Obituary: Kenneth Villiers
Monday 31 August 1992
KENNETH VILLIERS had the distinction of being Britain's first man in space - launched by rocket with the South African dancer Pearl Argyle as the perfect blond couple at the climax of Things to Come, the 1936 film of HG Wells's The Shape of Things to Come, directed by William Cameron Menzies. It was but one episode in the life of a man of unusual charm, energy, humour and originality who will probably be best remembered for the second half of his colourful life as a busy and very social interior decorator, designer and landscape gardener operating from his shop, Charles Howard, in Sloane Street, London.
The son of former tea-planters in Ceylon who themselves became actors, in Dame Madge Kendall's company, Ken Villiers was educated at the Nautical College, Pangbourne, in Berkshire, and intended for a naval career. But he was drawn inevitably to the theatre, first acting in rep, then with Sir Frank Benson's touring company, where the cast was reputedly chosen for aristocratic connections and cricketing prowess. Villiers could not have been offered best parts for his abilities with a bat and ball but his self-assurance, buoyant personality, enthusiasm and lively wit must have helped keep him afloat with Benson's troupe.
In 1933 he was assistant stage manager and had an effective small part for the 1,001 performances of The Wind and the Rain at the St Martin's and Queen's theatres. Even in these early days his constant companion was a dog: the first called 'Brew' and the last 'Monsieur Beau'. It was around this time I first met Ken Villiers, and was hoping to make a career in the theatre. His help, advice and introductions were invaluable and he remained an inspiring friend. He went on to appear in several West End shows, including The King's Pirate at the St Martin's in which he relished playing his ancestor, George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham - the favourite of James I - with Wilfrid Lawson as the lecherous monarch. He also appeared in A Yank at Oxford (1938), with Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor, and in other pre-war films.
The war interrupted his increasingly expansive London life; the Royal Navy reclaimed him and he embarked on an equally colourful and adventurous wartime career. It included being wounded when his destroyer, HMS Archaron, was sunk off the Isle of Wight in December 1940. He was rescued after 24 hours in the water and was one of the few survivors from the ship's company of over 200.
After Survivors' Leave he was seconded to shore duties. He went as an ADC to vice-regal India and later, from studios in Bombay, he directed documentary films. In one of his favourite stories he claimed to have beaten Errol Flynn to the liberation of Burma by capturing Rangoon with his six- man film crew.
Demobilised in England, Villiers was first a film producer, then a theatre director for an Arts Council company, but finally found his feet as an interior decorator and designer. He always had architectural leanings and he could draw; he was an equally creative landscape gardener and he had always been a lavish host and a memorable cook.
His small Oxfordshire flint workman's cottage, 'Digberry', near Nettlebed, grew almost to mansion size with lawns, borders, rose beds, a rock garden and swimming-pool, guest and reception rooms; his rich cooking and extravagant garden parties leave happy memories for an army of friends. The house was set in four acres of chalky meadow where he persisted in growing azaleas and rhododendrons. His many visitors found they were often expected to dig for their supper.
In the Seventies he moved to Brighton where he set about renovating a row of dilapidated Regency houses near the Pavilion, in Park Crescent. Finally, the Eighties found him in Provence, yet again restlessly altering, building and rebuilding and moving from one house to another.
He was the kindest and most giving of men. A life-enhancer and a great encourager, both to old associates and his ever-growing number of younger friends. However often he may have been made use of and let down, disappointment never showed and his outlook remained enthusiastic, generous and helpful.
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