Saturday 10 December 2016

Review: Maggie Smith A Biography - The prime of Miss Maggie

Biography: Maggie Smith A Biography, Michael Coveney, W&N, hbk, 386 pages, €29.50

Mary McEvoy

Published 11/10/2015 | 02:30

Leading lady: Maggie Smith as the formidable Dowager Countess in the drama Downton Abbey
Leading lady: Maggie Smith as the formidable Dowager Countess in the drama Downton Abbey
Maggie Smith

Mary McEvoy on the life of a fellow actress she greatly admires.

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I wonder if Maggie Smith had said no to Downton Abbey would it have reached such stratospheric heights. My guess is no.

There are few 80-year-old actors with genuine clout in show business and Maggie Smith is one of them.

Michael Coveney's biography of the redoubtable Ms Smith is a satisfying read despite the absence of any direct contribution from Maggie herself. She's been a leading actress on stage and in film for almost 40 years, but is notoriously private. The number of interviews she has given could be counted on one hand; she doesn't attend industry 'dos', or lend her name to campaigns.

It falls to Michael Coveney to build a picture of his subject from the outside and the result is a silhouette rather than a sculpture. One gets a sense of the actress but not the flesh and blood, but this is not the fault of the biographer. Maggie Smith has very cleverly avoided the trap most of us thesps have fallen into, that of having to decide what part of oneself to commoditize for publicity in order to put bums on seats. Smith has let her talent do the talking, and it doesn't just talk, it fairly bellows.

Maggie was born into a lower middle class family in Ilford, East London. Her family moved to Oxford when she was four. One gets the sense that she was a square peg, not really fitting into her environment. It was as a young girl she developed her talent for wry comment, and her need for privacy.

When she mentioned she was interested in acting, her mother tried to put her off by saying she had no chance "with a face like that". Nice. But the young Maggie was determined and persevered.

Coveney cuts his intriguing silhouette by tracking her rise from regional repertory theatre to becoming a member of the National Theatre Company formed by Laurence Olivier. The graph of Smith's career is one that goes steadily upwards. Her originality and the wit of her acting carried her through. She was seen mostly as a talented comedy actress but gradually the variety of roles came. She seems to have moved from classical theatre to film to television with ease, but one thing that comes across in this biography is her appetite and capacity for hard work.

Michael Coveney uses the opinions and anecdotes of fellow actors and directors to build a picture of his subject. The woman who glimmers through is steely and nobody's fool. She was not cowed by the gods and goddesses she encountered as she rose through the ranks. She put people in their place, when it was needed.

Olivier and Dame Edith Evans were among the luminaries whose wrists were firmly slapped. Indeed Olivier and Maggie had some right royal spats.

The book is pleasantly gossipy and a very valuable addition to the history of British theatre. Smith's career is also the story of the changing face of the industry on stage and on screen from the early 1950s to the present day.

Working with towering figures like Richard Burton and impressing Ingmar Bergman, her long career is all here, from her first Oscar for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie to more recent appearances in the Harry Potter films. One word of warning, if you are a fan of Downton only and just want to read about Lady Violet, you will be disappointed.

This book is very "niche". Coveney's love of theatre and his respect for his subject is so great that the book is in danger of being seen as a luvvies' bible. I loved it but then I love her and I love books about actors.

Still, I would encourage even non-luvvies to read it.

The birds written about here are rare indeed and sadly soon will be extinct so read it to get a sense of its elusive subject and a disappearing world.

A strange but wonderful habitat dying under the weight of commercialism.

Mary McEvoy is best known for her portrayal of Biddy in RTE's Glenroe over 17 years

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