Read Maggie Smith: A Biography Online
Authors: Michael Coveney
Ironically, in a play whose main confrontation is set in an immigration office in Croydon, a bleak and soulless
of South London, Maggie found herself particularly alienated in real life in the concrete labyrinth of the new National. Poliakoff, whose reputation as a dramatist is rooted in the poetry of urban desolation, retains a vivid image of Maggie inhabiting those bleak corridors like a lost soul unhappily dislocated from her natural West End ambience of plush and gilt. John Moffatt sent her a poem which she carried close to her heart as she wandered, perpetually lost, between her featureless box dressing room and the awkwardly wide proscenium of the Lyttelton auditorium: ‘Fuck and bloody arsehole, shit bugger damn; I don’t know where the fuck I am.’ Poliakoff had always wanted his play to be staged in the smaller Cottesloe (now the Dorfman) Theatre, but knew it would be nonsense to have Maggie confined there with a limited audience. He wanted to kid the audience with a seeming boulevard structure and then lead them into ‘something messier’. Because Maggie came from that boulevard background, she took the audience on exactly the journey Poliakoff prescribed:
Of all my plays, this was the one which has had the best audience reaction. And a lot of that was to do with the great performance of Maggie Smith. She is brilliant at accents, and captured to absolute perfection this thing of Poles who speak wonderful, slightly flowery English, in the tradition of Joseph Conrad, or a comparable Czech example like Tom Stoppard. She has a brilliant ear. And she has a ready-made public. She walks on the stage and can say anything, even if it’s just ‘Have a cup of tea’, and people start laughing. This is not true, necessarily, of Judi Dench.
Maggie’s first entrance was indeed remarkable. Her character had spent twenty-nine years looking after her father, a disgraced Polish politician, and learning English in preparation for her own life. She appeared in a doorway, weighed down with her belongings in two vast plastic bags, wearing oversize boots and juggling a cigarette. Michael Ratcliffe in the
likened this aggressive manifestation to that of Sybil Thorndike entering in a scuffle of cardigans and bumping into someone expendable in N. C. Hunter’s
Waters of the Moon
. It was at once clear that Halina would not go away. She personified and combined, said Ratcliffe, laziness, sensuality, reticence and indestructibility.
There was dispute over the merit of Poliakoff’s play: ‘a piffling piece of over-produced flim-flam,’ said Jack Tinker, possibly because of a battery of television screens designed to fill up the cavernous Lyttelton in the hi-fi emporium where Halina has gained illegal employment; a ‘thin and disappointing piece,’ said Ratcliffe; ‘Maggie Smith could not be this good if Stephen Poliakoff had not given her the material to work on,’ countered Billington. There was elegant, silky support from Andrew C. Wadsworth as an oil executive and from Anthony Andrews as a show business lawyer, both allies to her cause for patriation in England. But the major sparks were fired in a half-hour scene in the second act between Maggie and Tim Pigott-Smith as a ruthless immigration officer who turns the interrogation screws rather like Porfiry in Dostoevsky’s
Crime and Punishment
. Cutting right down to the bone, Maggie, in eye-catching scarlet, tore into the scene with an animal ferocity she had not tapped in London since
, crying to be allowed into the country with, as Billington said, ‘the naked desperation of the potentially stateless’.
Between these two contemporary plays she fitted in an appearance at the Lyric, Hammersmith, as Jocasta in Jean Cocteau’s high-camp 1934 version of the Oedipus story,
The Infernal Machine
. This was a good example of Maggie being talked into something about which she had nurtured no previous ambition whatsoever. The person responsible was Simon Callow, who was infatuated with the play and saw in Maggie the Jocasta of his dreams. The role, he felt, was one which could accommodate her full range, demanding a woman who appeared, by turns, skittish, amorous, haunted, tender, stark and suicidal. The tragedienne in Maggie appealed above all to Callow and had inspired him to become an actor in the first place.
Cocteau has fallen from fashion in the British theatre, if indeed he ever fell into it. The reviewers remained sceptical. Michael Billington branded the play ‘poppy Cocteau’ (not all that risible a tag as the playwright had conceived of the piece in a haze of opium) and John Peter in the
thundered about bad art being gloriously sent up. But Callow was sincere in his admiration for the play, which covers Oedipus’s return to his mother’s womb as her lover, after he has killed his father. There is a famous scene with the talking Sphinx, and a long bedroom scene in which mother and son, magnetised by sexual attraction, are permanently on the verge of sleep. Cocteau, said Callow, set out ‘to write the great nightmare of Western civilisation as a dream play’, and by using a brilliantly evolved technique of repetitions, non-sequiturs, unmotivated impulses, quotations and slangy anachronisms, created ‘a hypnotised world moving imperceptibly from dream to reality and back’ in which the characters, all variants of boulevard archetypes, are caught up in the cogs of the infernal machine, the plot.
One of Callow’s other heroes, the Irish actor Micheál MacLiammóir, had produced the play in Carl Wildman’s translation at the Gate in Dublin in 1937. Callow, who was convinced that, in the face of AIDS, nuclear war and starvation, it was harder to dismiss Cocteau’s vision of life as a trap devised by a remorseless divinity, provided his own script, even racier than Wildman’s and fragrantly sensitive to the tension, flipness, misery, extravagance and ecstasy of the original. Callow had long wanted to do the play and he knew that Peter James, the director of the Lyric, Hammersmith, an avowed internationalist with a liking for mad projects, might be interested. He was.
Callow was building up his courage to approach Maggie when he was thrown together with her on the film of
A Room with a View
. He was certain that she found him too noisy, but his dread dissolved when they acted together: ‘The contact, concentration and responsiveness were thrilling.’ Still, he remained tongue-tied on the subject of Cocteau and started to entertain thoughts of Jeanne Moreau. A chance meeting with the French film star in Florence, on a rest day from shooting the Forster film, resulted in a series of telephone calls and messages which finally, however, led to a stalemate. During
, Callow resumed his hunt for Maggie and was rewarded with a positive response first time. Over supper, he outlined how he would conduct rehearsals. He asked was there any method she particularly disliked? ‘Only stopping work at four and going off to the Garrick for drinkies.’ Without quite getting down to brass tacks, Callow arranged another dinner date with Peter James joining them. James made an impassioned speech about the need to take on Cocteau as the major subsidised companies weren’t interested, and the supplementary need to present him as well as possible with someone who would bring in the audience and do justice to the play. ‘I need you, or someone like you,’ said the intrepid James. Callow froze. ‘Someone like me?’ said Maggie. ‘You,’ said James. ‘I know what you mean,’ said Maggie. ‘Well?’ said James. ‘Well?’ said Maggie. ‘Will you do it?’ A pause. ‘I can’t see any reason why not.’ ‘But will you do it?’ ‘
And that, recalls Callow, was it. People told him later that Maggie had said to them that she didn’t know why she was doing the play, or she was only doing it to spite her agent, or because Edith Evans had never done it. But she had been taken by Callow’s enthusiasm and had herself found something worthwhile and compelling in the drama. It was typical of her that she should disguise her commitment in a battery of airily bemused disavowals. Having initially tried, and failed, to interest Alec Guinness in the role of Tiresias, Callow had landed a fine alternative: the blind seer was to be played by Robert Eddison, one of the great verse speakers in the old style. Oedipus fell to the French film star Lambert Wilson.
The rehearsal period was troubled. Eddison simply did not get on with Maggie. Maggie was also highly critical of Bruno Santini’s set, which the designer had covered in cellophane. Each time anyone went near the surface, it crackled and rustled. Maggie took one look and protested: ‘I can’t … d’you … I can’t … I can’t … it’s like a thousand sweets being unwrapped all at the same time.’ The cellophane went. Three previews were cancelled and, at the last dress rehearsal, when the dry-ice machine had turned the stage into a skating rink, Lambert Wilson fell into the orchestra pit. At the first preview, Maggie was faced with a total disaster but refused to succumb. According to Callow, she just set to and saved the show. And halfway through, she probably realised that the rescue operation was only half necessary. Then she went through what Callow took to be an habitual rigmarole of ringing up and apologising:
‘She fears disaster every day. It’s her natural reaction. It’s as though she is spontaneously on acid. Which is what makes her acting so great. She will take a word and plumb its depth both comically and tragically until it begins to assume as lurid a life for you as it does for her.’
Jocasta was not popular in Thebes: ‘My clothes madden them. My mascara maddens them. My joie de vivre maddens them.’ Her attention is caught by a handsome young soldier who reminds her of her son. He would be about the same age, nineteen, now. ‘Zizi,’ Maggie cooed to Tiresias, ‘just look at those muscles … feel those biceps, they’re like steel.’ Michael Ratcliffe described how this darkly murmuring witch then sank ‘with an opiate lassitude and gloom on to the enormous pile of furs where she will unknowingly consummate marriage to her son’. In the last scene, Jocasta appeared in black, in a trough of misery. And then – Cocteau’s masterstroke, says Callow – she returns as an apparition, dead, all in white, after she has hanged herself and Oedipus has stabbed out his eyes with his mother’s brooch. Suffused with maternal spirit and radiance, her effect on an audience was invariably profound. Callow had begged her to remain as simple as possible, and she did remain as simple as possible. ‘She was just astonishing.’
Number one son Chris had been working in the West End. After Chichester, he gained a job through the Fox family connection. Edward Fox and Maggie had been presented in
by Edward’s younger brother, Robert Fox, whom Chris had met over dinner. Thus Chris came to be crewing on the Harwood play, humping costumes and assisting in the scene changes, where he ‘walked on’ in his mother’s shadow as a Foreign Office security guard. Chris and Toby then worked together for a season in the tent at Chichester before Toby, who had long since decided to be an actor, enrolled at a minor drama school for about four months, then auditioned for the major ones. He was turned down because he was too young – he had left Seaford without taking his A-Levels – and spent another season crewing at Chichester before he was accepted at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA). Chris, meanwhile, moved on to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s
The Phantom of the Opera
(which dropped anchor at Her Majesty’s after
The Scarlet Pimpernel
), where he caught the chandelier every night before it hit the deck. There followed stints at the Redgrave Theatre at Farnham, where he gained his stage-manager’s card, and the Mercury at Colchester, where he served as deputy stage manager.
Both boys had kept their father’s surname, Stephens, but Chris had to trade it in, just as his mother had had to adopt ‘Maggie’ in 1956, because another ‘Christopher Stephens’ was registered with Equity. He tried registering under his maternal grandmother’s names of Hutton and Little but they, too, were taken. Maggie said that, as he liked the poetry of Philip Larkin, why not use that name? So Chris Stephens became, and remains, Chris Larkin. He now decided, after all, that he wanted to train as an actor. Chris, cheerful and lanky, followed his younger brother Toby, confident and barrel-chested, into LAMDA. The boys used the Fulham house as their domestic base for the last few years of the 1980s and beyond.
Toby had first seen his mother on stage in
and had wondered ‘what the hell she was doing swinging around on a piano wire’. In Canada, Christopher Downes remembers sitting with Toby, his face alight, at the end of the last performance of
As You Like It
as Maggie, triumphant in the epilogue, took her curtain calls and was showered with bouquets of pink and yellow roses which matched the colours in her dress. Downes knew at this point – Toby was eight – that he wanted to share what his mother was lapping up. Toby recalls that when he confirmed that he intended to go on the stage, Maggie quizzed him on how many Shakespeare plays he knew, how many speeches by heart. She did on one occasion bawl him out for never going to see anything and not reading enough. It is the one serious row Toby has ever had with his mother. He started to do as she ordered. He learned that if he was to be even half as serious about his career as she was, he had to start watching and reading immediately.
At about this time, Robert, who was playing a bleary-eyed, unforgettably bloated double of King Herod and Pontius Pilate in Bill Bryden’s production of
The Mystery Plays
at the National Theatre, drifted back into his sons’ lives. They had gone seven or eight years without seeing him and were now old enough to take responsibility themselves for keeping in touch. Both parents were now seen by them in a more appreciative context: neither came from a family with a history in the theatre, and both had to work very hard to achieve a professional status. As far as Maggie is concerned, Toby acknowledges that her moderately austere lower-middle-class background, so formative an influence on her career and personality, was denied him and Chris. Maggie is hard on other people because she is primarily hard on herself. The boys knew they had to learn to combat the relative ease with which they could face the world thanks to their mother’s efforts.