The making of Maggie Smith

PUBLISHED: 08:49 10 November 2015 | UPDATED: 08:49 10 November 2015

Maggie Smith

Maggie Smith


Dame Maggie Smith’s triumphant career spans six decades and multiple genres, and with two Academy Awards under her belt, the Ilford-born actress has worked hard for her successful career. Camilla Davies speaks to the national treasure about her own story

With the sixth and final series of Downton Abbey underway, Dame Maggie Smith is about to say goodbye to another successful period in her wonderfully varied acting career. From her first BAFTA nomination for Best Newcomer in 1959 for her role as Bridget Howard in Nowhere to Go, to being elected to the Theatre Hall of Fame in 1994, Maggie’s career has continued to elevate into the Noughties and beyond.

Maggie started her dramatic training at the Oxford Playhouse School and began her career in earnest via the work of Shakespeare, all the while developing her trademark comic timing. She joined the Old Vic in 1959, before starring in the West End and winning multiple accolades for her film work. Her talents are exhaustive — as her six Oscar nominations prove — and she’s not afraid of long commitments; she took on an integral role in the Harry Potter franchise even while battling breast cancer and more recently acted throughout the full six seasons of Downton.

Perhaps this is why, as she enters her ninth decade, her career shows no signs of wavering. Now 80 years old, she’s always shrugged off questions about her age and since 1991, when asked, has referred to herself instead as ‘92’. With her tongue firmly in her cheek, she also jests that her Downton character Violet, the indomitable matriarch of Downton Abbey, is just as ageless. As the seasons pass, she suggest the Crawley family are ageing well beyond the cast. ‘To my knowledge, I must be 110 by now!’ she laughs.

For Dame Maggie, age has never been a hindrance to her career – she simply carries on, regardless. ‘I’m just surprised I made it this long because just before – six years ago – I had done about ten years with Harry Potter so I felt very, very old indeed by the time I got to do Downton,’ says the distinguished octogenarian. ‘I’m obviously just surprised that I got through it and that I’m still here...’

It would be a huge surprise if this British acting talent ever slowed down; her recent schedule is testament to that fact. From shooting The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel in India, to last year’s Paris-based My Old Lady and her latest work, The Lady in the Van, due out this month, Maggie clearly enjoys keeping busy. ‘It’s very good,’ she says with a grin. ‘I moan, but I think it would be very alarming to be completely on your own and have nothing to do, except lie down.’

The actress quips about how she’s looking forward to a break, settled down with the Downton Abbey box set at some point, admitting: ‘I certainly haven’t watched anything that I’ve done. I have seen some of it, but I want to sit down and look at it all.’ Yet it’s still hard to imagine this OAP cosied up in front of the telly. An original Essex girl, the Ilford-born Dame has never been work shy. Her family moved to Oxford when she was just four years old and she studied acting in the city from the age of 16. Something of a workaholic, she famously returned to the theatre just five weeks after giving birth to her son, telling press later she found maternity leave boring and declaring: ‘All I was worrying about was the price of cheese in Sainsbury’s.’

During the early Sixties, Maggie became accustomed to landing lead Shakespearian roles and few were surprised by her successful transition from stage to screen. She shrugs off the idea of any ‘game plan’, exclaiming that back then, ‘I just thought it was going to be all theatre and wonderful.’

Perhaps then, Maggie’s latest role is fitting; a merger between the big screen and the stage. Dame Maggie takes on the eponymous part in The Lady in the Van — the cinematic adaptation of the celebrated stage performance she starred in some 16 years ago. Written by esteemed playwright Alan Bennett, The Lady in the Van follows Maggie’s character of Miss Mary Shepherd, a real life petulant vagabond who set up home in a van in front of Bennett’s Camden home, and the strange relationship which grows between them. Refreshingly, we see a Maggie Smith who, yes, is just as rude as her characters do tend to be, but isn’t refined, uncivilised or playing an enfeebled hospital patient, but a stinking old woman — and she masters it. The Lady in the Van’s Camden is far removed from the decadent luxuries of Downton’s country estate.

It is likely that the actress wanted to steer herself away from the attention the role of Downton’s dowager has granted her. She’s complained that since becoming Violet Crawley, Countless of Grantham, fan attention has become incessant. ‘I don’t go to places and if I do I nearly always have to have a friend. It’s very difficult when you’re on your own because you have no escape.’

Alongside the success of Downton, it’s been a fruitful decade for Maggie. She’s one of very few actresses to have achieved the feted Triple Crown of Acting: the hat-trick of Academy, Emmy and Tony Award wins, not to mention BAFTAs and the Special Olivier Award in 2010. And despite studying theatre, not books, after secondary school, she’s collected honorary degrees from three prestigious universities: Cambridge, St Andrews and Bath.

In fact, Dame Maggie has got to the point where she’s having to recycle parts – she is of course revisiting The Lady in the Van after first playing the character on stage in 2000. And her willingness to reprise is good news for Downton addicts — there are rumours of a film version to follow the sixth and last season which soon draws to a close. Maggie is kind enough not to quash those whisperings and even hints that she’d be happy to get involved in such a movie.

‘I’m not sure if my wig will still be around, but hopefully I will be,’ she suggests. ‘I think the wig will be slightly more tired than I am, but it would be fun.’

Latest from the Essex Life