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Sir Michael Murray Hordern, CBE (3 October 1911 – 2 May 1995) was an English actor.


Family background[edit]

Hordern's birthplace in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire

Hordern's maternal grandparents, James and Fanny Murray 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 left the construction industry and studied in pharmaceuticals. His research into digestion led to the discovery of the stomach aid Milk of Magnesia. The invention brought him a knighthood and the family experienced great wealth and notoriety. They remained in Ireland until Fanny's death, shortly after the birth of their only daughter, Margaret Emily.[2][n 1]

In the months after Fanny's funeral, Murray returned to Buckinghamshire where he rekindled a former romance with Annie Tyrwhitt-Drake, a daughter of the zoologist and author Garrard Tyrwhitt-Drake. They married and the 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, Murray 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 whilst Margaret was sent to a private school for girls in Somerset.[2]

Hordern's father, Edward, was the son of a Lancastrian vicar who was the rector at the Holy Trinity Church in Bury. Edward joined the Royal Indian Marines as a young man 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.[4] They had their first child, a son called Geoffrey, in 1905, followed by another, Peter, in 1907.[5][n 2]

Early life[edit]

Four years after the birth of Peter, a pregnant Margaret returned to England where she had a third son, Michael (Hordern), 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 his family to live in relative comfort and Margaret employed a scullery maid, nanny, groundsman, and full-time cook to help run the family home.[7]

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. Owing to his age, he was exempt from full-time studies and was allowed to indulge in a plethora of extracurricular activities instead, including swimming, football, rugby and fishing.[8] The school was also the venue of his stage debut in an epic called The Man with the Speckled Face. Hordern enjoyed the experience and along with a group of fellow enthusiasts, he set up "A Acting Association" (AAA), a small theatrical committee which organised productions on behalf of the school.[9] He stayed at Windlesham House for nine years,[10] and described his time there as being "enormous fun".[8]

Hordern was 14 when he left Windlesham House School and began his further education at Brighton College.[11][12] He continued to perform at Brighton College and appeared in a different Gilbert and Sullivan production each Christmas. In his 1993 autobiography, A World Elsewhere, he admitted: "I didn't excell in any area apart from singing; I couldn't read music but I sang quite well."[12] The first of these operas were The Gondoliers in which he played the role of the Duchess. His performance was "a great success" according to his tutors 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 as the Major-Genral in The Pirates of Penzance. It was this period that 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 3] The following year, Edward retired from active service and joined his family in 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.[16]

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.[17] It was at around this time that he met Christopher Hassall, a fellow student at Brighton College. Hassall, who himself went onto have a successful career as an actor, was, as Hordern describes, instrumental in his decision to embark on a theatrical career.[18] 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 rivers.[19]

Hordern left college in the early 1930s and started work at Norfolk House, a prep school in Beaconsfield, where he worked as a teaching assistant. In his spare time, he joined his first amateur dramatics company.[20] 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 jealous was he of the rival show's success, Hordern supplied a scathing review to The Welwynn Times calling the 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 entire proceedings expenses. Years later the two men met on a film set and Box thanked the actor for helping to "kick-start his career in film-making" owing to the publicity the court case received.[21]

With the death of Margaret in January 1933,[22] Hordern decided to leave Sussex to pursue a career in professional acting. Alongside his everyday job of making study desks for schools around the country,[23] 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 described as being "old-fashioned". Both productions provided him with the chance to work with a cue-script, a method which he found to be helpful for the rest of his career.[24][n 4] That summer he joined a Shakespearian theatre company which toured the United Kingdon, staging open-air plays on lawns belonging to the gentry. Hordern's 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 one of the instigators of Hordern's professional acting career.[25]

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. Hordern 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 people's theatre keen to promote him into professional theatre, Hordern took the decision to leave his old desk-making job in Sussex to pursue a full-time, paid, acting career.[26] 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.[27]

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.[11] 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.[28] 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.[29][n 5]

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.[11] 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 which 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.[29]

Bristol reperotory theatre[edit]

During the summer of 1937, Hordern accepted a job from the theatre proprietor Ronald Russell who had auditioned him for a part in Russell's repertory company, the Rapier Players, who were based at Colston Hall in Bristol.[11][29] The company predominantly stayed in Bristol, but toured the provencies in 1941, shortly after the end of The Blitz. Hordern's first acting role within the company was as Uncle Harry in an unknown play. Russell was pleased with his new signing and 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 met Eve Mortimer, a juvenile actress who appeared in many of Russell's productions. Hordern and Eve fell in love and the two quickly formed a relationship.[31] Hordern considered his experience within the Rapier Players to be invaluable and educational inasmuch that it taught him about how a professional theatre company worked under a strict time frame and an even stricter budget. As an actor he was allowed two minutes per page to study his script which resulted in long and thorough rehearsals. Props were made to a high standard, albeit on a shoe-string budget.[32]

After a brief holiday with Eve in Scotland, 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 opined as being "a great actor, who sadly, was past his best."[33] Next, Hordern returned to Bristol to prepare for the next season with the Rapier Players. By now, Edward, Hordern's father, had sold the family farm house and had bought a cottage in Bristol which Hordern used as a base for the rest of the summer. The first play with the Rapier Players 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 role which he described as being "fun". The cast, according to Hordern, "adored [the play]", but the audience didn't, as they expected it to be exactly like the book, which it wasn't.[34][n 6]

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 it wasn't long until war broke out in England and he volunteered for a post within the Air Raid Precautions (ARP).[35] He was accepted but he grew frustrated at not conducting any rescues owing to a lack of bombing from the Germans. He decided that this was "not a very good way to fight the war" and so enlisted within the Royal Navy,[36] as a gunner.[11] In the meantime, he and Eve responded to an advertisement in The Stage from a repertory company in Bath, Somerset. To his amazement, both he and Eve were appointed as the company's leading man and lady. The elation was short-lived for he was conscripted at Christmas, 1939. The Navy allowed him to honour his theatrical commitment in Bath, but was told to report for duty at Plymouth Barracks when the show finished in the early months of 1940.[37]

Hordern made his film debut in 1940 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".[38]

He was later posted to the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious as a Flight Direction Officer. His responsibilities included deploying fighter cover against incoming enemy aircraft, a task which he excelled in.[11]

Off Salerno in 1943 an enemy flying boat stumbled on Illustrious. Hordern dispatched the carrier's fighters, and later announced the flying boat's destruction over the ship's broadcast system, quoting Hamlet's lines on discovering he has stabbed Polonius: "Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell. I took thee for thy better." Hordern later took part in the ferocious fighting in the Pacific, off Okinawa. He rose to lieutenant commander, and after the war worked at the Admiralty.[11]

On stage[edit]

His stage work, in Stratford for the Royal Shakespeare Company and in London at the Old Vic and in the West End, demonstrated his wide range and distinctive, rich voice. In addition to his many Shakespearean roles (Jaques in As You Like It, Cassius in Julius Caesar, Polonius in Hamlet, Malvolio in Twelfth Night), Hordern performed in plays by Strindberg, Chekhov, Ibsen, Pinero, Pinter, Dürrenmatt, Albee, Alan Ayckbourn, David Mercer and Tom Stoppard.

He played the title role in King Lear, directed by Jonathan Miller, at the Nottingham Playhouse in 1970. He reprised the role for Miller on two further occasions, in 1975 and in the BBC Television Shakespeare series in 1982. In 1978 he returned to Stratford to play a wise Prospero in The Tempest. This was also replicated for the BBC Shakespeare series in 1980.

Film, television and radio[edit]

He made more than 160 film appearances, usually in character roles, including Passport to Pimlico (1949), Scrooge (1951, as Jacob Marley; he was to play Ebenezer Scrooge himself in a 1977 TV adaptation), The Heart of the Matter (1953), Grand National Night (1953),The Spanish Gardener (1956), Sink the Bismarck! (1960), El Cid (1961), Cleopatra (1963), The V.I.P.s (1963), The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), Khartoum (1966), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966), The Taming of the Shrew (1967), Where Eagles Dare (1969), Anne of the Thousand Days (1969), England Made Me (1972), Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1972), Juggernaut (1974), The Slipper and the Rose (1976), Shogun (1980) and Gandhi (1982). In 1968 he appeared as the central character in Jonathan Miller's television adaptation of M.R. James's ghost story Whistle and I'll Come to You. Some years later Hordern narrated nineteen unabridged supernatural stories by M.R. James, released across four audio cassette collections by Argo Records in the 1980s. In 1986 he appeared in the TV series Paradise Postponed. In 1992 he narrated the two-cassette recording of the John Mortimer story Rumpole on Trial.

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.[39] 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.


Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ Margaret Emily Murray was born in County Wicklow in 1874. She died in 1933 aged 59. Hordern gave her cause of death as "exhaustion".[3]
  2. ^ As a youngster Peter was a keen sportsman and exceeded at Rugby. After he left school he went to Oxford College where he won a blue, and later played Rugby for England.[6]
  3. ^ 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, owing to the child's illegitimacy. Margaret made the decision to adopt her as a result.[15]
  4. ^ 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]
  5. ^ £1 a week equates to £58 in 2015 (adjusted for inflation).[30]
  6. ^ 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."[34]
  1. ^ Hordern, p. 1.
  2. ^ a b Hordern, p. 2.
  3. ^ Hordern, p. 35.
  4. ^ Hordern, pp. 2–3.
  5. ^ Hordern, pp. 3–4.
  6. ^ Hordern, p. 12.
  7. ^ Hordern, p. 4.
  8. ^ a b Hordern, p. 6.
  9. ^ Hordern, p. 8.
  10. ^ Hordern, p. 4.
  11. ^ a b c d e f g Sir Michael Hordern, The Daily Telegraph, 4 May 1995, accessed 28 June 2015.
  12. ^ a b Hordern, p. 12.
  13. ^ Hordern, pp. 12–13.
  14. ^ Hordern, p. 13.
  15. ^ a b Hordern, p. 9.
  16. ^ Hordern, p. 11.
  17. ^ Hordern, p. 13.
  18. ^ Hordern, p. 15.
  19. ^ Hordern, p. 20.
  20. ^ Hordern, pp. 29–30.
  21. ^ Hordern, pp. 30–31.
  22. ^ Hordern, p. 35.
  23. ^ Hordern, p. 39.
  24. ^ a b Hordern, p. 40.
  25. ^ Hordern, p. 41.
  26. ^ Hordern, pp. 41–42.
  27. ^ Hordern, p. 42.
  28. ^ Hordern, pp. 37–38.
  29. ^ a b c Hordern, p. 48.
  30. ^ 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.
  31. ^ Hordern, pp. 52–53.
  32. ^ Hordern, p. 54.
  33. ^ Hordern, p. 57.
  34. ^ a b Hordern, p. 57.
  35. ^ Hordern, pp. 57–59.
  36. ^ Hordern, p. 59.
  37. ^ Hordern, p. 60.
  38. ^ "Band Waggon (1940)", British Film Institute, accessed 4 July 2015.
  39. ^ "Michael Hordern", Variety (online), 8 May 1995, accessed 2 July 2015.


  • Hordern, Michael Hordern (1993). A World Elsewhere. London: Michael O'Mara Books Ltd. ISBN 978-1-85479-188-7. 

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