Sunday 23 October 2016

Biography: Maggie Smith, A Biography by Michael Coveney

Orion Books, €10.99

Published 03/10/2016 | 02:30

Best known in recent years as the dowager, Countess of Grantham in Downton Abbey and Professor Minerva McGonagall in the Harry Potter film franchise, Margaret Natalie Smith, born in Ilford, 1934, is renowned for the “stifled aside, the muttered barb, the malicious crack”. A theatre, film and renowned Shakespearean actress, with two Oscars and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie to her name, you will rarely have seen Maggie Smith on a chat show.

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In his biography, Michael Coveney excavates this enigmatic character in a thoroughly researched ‘life story’. The detail is drawn from press archives, theatrical history, and interviews with her husband, two sons, acting colleagues and her agent. It is typical of the grand dame that she maintains her privacy at all costs.

Smith’s parents were not the type to encourage acting as a career, one was a devout Anglican and the other a Scottish Presbyterian. Coveney points to her family austerity as the foundation of Smith’s characteristic style, her keen sense of irreverence and a sharp instinct for privacy. The assurance she maintains is summed up in her words; “one goes to school, one wants to act, one acts, one is still acting”.

The book is replete with photographs, depicting a beauty who was obsessively thin, with a style evolved in a fascinating tableau of costume history. On the back cover is a classic shot taken by Terence Donovan, with Smith perched on a chair, a glint in her heavy-lidded, seductive eyes, she appears to conceal a secret between her and the photographer.

The absence of Smith’s guidance provides a rather more honest appeal than if the lady was gilding the detail. Ultimately, her gravitas has far more allure than the current celebrity hunger for attention.

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