THE MYSTERIOUS MAGGIE AND ME
He may have written the biography of the fun, fearsome and still flourishing Dame Maggie Smith but she remains an enigma, muses theatre critic and author Michael Coveney.
In celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Chichester Cinema at New Park it’s extraordinary to realise that, in the same year of its launch, 1979, its patron Dame Maggie Smith accepted her second Oscar, for Neil Simon’s California Suite directed by Herbert Ross – ten years after winning her first, for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie directed by Ronald Neame. She’s been a star for half a century.
And here she is, like the cinema, still flourishing, about to release by what is by my computation her 54th movie, Downton Abbey. Of course, that television series, along with the Harry Potter film franchise, has brought her artful magnificence to a whole new generation – perhaps two different, but still compatible, audiences – in the strictly observant guises of the Lady Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham, and Professor Minerva McGonagall of Hogwarts.
McGonagall was the only daughter of a Scottish Presbyterian, as was Maggie, and this fuels her distinctly tart performance, as it did Miss Brodie. “Miss Brodie in a witch’s hat” is how Maggie describes McGonagall, and it’s this sly naughtiness about her that both defines many of her performances and which drew me to her as an actress.
She’s funny and sharp and equally adept at comedy and tragedy, often spinning between both on the same line. Ever since I first saw her, on stage at the Old Vic, as Silvia in The Recruiting Officer and Desdemona in Othello, both with Laurence Olivier leading the company, I have been a devoted admirer, her career on stage and film running through my life, as it does for so many, like a sparkling river.
When I first wrote her biography 25 years ago, she remarked that I was her “premature obituarist.” When she got wind of my re-written, updated edition two years ago, she suggested I’d turned necrophiliac.
She always pretended I wasn’t writing the book, though my task was green-lit in the first place by her second husband, the screenwriter Beverley Cross. She won’t read it, any more than she will ever read reviews or indeed watch herself on screen.
When we last had lunch she said it was “a bit weird” to share a meal with someone who “knows more about you than you do.” And when we once got lost looking for the restaurant in Heal’s during a rehearsal break, and found ourselves in the bedding department, she acidly cried, “Have you booked a table, or is it a room?!”
She remains a mystery, an enigma. The secret part of herself is the key to her instinctive brilliance as an actress – and this room remains locked, defying critical discussion or analysis. Like her late, great friend, Paul Scofield, she is as dazzled and mystified by what she does as are we all. So my book is an attempt to define, rather than solve, this mystery. And I’ve never had so much fun with my clothes on.
Michael Coveney has been a theatre critic successively on the Financial Times, Observer and Daily Mail, is the author of books about the Glasgow Citizens, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Mike Leigh, Ken Campbell and, coming soon, the amateur theatre. Maggie Smith: A Biography is published by Orion.