Thursday, 11 December 2014

A dame for all seasons

As the BFI stages a Maggie Smith season, her biographer Michael Conveney speaks to Matt Warren about her inimitalbe career - and a Christmas clinch with George Clooney

Written by Matt Warren
After six decades on stage and screen, it has been another remarkable year for Dame Maggie Smith – although perhaps a slightly awkward one, too, for a highly talented but private lady who prefers to eschew the fl ashbulbs and the madding, redcarpet crowds.

Nevertheless, as Downton Abbey’s Dowager Countess of Grantham, she is now undoubtedly one of the world’s most famous television faces. She has starred in a clutch of new films, including this year’s My Old Lady and The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, to be released in 2015. Oh, and the Queen made her a member of the Order of the Companions of Honour.

For the next two months, she is also the subject of a major retrospective at the British Film Institute (BFI). Throughout December and January, the BFI Southbank will be showing many of the fi nest moments from her 60-year career. Highlights include well-known works such as The VIPs (1963), A Room With A View (1985), Tea With Mussolini (1999) and comedy California Suite (1978), in which Maggie played Diana Barrie, an actress up for an Academy Award, and for which she actually did win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

MaggieSmith-Dec05-02-590From left: As Lois Ardsley in Play Of The Week: For Services Rendered; with Rod Taylor in The VIPs; as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing

There will also be screenings of lesser-known performances, including the 1959 television drama Play Of The Week: For Services Rendered.

But while Dame Maggie’s screen and stage personas seem reassuringly familiar, what is this very private woman like behind the scenes?

Well, when it comes to choosing projects, dialogue is all. She is a true professional. ‘The thing about Maggie Smith is that she likes to have proper words to say,’ explains her biographer, Michael Coveney. ‘She doesn’t really mind who writes them, as long as they’re proper.
‘Her ideal writer is Alan Bennett – they’ve really struck gold together. In Bennett’s Talking Heads monologue, Bed Among The Lentils (1988), she played Susan, the vicar’s alcoholic wife, who’s sexually undernourished… to put it politely. Her opening line is: “Geoff rey’s bad enough but [pause] I’m glad I wasn’t married to Jesus.”’

MaggieSmith-Dec05-03-590From left: playing Patty, a scheming secretary, in Hot Millions with Peter Ustinov; in an Oscar-nominated performance as Aunt Augusta in Travels With My Aunt; starring with Michael Caine in California Suite, for which Smith won her second Oscar

Eloquent, witty, waspish – it’s pure Maggie Smith.

‘She strips her work right down to the bare essentials,’ he adds. ‘First, it’s about the words and the truth they might contain.’

And there’s always more to extract, more polish to add. She's like a forensic scientist with a script. If she’s in a play or a film, she will never be away from the script. Even on the last night of a long run, she will be looking at the script and mining it for anything that will make it work better.’

So she’s not one to forget her lines?

‘Never, ever, ever… Nor is there ever a hair out of place.’


Of course, Maggie Smith is often compared to that other great Dame, her close friend Judi Dench. The two much-loved actresses have known each other for 56 years and star alongside one another in the upcoming fi lm, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a residence for the Elderly and Beautiful in India.

In fact both were born in December 1934 and Dame Judi is only 19 days older than Maggie, a common denominator that is alluded to in the fi lm (although the scriptwriter has made Maggie the older and, perhaps appropriately, the more acerbic).

In one scene, when Judi Dench’s character informs Maggie Smith’s that only 19 days separate them, Maggie quips sardonically, ‘That’s the entire lifespan of a wasp.’

The line, and its delivery, could have rolled off the tongue of Downton Abbey’s Violet Crawley. But how do Judi Dench and Dame Maggie diff er in person? ‘Well, Dame Judi is the Queen Mother of British acting and Maggie Smith is still the naughty girl, really. Maggie’s not at all mumsy or sentimental…

MaggieSmith-Dec05-05-590From left: the unhappy wife of a vicar in Bed Among The Lentils; Smith’s Mabel is a manipulative blackmailer in Memento Mori

‘Dame Judi is much more visible, too. Judi is such a wonderful woman; she is the heart of any company. She loves everyone and everyone loves her. Maggie is not really like that. Maggie is diffi cult. She’s a virtuoso soloist.’

As well as her prodigious dramatic talents, Maggie is hugely charismatic and an acclaimed comedy actress, too. But she has a little something extra…

‘There is something edgy about Maggie. She looks at the world in an askance way. Everything is mocked; everything is not quite right. There is a close similarity between the real Maggie and her character in Downton… Everything’s food for a putdown. But underneath, Maggie, like the Dowager, is a wonderful, warm human being.’

And that, partly, is why she is so loved – she doesn’t suff er fools. There’s something just so… British about her.

MaggieSmith-Dec05-06-590From left: As Minerva McGonagall, a teacher at Hogwarts in Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix; Downton Abbey wouldn’t be the same without the acerbic wit of the Dowager Countess of Grantham

‘Maggie Smith was in a play, Interpreters, by Ronald Harwood,’ Michael recalls affectionately. ‘Ronald was rather pleased with himself as it had got rather good notices, but of course Maggie was still working on it, even though it had opened. Well, when Ronald sauntered along Shaftesbury Avenue to the theatre, she asked what he was up to. He replied that he was struggling with a new play, to which she responded, “Well, aren’t we all?”

‘Maggie is good at putting people in their place in a funny way.

‘She has names for people,’ he chuckles. ‘She calls Vanessa Redgrave “the red snapper”, for example. She has to call Michael Palin “the saint”, though, because there’s absolutely nothing wrong with him.’

MaggieSmith-Dec05-07-590Maggie Smith in the 1960s

Of course, the Dowager Countess soon will be returning to our screens – in the Downton Abbey Christmas special, and a sixth series, scheduled for next year. Thank Goodness.

‘She gets snogged by George Clooney, apparently,’ says Michael. ‘Well, he tries to and she does a comedy fall. He gets absolutely nowhere.’

Well, that’s certainly something to look forward to after the turkey.

For tickets or more information about the Maggie Smith season at the BFI: 020-7928 3232,


On the death of her husband, Beverley Cross ‘People say it gets better but it doesn’t. It just gets di erent, that’s all.’

On the possibility of leaving Downton Abbey ‘Listen, I must be 110 by now. Granny is going to kick the bucket at some point.’

On acting ‘I wanted to be a serious actress, but of course that didn’t really happen.’

On identity ‘An actor is somebody who communicates someone else’s words and emotions to an audience. It’s not me. It’s what writers want me to be.’

On fame ‘When I started acting almost 50 years ago, it wasn’t about fame. It was about acting.’

On humour ‘I tend to head for what’s amusing… usually you can ­ nd a funny side to practically anything.’

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