A life in pictures: Maggie Smith

Katie McCabe

Dame Maggie Smith is a certified national treasure. The Oscar-winning actress has starred in an endless list of hits including Downton AbbyHarry Potter and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. But how did the daughter of a secretary and a pathologist become such a star?

An Oxford girl

Maggie Smith's mother, a Glaswegian Presbyterian, worked as a secretary and her father as a pathologist, so her unshakeable desire to act was unexpected.

"I have no idea where it came from," she said. Her older twin brothers both developed a talent for drawing and trained as architects, inspiring Smith to follow her own creative path.

As a teenager, she attended Oxford High School, but never had much luck in the theatre productions, the only role she ever got was that of a page, holding up cardboard sign to mark a change of scenes. It wasn't until the early 50s when she joined the Oxford Playhouse that she found her way on stage.

She was thrown into sexist roles while making endless cups of tea as a non-speaking maid. But she finally got noticed, and her first real production, New Faces, ended up travelling to Broadway.

Throughout her career, Smith would make a habit of transitioning from understudy to leading lady almost overnight.

 

Carry on Maggie

Maggie and dog
Kenneth, Maggie and her dog in the late 50s. Image via Carry On Fan

Kenneth Williams and Smith first met in 1957, when they starred in a revue called Share My Lettuce, her first appearance in a West End show.

The notion that Smith drew her comedy persona from Williams' is overstated, but the two were close friends. Smith is one of the few celebrities to come out of Kenneth Williams' famous diaries completely unscathed.

 

Strike a pose

By the 60s, Maggie had established herself as an emerging star of the British stage, but a lesser-known supporting actress on screen.

This casual photoshoot with Vogue in 1962 shows her contemplating the calm before the storm of Miss Jean Brodie. Smith was a natural red head, who knew?

 

Dame Desdemona

When a stage production of Othello opened at the National Theatre, a 15-year-old Julian Fellowes sat in the audience, waiting to be amazed by Laurence Olivier in the starring role.

Instead, he was "mesmerised" by Desdemona, played by Maggie Smith, the same woman he would cast as the Dowager in Downton Abbey some 46 years later. "To my intense embarrassment at the age of 15, I was crying. It was only later I heard this actress was called Maggie Smith."

Olivier, unable to cope with being outshone by the actress, stopped working with her for a time. Their relationship during the production was described as "guarded". Although she's played both Desdemona and Lady Macbeth to great critical acclaim, she maintains that Shakespeare is "not her thing".

In this picture, we're reminded of the shocking fact that 'blacking up' for the part of Othello was once commonplace in British theatre.

 

Screen couple

The relationship between Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens blurred the lines between fact and fiction. They fell in love whilst working together on stage and in film, eventually getting married after Robert's divorce to his first wife in 1967.

It was England’s Burton and Taylor romance. While they flourished as co-stars on stage and in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, the marriage was struggling. In 1972, they starred in John Gielgud's West End revival of Private Lives, the story of a couple who are head over heels in love yet cannot bear to live together. 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 opened up about his parents' relationship: "My mother found the break-up 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 English playwright Beverley Cross and the two were together until his death in 1998.

 

And the Academy Award goes to…

 

Maggie Smith rallied against the image of the dour Scottish schoolmarm with her upright, spirited performance in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Smith is not Scottish but Brodie's Edinburgh accent lived on in many of her later characters.

She received the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1970, and later nabbed Best Supporting Actress for her performance in California Suite opposite Michael Caine. To date, she remains the only actress to receive the awards in that order. 

 

A pig's ear

Alan Bennett's writing fits Maggie Smith's character like a tea cosy, and this caustic comedy is no exception. The entire plot of A Private Function centres on a conspiracy to smuggle a pig onto the banquet table to celebrate the Queen's wedding, 1947.

During filming, Maggie was hemmed in by one of the more aggressive pigs, and had to vault over the top of it to escape. The cast includes two recently-deceased giants of British acting, Richard Griffiths and Pete Postlewaite.

 

Bewitching the scenery

 

Her turn as Professor Minerva McGonagall in the Harry Potter films opened Smith up to a new generation of fans. Suddenly three-year-olds were stopping her in the supermarket asking: "Are you really a cat?" But she stuck it out for all eight films, despite being diagnosed with breast cancer during the filming of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

The experience left her rattled, and fearful of going on stage. “I think it’s the age I was when it happened. It knocks you sideways," she said.

"It takes you longer to recover, you are not so resilient. I am fearful of the amount of energy one needs to be in a film or a play.” She must have found reserves, as the years that followed were the busiest of her career.

 

The Dowager

In 2009, Smith was called upon by that same admirer from the Othello audience, Sir Julian Fellowes, to appear in his new BBC drama. Once again, Maggie was cast as the prickly but endearing old woman, in this case: Violet Crawley, the Countess of Grantham.

In a recent interview, Smith expressed her frustration with the decades of typecasting she has experienced: "I seem to be stuck with old mad women, which is a bit of a strain… They seem to be the only thing I can do now, it's funny to be pigeonholed so late in life, but there we are."

The Dame once told a friend that it all began with her role as Wendy's grandmother in Hook, and she's been '92' ever since. When Downton wrapped, there were no tears from Maggie Smith, "by the time we finished [the Dowager] must have been 110!" she said on Graham Norton.

She's never actually watched Downton, but we hear the box set is sitting on her shelf.

 

Wheels keep on turning

In 2015 the Bennett and Smith team were reunited for The Lady in the Van, the true story of Mrs Shepherd, a homeless woman who parked her van outside Alan Bennett's house and lived there for 15 years.

Smith had played the character twice before, once for a theatre production and then a radio play; typecast or not, she was the obvious choice for the role. A hoarder, a loner, and an unapologetic crank, Mrs Shepherd is the more interesting of Smith's back catalogue of biddies.

Instead of appearing in a corridor to snipe at petulant schoolchildren, Smith gets to show the dramatic acting chops of her early career.

British theatre and cinema has tried for years to find the right ‘place’ for Maggie: the Scottish teacher, the Keep Calm and Carry On Brit, the insufferable crank, leader of the feel-good Marigold Hotel gang. And most of the time, she obliges with a nasal sigh, but take one look behind her enormous eyes and they’ll tell you the answer: she's none of the above.   

 

Feature image via Naple Sherald