No one does glamour, severity, girlish charm or tight-lipped witticism better than Dame Maggie Smith, one of Britain's best-loved actors. This new biography shines the stage-lights on the life and work of a truly remarkable performer, one whose career spans six decades.
From her days as a star of West End 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 (by his own admission), answering back to Laurence Olivier, or impressing Ingmar Bergman, her career can be seen as a Who's Who of British theatre in the twentieth century. This book also covers her success in Hollywood, inaugurated by her first Oscar for her signature film, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, as well as her subsequent departure to Canada for a prolific four-season run of leading theatre roles.
Recently Dame Maggie has been as prominent on our screens as ever, with high-profile roles as Violet Crawley, the formidable Dowager Countess of Grantham, in the phenomenally successful television series Downton Abbey, and as Professor Minerva McGonagall in the Harry Potter film franchise: what she herself describes as 'Miss Jean Brodie in a wizard's hat'. Yet paradoxically she remains an enigmatic figure, rarely appearing in public and carefully guarding her considerable talent. Michael Coveney's absorbing biography, drawing on personal archives, interviews and encounters with the actress, as well as conversations with immediate family and dear friends, is therefore as close as it gets to seeing the real Maggie Smith.
Michael Coveney is one of the country's most respected writers on theatre. Formerly staff critic for the Financial Times, the Observer and the Daily Mail, he has since 2006 been the chief critic for the leading West End website WhatsOnStage.com. He has unprecedented access to Dame Maggie Smith's personal archives and curated the recent BFI season of her film and television work. His previous books include The Citz, The Aisle is Full of Noises, The Andrew Lloyd Webber Story, The World According to Mike Leigh, Knight Errant: Memoirs of a Vagabond Actor (with Robert Stephens) and Ken Campbell: The Great Caper.
Author: Michael Coveney
Question: What was it that drew you to Maggie Smith as the focus of your new book?
Michael Coveney: Her astonishing career. Initially, I was approached by publishers because there was no book about her. Secondly, there was a great story to tell about British theatre and movies, and the idea of genuine stardom rather than mere celebrity. Also, she's a very private and withdrawn person 'off" and I wanted to explain that, investigate it, in the context of her personality and artistry.
Question: Can you talk about the research for this book?
Michael Coveney: First of all I watched every movie (again!) she's ever made, plus the television work (every episode of Downton Abbey!) I've seen virtually all her stage work since 1963, so I revisited accounts and reviews. I interviewed her close family and important collaborators – John Gielgud (before he died), Michael Caine, Michael Palin, Judi Dench (her closest and oldest friend), playwrights Peter Shaffer and Alan Bennett
Question: What did you find most fascinating during your research?
Michael Coveney: I'm fascinated by her obsessiveness at work, her approach to a text or a play is like that of a forensic scientist. Also, she doesn't differentiate in her acting between stage and film…she does the performance and expects the director, in which ever medium, to make it work in the final edition.
Question: What was most difficult about including six decades into one biography?
Michael Coveney: The difficulty, and the enjoyment, was in trying to make a continuous narrative of her work choices, taking her from London to New York, to Hollywood, for those five years she spent in Canada playing classical roles….and of course the wonderful love story with her second husband, the screen writer Beverley Cross, who waited and waited for her through her first tempestuous marriage to the actor Robert Stephens (and through two marriages of his own)
Question: Do you have plans for another book? If so, can you tell us about them?
Michael Coveney: I do have plans, but I'm superstitious, and nothing's signed yet. I don't think it will be another biography. Having 'done" Maggie, Andrew Lloyd Webber and filmmaker Mike Leigh I think I've run out of geniuses…but it will be about theatre!
Interview by Brooke Hunter