Pic: Startraks Photos, Rex Shutterstock
News earlier this year that Downton Abbey will finally draw to a close at the end of the next season came as a sore blow to everyone, but Maggie Smith. Greatly as she has relished playing the tart-tongued terror Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham, she agrees that all good things must come to an end – and as far as the costumes are concerned, the end can’t come quickly enough.
“It’s not riotously funny to be in corsets and a wig from 7 o’clock in the morning until 7 o’clock at night,” she says firmly. “We have had a great time making the show – the cast are enchanting and all the young are really lovely so it was all very enjoyable on that level. But to tell you the truth, the corsets are agony! God knows how they lived in the days when they had to wear them all the time.”
It is a good old rainy British afternoon at Highclere Castle and Dame Maggie, in full Lady Violet mode, is sipping elegantly at a cup of tea. “I think the success of Downton,” she says, “has had a lot to do with the fact that it shows the world a sort of magical idea of what England used to be like, with wonderful houses and the sun shining all the time. And, well, I don’t know for certain, but I’m pretty sure it was really always like today, chucking it down with rain and generally cold and everyone trying to do things without getting drenched!”
‘All good things must come to an end and as far as the costumes are concerned the end can’t come quickly enough!’
She adds, hastily, that there has been more to the show – created and written by Julian Fellowes, and winner of more TV awards than his Mr Bates could shake his stick at – than just nice scenery. “Of course, Julian’s writing is brilliant – that’s the most important part. Plus, a whole group of us in the cast really enjoy being together. We have been doing this for a long time now, and a lot of the younger actors have grown up together, so that is a great joy. We won a Screen Actors Guild Award, and I don’t think it’s by accident that the award didn’t go to one of us but to the whole company. We’re really an ensemble, and that’s a wonderful thing to be part of.”
Dame Maggie has been acting for, quite literally, all of her professional life. The daughter of health pathologist Nathaniel Smith and his Glasgow-born wife Margaret, she was brought up in Oxford and left school at 16 to join the Oxford Playhouse. She says, proudly, that she has never had a job outside acting and the theatre. “I don’t think I could do anything else even if I tried! I was a theatre dogsbody at the Oxford Playhouse for five years, and I never even had time to get a conventional job like waitressing because there was always something else for me to do in the theatre. Because it was a repertory system they did a lot of plays, and so I did a lot of understudying, although nobody ever fell over, or became dramatically ill or anything, so I never got on.
“I did become very good friends with Ronnie Barker, who also came from Oxford and had been at school with my brothers. In fact, about the first thing I did do at the Playhouse was a play called The Letter by Somerset Maugham, in which he and I played two Chinese boys in an opium den. We never acted very much together when we were adults because he was mostly in television. But he was a terrific actor, was Ronnie, just terrific.”
Best known as a stage actress for most of her career, she became famous to a wider audience in the Harry Potter films playing Professor Minerva McGonagall – “Children still come up to me and ask me if I can turn them into a cat, although, unfortunately, it’s a very tricky thing to do” – and in 2001 took a role in Gosford Park, playing the acidic Constance, Countess of Trentham. A few years later the film’s writer, Julian Fellowes, sat down to write a TV show about the British aristocracy at the turn of the last century – and Constance’s close relation, Violet Grantham, was born.
“She’s a hard-bitten old whatnot,” says Dame Maggie. “And unfortunately, I must confess that she fits me like a glove! However, I think deep down, where it counts, she’s actually very nice. I like to play the eccentric characters – it’s much nicer to play somebody absolutely nuts than somebody straightforward!”
That fascination with eccentrics continues later this year in the film The Lady In The Van, the true story of playwright Alan Bennett and his unlikely friendship with a homeless woman who parked her van in the driveway of his house and stayed for 15 years. Not what you’d call a glamorous role – but then, “I’ve always enjoyed playing the battier people,” she shrugs cheerfully.
She has been married twice: first to actor Robert Stephens from 1967 to 1974, and then to playwright Beverley Cross from 1975 until his death in 1998. Her two sons by Robert, Chris Larkin and Toby Stephens, are both actors too. “I tried to discourage them from it,” she says, “because it really is quite a hard life, but of course they took no notice. The only thing is, they knew from a very young age that this wasn’t the easiest of professions because they heard me moaning about it all the time. So these days, if either of them starts to complain to me about their work, I say, ‘You can’t even talk to me about that because I used to spend my life moaning... you knew exactly what you were in for!’” Words worthy of Lady Violet herself.
- The last series of Downton Abbey starts this autumn
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