the stage, and in the 1980s, while ailing with leukaemia, Rodney Ackland rewrote aspects of this play, re-titling it Absolute Hell. It was put on in its new form in 1988 to considerable success at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond-upon-Thames, directed by Sam Walters and John Gardyne, and starring Polly Hemingway and David Rintoul.
In 1991 it was adapted and directed for BBC Television by Anthony Page, starring Dame Judi Dench, and the play was revived by Page at the Royal National Theatre in 1995, again with Dench in the leading role.
Rodney Ackland's first contact with Alfred Hitchcock was as a supporting actor in the 1931 screen version of John Galsworthy's play The Skin Game. But a year later Hitchcock recognised his potential as a screenwriter, collaborating with him on the second film adaptation of J Jefferson Farjeon's London fog-bound thriller Number Seventeen starring Leon M Lion.
Ackland co-wrote the popular British film Bank Holiday (1938), contributed additional dialogue to Young Man's Fancy (1940), and made some uncredited contributions to 1941's Dangerous Moonlight and 1944's Love Story.
His screenplay for Hatter's Castle in 1941, from the novel by A.J. Cronin, provided a rampant star role for Robert Newton as the megalomaniac Scottish hatter. In 1942 he shared with Emeric Pressburger an Academy Award nomination for the screenplay of 49th Parallel, starring Raymond Massey and Eric Portman, (released in the United States as The Invaders).
Ackland is credited with discovering British-American actress Sally Ann Howes, the child of neighbour Bobby Howes, when he insisted that she audition for his 1943 film Thursday's Child, which he both wrote and directed.
He renewed his association with Pressburger in 1946 with a screenplay for the stagey, now forgotten thriller Wanted for Murder, mainly as a film vehicle for the talents of Eric Portman playing a man obsessed by his father's role as the public hangman. In the same year he made the first adaptation of Georges Simenon's novel Newhaven/Dieppe, directed by Lance Comfort, with another overwrought performance by Robert Newton, set against swirling studio fog.
He twice collaborated with Rattigan as a movie scriptwriter: in 1942 for Anthony Asquith's Uncensored, starring Eric Portman; and again — but neither he nor Rattigan were credited — for the 1948 Associated British production of Bond Street, four stories in one, about a wedding trousseau.
His final work for the cinema was on the screenplay of an adaptation of Alexander Pushkin's The Queen of Spades. Ackland intended to direct the film, but fell out with the producer Anatole de Grunwald and star Anton Walbrook. Thorold Dickinson took over at short notice and rewrote Ackland's script with the help of de Grunwald.
- Improper People (1929)
- Marion Ella and Dance With No Music (1930)
- Strange Orchestra (1931) 
- Ballerina, adapted from Eleanor Smith's novel (1933)
- Birthday (1934)
- The Old Ladies, adapted from Hugh Walpole's 1924 novel (1935)
- After October and Plot Twenty-One (1936)
- Yes, My Darling Daughter, an English version of the American comedy by Mark Reed (1937)
- The White Guard, adapted from the Russian of Mikhail Bulgakov (1938)
- Remembrance of Things Past (1938)
- Sixth Floor, an English version of the play by Alfred Gehri (1939)
- Blossom Time, with music by Franz Schubert (1942)
- The Dark River (1943)
- Crime and Punishment, adapted from Dostoevsky, (1945)
- Diary of a Scoundrel or Too Clever By Half, adapted from Alexander Ostrovsky, (1948)
- Before the Party (1949)
- The Pink Room, or The Escapists (1945, first staged in 1952), rewritten as Absolute Hell (1987)
- A Dead Secret (1957)
- Farewell, Farewell Eugene, adapted from John Vari's original play (1959)
- Under Your Hat (1940)
- Who's Who in the Theatre 17th edition, Gale 1981, ISBN 0-8103-0235-7 (for Ackland's own authoritative CV)
- The Oxford Companion to English Literature, ed Margaret Drabble, OUP 1995 ISBN 0-19-866221-1
- The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Literature in English, ed Jenny Stringer, OUP 1996 ISBN 0-19-212271-1
- Terence Rattigan, a Biography by Geoffrey Wansell, Fourth Estate 1995 ISBN 1-85702-201-7
- A Dictionary of Writers and Their Work by Michael Cox, OUP 2002 ISBN 0-19-866249-1
- The Macmillan International Film Encyclopedia by Ephraim Katz, Macmillan 1994 ISBN 0-333-61601-4
- Halliwell's Film, Video and DVD Guide, by John Walker, HarperCollins 2004 ISBN 0-00-719081-6
- Theatre Record (archived reviews of Absolute Hell 1988 and 1995)
- J.C. and Wendy Trewin The Arts Theatre, London, 1927-1981, 1986 ISBN 0-85430-041-4.
- Rodney Ackland at the Internet Movie Database
- Rodney Ackland at the Internet Broadway Database
- Rodney Ackland at Find a Grave