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“You will never become an actress with a face like that” (her mother’s observation), or was it her grandmother who remarked “Oh, you can’t let her, not with that face,” when a young Margaret Natalie Smith first expressed her desire to go on the stage.  Was it her mother or grandmother?  Whatever the source, with this encouragement ringing in her ears, a 17 year old Maggie embarked upon a remarkable career, which has already spanned more than 60 years and doesn’t look like concluding any time soon.  In fact, she has said she has no intention of retiring.

How did she rise from a conventional, non creative, seemingly repressed background, to become an internationally recognised veteran of stage and the large and small screen?  Her career has been distinguished, varied and universally acknowledged as outstanding; ranging from starring as Desdemona in Othello opposite Laurence Olivier, to winning an Academy Award for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and most recently inevitably stealing hearts and the limelight, in Downton Abbey and Harry Potter.

A Star is born

Dame Maggie was born in Ilford in 1934 but moved to Oxford at four years old, when her father started a new job at the University.

According to the authorised biography by Michael Coveney, her mother a Glaswegian Presbyterian, was a ‘cold and penny pinching stickler for propriety’.  Ian Maggie’s brother, said he was aware of an air of antagonism between his sister and their mother but it “never erupted into the open; it just sort of simmered.”  An indication of this antipathy was when a young Maggie, who loved JD Salinger’s novel “The Catcher in the Rye” so much, she wrote a fan letter to him and he replied.  Clearly not a book a Presbyterian mother would want her daughter to read or an author she would want her to be in contact with.  Smith’s mother summarily destroyed Salinger’s letter before Maggie could read it.

Although films were frowned upon in the Smith household, at the age of 12 Maggie went to the Cinema with a neighbour to see her first film, sacrilegiously on a Sunday!  Receiving a beating from her father when he found out.  This was the father who later, faithfully kept albums of his daughter’s cuttings and memorabilia.

Coveney’s biography also indicates that Maggie was a lonely child, at odds with her parents, with her school, with her brothers (twins six years older than her) and even with herself.  However he states, “her instinct was not to rebel; it was to mock tartly from the side lines and to retain, by stealth, her own spirit and independence.”  He believes her upbringing is vital to understanding her, both as a person and a performer; who is known for the “stifled aside, the muttered barb, the slightly malicious crack!”  It was the template for her portrayals of the characteristic English middle class ‘striving for gentility’, in both the comic and dramatic parts that are beloved by audiences worldwide.

Unsurprisingly, both her parents disapproved of her desire to act.  Dame Maggie told the Evening Standard in 2019 that to this day, she has no idea where the ‘urge to act’ came from!  Although as a young girl, Smith was apparently captivated by a series of children’s books about the theatre, The Swish of the Curtain.  “I wanted to act before I read this book,” she once said “and afterwards there was no stopping me.”  Clearly this was the catalyst for a young girl dreaming of a life outside the limitations of her then stifled existence.  She once commented to Nancy Banks-Smith that acting was “A much better world”.  “I’m never shy on stage.  Always shy off it … It’s the real world that’s the illusion”.

Her mother, a secretary, wanted her daughter to follow in her footsteps and take a secretarial course.  She only abandoned this aspiration in 1969, when Maggie won an Oscar for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie!

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From small beginnings

Dame Maggie, with her facility for portraying the nuances of a character with the slightest of eye or body movements, or intone humour and irony in the simplest of lines, started acting whilst at Oxford High School for Girls.  One of her teachers Mrs Van Beers recognised that she had an instinct for mockery.   Having given the young Maggie a speech of Helena’s from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”  Her teacher’s recollection was that “She sent it up!” “A child of fourteen … she had, even then, marvellous comedy timing, and she never made a mistake.”  Clearly a portent of all the wonderful performances to come!

At 17 she enrolled in an acting course at the Oxford Playhouse Drama School, where she attended from 1951 to 1953.  Ned Sherrin the broadcaster, author and stage director, remembered her as “a quiet little thing”.   Her stage début was in 1952, playing Viola in an Oxford University Dramatics Society production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.  Even then, she was singled out by the most demanding critics of the day.  “Miss Smith is a walking, talking flame,” wrote Bernard Levin. “And I swear she never puts foot to ground throughout, but floats a yard above the stage.”

Onwards and upwards!

Her professional debut was on New York’s Broadway, in the revue New Faces Of ’56.  At the age of 22, she returned to London to perform in a West End comedy production, starring alongside the comedian Kenneth Williams.  Kenneth and Maggie formed a lifelong friendship and shared a caustic wit.  Many people have intimated that Maggie Smith was in many ways the female equivalent of Kenneth Williams, or that his style had a lasting impact.  Was it the foundation for her use of exaggerated vocal mannerisms, the ‘nasal twang’, the flapping wrists, the ‘quizzical twist of the head’ and her air of ‘haughty disapproval’?  Whatever the truth, whilst it was quite unusual for Kenneth to form close bonds with other performers, Maggie was clearly special in his eyes.  She was the only one who escaped any of the rancour revealed in his diaries, following his death.  It is said that as performers and friends they were very closely attuned.

Dame Maggie was rapidly establishing herself as a star.  However, there was a risk that her career would be confined to Revue and commercial West End comedies.  This was proven to be wrong when in 1963; she was invited by Laurence Olivier to join the fledgling National Theatre Company at The Old Vic.  He apparently had recognised how good she was.  A decision he possibly lived to regret for as Desdemona to his Othello, she ‘acted’ this giant of the 20th Century ‘off the stage’.  Her portrayal was apparently so electrifying that a 15-year-old Julian Fellowes, who was sat in the audience waiting to be amazed by Olivier was instead, “mesmerised” by Maggie Smith.  “To my intense embarrassment at the age of 15, I was crying. It was only later I heard this actress was called Maggie Smith.”  No wonder following this formative experience, he cast her as the ostentatiously imposing Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham in Downton Abbey; some 46 years later.

In the play, Othello has to strike Desdemona, and at one performance Sir Laurence hit her so hard he knocked her unconscious, whereby, Dame Maggie was carried into the wings to recover.  She is purported to have remarked later: ‘It was the only time I did see stars at the National Theatre!’  It has been recorded in print that this act by Olivier was a deliberate act of jealousy, true or not, seemingly unable to cope with (according to critics at the time) being outshone by this new, female, upstart, in both Othello and Ibsen’s ‘The Master Builder’, he summarily sacked her and would not work with her again, for some time.

A bereft Smith moved to Canada, taking the opportunity to perform in a four season run of leading theatre roles, where she played Cleopatra, Rosalind and Titania; gaining a much needed and soul restoring  break from the British stage.

From Fire and Fury to Contentment

Maggie Smith has been married twice. Her first marriage was to actor Robert Stephens whom she met whilst at the Old Vic.  They fell in love whilst working together on stage and in film, and eventually married in 1967 after Robert’s divorce from his first wife.  They were apparently ‘electric’ as co-stars on stage and in film.  The marriage struggled however, due to Stephens’ drinking and fiery temperament.  They divorced in 1975.

During their eight-year marriage, they had two sons, Toby Stephens and Chris Larkin; who both grew up to be successful actors in their own right.  In an interview with the Telegraph, Toby said of his parents’ relationship: “My mother found the breakup of her marriage to Robert very painful because she still loved him very much, but really his drinking and all the other issues had made her position untenable.”  “God knows what kind of an upbringing I would have had if my mother’s relationship with Robert hadn’t broken up when it did, but I think it was good for me and my brother that things worked out the way that they did.”

She went on to marry ‘her first love’ (who was married when they first met at the Oxford Playhouse), the playwright Beverley Cross.  They married in 1976 and were together until his death from an aneurysm in 1998.  Even today when she talks about him in interviews, Dame Maggie states that Cross was the “rock” of her life.  It is clear that after all this time, she still misses him.

A Stellar Career

With a craft honed in the theatre, Dame Maggie made her screen debut in 1958 in Nowhere to Go. 

Following this, her film career began to take off.  Stealing scenes from Richard Burton (his observation) as a demure secretary in The V.I.P.s, she then won an Academy Award for Best Actress in 1969, for her signature role in the Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.  In 1979, she won Best Supporting Actress for her performance opposite Michael Caine in California Suite.  To this day, she is the only actress to receive the awards in that order.  She has also starred alongside many of the 20th Century’s greats, including Peter Sellers and David Niven and was in several Agatha Christie adaptations with Peter Ustinov as Poirot.

An internationally celebrated actress, Maggie Smith has created innumerable memorable and beloved characters on stage and the large and small screen.  Making her name in dramatic roles, she quickly became an actress of note with a flexibility that includes success in Shakespeare’s Tragedies through to repressed spinsters and comical eccentrics.  Whilst many will not have had the opportunity to see her on stage, especially in her early years, there are universally fond memories of her roles, especially in some of the smaller films like “Tea with Mussolini” (1998) and Robert Altman’s “Gosford Park” (2001).  In 2001 her audiences went stratospheric whilst playing Minerva McGonagall in Harry Potter – a role she describes as “Miss Jean Brodie in a wizard’s hat.”

Additionally she has received British Academy Film Awards for roles including The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, 1984’s A Private Function, 1985’s A Room with a View and 1987’s The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne.  As well, several accolades for her stage performances, including a Variety Club Award for Noël Coward’s Private Lives in 1972, and a Tony Award for Lettice and Lovage in 1990.  More recently she has received acclaim and three EMMY Awards (2011, 2012 and 2016) for her performance in Downton Abbey.  In 2016 she received Golden Globe and BAFTA nominations for The Lady in the Van.  Dame Maggie was given a BAFTA fellowship in 1996.

A very private person

Maggie Smith is known for being very reserved and reclusive.  For someone with a career spanning more than 60 years, surprisingly little is known about the ‘private’ Maggie.  Even her authorised biography fails to reveal the individual behind the various personas she creates.  This lack of information is deliberate.  She rarely does television or print interviews and when she does, she prefers to concentrate the discussion, on her work.

In 1988 Dame Maggie developed Graves’ disease – a condition that causes an overactive thyroid.  Treatment required radiotherapy and eye surgery which put her out of commission for nearly a year.  In 2007 she was diagnosed with breast cancer whilst working on ‘Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince’.  She continued to film, despite undergoing chemotherapy and in her own inimitable fashion commented to the Telegraph afterwards “I was hairless, I had no problem getting the [Professor McGonagall] wig on, I was like a boiled egg.”

Smith was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1990.

For this acknowledged National Treasure who often (through sheer talent) steals the limelight and acts ‘the best of the best’ of the stage, maybe a good maxim to remember her by would be to modify the old dictum thus “Never act with children, animals or Maggie Smith!”

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