Obituary: Kenneth Villiers

Kenneth Charles Howard Villiers, actor and interior decorator, born 27 June 1912, died Woking Surrey 27 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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR and Payroll Manager

£35000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This dynamic outsourced contact...

Recruitment Genius: Production & Quality Control Assistant

£19000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity for a ...

Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor - Kettering - £32,000

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor with an established...

Guru Careers: HR Manager / HR Generalist

£40 - 50k (DOE) + Bonus: Guru Careers: We are seeking a HR Manager / HR Genera...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss