Geraldine McEwan, who has died aged 82, was an actress of immense versatility, as comfortable depicting the sly and steely as she was the sweet or silly. Whether she was playing a sadistic nun on film (The Magdalene Sisters), or a spry Miss Marple on television, she embraced each part with empathy and vigour.
etite - and often sporting elfin hairstyles - her appearance belied her ability to invoke momentous emotion (often bubbling just beneath a character's surface). "The actress of the year 1969 was Geraldine McEwan," wrote The Daily Telegraph's chief drama critic. "Putting aside, if possible, her beauty and her riveting theatricality, consider simply the versatility of this extraordinary actress's rendering of different women."
Over a career spanning six decades, her work in the theatre brought critical acclaim, along with two Evening Standard best actress awards - for The Rivals and The Way of the World (both at the National Theatre, 1983 and 1995 respectively). However, it was with two contrasting television roles, during the 1980s and 1990s, that she came to the attention of a wider public.
She demonstrated perfect comic timing as Emmeline "Lucia" Lucas, the foil to Prunella Scales's Miss Elizabeth Mapp in Mapp and Lucia (1985-86), based on EF Benson's whimsical novels set in Tilling (a thinly disguise Rye in East Sussex). A few years later, she explored the cold hand of maternal love as Jeanette Winterson's fictionalised mother in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1990).
In later life she was perhaps best known for her performances in the title role for Agatha Christie's Marple, a modern reboot of Christie's much-loved mysteries. The series was a success, but not to everyone's taste. The productions married an all-star cast - Richard E Grant, Dan Stevens, Ian Richardson, Timothy Dalton, Joan Collins and Herbert Lom - with an incongruously jaunty soundtrack and quirky camera angles. Even plots were changed: lesbian affairs were inserted into two storylines and Miss Marple was given a romantic back story.
"I think Marple is a sort of heightened reality," said Geraldine McEwan tactfully.
"The word 'adaptation' should be used rather loosely here, as almost every useful detail of the novel has been altered," commented one critic about McEwan's final episode, Nemesis - "a point which tends to rile Christie purists, but has actually been useful in giving these telemovies a fresh air and, on more than one occasion, an entirely different murderer."
Likewise, McEwan's Marple was a markedly different protagonist to that of previous screen incarnations. Eschewing the matronly delivery of Margaret Rutherford and the intellectual authority of Joan Hickson, McEwan's spinsterish sleuth practically fizzed with impish glee at the murky goings-on in St Mary Mead ("Balls," exclaims Marple at one point). "I find her quite inspiring," said Geraldine McEwan. "She has tremendous vitality and, of course, this incredible, diamond-sharp brain."
Geraldine McKeown was born on May 9, 1932 in Old Windsor into a family of Irish descent (her maternal grandfather was from Kilkenny, her paternal grandfather came from Belfast). Her father, Donald, was a printers' compositor; her mother Norah (nee Burns) encouraged young Geraldine's early love of theatre. "During the war, my mother used to take me to the local repertory theatre on a Monday night," she recalled, "and we used to get two seats for the price of one, for ninepence, in the gods."
She attended Windsor County Girls' School on a scholarship. She was prodigiously good at maths, yet discovered her future profession during elocution lessons. "The teacher gave me a speech by Lady Macbeth to learn, which might seem pretty inappropriate for the age of 10," she recalled. "It was like being given a crock of gold. I just instinctively understood it all and I thought it was just wonderful."
She made her stage debut at the age of 14 in A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Theatre Royal at Windsor (where she was an assistant stage manager).
After a period with the Windsor Repertory Company in the late 1940s she made her first West End appearance at the Vaudeville Theatre in 1951 (in the comedy Who Goes There!), before an 18-month run in For Better, For Worse at the Comedy Theatre. She saw the negative side of stardom playing opposite Dirk Bogarde in Summertime (Apollo, 1955), witnessing at first hand Bogarde's unhappy reaction to the screaming crowds of female fans.
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During the late 1950s and early 1960s she performed at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, playing Ophelia opposite Ian Bannen in Hamlet and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing (with Christopher Plummer), and joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1961.
In 1965 she appeared at the Wimbledon Theatre opposite Kenneth Williams and Ian McShane in the original staging of Joe Orton's Loot. It was a flop (although was successfully revived the following year).
More successful were her collaborations with mainstays of British theatre, such as Laurence Olivier (in Dance of Death at the Old Vic), and both John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson in a London production of The School for Scandal, which travelled to New York in 1963, providing her with her Broadway debut.
On television she appeared as the titular teacher in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1978), a part made famous on film by Maggie Smith. Its author, Muriel Spark, declared McEwan's performance to be the finer.
"I've spent all my life playing roles that illustrious people have played before me," said McEwan. She won the first of her Evening Standard awards playing Mrs Malaprop in the comedy of manners The Rivals in 1983 and, five years later, directed Kenneth Branagh in As You Like It, giving her stage directions from the front row of the Phoenix Theatre.
For the adaptation of Jeanette Winterson's Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, she delivered a performance of quiet menace as Winterson's fictionalised mother. "Her mother was still alive," recalled McEwan, "and when we had the first reading, I said to Jeanette, 'I feel very responsible playing this part', and she said to me, 'Take no notice of that whatsoever'."
As noted in The New York Times, she was "chillingly convincing" as the oppressive Pentecostal evangelist who relentlessly steers her daughter (played by Charlotte Coleman) away from the "breeding grounds" of sin. She won a best actress Bafta for her performance.
In the wake of her win she appeared in the BBC sitcom Mulberry and accepted supporting parts in blockbuster films such as Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991). She found richer fare on the stage, delighting audiences in 1995 as Lady Wishfort in a revival of William Congreve's Restoration comedy The Way of the World.
"Geraldine McEwan (in the performance of the night and her career) comes on looking like an ostrich which has mysteriously been crammed into a tambourine lined with fresh flowers," wrote Sheridan Morley in The Spectator.
Her roles continued to defy typecasting. Her gentle touch brought a dash of class to the romantic comedy film The Love Letter (1999), in which she played a lesbian of a certain age living quietly in the New England town of Loblolly-by-the-Sea.
In 2002, she took on a role as difficult as the mother in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. In Peter Mullan's The Magdalene Sisters she was icy as Sister Bridget, the malevolent nun who abuses young "fallen women" in the infamous Magdalene laundries overseen by Roman Catholic orders in Ireland during the 1960s.
The performance illustrated her talent for finding the heart in seemingly heartless characters. "I found her a sad woman," she said, "basically intelligent, incredibly cruel to these girls, but ultimately a sad woman."
She played Miss Marple from 2004 to 2007, when she handed over the knitting needles, summer hats and spectacles to Julia McKenzie (the series ended in 2013).
Geraldine McEwan delighted in her late success on screen. "People are always saying that as you get older as an actor, particularly women, it's hard to get work, but as far as I'm concerned the past few years have been terrific."
It was rumoured that she had turned down both an OBE (in 1986) and a damehood (in 2002), although she did not confirm the reports.
Geraldine McEwan married, in 1953, Hugh Cruttwell, whom she had met at the Theatre Royal in Windsor as a teenager. Cruttwell was the principal of Rada from 1965 to 1984. He died in 2002. Geraldine McEwan, who died on January 30, is survived by their son and daughter.