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Authors: Michael Coveney

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BOOK: Maggie Smith: A Biography
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Maggie was no more relaxed about her work than she had ever been, but her security at home and the friendship of her sons were cause for at least some satisfaction. Although she immediately regretted it, she allowed the American-based
magazine to take a look round the Sussex fastness and to encourage her to put her past into perspective: ‘The tumultuous period of my life, so much of it is such a winter in my head … that’s not me; it’s Christopher Fry.’ Toby told the magazine that he and Chris had enjoyed a remarkably smooth transition ‘from one father to another’, while Chris declared that Beverley was the glue that stuck the family together. Maggie concurred: ‘Bev is a rock. He took on a lot: me and these two boys. I’m just remarkably fortunate that it did happen. When you meet again someone you should have married in the first place – it’s like a script. The kind of luck that’s too good to be true.’

– 14 –
A Toast to the Bard with Levin and Lettice

Stephen Poliakoff and Peter Hall entertained hopes of Maggie moving to the West End with
Coming in to Land
, but the Jack Clayton film of
The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne
was in the offing and, more to the point, the long-promised script from Peter Shaffer,
Lettice and Lovage
, was almost a reality. In his preface to the published text, Shaffer put the unfashionable view that his purpose as a playwright was to serve the actor’s art:

Great actors are now a species infinitely more endangered than white rhinos and far more important to the health and happiness of the human race. I am referring to ‘live’ actors, of course – not their manufactured images on screens large and small. In our age where most performers have been reduced to forms of puppetry – neutered by naturalism, made into miniaturists by television, robbed of their voices by film dubbers and their right to structure roles by film editors – the authentic Great Actor has almost disappeared from the earth.

Shaffer counted Maggie ‘indisputably’ great and dedicated his new play to this Wonder of her Art, ‘who incarnates comedy with love’.
Lettice and Lovage
was scheduled for an autumn 1987 opening in the West End.

The year started well, with Maggie winning the best supporting actress in the Golden Globe Awards for
A Room with A View
, followed by a nomination in the same category for the Oscars (she did not win). As well as the BAFTA award, she collected a Variety Club award as film actress of the year. Even more unexpected was a curious invitation she received that spring from Bernard Levin, who had given up theatre reviewing, but not his passion for Maggie Smith. He had been asked by his close friend Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington, the Washington socialite, writer and controversial biographer of Picasso, to arrange a Shakespearean entertainment for the third annual Founders Day dinner at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC. This was Mrs Huffington’s first chairmanship of a major Washington event and she wanted it to be a success. The guest list of 170 people, each one paying a thousand dollars for the privilege of attending, included several Roosevelts, Judge Webster, head of the FBI, and many senators from Capitol Hill. A reception in the Great Hall of the library was to be followed by dinner in the Reading Room and whatever appropriate cabaret Levin and Arianna between them might be able to concoct.

Levin had recently published a book,
, where, in a chapter on Shakespeare, he had cobbled into one gigantic paragraph all the phrases, first coined in the Bard, which had since assumed the status of common parlance. His script was built around this passage and he sent it off to Maggie, who was intrigued. She agreed with Levin that Alec McCowen would make an ideal partner for such an occasion and all three of them had a splendid meal at Simply Nico. The actors signed up in exchange for a suite each at the Hay–Adams hotel and a first-class fare. On arrival in Washington, Levin promptly took his charges out for yet another sumptuous dinner and McCowen half-remembers returning to the Hay–Adams very much the worse for wear and quite unable to stand still for long enough to insert his key in his bedroom door. Maggie descended less squiffily from her floor and kindly inserted the key for him, turned down the bed, drew the curtains and put Mr McCowen safely to sleep within his luxurious sheets.

Levin’s account of ‘a stupendous triumph’ at the Folger on 10 April 1987 is slightly challenged by McCowen’s recollection of ‘utter chaos’ at the library when they turned up to rehearse, though it is conceivable that he might have been suffering from a hangover. Maggie and McCowen insisted on someone turning off the central heating and the air conditioning, which made noises similar to those of a lavatory flushing. Americans, McCowen reminded his colleagues, simply did not hear such noises. The actors wanted Levin to rehearse them, but he protested, with many a ‘good grief’ and ‘for heaven’s sake’, that he was in no position whatsoever to embark on a career in theatre directing, least of all at this latish time of life, and certainly not, for starters, with the likes of Mr Alec McCowen and, ‘by the mass’, ‘by all the stars in God’s firmament’, as well as ‘by untold varieties of heck’, the further likes of Miss Maggie Smith. So he told them just to get up there and do the blessed thing on their own, which is, after all, what directors usually say most of the time anyway (he added, for good measure).

In the afternoon before the event, Levin recalls, Maggie Smith lost her handbag. She could not move without this handbag, it had everything in it and so on and so forth, and a hunt was mounted throughout the hotel. The handbag was finally found under Miss Smith’s bed. Then Miss Smith lost her spectacles. She was in no position to read the menu, let alone Bernard Levin’s script, without these glasses, but she did have a prescription about her person. Probably in the handbag. Levin volunteered to dive into the Washington maelstrom and find an optician who, for a consideration, made up another pair of glasses on the spot. Before the dinner and the recital, the artists were bidden to an extremely smart cocktail party at Mrs Huffington’s, McCowen in his dinner jacket, Maggie in what she said was her ‘only black dress’. The ride in the limousine was through the rush hour. It took, says McCowen, an hour and a half to travel approximately two kilometres in order to attend a party where he and Maggie knew nobody at all. They stood on the terrace and Maggie looked down the lawn and said rather grumpily, ‘Very small pool!’ Ten minutes later they piled back into the limo to go to the Folger and Maggie said, ‘Well, thank you Bernard, that was a lovely glass of water.’

The library, manned by liveried footmen and populated by Washington’s finest, had been transformed into a Midsummer’s Eve bower, awash with flowers, moss, ivy, models of little woodland animals, plants and jungle greenery. A large ficus tree sparkled with lights and streamers, and the whole place had been lit solely by candlelight. ‘It was magic, absolute magic,’ says Levin. ‘What I shall never forget was that, as the catalogue unrolled, you could hear the audience stop breathing at this flood of phrases. Maggie and Alec were wonderful. And the cheering. Well, it was unbelievable.’

The actors were more tense. The dinner, according to McCowen, ‘went on for hours and hours and of course we both had to have it. I was sitting next to a very obscure Roosevelt. Then there were speeches, then we were given a medal and then it was time for the recital. At which point, as we started, about twenty-eight of the more elderly diners took this as their cue to go to the loo. Anyway, we got through it, and Bernard was overjoyed and very sweet and I had some gin and tonic and Maggie had some champagne and then we both went back to the hotel and behaved disgracefully with room service. It was a very jolly time.’

At all stages of her career, Maggie has, for the most part, remained curiously invisible in public. She rarely appears in charity shows, seldom lends her name to committees or educational institutions, and you hardly ever see her on television, or hear her on radio, discussing some forthcoming performance or other. John Moffatt once confessed to her that he felt he had all the makings of a recluse. And she said, ‘Oh, I am a recluse. I haven’t got any friends.’ Although she knows an awful lot of people, she consistently gave the impression during the 1980s, says Moffatt, that the only place she really wanted to be was at home with Beverley and the boys and the dog and the garden and the books.

It is as if she hides away, nursing her gift, and then bursts forth in a new role. She certainly did this as Lettice Douffet, imaginative guide to Fustian Hall and daughter of a theatrical mother who toured the Dordogne with an all-female company, cheerfully swinging her Falstaff padding over her shoulder to play Richard Crookback. Unusually, Shaffer wrote a whacking great role for a leading actress who had to do all the donkey work of laying down the expository information herself. Several critics felt that these early scenes could be trimmed with little loss to the play apart from Maggie’s delightfully pitched variations on the same theme. But the whole point of Shaffer’s play was to expose Maggie’s artistry, not win points in a good dramaturgy contest. Lettice remains one of Maggie’s greatest successes, a role in which she combined bravura comic eccentricity with clear, sustained indications of private grief. The external signs of her extraordinary behaviour as a tourist guide stemmed from an inner need to dramatise. ‘Enlarge! Enliven! Enlighten!’ is her battle-cry, as she elaborates dull fact with colourful fiction in the drab country house hallway. The play opens with four revue-style snippets of Lettice in action, delivering an increasingly embroidered account of a royal visit and a noble intervention ‘on these very stairs’ for the benefit of her group of tourists. That group is joined by an academic cynic. Bending her neck, like a disturbed but curious swan, Smith addresses him sideways: ‘Excuse me, but there is a hostility in your voice which implies that what I am saying is an untruth … [A characteristic pause and a deadly, sympathy-gaining inflection as far as the tourist group is concerned, who want to believe the unlikely] … that it is lacking in veracity.’ The last word is laid out like a decorated corpse. The second, more decisive intervention is made by Lotte Schoen, a brusque and severe representative of the personnel department in the Preservation (National) Trust, who casts severely incredulous aspersions on the historical information Lettice is feeding the tourists, especially that story of John Fustian leaping upstairs to stuff fried hedgehogs into Queen Elizabeth’s mouth directly from his fingers.

After a killingly long pause, Lettice counters with ‘I’m sorry – but I cannot myself get beyond your own behaviour.’ This lights the blue touch-paper, and the audience ignites with a great, whooshing roar of laughter. They now know whose side they are on. Lettice is summoned to Miss Schoen’s office in Westminster to discuss her dismissal on the grounds of unacceptable embroidery of the dull truth, the everyday, the ‘mere’ as pronounced by Smith in one of her most contemptuous inflections. She arrives in Westminster dressed in a black cloak and beret ‘like some medieval abbot’. It transpires that her mother ran a Shakespearean touring company in France. The inherited histrionic talent of Lettice is cruelly suppressed by the loss of her job. The women subsequently meet in Lettice’s basement flat in Earl’s Court, where antagonism slowly thaws into friendship. Their relationship matures through Lettice’s enthusiasm for historical charades, though this leads to an unfortunate accident on Mary Queen of Scots’s execution block, and requires the third-act participation of a bemused lawyer called Mr Bardolph. Lettice is consoled throughout by the attentions of her cat, Felina, Queen of Sorrows.

Maggie exuded a sense of theatre in the role as an aspect of personality. Shaffer’s play was a metaphor of fictional, improved historical fact, of theatre as a truth beyond documentation. Lettice’s self-absorption became a source of magnificent self-defensiveness. In the second act, Lettice lost her left hand momentarily in a big floppy sleeve. Maggie shook her wrist inquisitively and stared at the absent manual appendage with an air of bafflement. A slight, ten-second piece of outrageous comic business was transformed into a wholly comprehensible and revelatory comment on the character’s enraptured scattiness.

With a twinge of near-painful recognition, Lettice’s defiance of the grey, the analytical, the sensible, corresponded for me with the actress’s reluctance to be drawn into direct personal combat. Lettice starts with dismay whenever the telephone or the front doorbell rings. And when Mr Bardolph seeks information for the impending court case on what exactly took place prior to the accident on the scaffold, Lettice gives the tape-recorder the most terrible stare, arching backwards from the contraption and responding frostily and monosyllabically – ‘Correct!’ – to the early questions. Interviews are not Lettice’s forte. At the end of the London version of
Lettice and Lovage
, Maggie as Lettice and Margaret Tyzack as the reconciled Miss Schoen, having toasted each other by quaffing a goblet of the Elizabethan home-brewed ‘lovage’, embark on a course of architectural terrorism. They have formed END, the Eyesore Negation Detachment (as opposed to CND, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament), and begin preparing, as the curtain falls, to blow up a select list of modern architectural monstrosities with a petard, a medieval explosive device. This conclusion, although it uncannily anticipated the conservationist, anti-modernist debate perpetrated in Britain by Prince Charles, was generally thought to be unlikely and unconvincing. Shaffer himself wanted to rewrite it, but the actors were reluctant to accept the changes.

It now transpires that they didn’t believe in the ending themselves. But Margaret Tyzack says that they didn’t mind the preposterousness ‘because we were of the mind that we couldn’t run a wool shop. The idea that anyone else could believe that we really could get anything together was, to us, astonishing.’ Michael Blakemore, the director, says that Maggie tried to convince him and Shaffer that the rewrite was no good by rehearsing it badly for a couple of weeks but that ‘when she did it, and started getting her laughs doing her magic on it, she got to enjoy it a lot’. The new last (strictly, penultimate) line in New York, after the play had come full circle by Lettice describing her own place, was ‘On behalf of Miss Schoen and myself – a brimming goodbye to you!’ Shaffer says that Maggie worried and worried about this line not being quite right before inserting the more rhythmically satisfying extra phrase: ‘On behalf of Miss Schoen and myself – and all true enemies of the mere – a brimming goodbye to you!’

Shaffer acknowledges that there is a school of playwriting which is anti-effective and says to hell with all that sort of thing: ‘I do not subscribe to that school. I’m on Maggie’s side. You have to honour the musical and the rhythmic side of things, and you have to honour your actress. She wanted to achieve that joyous envoi, to seal her bargain with the audience. I believe she gave one of the great performances of our day.’

BOOK: Maggie Smith: A Biography
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