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26.5.1992



At dinner in a Hamburg hotel, Dame Maggie Smith was pushing a piece of fish around her plate and sipping mineral water. She was tense. "You get involved in these things and wonder why on earth you did it."

The reason for her latest state of unease was her appointment the next morning in the Hamburg City Hall to receive the Shakespeare Prize, one of Europe's most prestigious arts awards, given each year to a British citizen and worth 10,000GBP. There is also a prize of 5,000GBP awarded to a student nominated by the winner; Dame Maggie Smith had chosen a final year theatre design student at the Slade, Laura Peckham, destined (who knows?) to follow in the footsteps of such distinguished former nominees as the designer, David Fielding, and the director, Sam Mendes.

The ceremony went off well enough and Dame Maggie punctuated her address with speeches from her favourite heroines - Shakespeare's Rosalind and Beatrice, and Congreve's Millamant, whose great 'proviso' speech to Mirabell ('These articles subscribed, if I continue, to endure you a little longer, I may by degrees dwindle into a life') both astonished the audience and summarised perfectly her current mood of caginess.

While enjoying one of the greatest West End and Broadway triumphs of her career in Peter Shaffer's Lettice and Lovage, Dame Maggie's last few years have been fraught with mishaps. She broke her shoulder in a cycling accident, on the Virgin Islands and, while recuperating, discovered that she suffered from Grave's disease (as does Barbara Bush), a hyperthyroid condition requiring surgery around he eyes.

Given to not looking on the bright side of life anyway, she showed great determination and bravery in overcoming these setbacks. A condition of severe exhaustion has been compounded in Hollywood with Steven Spielberg on the re-make of Peter Pan, co-starring Robin Williams as Captain Hook, Dustin Hoffman as Peter and Julia Roberts as Tinkerbell.

Dame Maggie plays Wendy, aged 92, and has endured the drudgery of an ageing face mask which takes hours to apply and remove each day. Always loath to discuss anything to do with work - although she does let slip that the sets and locations are 'truly amazing' - she is more interested in the couple at the adjoining restaurant table who are eating their way through one course after another as if their lives depended on it. Dame Maggie shudders and wonders, sotto voce, if there is something wrong with them; perhaps they too have won a prize of some sort.

The Shakespeare Prize was instigated by a wealthy Hamburg corn merchant, Alfred Toepfer, in 1937, as a practical expression of his Anglophilia in a darkening political climate. The first recipient was Ralph Vaughan Williams; the second, John Masefield.

The war intervened and the prize was only re-inaugurated in 1967, to coincide with the Queen's first official post-war visit to Germany, when the recipient was Sir Peter Hall. The roll call of winners now includes Philip Larkin, Graham Greene, Dame Janet Baker, Harold Pinter, Dame Gwyneth Jones, Tom Stoppard, Peter Shaffer and David Hockney, Dame Maggie is the first actress to be honoured, following the actors Paul Scofield and Sir Alec Guinness.

The international selection committee prefers to nominate a candidate at the peak of his or her powers, and the choice is never questions by Dr Toepfer, now aged 97 and still going relatively strong.

At the ceremony the mayor made a welcoming speech and a university professor delivered an ebullient and unstuffy laudatio. Dame Maggie, dressed simply in black and a single strand of pearls, ginger hair bobbed and lustrous as ever, recalled her debut as Viola with the Oxford University Dramatic Society in 1952. Her fellow actors (who included John Wood, Patrick Dromgoole and Michael Elliott) all suggested, by way of advice, that she should abandon the idea of being a professional actress.

That idea was embedded from a very early age. Her father (a spry Geordie who died last month, aged 88) was a laboratory technician working in the East End of London when Margaret Natalie Smith was born in their nearby Ilford home in 1934. The family moved to Oxford at the outbreak of war.

Dame Maggie attended the Oxford High School for Girls and left (with four modest O-levels) to join the new drama school attached to the Playhouse. 'One went to school, one wanted to act, one started to act, and one's still acting' is how she sums up her life. She appeared in university revues at the Edinburgh Festival and was spotted when one transferred to London.

During 40 years she has played every type of role, from cheeky chars and office secretaries, opposite her great friend Kenneth Williams, to Olivier's Desdemona at the National Theatre, Hedda Gabler, Beatrice, Mrs Sullen in The Beaux Strategem, and Virginia Woolf.

One of her earliest television appearances was as hostess on Hughie Green's Double Your Money; one of her latest was as the vicar's wife in Bed Among The Lentils, the richest of Alan Bennett's 'Talking Heads' monologues ('Geoffrey's bad enough, but I'm glad I wasn't married to Jesus').

Laughter and tears come together in this actress who, it has been suggested, raises anxiety to an art form. The debate about her mannerisms has never been resolved. But the paradox about Maggie Smith is that the artificiality of her unique brand of camp (if that's what it is) is unerringly linked to emotional truth. Pathos informs everything she does, and the formidable armoury of her technique - she can set a house ablaze with merriment by the merest vocal inflection, the slightest twitch of her perfect nose - is unmatched among her contemporaries, and unknown in younger generations.

Many directors, notably the late John Dexter, have uncovered strength and serenity in her acting. But a sort of dangerous fragility and an utter transparency and tenderness are the qualities I first associate with her; the critic Ronald Bryden says she reminds him always of breaking glass.

Her Rosalind, Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra and Judith Bliss (in Hay Fever) have never been seen in London; all were given in the late 1970s under the direction of Robin Phillips at Stratford, Ontario.

There were many reasons why Dame Maggie left England at that time - the critics, she felt, had turned against her, and her marriage to Robert Stephens had broken up (in 1975 she married the writer Beverley Cross, who had seen her in that early Twelfth Night in Oxford and remained a devoted friend); but, most simply, she had been asked to go to Canada and to play those great roles.

She clarified her reasons for leaving the National Theatre. Laurence Olivier had asked her to think about Viola or Rosalind; while she was thinking, he announced an all-male production of As You Like It. "Though we remained friends till his death, I never let him forget that! Actresses have just as long memories as elephants..."

In Germany, Dame Maggie is known best as a screen actress. It was Richard Burton who said of a scene they played together in The V.I.P.s that 'Maggie didn't just steal it; she committed grand larceny'. She won Oscars for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and California Suite; but maybe her finest screen performances is in her most recent film, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, in which, Pauline Kael averred, she became 'the essence of spinster'.

That film hardly received a proper release, and yet no one who sees it ever forgets the harrowing journey to despair in a performance completely stripped of gestural baggage and comic inflections. For an actress renowned for the wittiness of her elbows and the elegance of her 'asparagus wrists' (the phrase was Penelope Gilliatt's), this was no mean feat; a reminder that all great tragic acting has its wellspring in comedy.

Dame Maggie still has some business to complete with Spielberg in Los Angeles. She then hopes to make a film of Hay Fever under the unexpected direction of Lindsay Anderson. And, in October, she will film Muriel Spark's Memento Mori with Alec Guiness for BBC Television.

It was all proving much too much to contemplate in the Hamburg restaurant. So the actress excused herself from the table, leaving strict instructions to myself and her husband to report later on how many more courses the neighouring couple had ploughed through. They were still ploughing when we left.

In the City Hall, Dame Maggie's speech assumed a valedictory tone, especially in conjuring her Rosalind, which she played aged 43, even older than was Edith Evans, the most renowned of all 'over-age' Rosalinds. But, as when Gielgud speaks a speech of Hamlet, trippingly on the tongue, years are shed like a glistening skin.

When Bernard Levin saw Maggie Smith's Rosalind, he said that she spoke the epilogue like a chime of golden bells, and that he could not describe how the actress appeared in it because he was looking at the stage through a veil of tears. And that is the other thing about Maggie Smith. She can stop your heart when you least expect it:

"If I were a woman, I would kiss as many of you as had beards that pleased me, complexions that liked me, and breaths that I defied not. And I am sure, as many as have good beards, or good faces, or sweet breaths, will for my kind offer, when I make curtsy, bid me farewell."



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( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
squibstress
Mar. 20th, 2012 07:17 pm (UTC)
Thanks for posting that.

She then hopes to make a film of Hay Fever under the unexpected direction of Lindsay Anderson.

It just kills me that this never got made.
therealsnape
Mar. 20th, 2012 07:45 pm (UTC)
Another great one. Is the interviewer here Michael Coveney? I do seem to recall quite a bit of this from the biography.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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