M.A. Wetherell

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M.A. Wetherell (b. Bodmin, Cornwall, 1883 – d. Johannesburg, 25/02/1939) was a stage and film actor and director.


Although his South African death certificate states that he was born in India, Marmaduke Arundel Wetherell’s birth was registered during the 4th quarter of 1883 in Bodmin, Cornwall. He was the son of Henry Wetherell and his wife, Mary Agnes Hall. Henry appears to have been in the army and after their marriage Sergeant Wetherell and his wife lived in Aldershot. However, by 1890 Mary was a widow and subsequently ran a boarding house in Leeds. According to the Census of 1901, “Duke” was then working for a printer/publisher in Yorkshire. His early acting career in England ran from 1906 to 1909, and included appearing with the likes of Cyril Maude and his wife Winifred Emery, Italia Conti and Charles Cartwright (with whose daughter, Edith Cartwright, he would later appear in the South African film The Vulture’s Prey).

He seems to have come out to Northern Rhodesia (today’s Zambia), not to act, but to farm. In 1909 he was one of the founders of the Demo Estate at Choma, but by September 1912 he was in Johannesburg, acting for Stephen Black in plays like Helena’s Hope, Ltd. and A Boer’s Honour. There are no records of him having acted during 1913 and 1914, while Freemason archives indicate that in March 1914 he was a mine employee. However, by 1915 he had committed himself to his acting career. He joined Leonard Rayne’s repertory company at the Standard Theatre, appearing in hits like The Flag Lieutenant, Hindle Wakes and The Man Who Stayed at Home. In 1916 he also started acting in films, mostly for African Film Productions. These included Harold M. Shaw’s De Voortrekkers (1916) and The Rose of Rhodesia (1918), as well as Joseph Albrecht’s Isban; or, The Mystery of the Great Zimbabwe (1920) and Swallow (1922) for Leander De Cordova. On some films he acted as assistant director and he may have directed Sam’s Kid (1922) when De Cordova left for the United States earlier than expected.

In 1922 he returned to England and resumed his acting career in films. He also succeeded in raising money for his own production of Livingstone (1925), with himself in the leading role, and returned to Southern Africa to shoot on location. Both his wife, Lena McNaughton, and his son, Ian Colin, had roles in the film. When, in 1933, a soundtrack was added, the American distributors elected to call the reissue Stanley. Livingstone was followed by his version of Robinson Crusoe (1927), partly filmed in Tobago, and two features with World War I settings, namely The Somme (1927), a documentary reconstruction of the battle, and Victory (1928), a romantic drama, both photographed by the great Freddie Young. He also produced at least two more documentaries with an African background, namely Wanderlust (1933) and Safari (1937). He died on 25 February 1939 before a projected film on the life of Paul Kruger, written by Gustav Preller, could commence production. Another project that fell through was a 1927 film on the life of T.E. Lawrence, to be shot by Freddie Young, who later photographed David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962). There is also a copy of an unproduced script entitled The Tavern of the Sea in the National Archive in Pretoria.

He once claimed that he took up acting in order to meet Helena Spurling (née Humble), who was acting with the Brandon Thomas company under the name of Lena McNaughton. They appeared together on the stage and though she was already married, the two struck up a relationship (it’s not clear if they ever married). He may have adopted her youngest son, Christian Spurling and later the boy became Christian Spurling-Wetherell. Marmaduke and Lena had two children together, a boy and a girl. Ian Wetherell first became a broadcaster in South Africa and, as Ian Colin, had a long and successful film and television career in Great Britain. Ironically, Wetherell’s greatest coup only came to light after his death when, in 1993, Christian Spurling confirmed that, in 1934, he had assisted his stepfather with an elaborate and successful hoax to produce a photograph of the fabled Loch Ness monster.


South African Theatre

1912 – Helena’s Hope, Ltd., 1912 – A Boer’s Honour, 1912 – The Boatswain (sketch), 1912 – The Lunatics (sketch), 1915 – The Flag Lieutenant, 1915 – Beau Brocade, 1915 – The Golden Ladder, 1915 – The Lily, 1915 – The Breed of the Treshams, 1915 – The Second in Command, 1915 – The Prince and the Beggar Maid, 1915 – Alias Jimmy Valentine, 1915 – Baby Mine, 1915 – The New Clown, 1915 – The Hillarys, 1915 – The Hypocrites, 1915 – His House in Order, 1916 – Liberty Hall, 1916 – Hindle Wakes, 1916 – General John Regan, 1916 – The Man Who Stayed at Home, 1916 – The Tyranny of Tears, 1917 – Peg o’ My Heart, 1917 – Ann, 1918 – An Amateur Tragedy (sketch), 1918 – The Christian, 1918 – Under Two Flags, 1918 – Winnie Brooke, Widow.

South African Film

1916 – A Zulu’s Devotion (Lorimer Johnston), 1916 – The Silver Wolf (Lorimer Johnston), 1916 – The Illicit Liquor Seller (Lorimer Johnston), 1916 – A Kract Affair (B.F. Clinton), 1916 – The Splendid Waster (Lorimer Johnston), 1916 – The Gun Runner (Lorimer Johnston), Sonny’s Little Bit (Lorimer Johnston), 1916 – Gloria (Lorimer Johnston), 1916 – De Voortrekkers / Winning a Continent (Harold M. Shaw), 1917 – A Border Scourge (Joseph Albrecht & Ralph Kimpton), 1918 – The Rose of Rhodesia (Harold M. Shaw), 1919 – Thoroughbreds All (Harold M. Shaw), 1919 – With Edged Tools (Joseph Albrecht), 1919 – Isban; or, The Mystery of the Great Zimbabwe (Joseph Albrecht), 1920 – Prester John (Dick Cruikshanks), 1920 – The Man Who Was Afraid (Joseph Albrecht), 1920 – Madcap of the Veld (Dick Cruikshanks & William Bowden), 1921 – Swallow (Leander De Cordova), 1922 – Sam’s Kid (also director), 1922 – The Vulture’s Prey (Dick Cruikshanks & William Bowden), 1925 – Livingstone (also director).


Rand Daily Mail, 27 February 1939

Le Roux, André I. & Fourie, Lilla – Filmverlede: geskiedenis van die Suid-Afrikaanse speelfilm

Low, Rachel - Films of comment and persuasion in the 1930s

McFarlane, Brian - Encyclopedia of British film

Parsons, Neil - Black and white bioscope: making movies in Africa 1899 to 1925.







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