Angela Lansbury on career and family.

Richard Barber / 25 February 2014

A fixture on Broadway and a TV ’tec legend. Read this excerpt from our in-depth interview.

Angela Lansbury can only conclude, she says, that a guardian angel must have been at work on her behalf at the end of last year. In November, she was awarded an honorary Oscar ‘for her extravagant achievements in cinematic industry’, acknowledging her huge body of cinematic work over seven decades. ‘That was very thrilling. In my business, that’s the ultimate accolade, the ne plus ultra, because it’s a recognition by your peers.’

Then hard on its heels came her Damehood (something, you might feel, that was somewhat overdue). ‘Oh no,’ she says, arching an eyebrow. ‘I’d never taken it for granted that, if you lived long enough and you did enough work, you’d automatically be given this honour. To this day I don’t really know what the trigger was.’

Dame Angela

Dame Angela – ‘I still can’t quite get used to it’ – is in London to appear on the West End stage as Madame Arcati in a revival of Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit. This will be the first time she’s trodden the boards here for almost 40 years, but not the first time she’s played the part. Indeed, she won her fifth Tony Award when she appeared as the eccentric medium on Broadway in 2009.

At 88, she’s sharp as a tack, just as she was in 1984 when she brought the unflappable detective Jessica Fletcher to our screens in the global TV hit, Murder, She Wrote. Sitting in her well-appointed apartment tucked behind Gloucester Road in central London, she’s dressed today in an ivory and black polka-dot silk blouse worn over a pair of elegant black trousers. She’s a model of courtesy, at pains to answer every question as fully and truthfully as she knows how, but there’s also a merry twinkle in her eye. She’s one of life’s chucklers.

A fan of the Queen 

She already knows that she must be at Windsor Castle in mid-April to receive her award. From the Queen? ‘I wouldn’t assume that for a moment. Although the fact it’s at Windsor… Well, let’s just say it would be nice if she were there for a long weekend.’

As it happens, Angela is only a handful of months older than the Queen, who will celebrate her 88th birthday in April. Has she measured herself against her over the years? ‘I’ve certainly observed her as we’ve grown older together and been enormously impressed by what she’s accomplished. Her extraordinary devotion to her job is quite something and I do applaud her for that.

‘We’re not in the same business, of course, but we’ve both had to face the public constantly – although for me it’s nothing like the extent that she’s known – and I know how tiring that can be. But I do have a fellow feeling when it comes to preparing oneself to face the world. That can sometimes be above and beyond one’s energy levels, although I happen to know she has a wonderfully informal side because I’ve been told as much by people who know her.’

A theatrical habit 

Perhaps Her Majesty would like to go and see Angela in Blithe Spirit? ‘That would be wonderful. In fact, I wish the royals went to the theatre more than they do because that would be a tremendous boost to our cultural life. Perhaps this younger generation – Prince William and his lovely wife – will develop more of a theatrical habit. I do hope so.’

So why is she reviving her portrayal of Madame Arcati? ‘Because I think she’s a hilariously funny character, totally off-the-wall but utterly sincere. She has so many colours. I just love playing that kind of a woman.’ Fine, but eight shows a week in her late eighties? How does she do it?

‘Oh, habit, I think. It’s been my life for so many years. My policy has always been to put one foot in front of the other and hope for the best. Of course, there are moments when I wonder if I can really go through it all again. But they talk about Dr Theatre and it’s true. The minute you walk out on stage, the adrenalin starts coursing through your body and you forget any aches and pains. You get a surge of energy which you hope will help you charm and entertain an audience.’

Keeping fit 

She’s careful about what she eats and she’s a keen gardener, which also helps her to keep fit, she thinks. She drinks a lot of strong tea (don’t forget, she played Mrs Potts the animated teapot in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast) but only the very occasional glass of wine and never spirits. ‘I take calcium to help keep my bones strong as well as handfuls of vitamins every day. I’m sure I’d rattle if you turned me upside down. I’m also Bionic Woman with two artificial hips and two artificial knees – I set off every imaginable alarm when I go through airport security – but they’ve been marvellous; they’ve really kept me running.’

Angela was always going to be an actress. ‘I wasn’t academic. I was too much of a dreamer, always looking out of the window. I liked to absorb as much as possible of the life that was going on around me. I’d notice mannerisms, accents; it all seeped into me. Ever since, I’ve been plundering that wealth of knowledge and observation and using it in my work. It also helps to explain why I’ve always been used as a character actress.’

She was never a beauty, she says. ‘And I thank God for that. It must be very hard to be born beautiful and then adjust to the loss of your looks as the bloom begins to fade. Dietrich couldn’t. She more or less shut herself away in a loft in Paris. Same with Garbo. They just couldn’t adapt to the fact they were growing older and their faces were losing their lustre. Great beauty, in my view, is a terrible burden.’

The Labour Party 

Her grandfather, George Lansbury, was the leader of the Labour Party in the early Thirties. Might she ever have become a politician? ‘Perhaps if I’d stayed in the UK and really had been raised in Poplar. But I wasn’t. Whatever you may have read, I was born in Regent’s Park. GL, as he was known, went to live in Poplar and became MP for Bromley-by-Bow. But I was raised in Hampstead and Mill Hill.’

After her beloved father’s death from cancer at just 48, Angela’s Irish actress mother, Moyna MacGill, decided to move the family – elder sister Isolde (who went on to become Peter Ustinov’s first wife) and younger twin brothers, Edgar and Bruce – first to Canada, then New York and ultimately to Los Angeles.

At 17, Angela was introduced to one of the casting directors at MGM and then to the celebrated director George Cukor who was looking for actors for his new film, Gaslight. To her astonishment, he cast her as the Cockney maid, Nancy, for which she was Oscar-nominated for Best Supporting Actress in 1944.

‘It was quite miraculous. I’d been a cashier in a shop, wrapping Christmas presents, and now here I was in a film with Ingrid Bergman. I was under age when I made Gaslight, which meant having a welfare worker or my mother with me at all times. But, like quite a lot of young people, I was confident. I knew what I had to do. I wasn’t a nervous wreck, never have been.’

An Oscar nomination 

MGM put Angela under contract – ‘for $500 a week, a small fortune at the time’ – and then duly cast her as Sibyl in The Picture of Dorian Gray for which she picked up her second Oscar nomination just a year later. (Angela’s third, but again unsuccessful, nomination for Best Supporting Actress was in 1962 for her role as a Presidential candidate’s fabulously evil wife in The Manchurian Candidate.) At 19, she was supporting her mother and student brothers. ‘If anything good came out of my father’s early death, it was being catapulted into maturity ahead of my contemporaries. I grew up fast because I had to.’

It may explain why, in the same year, she married a man almost two decades her senior. It didn’t last. After 11 months, Richard Cromwell walked out, leaving a note saying he couldn’t go on. A publicist at the studio put Angela wise: her glamorous, somewhat older husband was gay. ‘And I was shattered,’ she says now, ‘absolutely devastated.’ But they managed to remain friends right up until his death in 1960.

In 1949, she married actor-turned-agent/producer Peter Shaw, with whom she had two children, Anthony, now 62, and Deirdre, 60. It was a wonderfully happy union that lasted 54 years until his death from heart failure in 2003. ‘We made all decisions jointly and we helped and supported each other constantly. My career was important to me, but our children always came first.’ Pause. ‘Well, I say that but I might be shooting a film in Paris for 12 weeks while Peter looked after the children back in Malibu.’

Children in trouble 

These enforced absences took their toll. Both children started running with a bad set, drugs a staple ingredient of their culture. Peter and Angela found out just in time, and moved to County Cork. ‘I stopped working for a year and concentrated on the children and running the household.’

Evidently, it did the trick. Deirdre subsequently married on the beach in Positano, southern Italy and now runs an Italian restaurant in LA with her husband. Also happily married, Anthony, who directed more than 70 of the 264 episodes of Murder, She Wrote, has a daughter and two sons, one of whom will marry on Cape Cod in June, much to his grandmother’s delight.

‘Life has taught me,’ she says at one point, ‘that nothing matters more than family.’ Her brother, Bruce, acted as story editor and occasional scriptwriter on the show while David, Peter’s son from his first marriage, was employed as a producer.

Tony awards 

It was Peter who steered his wife’s career. ‘He always knew what was best for me. He was the one who pointed me at Broadway where I became, if I may say so, a big musical star.’ And how. It started with Mame and carried on with Gypsy and Sweeney Todd. She received a Tony award for each of those roles and two others – for Dear World and Blithe Spirit – a tally that is unsurpassed in the history of Broadway.

Then came Murder, She Wrote. Why does she think it resonates so with audiences all over the world? ‘I’ve always said, give me a victim and I’ll weave a story round it. But you never see blood. You never see violence. I like to believe it’s something a grandmother could watch with her grandchild and each would get enjoyment out of the story. In today’s world, that’s unusual.’

Mind you, you wouldn’t want to go on holiday with Jessica Fletcher. She chuckles. ‘No, I don’t think you would. The body count is quite high. Actually, that’s why I wanted to give her a pied-à-terre in Manhattan. There was a limit to how many bodies you could have piling up in Cabot Cove in Maine.’

A Dame. The recipient of an honorary Oscar. Not to mention the no-small-matter of a Lifetime Achievement BAFTA. Short of canonisation, the much-loved Angela Lansbury’s got the lot. Does this saintly woman have no faults, no chinks in her armour? She comes over mock-sheepish.

‘Well, yes, I will confess to one bad habit. I can’t resist a magnum.’

I thought she didn’t drink.

‘No, not champagne. A Magnum ice cream. They’re wicked. I like the regular ones and you can buy them all over the world. My favourite is vanilla covered in chocolate. It tends to fall off. It’s very messy but I don’t care.’

Find out more about Angela Lansbury on Wikipedia

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