Angela Lansbury: retire, she won’t
After nearly 300 episodes of ‘Murder, She Wrote’ and seven decades on stage and screen, Angela Lansbury talks about her latest role, the joys of Barry’s Tea and why she escapes to East Cork
Angela Lansbury at the Gielgud Theatre in London, where she will star in Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit, opening today. Photograph: Stefan Wermuth/Reuters
Angela Lansbury in the 1945 movie The Picture of Dorian Gray. Photograph: Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images
Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher, the meddling detective in Murder, She Wrote’ in 1984. Photograph: CBS/Getty Images
Today, the theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue in London, near Cambridge Circus, is named after legendary actor John Gielgud. However, it was known as the Globe back in 1918, when Belfast girl Charlotte Lillian McIldowie made her first West End appearance. She triumphed. Nearly 100 years on, her daughter, Angela Lansbury sits on stage early one morning, discussing her own seven-decades-long career, the secrets of survival . . . and the joys of Barry’s Tea. “I already feel welcome in this house. It is an extraordinary experience to be in a theatre that my mother made her debut in. I don’t know what year it was – 1918, I think,” she says. “It is rather interesting that I find myself here so many years later.”
To many people, Lansbury is known simply as Jessica Fletcher, the leading character in Murder, She Wrote, a slightly-twee television series about a New England detective-writer, but one that is one of the most successful ever made – with nearly 300 episodes.
Now 88, the London-born Lansbury, dressed in dark blue and wearing a long gold necklace that accentuates her pale, near-translucent skin, is returning to the London stage in March, for the first time in 40 years. Since the 1970s, Lansbury has had a home near Ballycotton in east Cork, a place that was a refuge at first and, later, one where she was acknowledged, but left unbothered by locals. Over the years, Lansbury has been grateful for it.
Angela Lansbury performing at the Oscars in 1959
She first went there in the early 1970s after two of her children ran into trouble. Her son Anthony was struggling to quit a cocaine habit. Her daughter Deirdre, meanwhile, had become part of Charles Manson’s quasi-commune in California, before it descended into murderous rage.
“I am very, very comfortable there, I find it an extraordinarily warm, informal place to live. I am left alone there. On the street, people say, ‘Hi, how are you?’ I say, ‘I’m grand, how are you?’ It is a very secure place to be. I love Ireland for that reason,” she declares.
Once described by her biographer, Martin Gottfried, as a woman “with a profound sense of privacy”, Lansbury – curiously enough – is the one who raises her children’s difficulties, during a response to a question about how she has stayed successful for so long. “It is a juggling act, really. Juggling marriage, children and all of the accompanying events that arise during a marriage of 53 years: children who had problems with drugs in their youth. All of these things contribute to building the person that you become and they become.
“I think it is a question of facing up to certain aspects of family life that have to be dealt with. Yes, I mean I certainly had them. It is one of the reasons that I moved to Ireland in the 1970s,” she says. “It was no good me giving up working. That wasn’t going to solve anything.