Angela as Madame Arcati in Blithe Spirit
Wednesday, 19 March 2014

'Give me a victim, and I'll weave a story around it'

As she takes to the stage, Angela Lansbury talks to Richard Barber about Murder, She Wrote, becoming a Dame and why her career has been a triumph of personality over glamour

Angela Lansbury was almost 60 years old when she accepted the role of Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote. ‘I wanted to represent that generation of women,’ says the sprightly 88-year-old, ‘who are so often forgotten and set aside. I wanted to make Jessica interesting because I believe that women of that age are interesting.’

Little can she have known just how magnificently she was going to succeed. ‘I thought it might last a year or two. But then, at the end of the first summer, they repeated the first series and it shot right up the charts. People seemed to identify with Jessica – and I was pleased.’ The show eventually ran for a dozen years and was a hit right around the world.

‘Jessica was a woman alone, a widow, who’d had a good marriage and still had many strings to her bow. She’d been a teacher. She’d started writing. She’d moved to a fishing village in Maine. All in all, she was an attractive individual but not a goody two-shoes. She had opinions; she could sometimes get it wrong.’

But Angela couldn’t possibly have known, she says, just how big a hit it was going to be. Why does she think the show, rather old-fashioned in its way, resonated so with international audiences? ‘You never see blood. You never see violence. I’ve always said that, if you give me a victim, I’ll weave a story round it.

‘I like to believe it’s something a grandmother could watch with her grandchild and each would get their own enjoyment out of the story. In today’s world, that’s pretty unusual.’ What she neglects to acknowledge, of course, is the warmth and wisdom she brought to the role. But then the British-born actress – her paternal grandfather, George Lansbury, was leader of the Labour Party in the early 1930s – is as modest as she is gifted.

Now, after almost four decades, she’s back treading the boards in the new West End production of Blithe Spirit, recreating the role of the unconventional medium, Madame Arcati, which won her a Tony (her fifth, and a record never surpassed before or since) on Broadway in 2009.

‘She’s such a funny character,’ says Angela, ‘totally off-the-wall but utterly sincere in her beliefs. She has so many colours. I just love playing that kind of woman.’ What, eight times a week in her late 80s? ‘Oh, it’s a habit now I can’t break. I shall never retire. I simply wouldn’t know how to fill my days if I didn’t have my work.’

It’s that body of work on film, stage and small screen that has finally been recognised – somewhat late in the day, you might feel – with an honorary Oscar at the end of last year and her being made a Dame in the New Year’s Honours list. Angela-Lansbury-00-Quote-590

‘I can’t tell you how thrilled I was when I got the offer,’ she says. ‘I’m due at Windsor Castle on 15 April. I’m rather hoping the Queen will have been there for a long weekend, but I assume nothing.’

When Angela’s much-loved father died from cancer at the age of 48, her Irish actress mother, Moyna MacGill, struggled the best she could with four mouths to feed before moving the family, first to New York and then to Los Angeles. Aged 17, Angela, a fledgling actress herself, was introduced to director George Cukor, then cast as a cockney maid in Gaslight, opposite Ingrid Bergman, and receiving an Oscar nomination.

‘I’m very happy to say,’ she recalls, ‘that I am, and have always been, a character actress. In Hollywood, you were expected to be glamorous, if at all possible. But if, like me, you weren’t terribly glamorous, they cast you in roles that reflected different facets of your personality.

‘I was no beauty but I could act voluptuously or sexily or just plain. The result was that I got noticed by the critics as an actress prepared to dress up or down as the role demanded. And that separated me from the herd of young women who were merely glamorous.’

She was nominated again for her very next film, The Picture Of Dorian Gray, and again in what is generally regarded as her finest screen role, playing Laurence Harvey’s mother (although Harvey was only three years younger than her in reality) in The Manchurian Candidate.

Her long, sustained career was matched by an equally enduring second marriage. (Her first marriage ended after 11 months when her actor husband, Richard Cromwell, revealed himself as gay.) She married Peter Shaw, for many years her agent and manager, in 1949 and they were together 53 years until his death in 2003.

It was Peter who steered his wife’s career. ‘He always knew what was best for me. For instance, he was the one who pointed me towards Broadway.’ It was an astute move. Angela enjoyed some of her greatest successes in a string of musicals, from Mame to Gypsy and Sweeney Todd. ‘I always trusted his judgement.’

On his advice, she turned down The Killing Of Sister George and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, the parts going to Beryl Reid and Louise Fletcher respectively. ‘And wonderful they were, too. In fact, Louise won an Oscar for the role and then never got another good part.

Angela-Lansbury-02-590As Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote

‘It was one of the reasons I declined the offer. Not that I thought I’d get an Academy Award if I’d played it but I thought it was a part I’d never, ever be able to live down. The Manchurian Candidate almost put an end to my film career for much the same reason. Certainly, it proved to be my last great movie role. The same might also have been true of Sister George.’

It’s rare for a professional partnership to coexist happily alongside a personal one. ‘Eeryone’s different, of course,’ says Angela. ‘But Pete and I started our life together hell-bent on making our marriage a success. Throughout, I wanted to help him and he wanted to help me. We formed a really close partnership. We adored each other. Truly, we had everything one could ever want from a marriage.’

But life wasn’t without its problems. Their two children, Anthony and Deirdre, fell in with a crowd of drug-taking teenagers in Malibu and Angela and Peter dropped everything to move the family to southern Ireland for a year to break the mould. ‘I honestly don’t know if the children would have survived if we’d remained in California,’ says their mother now.

But all that’s in the past and both Anthony and Deirdre are very much in Angela’s life. ‘I see them almost every day when I’m in my house in LA.’ Anthony has a daughter and two sons, one of whom is getting married in Cape Cod in June; Deirdre is happily married to an Italian restaurateur and helps him run their business.

Away from work, Angela is always happy, she says, tending her garden. ‘I also make sure I eat sensibly. I do crosswords and I’m thinking of tackling su doku, both of them good exercise for the brain. I walk, I bend, I stretch – all good exercise for the body. Keep on the move: that’s my motto.’

She has few professional ambitions unrealised. ‘But I would like to play the lead role in Enid Bagnold’s The Chalk Garden – and that’s something that could still happen.’ For the moment, she’s concentrating on being her best as Madame Arcati and taking each day as it comes.

‘I live in the moment. My main aim in life is to make the “now” as wonderful as possible. I’ve no idea how much longer I’ve got. But, if I’m going to live to be 95 or 98 – and I certainly could because I’m in very good health – I have to be well enough to enjoy it.’

It’s a sentiment that would surely be echoed by Jessica Fletcher.

Blithe Spirit is at the Gielgud Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1: 0844-482 5130,

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