Maggie Smith: A Biography: A Biography

Maggie Smith: A Biography: A Biography

by Michael Coveney


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No one does glamour, severity, girlish charm or tight-lipped witticism better than Dame Maggie Smith. Michael Coveney's biography shines a light on the life and career of a truly remarkable performer, one whose stage and screen career spans six decades.

From her days as a West End star of comedy and revue, Dame Maggie's path would cross with those of the greatest actors, playwrights and directors of the era. Whether stealing scenes from Richard Burton, answering back to Laurence Olivier, or playing opposite Judi Dench in Breath of Life, her career can be seen as a 'Who's Who' of British theatre. Her film and television career has been just as starry. From the title character in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and the meddling chaperone in A Room With a View to the Harry Potter films in which she played Minerva McGonagall (as she put it 'Miss Jean Brodie in a wizard's hat') and the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel films in which she played the wise Muriel Donnelly, Smith has thrilled, engaged and made audiences laugh. As Violet Crawley, the formidable Dowager Countess of Downton Abbey she conquered millions more. Paradoxically she remains an enigmatic figure, rarely appearing in public.

Michael Coveney's absorbing biography, written with the actress's blessing and drawing on personal archives, as well as interviews with immediate family and close friends, is a portrait of one of the greatest actors of our time.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250117182
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 03/14/2017
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 526,764
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

MICHAEL COVENEY is one of Britain's most respected theater critics and has written about theatre for over three decades, as editor of Plays and Players, and as staff critic on the Financial Times, Observer and Daily Mail. His books include a history of the Glasgow Citizens Theatre and biographies of Maggie Smith, Mike Leigh and Andrew Lloyd Webber. He regularly contributes to the Independent, Guardian, Observer, New Statesman, Prospect and BBC Radio's Front Row. He lives in England.

Read an Excerpt

Maggie Smith

A Biography

By Michael Coveney

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2015 Michael Coveney
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-9339-9


The Flight from Ilford

Maggie Smith was born in Clayhall, a residential district in Ilford, Essex, on 28 December 1934. She moved with her family to Oxford in 1939, attended the Oxford High School for Girls from 1947 to 1951, spent two years as a student with the Oxford Playhouse Drama School, took part in countless University productions and made her London début in October 1954 at the New Watergate Theatre Club. In 1956 she went to New York and appeared on Broadway in Leonard Sillman's New Faces revue of 1956 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre where, over thirty years later, she appeared in Lettice and Lovage. 'One went to school, one wanted to act, one started to act and one's still acting.' That is how Dame Maggie Smith sums up her life. There's a little more to it than that.

Ilford, a bustling, featureless urban sprawl which is part of the great East London overspill, is not a place bursting with show business connotations. Will Kempe, Shakespeare's clown, is said to have danced through Ilford in 1599 en route from London to Norwich in East Anglia. He stopped only long enough to refresh himself from 'the Great Spoon'. Not a lot happened after that, give or take the odd murder behind a privet hedge, until Ilford was granted borough status in 1926. The great housing development programmes gathered steam. The process had started before the First World War, with the new professional classes occupying the creeping network of solid Edwardian villas which began slowly to displace the Essex fields and meadows beyond Whitechapel and Shoreditch. The population intensified with the coming of the railway and the access it gave to the City of London.

Ilford and environs were solidly lower-middle-class. The idea of aspiration was reflected in the naming of some roads as 'Gardens', to lend an air of gentrification. As a schoolboy there myself in the 1950s, I have a dim memory of an incongruous nightclub called the Room at the Top, on the top floor of the department store, Harrison Gibson. David Frost, Tommy Cooper, Barry Humphries and many other big, but mostly smaller, names appeared there quite regularly during the 1960s.

You could hardly imagine a less likely cradle for a stylish actress. But Ilford did not produce only Maggie Smith. Ian Holm, the incisive film and Shakespearean actor, and the late Ken Campbell, a remarkable stage raconteur and dabbler in alternative culture, are two of the best-known sons of Ilford. Dudley Moore, the composer and film star who made his name in the revue Beyond the Fringe, was born in Dagenham. And, skipping backwards, an actress whose transatlantic theatre fame equalled, and in some ways anticipated, Maggie Smith's, Lynn Fontanne, later Mrs Alfred Lunt, was born in 1887 in Woodford Bridge, an altogether leafier and more exclusive district than Clayhall, but hardly a bus stop or two away.

Margaret Natalie Smith, the third child of Nathaniel, or Nat, Smith, and his wife, Meg, was born in 68 Northwood Gardens. Margaret – she became 'Maggie' only in 1956 before going to America – was a pretty and mischievous little girl who was not particularly welcomed by her two elder brothers. Alistair and Ian, identical twins, had been born six years earlier on 8 December 1928, and were quite content with each other's company. The curious product of this Nat/Meg tree was a bundle of genealogical roots of ordinary working-class provenance but unusual vivacity. By the age of ten, Alistair and Ian had decided to become architects. Margaret cannot remember not wanting to be an actress. All three children did as they chose. But there was very little in their background to encourage them.

That background is essential to any attempt to understand Maggie Smith's personality. Her father, a medical laboratory technician, was a Geordie, from Newcastle. Her mother was a cold and dour Glaswegian. Both parents, like many working-class people, harboured ambitions for their children. They were strict, they were thrifty, they were sticklers for good manners and proper conduct, and they were church-goers. Nat was a devout Anglican, mainstream Church of England, Meg a Scottish Presbyterian.

In Ilford, and later in Oxford, Maggie lived in comfortable, but cramped, surroundings. She is renowned today for the stifled aside, the muttered barb, the malicious crack. You can see why. From an early age she developed two characteristics that are stamped through her professional life like the lettering in a stick of seaside rock: a keen sense of irreverence and a sharp instinct for privacy. She was a lonely child, at odds with her parents, with her school, with her brothers and even with herself. But her instinct was not to rebel; it was to mock tartly from the sidelines and to retain, by stealth, her own spirit and independence. A quiet life in a semi-detached house in Cowley, the Oxford suburb to which the family moved in 1939, was not for her. Cowley, like Ilford, was sleepy, respectable and slightly dull. The front box-bedroom she was obliged to inhabit through her teenage years and early adulthood measured scarcely twenty square feet.

Maggie's parents, too, had made telling adjustments to family expectations. Her father, born in 1902, was the seventh of nine children. Of just about average height and slim build, he was a delicate, chirpy fellow, rather birdlike, with surprisingly elegant wrists and fingers. Maggie's wrist work and elegantly tapering digits are two of her hallmarks. Nat had bright orange hair as a youngster and was nicknamed 'Carrot-head'. His father, a keen gambler and a hardened drinker, was a minor Post Office official who travelled for years on business between Newcastle and Birmingham. Ian, Maggie's surviving brother, still going strong and living with his wife in retirement in France (Alistair died suddenly of a heart attack in 1981), remembers the occasional family holiday in Scotland; but neither Nat nor his young family ever went back to Newcastle. Nat had been glad to get away.

Nat's family was religious, in spite of his father's faults, and young Nat was a dedicated church-goer and choirboy. Though their domestic circumstances were penurious, Jesmond, the Newcastle suburb where they lived, had a touch of class. Nat particularly liked the ecclesiastical garb of surplices and cassocks which was provided by a rich ship-owner in the parish church; underneath, he wore his ordinary clothes, unlike the other boys, who all wore Eton suits. In later life, Nat could preach and he could lecture and he always enjoyed the ceremonies of the church. A performing instinct of some kind was in his genes. He had, in fact, been named after an actor, his uncle Nathaniel Gregory, who had joined the army as an entertainer during the Boer War at the turn of the century. This dramatic relation figured only once in Nat's memory. As a boy of twelve or thirteen, he remembers a middle-aged Uncle Nat paying a call, appearing over the brow of a Jesmond slope in a tight black coat with an astrakhan collar, wielding a malacca cane with a silver knob. There was no question, said Nat, of him not being an actor. 'He was pedantic of speech and quoted Shakespeare all the time, which staggered the household.' Shortly afterwards, Uncle Nat, who was appearing at the Newcastle Hippodrome, cycled to Whitley Bay to visit Doris Rogers, the girl he was planning to marry. He suffered a heart attack, fell off his bike and died on the spot.

A year or so later, in 1918, young Nat left school and began menial work in the local medical college. He took a diploma as a laboratory technician and learned so much about morbid pathology that he was lecturing in the subject three years later, at the age of nineteen. One of the Newcastle laboratory demonstrators was appointed to a children's hospital in the East End of London. He wanted a technician and offered Nat the job; thus Nat moved south and started work in the Princess Elizabeth Hospital next to the Meredith and Drew biscuit factory in Shadwell.

Meg, whom Nat had met in Newcastle, where she had lived for a while in digs, had already moved to London. Six years older than Nat, she was living in Russell Square and working as head cashier for the London office of Maxwell Hart in Victoria Street. The company designed and built municipal parks, tennis courts, bowling greens and golf courses. Meg had originally worked for them in Glasgow. She married Nat at the Presbyterian Church in Regent Square, Grays Inn Road, on 2 January 1928. She continued working, but not for long: Ian and Alistair were born at the end of the year. Meg – christened Margaret Little Hutton – was of mixed Celtic extraction. Her grandmother was born in Newry, Northern Ireland. Her father was an illiterate Glaswegian shipyard worker who could do no more than make his mark on Meg's birth certificate. Meg left school in 1911 or 1912 to work in a laundry where, says Ian, 'the hard and degrading work instilled in her a lifelong horror of such soul-destroying employment'. She must have acquired secretarial skills at night school, because she subsequently worked in the offices of the Gleniffer Motor Company in Glasgow (and in Fraserburgh on the east coast of Scotland) which made marine engines. She then joined Maxwell Hart in 1918 or 1919. She was obviously highly valued by the company, and was appointed to the London office at some time in the early 1920s. Meg had a natural flair for figures. Nat said she could add up three columns of pounds, shillings and pence simultaneously. She counted money carefully all her life. But Ian also recalls her flair for drawing, which both he and Alistair inherited. She was practical and resourceful, and made all of Margaret's clothes when she was growing up.

Once married, Nat and Meg found a house in Barkingside, Ilford. Over the ten years they spent in Ilford, they owned three houses, never selling one when they bought the next, but renting it out. Meg supervised the rent collection and all the family's finances. The boys were born in the second house, in Martley Drive, very near Northwood Gardens. Young Margaret never got on particularly well with her mother; Ian recalls that Meg was not a woman capable of showing her children much affection, although she was fiercely protective of them. Her daughter would later draw almost callously upon this icy temperament and brusque organisational manner in her Oscar-winning performance in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Ironically, it was only at that advanced point in Maggie's career that her mother stopped trying to convince her that she should do something sensible, such as a secretarial course, as an insurance against the vagaries of the theatre. She wanted the best for her children, and she believed in hard work. It was indicative of Meg's dominance on important household matters that, after she and Nat were married, they joined the Presbyterian, not the Anglican, congregation in Ilford. Ian remembers his father giving sermons as a lay Presbyterian preacher.

The house in Northwood Gardens was one of eighteen houses constructed in 1934 by the one builder. The neighbourhood was developed in batches as the farmland was sold off and the council gave approval. Ian remembers the 'terrible housing estates' going up around them. He found Ilford dreary beyond measure. One consolation was Clayhall Park, at the top of Northwood Gardens, a little oasis of flower beds and greenery where perambulators could be pushed and fresh air taken. And, a little further towards the centre of Ilford, on the other side of the London arterial road, there was Valentines Park, a sanctuary in olden times, which still exudes something of a holiday atmosphere with its pleasant walks, decrepit wishing-well, artificial lakes, cricket club, cedars and rhododendron dells. There is no bard of Ilford, but the poet Kathleen Raine, who was born there in 1908, evocatively described the provisional exile she experienced before being saved by her vocation and geographical removal to Northumberland. Maggie and her family carried the suburban blight of Ilford with them to Cowley, and although she could never articulate her resentment, it is clear that Maggie channelled her spiritual rebellion into an ambition to enter the theatre.

Ian and Alistair attended the Gearies primary school in Barkingside. In March 1939, they took the written examination, later called the eleven-plus, and won scholarships to Ilford County High School, for many years one of the best grammar schools in Essex. Significantly, Nat told me that his sons had also won places (not taken up) at Bancroft's School, a minor public school in Woodford Green. I suspect that Meg put her foot down on the cost involved. This reveals the extent to which reality and hard choices outstripped Nat's aspiration; his professional life, worthy though it was, smacked a little of disappointment. He was a lab technician whose only bar to professional distinction was his lack of qualifications, rather like the tramp in the Dudley Moore and Peter Cook sketch who shakes his head and says he could have been a High Court judge, 'but I didn't have the Latin'. And yet Nat's career was more than honourable. He took immense pride in his forensic medicine, and his complete absorption in it, as well as his dedication and ceaseless scavenging for detail, is surely reflected in his daughter's obsessive approach to her work.

The work in Shadwell was incessant. Nat remembered how he would arrive home on a Friday night, exhausted, 'and the phone would ring at four in the morning. There was a case of meningitis, say, needing a lumbar puncture, and I would have to get dressed and back to the hospital. I nearly went bonkers. On one occasion, when I'd had no sleep for two or three days, I broke down. And yet I loved every second of it.' In 1938, Nat volunteered, in the event of war, for 'work of national importance'. When Neville Chamberlain returned to England with his little piece of white paper and the Munich Agreement, Ian recalls that the family spent the period of the crisis at a vicarage in Norfolk. Nat and a neighbour in Northwood Gardens had concluded that, if hostilities broke out, there would be an immediate holocaust in London. So the children were dispatched to Hawkeden, near Bury St Edmunds, where young Margaret gave her ever-watchful mother cause for yet more distress by wandering blithely through a field full of beehives.

The minute war was declared on Germany in September 1939, Nat was posted to Oxford and the Dunn School of Pathology in South Parks Road. Thanks to neighbours in Ilford, he found digs in nearby Museum Road. At the end of the month, Meg and the children received the call from Nat to join him. They all stayed for a short while in Museum Road until a new family home was found. This was about two miles south-east of the centre of Oxford, along the Iffley Road in Cowley. As Europe went to war, the Smith family began a new life in 55 Church Hill Road. The house was very much like the one in Northwood Gardens, but with the advantage of being semi-detached. Nat's work became even more complex and interesting. The twins secured places at the City of Oxford High School. And little Margaret, nearly five, was enrolled at the nearby church school, St James's. She later moved to Greycotes, a fee-paying kindergarten and preparatory school on the Banbury Road. Thanks to Adolf Hitler, the escape from Ilford was complete. Nat's collection of second-hand books, which he kept at Shadwell, was lost in a bombing attack. Meg sold all three Ilford houses, and the income, though not exorbitant, would help pay for the fees at Greycotes preparatory school and a new set of boys' school uniforms. Only the best, as far as Nat and Meg could afford it, would do.


Schooling in Oxford Accents

The making of an actor is an odd, mostly incalculable, business. But Oxford definitely made Margaret Smith an actress. Her thespian development was part circumstantial, part temperamental. Although she has remained ambiguous on the subject of Oxford all her subsequent life, young Margaret found more room to manoeuvre and thrive than she would ever have done in Ilford. The family became, in a quiet way, an integral part of the medical and intellectual life of the city. Cowley may have been on the suburban fringe, but Nat, as a technician at the Dunn School, was involved in a body of work on penicillin therapy that was, in the words of the Encyclopaedia of Oxford, 'among the most valuable undertaken in the whole history of medicine'. The work was led by Howard Walter Florey, later Lord Florey of Adelaide, who in 1945 shared the Nobel Prize for medicine with Sir Ernst Boris Chain and Sir Alexander Fleming, who had discovered penicillin in 1928.


Excerpted from Maggie Smith by Michael Coveney. Copyright © 2015 Michael Coveney. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Preview: In the Company of a Secret Star,
1 The Flight from Ilford,
2 Schooling in Oxford Accents,
3 Clown of Town and Gown,
4 New Revue and Old Vic,
5 West End Calling, Screen Testing,
6 Surprises with Olivier at the National,
7 Romance with the New Lunts,
8 The Prime of Miss Maggie Smith,
9 Prickly Pain in Private Lives,
10 Canada Home and Dry,
11 Salvation in Stratford, Stoppard and Virginia Woolf,
12 Best of British Pork and Palin,
13 Millamant, Poliakoff and Poppy Cocteau,
14 A Toast to the Bard with Levin and Lettice,
15 Alone without God,
16 Tales of Ageing, Innocence and Experience,
17 Secrets and Lies in Yorkshire and Italy,
18 Onstage with Albee, Bennett and Hare,
19 TV Specials for the Lady from Dubuque,
20 Goodbye Hollywood, Hello British Comedy,
21 Harry Potter and Downton Abbey,
22 Late Flowering of Marigolds around the Van,
Overview: In Old Glory and New Celebrity,
Also by Michael Coveney,
About the Author,

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