BEHIND THE SCENES: Angela Lansbury Returns To The West End
This March sees thrice-Academy Award nominated actress Dame Angela Lansbury's return to the West End stage after an absence of almost forty years. Lansbury will reprise her recent run on Broadway as Madame Arcati in Noel Coward's sublimely silly Blithe Spirit. At the Gielgud Theatre, Angela shared some of her past and her hopes for this production's future.
When greeted, Lansbury said: "I already feel welcome in this house. It's an extraordinary experience to be in the theatre that my mother made her debut in, in 1918. It seems rather interesting that I find myself here, how many years later?"
Her mother Moyne MacGill's play was called Love in a Cottage.
"I love that title!" laughed Lansbury. "Of course it feels like coming home. This is the place of my birth; I lived here 'til I was fourteen years old and, because of the war, was forced to evacuate to America.
"I came back from time to time. Most of you are too young to know what I came back in. I did several plays - I did a play called All Over with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Then the last thing I did was Hamlet, but prior to that I did Gypsy at the Piccadilly Theatre, which played for almost a year, so I have been back, but not for forty years. I can't believe it's forty years! It doesn't seem that way to me.
"Life has been marvellous. I've had an extraordinary, interesting and varied career that has taken me all over the world and I've got to play with some of the great actors of my generation, and it's still going strong."
Indeed, Lansbury herself is still going very strong. Despite having had both hip and knee replacements, she is keen to reprise this particular - quite physically involved - role and to continue performing in general.
"Noel Coward is such an icon in this country - all over the world, for that matter. I think it's one of the best parts I've ever had in the theatre. That is really the primary reason I'm doing it. I think it's an extraordinary character; I adore playing it. I love getting out every night on stage to do it, and if you're that happy in a role, you want to repeat it. And what better place to repeat it but London? It's the place of its origins and of my origins.
"Madame Arcati embodies all the qualities that as a child I used to fool around with. When I was about seven-eight-nine, my sister was a marvellous organiser of theatrical events in our house and one of the things that we used to do as children was to do a sort of medium séance at Christmastime. She would be the medium and I would be the other person. So I've played this part for a long time. A long time! People say I must be involved with the occult - I'm not, but it's great fun to play with...and I do have an inordinate amount of energy, which I've got to expend somehow. I always say there are two things in life that I know how to do: one of them is to keep house and the other is to act. Acting usually takes precedence over keeping house - it's a bit messy at times!
"(Every day I take) a handful of vitamins, over about fifteen minutes! I think it's my constitution. You know, my grandfather, George Lansbury, came from the East End and he was built like a [tough noise] - an iron man! He walked everywhere; he walked all over London - uphill, everywhere for speeches and so on - and he had an amazing constitution. I think I inherited it from him; I really do. I've got admiration for him.
Despite stating "I run a real English household, I can tell you! I love everything English", Lansbury has spent most of her career in the USA. She agrees that you make the life and career that comes to you.
"The US is where I began. And of course I had what they would call an incredibly "big break" when I was seventeen and I was cast in a movie, which was a very elegant and beautifully made movie called Gas Light with Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. And as a young actress, this was an enormous break, which was followed by two other lovely films - National Velvet with Elizabeth Taylor and after that The Picture of DorIan Grey. They were three classical films to this day. They were followed, unfortunately, by an absolute string of the most awful films you could possibly imagine. I was an absolute unknown quantity to MGM; they really didn't know what to do with me, so they cast me in anything and everything. I really wasted about eight years.
"But that's the reason that I went back to the theatre, which is what I had trained to do here in London, as a youngster. And I was fortunate enough to work with the meanest director, who did some very fine work in the theatre and in motion picture - but he brought me back to the theatre. And once I got my feet in the door of legitimate theatre, I realised that the theatre was where I was most comfortable and so from there on, I drifted back to it constantly. I went back and did a couple of movies - The Manchurian Candidate for one. And thereafter, I just sort of said "goodbye" to the movies and went to Broadway and became a musical comedy actor, because I had a voice.
"People always say "Were you a very ambitious actress?" and I wasn't. I did what was handed to me and things were handed to me right, left and centre; it was quite extraordinary. So, I developed my voice, which I really had never done before, and made a big hit, as they say, in a big musical comedy called Mame on Broadway. And I stayed with Broadway for about eight years.
"But I still have my cans of sardines! I really do. I'm a bit Irish, too, you know, because of my mum, and I go every year. I drink very strong tea - Barry's tea? Barry's Gold! It's really good tea. I'm very, very comfortable in Ireland. I find it an extraordinarily warm, informal place to live. I'm left alone there and on the streets people say "Hi, how are you?" I say "I'm grand - how are you?" It's a very easy-going place to be - and I love Ireland for that reason. I have an Irish passport; I always keep a property there."
Lansbury's initial success in the US came when she was just seventeen, in the form of a contract with motion picture giants MGM (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer).
"(Louis B Mayer) was quite something. I was so awed by him - you know, this rather short man ... I went and visited him in his office on a number of occasions. That was quite an experience, because you didn't just go to an office and there would be a nice, warm man sitting behind a desk. You had to sort of go down a corridor, you know, down into his desk. And so he made it - it was rather intimidating, shall we say, to say the least, to visit Louis B Mayer. I often did say "Please, Mr Mayer, don't make me play the Queen of France!" And unfortunately, he'd say "Yes, dear, but I personally think that this is a great role for you." So I was sent back to the wardrobe department and, you know, made the Queen of France! I wanted to play Lady de Winter, who was a rather interesting and provocative part, but that was to go to Lana Turner, who was the great glamour puss of America at that time. So I just had to mind my own business and get on with it. So I many times went to his office.
"I went to his house a lot. I went to his house one night for dinner. He was giving a dinner for Lord LaSalle, who was the King's cousin, right? Now, he thought "Oh, here's an English girl; we'll put her at the table with him." And I went out in my car and I drove all the way to his house from Santa Monica, where I lived by myself - he didn't send anybody for me and I was very young. We sat down for dinner after cocktails, you know, and in those days, we all drank everything. Lots of glasses of wine, brandy, champagne, and I drove myself home. I thought about it afterwards and I thought, "Good God, what a terrible idea, to let a young woman of eighteen years old drive herself home after a dinner like that. But these are the sorts of things that went on in Hollywood in those days, and it was dreadful, what went on."
Perhaps due to her glitzy Hollywood start, followed by an illustrious musical theatre career, Angela is widely regarded as a gay icon - she believes because of her role in the musical comedy Mame.
"Because she was, I think, at that time, every gay person's idea of glamour and her attitudes and everything about her, Mame, coincided with the young man's idea of glory. I'm very proud of the fact that I am a gay icon."
Lansbury also had great success working for Disney, in Bedknobs and Broomsticks and then as the delightful Mrs Potts in Beauty and the Beast. When asked who she would most like to have a cup with, Angela said: "Good God, that's a pretty loaded question! Yes, there are a lot of people I would want to know. Who was Henry Irving's leading lady? Ellen Terry! I would love to have a cup of tea with her. She was incredible. She used to cook the dinner for her family before she went to the theatre. That's my sort of cup of tea."
Even more than for her teapot, Lansbury is known for her performances as Jessica Fletcher in Murder She Wrote, a television show for which she ultimately became executive producer. Lansbury believes she was not cut off from any other roles, though, "because I had a three month hiatus every year, which allowed me to come often enough to England and I did The Mirror Crack'd, for instance, which was all about Miss Marple. I also did The Lady Vanishes. (also made during these hiatus periods) The film I am most proud of, oddly enough, was the Agatha Christie movie that was Death on the Nile...I love watching it - I love kids to see it.
"I think that a great portion of the youngsters who came to see the play in New York - who came from Europe, who came from all over the world - came to see me because they'd seen me in Murder She Wrote. They knew me as Jessica Fletcher. So it was a bit of a shock to them, I'm sure, but they seemed to enjoy it!"
While Angela's success seems extraordinary at times, it has certainly endured over the decades. She described the challenges of combining such a career with family life.
"It's a juggling act, really. Juggling marriage, children and all of the accompanying events that arise during a marriage of fifty-three years. Children who had problems with drugs in their youth. All of these things contribute to building the person they become and you can build what they become. And I think it's a question of facing up to certain aspects of family life that have to be dealt with - and that was one of the reasons I moved to Ireland in the 1970s. It was no good me giving up working; that wasn't going to solve anything."
And Lansbury has most certainly not given up working. Blithe Spirit was a tremendous success on Broadway, and while she is no way presumes the same will prove true again, Lansbury's enthusiasm for the piece and hopes for its future prosperity are infectious.
"I would love it to be a smash hit! That's what I want and that's what we all want...and certainly, everything possible is being done to make that happen. I've never had such co-operation and help from a theatre... If we can't pull this off then I don't belong in the theatre!"
I wouldn't quite say that, Angela.
Blithe Spirit opens at the Gielgud Theatre on 1st March 2014.