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Life of Ilford-born Dame Maggie Smith explored as final Downton series airs

PUBLISHED: 15:00 03 October 2015

Behind the scenes of Downton Abbey in 2011. Picture: Simon Paulin/TT News Agency

Behind the scenes of Downton Abbey in 2011. Picture: Simon Paulin/TT News Agency

TT News Agency/Press Association Images

As the final chapter of the Downton Abbey drama begins to unfold on TV screens, it is time too to tell the story of the sublime life and loves of Dame Maggie Smith, its star performer as the Dowager Countess of Grantham.

The cast of Downton Abbey. Picture: ITV/PA Wire/PA ImagesThe cast of Downton Abbey. Picture: ITV/PA Wire/PA Images

It is also the significant moment when we will shortly see her poignant performance in the new movie version of The Lady in the Van, set in the former Camden Town home of its author, Alan Bennett, which has just made its debut at the Toronto Film Festival.

Indeed, such has her fame exploded internationally, that when Dame Maggie celebrated a birthday some years ago – she is now 80 – the information was tweeted seven million times round the world, a sensation that horrified her.

As journalist and critic Michael Coveney, Maggie’s sole biographer, writes in revealing her past: “Paradoxically for a show-off, Maggie Smith chisels away at her work with the monastic dedication of the instinctive recluse. In a golden age of British acting, she is distinctly quiet and invisible.”

And as he told me: “She is an elusive character who only seems to come to life playing other people. She finds getting through the day rather difficult, doesn’t like talking about herself and avoids interviews whenever possible.

Dame Maggie Smith attending her 80th birthday party in Grosvenor Square, London. Picture: Jonathan Brady/PA Archive/PA ImagesDame Maggie Smith attending her 80th birthday party in Grosvenor Square, London. Picture: Jonathan Brady/PA Archive/PA Images

“She has only ever done one TV chat show. That was in 1973 with Michael Parkinson. And it was only because her great friend Kenneth Williams was also there holding her hand. She is really extremely very private and very reserved – because she thinks it will kind of damage what she is.

“And rather like the late actor Paul Scofield, it’s all a mystery. Her tremendous talent is completely instinctive. She dislikes any kind of analysis or discussion about it and she truly doesn’t like playing the publicity game in our age of celebrity.”

Coveney’s brilliant biography, very much itself a formidable history of the modern British theatre, has its own inbuilt drama in telling the story of Ilford boy meets Ilford girl in her Broadway dressing room some 15 years ago.

The fascination for Dame Maggie’s many follows is in the meticulous way he traces Dame Maggie’s career playing virtually every significant classical and modern role on stage, as well as winning awards, Oscars included.

Queen Elizabeth II is presented to Maggie Smith by Sir Laurence Olivier, centre, when the Queen attended the charity premiere of the film Othello at the Odeon Theatre, Leicester Square, London. Picture: PAQueen Elizabeth II is presented to Maggie Smith by Sir Laurence Olivier, centre, when the Queen attended the charity premiere of the film Othello at the Odeon Theatre, Leicester Square, London. Picture: PA

Coveney, now 67, first saw her on stage at the Old Vic in the 1706 play The Recruiting Officer about the sexual and social exploits of two army officers, one of them played by Robert Stephens, who became her love and subsequently her husband in the National Theatre company.

She played Hedda Gabbler directed by Ingmar Berman, Miss Julie with Albert Finney, Desdemona to Laurence Olivier’s Othello and even Richard Burton confessed that she stole scenes from him. Virtually every performance, whether in light-hearted reviews or Shakespeare’s McBeth, earned her plaudits and prizes.

In one rare explanation of her magical talent, she explained: “I’m very shy on the stage/ Always shy off it. You see, the theatre is a different world. A much better world. It’s the real world that’s the illusion.

“Outside trains can run late. But trains in the theatre are always on time...It’s strict. It’s secure. The theatre is full of people looking for prefabricated security. They find it there. Nowhere else.”

Actress Dame Maggie Smith with her late partner Beverley Cross. Picture: Fiona Hanson/EMPICS/PAActress Dame Maggie Smith with her late partner Beverley Cross. Picture: Fiona Hanson/EMPICS/PA

On her own love life, Coveney reveals how she the funny, quick-witted Dame Maggie rejected male admirers in her early days appearing on stage in Oxford in productions by the likes of Ned Sherrin and Peter Hall, her Glaswegian-born Presbyterian mother having provided a strict upbringing for her dashing daughter.

Nowadays, without her late husband, the director Beverley Cross, she lives alone without any live-in help in the same house in Fulham she has had for 40 years.

“She found Downton Abbey very exhausting. I’m sure the new sixth series is ending because Dame Maggie doesn’t really want to do any more. And they wouldn’t consider carrying on without her.”

Dame Maggie Smith with Dame Judi Dench arriving at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London in 2002. Picture: William Conran/PA Archive/PA ImagesDame Maggie Smith with Dame Judi Dench arriving at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London in 2002. Picture: William Conran/PA Archive/PA Images

MAGGIE SMITH: A BIOGRAPHY by Michael Coveney (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, £20).


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