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Sir Michael Murray Hordern, CBE (3 October 1911 – 2 May 1995) was an English actor whose career spanned seven decades. He made more than 160 film appearances, usually in supporting character roles, and appeared in over 100 theatrical productions, most of them Shakespeare. He was perhaps best known for his stage portrayal of Shakespeare's King Lear.

Born in Hertfordshire, Hordern began in amateur dramatics as a youth and worked in repertory theatre after completing his studies. By the 1930s he had come to the notice of several influential directors who, among other things, cast him in minor roles in various Shakespearian plays including Othello and Macbeth. The Second World War intervened, during which he served on HMS Illustrious, on which he reached the rank of lieutenant commander. He made his television debut shortly after the war and became a reliable bit-part actor in many films, including Passport to Pimlico in 1949 and Scrooge two years later.

Hordern came to prominence in the early 1950s when he took part in a theatrical competition at the Arts Theatre in London. There, he impressed Glen Byam Shaw who secured him a season-long contract at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre where he played major parts, including Caliban in The Tempest, Jaques in As You Like It, and Sir Politick Would-Be in Ben Jonson's comedy Volpone. The following season he joined Michael Benthall's company at the Old Vic in London where, among others, he played Polonius in Hamlet, and the title role in King John. Along with his theatrical responsibilities he appeared in minor roles in British war films, including The Man Who Never Was, Pacific Destiny, The Baby and the Battleship, and I Was Monty's Double.

During the 1960s Hordern starred in Sink the Bismarck!, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, How I Won the War, and Where Eagles Dare.


Family background[edit]

Hordern's birthplace in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire

Hordern's maternal grandparents, James Murray and Fanny née Brereton, married shortly after the Indian Mutiny in 1857, and moved from Buckinghamshire to Bray in County Wicklow. There, they had five sons and a daughter.[1] After brief employment working for Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Murray studied in pharmaceuticals. His research into digestion led to the discovery of the stomach aid milk of magnesia in 1829. The invention brought him a knighthood and the family experienced great wealth.[n 1] They remained in Ireland until Fanny's death, shortly after the birth of their only daughter, Margaret Emily in 1874.[3][n 2]

In the months after Fanny's funeral, Murray returned to Buckinghamshire where he rekindled a romance with Annie Tyrwhitt-Drake, a daughter of the zoologist and author Garrard Tyrwhitt-Drake. They married and Murray moved back to Ireland with his family where he concentrated on the growing success of his milk of magnesia business. After a few years, he was killed in a drunken hunting accident and upon his death, Annie moved with Margaret back to Buckinghamshire to the small village of Little Kimble. There, Annie lived in retirement while Margaret was sent to a private school for girls in Somerset.[3]

Hordern's father, Edward, was the son of a Lancastrian vicar who was the rector at the Holy Trinity Church in Bury. As a young man Edward joined the Royal Indian Marines and quickly rose to the rank of lieutenant. It was during a short break on home-leave that he met and fell in love with Margaret after they were introduced by one of his brothers. The courtship was brief and the young couple married in Burma on 28 November 1903.[5] They had their first child, a son, Geoffrey, in 1905, followed by another, Peter, in 1907.[6][n 3]

Early life[edit]

Windlesham House School, where Hordern made his amateur stage debut

Four years after the birth of Peter, a pregnant Margaret returned to England where Michael Hordern, her third son, was born on 3 October 1911 in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire. Still stationed abroad, Edward was commissioned to the rank of captain for which he received a good salary. This enabled the family to live in comfort and allowed Margaret to employ a scullery maid, nanny, groundsman, and full-time cook.[9] Margaret left for India to join her husband in 1916. The trip, although only planned as a short term visit, lasted two years owing to the ferocity of the First World War. In the meantime Hordern was sent into premature education at Windlesham House School in Sussex. As his young age exempted him from full-time studies he was able to partake instead in a plethora of extracurricular activities, including swimming, football, rugby and fishing.[10] The school was also the venue of his stage debut in an epic called The Man with the Speckled Face. Hordern enjoyed the stage experience and along with a group of fellow enthusiasts, he set up "A Acting Association" (AAA), a small theatrical committee which organised productions within the school.[11] He stayed at Windlesham House for nine years,[9] and described his time there as being "enormous fun".[10]

Hordern was 14 when he left Windlesham House to begin further education at Brighton College.[12][8] His interest in acting was maturing; the number of his plays at the college were increasing and he appeared in a different Gilbert and Sullivan production each Christmas. In his 1993 autobiography, A World Elsewhere, he admitted: "I didn't excel in any area apart from singing; I couldn't read music but I sang quite well."[8] The first of these operas were The Gondoliers in which he played the role of the Duchess. The tutors called his performance a great success and he was given a position within the men's chorus in the next play, Iolanthe.[13] Over the next few years, he took part in The Mikado, as a member of the choir, and then as the Major-Genral in The Pirates of Penzance. It was a period which he later acknowledged as being the start of his career.[14] After the culmination of the war in 1918, Edward, who was by now a port officer in Calcutta, arranged for Margaret to return to England. With her, she bought home an orphaned baby girl named Jocelyn, whom she adopted.[15][n 4] The following year, Edward retired from active service and returned to England where he relocated his family to Haywards Heath in Sussex. There, Hordern developed a love for fishing, a hobby which he remained passionate about for the rest of his life.[17]

Theatrical beginnings[edit]

In his autobiography Hordern noted his family's disinterest in the theatre. Unlike his friends, who were making annual visits to the local Christmas pantomime, Hordern was seldom ever taken to see the festive productions and didn't see his first straight play, Ever Green, until he was 19.[18] It was at around this time that he met Christopher Hassall, a fellow student at Brighton College. Hassall, who himself went on to have a successful career as an actor, was, as Hordern credits, instrumental in his decision to embark on a theatrical career.[19] In 1925 Hordern moved to Dartmoor with his family where they set up home in a disused barn which his parents had converted into a farm house. For Hordern the move was ideal; his love of fishing had become stronger and he was able to explore the remote landscape and its isolated rivers.[20]

Hordern left college in the early 1930s and started work at a prep school in Beaconsfield, where he worked as a teaching assistant. In his spare time, he joined his first amateur dramatics company.[21] The group only managed to produce one play, Ritzio's Boots, which was entered into a British Drama League competition, with Hordern playing the title role. The play lost out to Not This Man, a drama written by Sydney Box. So envious was he of the rival show's success, Hordern supplied a scathing review to The Welwynn Times calling Box's show "a blasphemous bunk and cheap theatrical claptrap." The comment infuriated Box who issued the actor with a writ to attend court on a count of slander. Hordern, much to his surprise, won the case leaving Box liable for the proceedings expenses. Years later the two men met on a film set where Box thanked him for helping to "kick-start his career in film-making" owing to the publicity the court case received.[22]

With the death of Margaret in January 1933,[23] Hordern decided to leave Sussex to pursue a career in professional acting. He quit his job at the prep school[24] and became a traveling salesman for the British Educational Suppliers Association.[25] Alongside this, he joined another amateur dramatics company, this time in Stevenage. During his time there he appeared in two plays; Journey's End, in which he played "Raleigh", and Diplomacy, a play which Hordern disliked and called "old-fashioned". Both productions provided him with the chance to work with a cue-script, a method he found to be helpful for the rest of his career.[24][n 5] That summer he joined a Shakespearian theatre company which toured the United Kingdon, staging open-air plays on lawns belonging to the gentry. His first performance was as Orlando in As You Like It, followed by Love's Labour's Lost, in which he starred alongside Osmond Daltry, who later became a successful theatre manager and an instigator of Hordern's professional acting career.[26]

In addition to his Shakespearian commitments, Hordern joined the St. Pancras People's Theatre, a London-based amateur dramatics company which was part-funded by the actor-manager Lilian Baylis. He took his membership within the company seriously and despite finding the commute from Sussex to London tiresome, he stayed with the company for five years. By the end of 1936, and with the managers at the theatre keen to promote him into having a professional career, Hordern took the decision to leave his old desk-making job in Sussex to pursue a full-time acting career.[27] He moved to the capital and into a small flat at Marble Arch and became one of the many jobbing actors keen to make a name for themselves on the London stage.[28]

London debut[edit]

Hordern's first London engagement came in January 1937, as an understudy to Bernard Lee in the play Night Sky at the Savoy Theatre.[12] On nights when he was not required as an actor, he was called upon to use his knowledge of stage craft by undertaking the duties of the assistant stage manager, for which he was paid £2.10s a week. Hearing of his old friend's venture, Daltry, who had since formed Westminster Productions, engaged Hordern in what would be his first, paid role within a theatre company. The part was Lodovico in Othello which ran at the People's Theatre in Mile End later that year.[29] The play starred the English actor Stephen Murray, in the title role, but he became contractually occupied elsewhere towards the end of the two-week run. As such, the play's director paid Hordern £1 a week extra to understudy for the play's leading man.[30][n 6]

Immediatley after Othello had closed, Hordern was contacted by Daltry who offered the young actor the chance to conduct a tour of Scandinavia and the Baltic in two plays.[12] The first, Outward Bound, in which he starred in the minor role of Henry, was a huge success. This was followed by Arms and the Man, in the slightly bigger part of Sergius. The tour was a point in Hordern's career which he acknowledged to be the start of his professional acting career, and an experience he described as being "great fun". Upon his return to London, and having spent a few weeks unemployed, he was offered a part in the ill-fated play Ninety Sail, which was about Sir Christopher Wren's time in the Royal Navy; the play was cancelled on the day Hordern was due to start work with "unforeseen problems" cited as the reason by its producers.[30]

Bristol repertory theatre[edit]

Colston Hall, Bristol, the former home of the Rapier Players

During the summer of 1937 the theatre proprietor Ronald Russell offered Hordern a part in his repertory company, the Rapier Players, who were then based at Colston Hall in Bristol.[12][30] Hordern's first acting role within the company was as Uncle Harry[32] in the play Someone at the Door.[33] Because of the play's success, Russell frequently employed him in the same type of role. The monotony of this frustrated Hordern who longed to play the leading man. It was whilst with the Rapier Players that Hordern fell in love with Eve Mortimer, a juvenile actress who appeared in many of Russell's productions.[32] Hordern considered his experience within the Rapier Players to be invaluable inasmuch that it taught him about how a professional theatre company worked under a strict time frame and an even stricter budget. As a Rapier Player, he was allowed two minutes per page to study his script which, because of frequent mistakes and stalled lines, made for long rehearsals. The props were made to a high standard, albeit on a shoe-string budget.[34]

After a brief holiday with Eve in Scotland in 1938, Hordern returned to London where he appeared in Quinneys, a radio play which was broadcast by the BBC. The main part went to Henry Ainley whom Hordern described as "a great actor, who, sadly, was past his best."[35] Next, Hordern returned to Bristol to prepare for the following season with the Rapier Players.[35] One production that was singled out by the Western Daily Press for being particularly good was Love in Idleness in which Hordern played the lead character. A reporter for the paper thought that the play "had been noticed" among theatrical critics and that the players "filled their respective roles excellently."[36]

By the end of 1938, Edward, Hordern's father, had sold the family farmhouse and had bought a cottage in Bristol which Hordern used as a base for the the summer months. The arrangement was convenient for the young actor who used the premises as a base while he appeared in various shows with the Rapier Players. One such piece was Cold Comfort Farm, which starred its author Stella Gibbons. It also featured the radio actress Mabel Constanduros, who had also, with Gibbon's permission, adapted the book; Hordern was cast in the supporting role of Seth, a part he described as being "fun" to perform. The modernised script was "adored" by the cast, according to Hordern, but loathed by the audience who expected it to be exactly like the book.[35][n 7]

War service and film debut[edit]

Hordern and Eve left Bristol in 1939 and moved to Harrogate where Eve joined a small repertory company called the White Rose Players. Hordern became unemployed but before long, war broke out in England and he volunteered for a post within the Air Raid Precautions (ARP).[37] He was accepted but grew frustrated at not conducting any rescues owing to a lack enemy action. He decided that it was "not a very good way to fight the war" and enlisted within the Royal Navy,[38] as a gunner.[12] In the meantime, he and Eve responded to an advertisement in The Stage asking for actors to audition for a repertory company in Bath, Somerset. To his elation, they were both appointed as the company's leading man and lady. Their first and only engagement was in a play entitled Bats in Belfry which opened at the city's Assembly Rooms on 16 October.[39] Hordern's elation at eventually becoming a leading man was short-lived; he received his conscription that Christmas. In the interest of helping to boost public morale, Hordern sought permission from the navy to allow him to complete his theatrical commitment in Bath and to appear in his first film, a thriller called The Girl in the News, directed by Carol Reed;[40] his request was accepted, and he was told to report for duty at Plymouth Barracks when the show had finished in the early months of 1940.[41]

In 1940 he enjoyed a minor role in Without the Prince at the Whitehall Theatre[25] and appeared in another minor film role, this time in the Arthur Askey comedy Band Waggon. In it, Hordern played the small, uncredited part of a BBC official, alongside James Hayter. The British Film Institute described the film as a "farcical musical extravaganza with an element of burlesque espionage".[42] Soon after he took up his gunner post within the Navy on board City of Florence, a defensively equipped merchant ship (DEMS), which began its war service by delivering ammunition to the city of Alexandria on behalf of the British fleet.[43] He found that although his middle class upbringing hindered his ability to make friends on board the ship,[44] it helped in his appeal to his commanding officers who commissioned him within a year.[45]

By 1941 radar was slowly being introduced within the navy and Hordern was appointed as one of the first radar operatives who commentated enemy movements to the RAF. He admitted that the post was again owed to his well-ellocuted diction and vocal range.[45] His radio commentary impressed his commanding officers so much that by the spring of 1942 he had been given the job as a Fighter Direction Officer, and then first lieutenant on board HMS Illustrious.[46] Shortly after the departure of his lieutenant commander, he was promoted to that rank and occupied it for two years. Simultaneous to his naval responsibilities, he was also the ship's entertainment officer, and was responsible for staging shows featuring various members of Illustriouss' crew as the show's cast.[47]

Marriage and post war[edit]

It was during a short visit to Liverpool in 1943 that Hordern proposed to Eve; they were married on 27 April of that year with the actor Cyril Luckham acting as best man. After the honeymoon, Hordern resumed his duties on Illustrious while Eve returned to repertory theatre in Southport. In the months after the end of the war in 1945, he was relocated to the Admiralty where he worked as a ship dispatcher, a post he kept until 1949.[48] , The Horderns rented a flat in Elvaston Place in Kensington, London, and he began to seek work as an actor.[49] After a short while, he was approached by André Obey who cast him his first television role, Noah, in a play of the same name. Hordern was apprehensive about performing within the new medium and found the twice-weekly performances exhausting, but he was generously paid, earning a sum of £45.[50]

Hordern's first role for 1946 came as Torvald Helmar in A Doll's House which appeared at the Intimate Theatre in Palmers Green.[51] Next, he starred as the murdered victim Richard Fenton in Dear Murderer which premiered at the Aldwych Theatre on 31 July. The play was a success[51] and ran for 85 performances until its closure on 12 October.[52] Hordern was singled out by one critic for the Hull Daily Mail who thought that the actor brought "sincerity to a difficult role."[53] The following month he fathered his only child,[25] a daughter, Joanna, who was born at Queen Charlotte's Hospital in Chelsea.[50] That Christmas he took the role of Nick Bottom in a festive reworking of Henry Purcell's The Fairy-Queen.[54] By now the Horderns' rented accommodation had become uninhabitable because of severe damp and dereliction and they were forced to move to 49 North Road, Highgate which became their first home.[55]

Towards the end of the spring months of 1947 Hordern accepted the part of Captain Hoyle in Richard Llewellyn's comic drama Noose. The critic for The Spectator thought that the play suffered because of "the cast [who] in general did not appear to believe in it all...".[56] Hordern accepted two small film roles in 1947 with the first being Maxim de Winter in Rebecca which was based on the novel of the same name,[57] and then as a detective in Good-Time Girl, alongside Dennis Price and Jean Kent.[58] The following year he took part in three plays: The Indifferent Shepherd was written and directed by the playwright Peter Ustinov and appeared at the newly opened Q Theatre in Brentford, West London. His next role was as Pastor Manders in the Willard Stoker-directed thriller Ghosts, and the year finished with an engagement at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon in The Wind in the Willows in which Hordern took the part of Mr Toad.[59][n 8]

In the spring of 1949 Hordern took the part of Pascal in the Michael Redgrave-directed comedy A Woman in Love, but disliked the experience because of the hostile relationship between Redgrave and the show's star, Margaret Rawlings.[60] Next, he took the minor role of "Bashford" in the critically acclaimed Ealing comedy Passport to Pimlico[61] in a performance he described as being "tense and hyperactive", which he attributed to being "just how he was in those days".[62] The year closed with a poetic drama called Stratton[n 9] in which he starred opposite Clive Brook.[60]

A Turning Point: 1950s theatre[edit]

Ivanov and Saint's Day[edit]

In his autobiography, Hordern recognised the 1950s as being the turning point of his career. The first of his four major stage performances was as the title character in Anton Chekhov's Ivanov. The production took place at the Arts Theatre in Cambridge and excited audiences owing to its 25-year absence from the English stage. The writer T. C. Worsley was impressed by the actor's performance and wrote: "Perhaps an actor with star quality might have imposed on us more successfully than Mr Michael Hordern, and won our sympathy for Ivanov by his own personality. But such a performance would have raised the level of expectation all round. As it is, Mr Hordern is rich in intelligence, sensitivity and grasp, and with very few expectations, the company give his impressive playing the right kind of support."[63] Next came Macbeth, directed by Alec Clunes. Critics wrote of their dislike of Clunes's version, but the theatre reviewer Audrey Williamson singled out Hordern's performance as being "deeply moving".[64]

The dramatist John Whiting, who was trying to make a name for himself after the war, was called on by Clunes to take part in a theatrical competition at the Arts Theatre, London in 1951. Several other amateur directors also competed for the prize, which was to have their play funded and professionally displayed at the Arts. Having seen him perform the previous year, Whiting hired Hordern for the lead role of Paul Southman, a cantankerous old poet who fights off three rebellious army deserters who threaten the tranquility in his sleepy country village.[65] The play, Saint's Day, proved popular with audiences, but not so with theatrical commentators.[66] Hordern liked the play, calling it "bitter and interesting"[67] but the press, who extensively reported on the competition throughout each stage, thought differently and condemned the play for reaching first place. This infuriated the actors Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud who wrote letters of complaint to the press which were published in the following week's notices.[67]

Shakespeare Memorial Theatre[edit]

Michael Redgrave, who supported Hordern as a jobbing actor

Hordern cited Saint's Day's negative publicity as having done him and his career "the power of good" as it brought him to the attention of the director Glen Byam Shaw who subsequently cast him in a series of plays at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in 1951. Among the clutch of roles were Caliban in The Tempest, Jaques in As You Like It, and Sir Politick Would-Be in Ben Jonson's comedy Volpone. Despite having already appeared in some of Shakespeare's plays, Hordern claimed to know very little about the bard's works and sought advice from friends about how best to prepare for the roles.[68] The same year, he travelled down to Nettlefold Studios, Walton-on-Thames, to film Scrooge alongside Alastair Sim. Reviews were mixed upon its release with The New York Times giving it a favourable write-up,[69] whilst Time magazine remained ambivalent.[70]

With the first play beckoning, Hordern moved his family to Stratford and in to temporary accommodation at Goldicote House,[71][n 10] a large country property, situated on the London side of the River Avon. The first of the two plays, The Tempest, caused Hordern to doubt his own acting ability when he compared his iterpretation to that of Alec Guinness's who had played the role of Caliban four years before at the same theatre. Byam Shaw reassured Hordern and he went on to perform the role for the first time. A few days later, Hordern received a letter of appreciation from Michael Redgrave, who described Hordern's Caliban as "immensely fine, with all the pity and pathos ... but with real terror and humour as well".[73] A theatre reviewer, who is annonymously attributed in Hordern's autobiography, called tne actor's portrayal of Menenius Aggripa "a dryly acute study of the 'humorous patrician' and one moreover that can move our compassion in the Volscian cameo" before going on to say "We had felt that it would be long before Alec Guinness's Menenius could be matched. The fact that Michael Hordern's different reading can now stand beside the other does credit to a player who will be a Stratford prize."[74]

The Old Vic[edit]

Binkie Beaumont, who hired Hordern for Nina at the Theatre Royal, Brighton

Hordern's contract at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre lasted until the summer of 1952. Upon its expiration he secured a position within Michael Benthall's theatrical company at the Old Vic in London.[74][n 11] The company's first play, Hamlet, starred Richard Burton, Claire Bloom, and Fay Compton,[75] and opened on 14 September 1953.[n 12] Hordern called it "the perfect play with which to open the season" as it featured "fine strong parts for everyone and [was] a good showpiece for an actor's latent vanity."[76] Shortly after opening, it was transferred to Edinburgh where it took part in the Fringe before returning to London. Hordern played Polonius and recieved mixed reviews: "He was at his best in his early scenes with Ophelia" claimed one critic, before going on to opine "[towards the end] he began to obscure less matter with more art."[77] After Edinburgh Benthall took Hamlet on a provincial tour and had a successful run of 101 performances.[76]

In the summer of 1953 Benthall and his company were invited to Helsingør, Scandinavia by the country's government in order to entertain the Norwegian Royal Family by showing Hamlet. The play went down well among the royals, especially Gustaf VI Adolf of Sweden who struck-up a friendship with the actor because of their mutual love of fishing.[78] On the whole Hordern enjoyed his time in Hamlet but behind the scenes, relations between him and Burton were strained. Hordern noted his colleague's "like-ability, charm and charisma"[79] but added that Burton had a tendency to get "ratty"[80] with him in social situations. Hordern described their relationship as "love-hate"[79] and admitted that they were envious of each other's success; Burton of Hordern because of the latter's good reviews, and Hordern of Burton as the latter received more attention from audiences after performances. When Burton left for Hollywood years later, Hordern felt great appreciation towards his colleague who recommended him to directors, resulting in Hordern being cast in six of Burton's films.[79][n 13]

King John was next for Benthall's company and opened on 26 October 1953.[81] The title role initially went to an unknown and inexperienced actor who struggled with the part before it was given to Hordern.[82] Hordern called King John a "difficult play in the sense that it has no common purpose or apparent theme."[82] Simultaneous to his theatre commitments he was also commuting back and forth to Pinewood Studios where he was filming Forbidden Cargo[83] among others. The hectic schedule resulted in him briefly suffering from exhaustion for which he received medical advice and was ordered to reduce his workload.[82]

Theatre Royal, Brighton[edit]

Coral Browne, with whom Hordern had an affair during Nina

In the spring of 1955 Hordern was was asked by the British theatre manager and producer Binkie Beaumont to take over the lead role in the Rex Harrison-directed French comedy Nina. The play starred Edith Evans, Lockwood West, and James Hayter and was scheduled to transfer from Oxford to the Theatre Royal in Brighton. Beaumont's request came at short notice after Hordern's predecessor proved to be inadequate. The play was cursed with bad luck: Evans fell ill and was replaced halfway through by an understudy who omitted to learn her lines; Harrison frequently upset the cast which resulted in reduced morale; and when Evans did return, she walked off the stage and quit her role after seeing a number of empty seats in the front row.[84]

Hordern regretted his decision to take part in Nina, but admitted that the allure of appearing alongside Evans had got the better of him. Harrison held auditions to replace his leading lady and settled on the Australian-American actress Coral Browne.[85] Hordern and Browne grew close, aided by their mutual dislike of their disciplinarian director. The leading couple soon fell in love and they had an intense affair which lasted months after Nina had closed.[86] As with Burton, Hordern held Harrison in great esteem and was frustrated at his director's changeable mood. At the start of the Brighton contract Harrison was helpful and full of praise towards his new leading man, but his attitude changed soon after he employed Browne. Hordern was dismayed at the director's sudden change of attitude and felt as if he could do nothing right. Hordern also grew tired of Harrison's frequent ridiculing towards him in front of Browne. The situation caused Hordern to later opine: "Gone was the charming, sophisticated Rex Harrison and in his place was a bully, a monster."[87]

One night, after a performance of Nina in Eastbourne, and having felt that he had "acted [his] socks off",[87] Hordern, along with the rest of the cast, were berated by Harrison who accused them of producing a piece "not fit for the end of a pier".[88] Harrison ordered them back for extra rehearsals the next day, and the mood was the same. The stress proved too much for Hordern; he furiously challenged his director from across the stage causing an onlooking Beaumont to worriedly interject. In his autobiography Hordern admitted a desire to assault Harrison that day, and admitted that had it not of been for the intervening orchestra pit, he would have seized his chance to do so.[89] Nina transferred to the Haymarket Theatre, London, not long after the incident but it was a disaster and closed after five weeks. "The play was fine", opined Hordern, "it was a disaster because of Rex Harrison."[86]

From stage to screen[edit]

In his autobiography Hordern identified the 1950s as being a good decade to be appearing in films, although as a medium he did not much care for it. He found the random chronology of scenes particularly tiresome which were quite often a result of funding problems and adverse weather conditions.[90] Writing in his autobiography in 1993 he said: "With cinema one has to leap into battle fully armed. From the start of the film the character has to be pinned down like a butterfly on a board. One does not always get this right, of course, sometimes starting at the beginning of shooting a film on a comedic level that cannot be sustained."[91]

Horden also noticed a difference between his sense of personal achievment within a theatre compared to that on a film set: "You get a certain sort of satisfaction in delivering what the director wants of you, but the chances of being emotionally involved are slim."[91] He admitted to a good ability at learning lines which he found helpful, especially for film as scripts were frequently changed at the last minute and with little warning: "I would study a script and get to know it very well..."[91] the actor admitted, before going on to say "...but I wouldn't attempt to learn in until I was to be used the next day. Then I'd forget it as soon as a scene was in a can."[91] He identified the challenge he got from earning as much value as possible out of a scene as something he enjoyed and revelled in being able to hit "the right mark for the camera."[91]

War films and 1950s[edit]

From 1950 Hordern had consistently appeared in minor roles in three to four films a year. With the bad experience of Nina still obvious in his mind, Hordern took a break from the stage and concentrated on his film career. In 1956 he took a leading part in The Spanish Gardener for which he spent many months filming abroad in southern Spain.[92] The film starred Dirk Bogarde in the leading role, with Jon Whiteley, Cyril Cusack, Maureen Swanson, and Bernard Lee in supporting parts.[93] The New York Times recognised Hordern's role of Harrington Brande, a strict and pompous father, as being an "unsympathetic assignment", but thought the actor did "quite well" in his portrayal."[94]

By the mid-1950s Hordern's name was becoming one of reliability and good value among film producers and he was offered a clutch of roles as a result. In 1956 he appeared as Demosthenes in Alexander the Great,[95] and Commander Lindsay in The Night My Number Came Up.[96] He appeared in two further films the following year; the medical drama No Time for Tears,[97] and the thriller Windom's Way.[98] The war was a popular genre for film makers during the 1950s. The reason cited by Hordern was because of the conflict having taken up a large part of people's lives; whether it be one of love, loss, nostalgia or tragedy, and everybody, according to the actor, had a story to tell.[99] Because of his naval background, he found himself being cast in many war films,[100][n 14] including The Man Who Never Was, Pacific Destiny, The Baby and the Battleship, all in 1956, and I Was Monty's Double two years later.[100]

Hordern (l) and Wally Cox on Playbill's front cover for Marcel Aymé's ill-fated comedy Moonbirds in 1959

In 1957 Hordern was cast in John Mortimer's The Dock Brief about a failed barrister who is hired in court to defend a man who is on a charge of murder.[n 15] He played the barrister opposite David Kossoff's murder suspect. The play received good reviews with the Liverpool Echo calling Hordern's character "a faded barrister, a cousin under the skin to Malvolio".[103] The play was then transferred to television in May the same year[104] The televised version won Hordern the best actor award at the 1958 British Academy Television Awards.[105] Because of the play's success and short running time, and having been asked by the producer Michael Codron to write a companion piece, Mortimer completed What Shall We Tell Caroline?, an autobiographical drama about the tribulations of bringing up a troublesome daughter. As well as Hordern, Codron cast Maurice Denham and enlisted Stuart Burge as the piece's director. It opened on 9 April 1958 at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, and later transferred to the Garrick Theatre in Westminster.[106]

The year 1959 was a disastrous year for Hordern in terms of his theatrical endeavours. He made a return to the stage and to the Old Vic in a production of Arthur Wing Pinero's The Magistrate in which he played Mr. Posket. According to the author and theatre critic J. P. Wearing, Hordern was "miscast"[107] in the role, although a reporter for The Stage thought that Hordern gave a "convincing portrayal".[107] The play itself received mixed reviews: Wearing stated that on the whole, the play wasn't "played briskly enough";[107] The Times thought it had "durable theatrical quality",[107] while The Spectator opined that the production lacked "real ensemble playing".[107] In the later months of the year Hordern made his debut on Broadway at the Cort Theatre on 9 October 1959 in Marcel Aymé's comedy Moonbirds, alongside the comedian Wally Cox.[108] The play was a disaster[109] and closed after two nights and three performances.[108] Hordern attributed the early closure to "clashes of personality" among the cast and management.[110]

Cleopatra and the 1960s[edit]

According to Hordern, the film Cleopatra, which was made in 1962, was "the most extraordinary piece of film-making in which [he] had the pleasure to take part".[111] He played the Roman philosopher Cicero[112] and was initially hired on an eight-week contract, although because of various difficulties including sickness among the cast and adverse weather conditions, his contract was extended to nine months.[113][n 16] Rex Harrison was cast in the role of Caesar and much to Hordern's dislike. The animosity between the two actors was still there, although they endured each other's company for the sake of the film. One night while at a cast dinner Harrison made a drunken comment about Nina which caused Hordern to assault him. The incident almost resulted in Hordern's contract being terminated but the matter was resolved quickly by producers. In 1993 Hordern claimed that the incident "cleared the air"[114] and the two became friends.[114]

During the 1960s Hordern starred in Sink the Bismarck!, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, How I Won the War, and Where Eagles Dare.

up to here[edit]

Film, television and radio[edit]

Hordern was also in demand for other voice-over work. He was the narrator of FilmFair Productions' Paddington, and was the voice of Badger in the 1980s TV series The Wind in the Willows. He also provided the ironic voice-over narration in Stanley Kubrick's film Barry Lyndon, and can be heard playing the part of the rabbits' god Frith in Martin Rosen's animated adaptation of Richard Adams' Watership Down (1978).

On radio he played Horatio Hornblower in a 46-episode adaptation of C.S. Forester's Hornblower novels produced by Harry Alan Towers (1952–53); Gandalf in the BBC radio adaptation of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings (1981); another great wizard, Merlin, in an adaptation of T.H. White's The Sword in the Stone (1982); and P.G. Wodehouse's valet Jeeves in several series in the 1970s and early 1980s. Hordern was the reader for an abridged 1991 recording of C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia, and was the narrator of several radio adaptations of Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael novels.

Later years and death[edit]

On television Hordern played Tartuffe for the BBC's Play of the Month series in 1971 and Professor Marvin in The History Man in 1980. He also appeared in several classic drama serials, his last performance being in the BBC adaptation of Middlemarch (1994).

He had bought a house in Bagnor, near the town of Newbury, Berkshire, in 1956, and spent his final years there. He enjoyed fishing on the River Lambourn which was close to the house, and where dramatist Tom Stoppard "shared a rod" with him (as Stoppard once put it).

Hordern was appointed CBE in 1972 and knighted in 1983.[115] He died as a result of kidney disease in May 1995, at the age of 83. Shortly before his death, Brighton College named a room in his honour where a bronze portrait bust stands; the National Portrait Gallery in London has another copy.

Reputation and legacy[edit]

The American journalist Mel Russo, reporting in The New York Times, called Hordern "a classical actor with the soul of a clown".[116]

Hordern was a self-confessed "lazy bugger"[117] when it came to role preparation. In 1951, he asked Byram Shaw how best to rehearse unfamiliar roles. The director advised him to "never read up on them" before going on to say "read the plays as much as he liked but never read the commentators or critics". It was advice which Hordern adopted for the rest of his career, including for the role of King Lear.[117]

Brian McFarlane, writing for the British Film Institute, claimed that Hordern "had one of the most productive careers of any 20th century British actor."[118]

Films worth a mention[edit]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ Murray used a fluid magnesia preparation of his own design to treat the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland's stomach pain. It was so effective that it was approved by the Royal College of Surgeons in 1838.[2]
  2. ^ Margaret Emily Murray was born in County Wicklow in 1874. She died in 1933 aged 59. Hordern gave her cause of death as "exhaustion".[4]
  3. ^ Peter "Shrimp" Hordern (1907–1987)[7] was a keen sportsman and exceeded at Rugby. After he left school he went to Oxford where he won a blue, and later played rugby for England.[8]
  4. ^ Jocelyn was the last one of triplet sisters to be born. She was the only child to survive the birth which also claimed the life of her mother. Jocelyn was spurned by her only living relative, an English aunt, because of the child's illegitimacy. Margaret made the decision to adopt her as a result.[16]
  5. ^ A cue-script was a process in which an entire script would be printed whilst the actor's script featured cue-lines. Each cue-line acted as a prompt for the other performer and until the show was complete; the main script would be followed by the director.[24]
  6. ^ £1 a week equates to £58 in 2015 (adjusted for inflation).[31]
  7. ^ Writing in his autobiography Hordern explained the reason why the play was so unsuccessful: "Cold Comfort Farm horrified Bristol audiences, who imagined they would be in for an evening of pastoral idyll. Instead they were treated to a complete send-up of all pastoral idylls and they left in droves."[35]
  8. ^ The rest of the cast comprised Michael Gwynn as Badger, William Squire as Ratty, Andrew Faulds as Chief Weasel, and Michael Bates as Chief Ferret.[59]
  9. ^ Stratton was written by Ronald Duncan and featured music by Benjamin Britten.[60]
  10. ^ Goldicote House was the former residence of Claud Berkeley Portman, 4th Viscount Portman (1864–1929), a member of the distinguished Portman family.[72]
  11. ^ The 1952 company featured Laurence Harvey, Ralph Richardson, Margaret Leighton, Siobhan McKenna, John Gielgud, George Devine and Mary Ellis. The designers were the Motley Theatre Design Group and Loudon Sainthill. The resident composer was Antony Hopkins.[74]
  12. ^ The cast included Richard Burton as Hamlet, Claire Bloom as Ophelia and Fay Compton as Gertrude, William Squire as Horatio, John Neville as Fortinbras, and Clifford Williams as Player Queen.[75]
  13. ^ Among the films were: Alexander the Great (1956), Cleopatra (1963), and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), The Taming of the Shrew (1967), Where Eagles Dare (1968), and Anne of the Thousand Days (1969).[79]
  14. ^ The war films in which Hordern appeared in the 1950s were: The Man Who Never Was, Pacific Destiny, The Baby and the Battleship, all from 1956,[100] and I Was Monty's Double in 1958.[101] During the 1960s he starred in Sink the Bismarck! (1960), The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), How I Won the War (1967), and Where Eagles Dare (1968).[100]
  15. ^ A dock brief is a defunct legal procedure within a courtroom where a defendant answering a criminal charge without legal representation could, on indictment, choose any barrister within the courtroom who was not directly involved in the case to represent them in exchange for a small fee.[102]
  16. ^ Hordern cited various reasons which held up production: Elizabeth Taylor was taken ill several times during filming; Rex Harrison refused to film scenes unless the producers paid his chauffeur's bill; location filming was often delayed by the adverse weather conditions, and financing had to be continually reviewed owing to the frequent problems. Because of this schedules had to be changed at the last minute causing scenes to be brought forward. Such was the rush, script changes had to be written on scrap paper which would then often go missing. Because of the quick changes, scenes were filmed the following day which left little time for performers to learn the scripts. Hordern likened the manic experience to being back in repertory theatre as that too was unorganised and required the cast to frequently improvise. Filming took so long on Cleopatra that the boy employed to play Caesar's son had grown too tall during the production stages and he had to be replaced for continuity reasons.[113]
  1. ^ Hordern, p. 1.
  2. ^ "Sir James Murray's condensed solution of fluid magnesia", The Sydney Morning Herald, 7 October 1846, accessed 5 July 2015.
  3. ^ a b Hordern, p. 2.
  4. ^ Hordern, p. 35.
  5. ^ Hordern, pp. 2–3.
  6. ^ Hordern, pp. 3–4.
  7. ^ Hordern, p. 105.
  8. ^ a b c Hordern, p. 12.
  9. ^ a b Hordern, p. 4.
  10. ^ a b Hordern, p. 6.
  11. ^ Hordern, p. 8.
  12. ^ a b c d e Sir Michael Hordern. The Daily Telegraph, 4 May 1995, accessed 28 June 2015.
  13. ^ Hordern, pp. 12–13.
  14. ^ Hordern, p. 13.
  15. ^ Hordern, p. 9.
  16. ^ Hordern, p. 10.
  17. ^ Hordern, p. 11.
  18. ^ Hordern, p. 13.
  19. ^ Hordern, p. 15.
  20. ^ Hordern, p. 20.
  21. ^ Hordern, pp. 29–30.
  22. ^ Hordern, pp. 30–31.
  23. ^ Hordern, p. 35.
  24. ^ a b c Hordern, p. 40.
  25. ^ a b c Morley, Sheridan. "Hordern, Michael Murray (1911–1995)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, online edition, May 2009, accessed 22 July 2015 (subscription required)
  26. ^ Hordern, p. 41.
  27. ^ Hordern, pp. 41–42.
  28. ^ Hordern, p. 42.
  29. ^ Hordern, pp. 37–38.
  30. ^ a b c Hordern, p. 48.
  31. ^ UK CPI inflation numbers based on data available from Gregory Clark (2015), "The Annual RPI and Average Earnings for Britain, 1209 to Present (New Series)" MeasuringWorth.
  32. ^ a b Hordern, pp. 52–53.
  33. ^ "New Players in Company", Western Daily Press, 22 July 1937, p. 8.
  34. ^ Hordern, p. 54.
  35. ^ a b c d Hordern, p. 57.
  36. ^ "Author Takes Lead In His Own Play", Western Daily Press, 19 October 1938, p. 11.
  37. ^ Hordern, pp. 57–59.
  38. ^ Hordern, p. 59.
  39. ^ "Bath's New Players", Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, 14 October 1939, p. 8.
  40. ^ Hordern, p. 109.
  41. ^ Hordern, p. 60.
  42. ^ "Band Waggon (1940)", British Film Institute, accessed 4 July 2015.
  43. ^ Hordern, pp. 57–59.
  44. ^ Hordern, p. 61.
  45. ^ a b Hordern, pp. 66–67.
  46. ^ Hordern, p. 67.
  47. ^ Hordern, p. 68.
  48. ^ Hordern, p. 78–79
  49. ^ Hordern, p. 78.
  50. ^ a b Hordern, p. 80.
  51. ^ a b Hordern, p. 82.
  52. ^ Wearing, p. 251.
  53. ^ "Dear Murderer, Dramatic Thriller at the New Theatre", Hull Daily Mail, 30 April 1946, p. 1.
  54. ^ "'Gallimaufry' at Covent Garden: Purcell's The Fairy-Queen in 1946". Early Music by Michael Burden, Vol. 23, No. 2, pp. 268–284.
  55. ^ Hordern, p. 81.
  56. ^ Noose, by Richard Llewellyn. (Seville). The Spectator, 26 June 1947, p. 13.
  57. ^ Rebecca (1947), British Film Institute, accessed 22 July 2015.
  58. ^ Good Time Girl, (1947), British Film Institute, accessed 22 July 2015.
  59. ^ a b Hordern, p. 86.
  60. ^ a b c Hordern, p. 88.
  61. ^ "Passport to Pimlico (1949)", British Film Institute, accessed 21 July 2015.
  62. ^ Hordern, p. 84.
  63. ^ T. C. Worsley; quoted in Hordern, pp. 88–89.
  64. ^ Audrey Williamson; quoted in Hordern, p. 89.
  65. ^ "Saint's Day" by Michael Billington. The Guardian, 25 October 2002, accessed 21 August 2015.
  66. ^ Hordern, pp. 89–90.
  67. ^ a b Hordern, p. 90.
  68. ^ Hordern, pp. 91–92.
  69. ^ The Screen In Review; Dickens' 'A Christmas Carol,' With Alastair Sim Playing Scrooge, Unveiled Here, Bosley Crowther, The New York Times, 29 November 1951, accessed 24 August 2015.
  70. ^ "Cinema: Import, Dec. 3, 1951", Time, 3 December 1951, accessed 24 August 2015.
  71. ^ Hordern, p. 92.
  72. ^ "Parishes: Alderminster" British History Online, accessed 23 August 2015.
  73. ^ Hordern, p. 93.
  74. ^ a b c Hordern, p. 94.
  75. ^ a b Hordern, p. 96.
  76. ^ a b Hordern, p. 97.
  77. ^ Hordern, pp. 96–97.
  78. ^ Hordern, pp. 97–98.
  79. ^ a b c d Quote by the author; Hordern, p. 98.
  80. ^ Quote by the author; Hordern, p. 99.
  81. ^ "The Old Vic Company: The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark" the Old Vic theatre programme: 1953/54 season, accessed 25 August 2015.
  82. ^ a b c Hordern, p. 100.
  83. ^ "Forbidden Cargo (1954)", British Film Institute, accessed 25 August 2015.
  84. ^ Hordern, p. 102.
  85. ^ Hordern, p. 103.
  86. ^ a b Hordern, p. 105.
  87. ^ a b Quote by the author; Hordern, p. 104.
  88. ^ Hordern, p. 104.
  89. ^ Hordern, pp. 104–105.
  90. ^ Hordern, p. 110.
  91. ^ a b c d e Hordern, p. 165.
  92. ^ Hordern, p. 108.
  93. ^ "Review: The Spanish Gardener" Variety, 31 December 1956, accessed 26 August 2015.
  94. ^ "Screen: Father and Son; Spanish Gardener by Cronin Arrives" by A.H. Weiler. The New York Times, 9 September 1957, accessed 26 August 2015.
  95. ^ "Alexander the Great" (1955), British Film Institute, accessed 26 August 2015.
  96. ^ "The Night My Number Came Up " (1955), British Film Institute, accessed 26 August 2015.
  97. ^ "No Time for Tears (1957)", British Film Institute, accessed 27 August 2015.
  98. ^ "No Time for Tears (1957)", British Film Institute, accessed 27 August 2015.
  99. ^ Hordern, pp. 109–110.
  100. ^ a b c d "Michael Hordern", British Film Institute, accessed 27 August 2015.
  101. ^ "I Was Monty's Double (1958)", British Film Institute, accessed 27 August 2015.
  102. ^ "Dock Brief", Oxford Index, A Dictionary of Law, Oxford University Press, accessed 31 August 2015.
  103. ^ "The Dock Brief", Liverpool Echo; quoted in Hordern, p. 122.
  104. ^ "Michael Hordern and David Kossoff in 'THE DOCK BRIEF' ", BBC, accessed 31 August 2015.
  105. ^ "Television Actor in 1958: Michael Hordern", British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA), accessed 31 August 2015.
  106. ^ Hordern, p. 122.
  107. ^ a b c d e Wearing. J.P. "The Magistrate", The London Stage 1950-1959: A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel, p. 632, accessed 29 August 2015.
  108. ^ a b "Moonbirds", Playbill, 9 October 1959.
  109. ^ Hordern, p. 124.
  110. ^ Hordern, p. 83.
  111. ^ Quote by the author; Hordern, 114.
  112. ^ "Cleopatra (1963)", British Film Institute, accessed 29 August 2015.
  113. ^ a b Hordern, pp. 115–116.
  114. ^ a b Hordern, p. 119.
  115. ^ "Michael Hordern", Variety (online), 8 May 1995, accessed 2 July 2015.
  116. ^ "Sir Michael Hordern Dies at 83; British Actor of Infinite Range" by Mel Gusso. The New York Times, 4 May 1995, accessed 26 August 2015.
  117. ^ a b Hordern, p. 92.
  118. ^ "Hordern, Sir Michael (1911-1995)", by Brian McFarlane. BFI Screenonline, British Film Institute, accessed 27 August 2015.


  • Hordern, Michael (1993). A World Elsewhere. London: Michael O'Mara Books Ltd. ISBN 978-1-85479-188-7. 
  • Wearing, J.P. (2014). The London Stage 1940-1949: A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel. London: Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 978-0-81089-306-1. 

External links[edit]